So much of satirical comedy American Fiction finds its lead character Thelonious "Monk" Ellison (played by Oscar nominee Jeffrey Wright) at odds with everyone in his life. He can't seem to understand why no one else sees the world the way he does, which often leaves him in a lonely position.

Cinematographer Cristina Dunlap, working with first-time director Cord Jefferson, made sure this was reflected in the film's visuals, as well. He stands alone in the frame above a sea of people; he struggles to write in front of the blank pages on his laptop; he looks wistfully out at the ocean thinking very serious thoughts. It's all in service to a sharp, witty story about an author who really resents his audience but can't escape the success he's generated.

NFS Zoomed with Dunlap to discuss the film and how she and Jefferson pulled the whole thing off, and we got some great advice along the way. Enjoy.


Editor's note: This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

No Film School: Your path to becoming a DP is so unique, and I would love to hear you talk a little bit about how you learned, and how you got into it.

Cristina Dunlap: I started in photography. I love photography. I love being around cameras. That was originally what I wanted to do until I went to go take stills on a music video set. My friend invited me to come, and I saw what a DP was. I knew immediately that that was what I wanted to do, because you get to add motion to the camera, and different kinds of lighting, and so many things, where photography is just one image.

I still love photography, but there was just so many possibilities with a motion camera. So I thought that I would just go right into that, and learned what a hard transition and track that would be, because it's a completely different job and skillset.

I met some producers on that job, and they kept inviting me back to take stills. I was quite young, I was still in high school. I think once they realized how old I was, then they invited me back to be a PA. So I just got on as many sets as I could, and I would keep a journal of all the lighting plots that people were doing, and what it was for, and what lights they were using. I would just talk to the grips and talk to the gaffers, I was too scared to talk to the DPs most of the time, and would ask why they were using what they were using. Then I got to know a lot of these producers, and they started hiring me to coordinate for them and production manage.

So then I was putting in camera orders and lighting orders, and I got to talk to the camera houses and lighting houses and see what all of them did, and what they cost, and what they were used for. So I got a behind-the-scenes knowledge. Everyone knew that I wanted to be a DP, and they were very supportive. If there was a low budget music video, they would put my name up for it. Or if the commercial wanted a behind-the-scenes video, they would let me come shoot behind the scenes.

Every now and again, we'd be on set and we weren't going to make our day. As the coordinator, most of your work is done before you get to set because you're inputting all the numbers, and making sure the budget is okay. So then the producer that I worked for would say, "Oh, we have this second camera body. If we're not going to make our day, let's throw in this second camera and my production coordinator will come operate it." So, I got some hands-on experience that way too.

Cristina Dunlap and Cord Jefferson BTS of American FictionCristina Dunlap and Cord Jefferson behind the scenes of American FictionProvided/MGM

NFS: Can you talk about establishing the film's visual language?

Dunlap: Yeah. I think it's very important for the DP and the director, early on, to get on the same page, and make sure you have a cohesive look for the film, and an intention behind where you put the camera. So Cord and I, Cord Jefferson, our director, had a lot of discussions very early on about that, and we looked at a lot of different films ... We absorbed as much as we could, and then we decided that the central theme around our visuals would be Monk's isolation. So we shot on a lot of long lenses, and we decided to go with a 2.35 aspect ratio.

Even though we weren't shooting on anamorphic lenses, we wanted that extra room laterally for blocking, and just to show how much space there was around Monk versus when his whole family is there. By shooting in that 2.35 aspect ratio, you can be tighter, and feel the emotions in someone's face, but still have a lot of space on your right and left.

So we thought that was a good area to play within to create our language. So oftentimes, Monk is alone, and he's isolated, and then the camera will whip over, or weave through people or something, to reveal these people that keep coming in and infiltrating his space and his peace of mind.

NFS: That's so fascinating. I was going to ask what camera you used on the film.

Dunlap: We used the ALEXA Mini LF, because we knew we were going to have to deliver in 4K, and we wanted to use the TRIBE7 BLACKWING full-frame lenses. We tested a lot of lenses, and these I had used before on a commercial, but I'd always wanted to use them in the narrative space, 'cause I just thought they are so beautiful, the way they fall off, and render skin, and there's just something vintage and new about them at the same time.

I think Bradford Young did an incredible job working with the team to engineer those lenses, and I was really excited to get to use them.

NFS: You had a very tight schedule as well, 26 days?

Dunlap: Yeah, 25 in Boston, and then we had one pickup day in Los Angeles after they had edited and realized what we needed.

Cristina Dunlap BTS of American FictionCristina Dunlap behind the scenes of American FictionProvided/MGM

NFS: What's your advice for working on such a tight schedule, in terms of coverage?

