While cinematography tends to be a boys club, there are plenty of talented female Directors of Photography. This week in Zeferino Professional Lighting we want to share some knowledge from four of the best female cinematographers. Including Ellen Kuras (He Got Game, Blow, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Reed Morano (Frozen River, Kill Your Darlings). Mandy Walker (Australia, Tracks). And Rachel Morrisson (Fruitvale Station, Cake, Sound of My Voice).
I think cinematography will have a better future than most people expect. When you think about what makes the magic happen in movies, a lot of it has to do with the look of the film. I think anybody who is just pointing and shooting will find it hard to create that magic. It takes experience and understanding and knowledge to think about things that don’t have anything to do with pointing and shooting…like blocking and moving the camera so that the image says something more than just documenting the action.
Making a film requires a lot more than just following a certain storyline, the words on the page and how the actors say their lines. A lot of it has to do with the visual nuances and the environment that’s created in the film. I’d tell the students they need the desire to try new things knowing that mistakes are going to happen. Sometimes a mistake will be the best part of a film. You can’t be afraid to try different things.
I joke around sometimes and say that the DP is like a shrink for the director. But there’s some truth in there. I want my directors to feel that they can completely rely on me once the shoot begins and that I’m in their brain. It’s my duty to make everybody feel secure, from producers to directors and actors. Especially the actors – if I don’t make the actors feel as comfortable as possible in front of the camera, it’s possible they’re not going to be able to give their best performance. As a DP, I’ve found that my most invaluable skills besides lighting and using my eye are problem solving, diplomacy and being a great communicator.
It really varies depending on the relationship I have with a director. I feel I have to be open and adaptive to this. I would never go into a project and dictate to a director: “this is how the movie should look”. Some directors come to me with a very clear idea of their references or vision. Which I then interpret into a visual language. It is my job to figure out how I can achieve the director’s vision cinematically, in collaboration with the director then the art department and costume department.
Then there are those directors who come to you with a clear idea of what they want to say in the film. But not a very strong cinematic vision. This process involves searching for and trying out different ideas and reference materials that might appeal to their style of story telling. I will glean from art galleries, photography and art books. And other movies to find influential images or scenes that I feel resonate with the story, emotions, and journey of the characters in our film. Depending on the project, this collection of references will vary from one or two key elements to a comprehensive list.
I try to control as much optically in-camera as I can, not relying on post-effects. Which is almost an old school philosophy at this point. But getting completely caught up in the technical suddenly makes you a mathematician, not an artist. It’s a delicate balance between getting close to what you want and not taking out the poetry of the story.