Dunlap: It's interesting. I think it's really difficult for people in the commercial and music video space to get narrative work off the bat, because they don't want a first time DP doing a feature. There's always that stigma. But, I honestly think it helps so much because you're used to working at such a quick pace. I just did a commercial, and we shot four commercials in two days. So, it's just same pace as indie filmmaking. So if you need someone that has that experience of working in the commercial music video, pacing like that.

So just shooting as much as you can, and trying as many things as you can, is what prepares you best for that. Then working closely with the AD to comb through the schedule, and come up with ideas of, is there anywhere we can save time? Or, can we shoot two things in this one area instead of changing locations, and just dress it differently? We did a lot of utilizing one space for many different things, with the help of our production designer, and we crammed a lot in.

NFS: Can I ask what that is? What location did you reuse and redress?

Dunlap: Yes, there were quite a few. The last day of shooting, I would say, was the craziest one, where Cord and I didn't want the film to feel dated, so we didn't want to show any Zoom screens. But, Monk has those conversations with the other writers who he's on the panel with. So we wanted a shot of each of them in their own space that said something about them. We shot the talk show segment in a TV studio somewhere outside of Boston. It was very corporate, and we had to find at least two different spaces for everybody's house to play in that area.

So our production was scrambling to dress the corner of a room to look like somebody's house, that had depth and said something about their character. Then where we filmed the scene with Issa Rae and the book publishing, we shot the conversation that they have also there, at that table in the conference room. We filmed a couple scenes that were cut from the movie in there.

We filmed when Monk's on the phone in the hallway, and he's texting Coraline to see if maybe she'll forgive him, and that beautiful photo is hanging there, that was all in the same space. There are a few other things. Oh, Issa Rae's end of the conversation on the Zoom is in that space too. We just kind of found a corner to dress it in.

Cristina Dunlap behind the scenes of American FictionCristina Dunlap behind the scenes of American FictionProvided/MGM

NFS: Is there a scene in the film that you're most proud of, as a DP?

Dunlap: It's hard. I think there's so many things that, once the actors get there and it all comes together, it just feels like magic to see it come to life, so there's different things I'm proud of for different reasons. But shooting in the beach house was extremely challenging.

When we were scouting, it was the location that everybody liked best because it had that dark wood interior that felt like an older house, and maybe there were good memories there, but also bad memories. It didn't have this beautiful airy beach house vibe, which would've been wrong for the film.

But that dark wood was really difficult for me, as a DP, because I knew we wanted to hold the ocean through the windows. So the light difference between inside and outside was over f/64, plus outside, and a 0.8 inside. So I didn't know how we were going to light it, and it was very challenging.

Oftentimes, the sun would set and we would have to do night for day in the house as well. So, I'm really proud of how everything in the house turned off, and how hard my team worked. 'Cause everyone's like, "Oh, it looks so natural in there," which I think is a huge compliment 'cause we were using every light on the truck, most times.

NFS: I feel like I remember the dinner scene being lit very top-down. I feel like there's a lot of light immediately above them, and that felt just a house with one light on above them.

Dunlap: Yeah, the ceilings were so low. Sometimes we could sneak an Astera [LED] tube or something in there for an eye light. But basically, we would get every HMI we had and put it into mirrors, so it was coming down at the right angle, like the sun, single source, through the window that we weren't looking at. Then they would have to move it to the other window when we looked the other direction. So, it was tough.

Cristina Dunlap behind the scenes of American FictionCristina Dunlap behind the scenes of American FictionProvided/MGM

NFS: Considering all of your experience, do you have advice for someone wanting to start as a DP?

Dunlap: I think everyone feels that they need to be in the camera department and work their way up, and they have to start in the right place. That was always my belief. It changed from the film days. Being an AC is a completely different skillset than being a DP, or an operator, or a 2nd.

I was never organized enough to be a 1st AC. I tried to 2nd, and I camera PA'd when people would let me. But I mostly was able to ask people if I could operate for them, just because operating is such a huge part of being a DP. So, that transferred over. But I think, just get on set as much as possible. It doesn't have to be in the camera department.

I worked as an art PA, I worked as an art coordinator. I worked as an editor, which I think was extremely helpful in learning what kind of coverage... I went on Craigslist and found jobs editing things. Just doing whatever you can will serve you in the end, and it's all a path, and it's never a straight line.

So don't be afraid to try different things, or feel like there's only one way to get there, because it took a while and it was a lot of work, but I was lucky enough to end up as a DP. Which, I always knew I wanted to go there, and it was a path of many, many different jobs.