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Female Cinematographers – What’s the big deal?

Female Cinematographers – What’s the big deal?

We fight, we march, and we hold up billboards as we protest. What’s the big deal?

It wasn’t long ago that the #metoo movement, originally launched by American civil rights activist Taran Burke, was reignited by actress Alyssa Milano. But so much has already happened since last October. Many more harassment cases have been revealed, and not just limited to the film industry.

Nonetheless, even with the black dress movement, Oprah’s speech at the Golden Globes, and all our outcries against mistreatment and neglect in the industry, there are still vast amounts of change that need to happen. This is why we have to celebrate every achievement any way we can.

Rachel Morrison began her journey as a cinematographer when she enrolled in a cinematography class at NYU, where she was one out of only two females. Now, she is an Academy Award nominee for the category of Best Cinematography. Set in 1940’s, the movie Mudbound was shot on location in Louisiana over twenty-nine days in the heat of July.

Although we still have over a month until the Oscar Awards, Rachel Morrison’s nomination is already being celebrated worldwide. Why? Because no female has ever been nominated for the Best Cinematography category. And yes, this is a big deal.

Pamela Hutchinson from The Guardian shares three sites where we can find experienced female cinematographers:

- Illuminatrix

- International Collective of Female Cinematographers 

- Cinematographers XX

It’s clear that there are a lot of female cinematographers out there. Yet in the 2017 top–grossing 100 films, women cinematographers accounted for a mere 2% of the films.

These numbers are born out of a vicious cycle we all take part in. If not a lot of films have females involved, it is only natural that the possibility of us seeing a film by female filmmakers is lower. This statistic in turn creates fewer opportunities for women in future projects. To stop this cycle, we need to be an actively conscious audience who seek out films by female filmmakers.

If a female filmmaker creates something worthy of recognition, we should spread it far and wide; we want Patty Jenkins to become as well known as any other superhero-franchise male, white directors.

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Sunnie Kim* (SK), Jenny Chan (JC), and Sarah Boudigou (SB) are young female cinematographers who discuss their views on the subject of women in cinematography.

Why do you think female DPs get overlooked?

SK: This is kind of an oversimplified question. It's a lot more complicated than just not being picked over our male counterparts. "Overlook" isn't really the correct word. If you're talking about the industry, and female representation in the camera and lighting departments, there just aren't that many of us yet. We've got trailblazers like Rachel Morrison, Ellen Kuras, and Reed Morano but it really was only until very recently that women were even given a chance to be behind the camera and thrive there. I mean of course, there is still the very pervasive belief that women aren't able to lead a department that is (currently) made up predominantly of men. That's a lot of it as well. Men (and women!) are still struggling with our conditioned belief that men are better equipped physically and mentally to lead an army of technicians. Is it true? Absolutely not. Is it super, super sexist? Heck yeah it is.

JC: There are multiple factors playing into this, so I can't give an answer that succinctly covers it. I feel some amount of this has to do with assumed gender roles. There are a lot of assumptions about jobs belonging to a certain gender, especially due to past demographics, politics, and social norms. It's certainly loosening up now, but it's going to take much longer for those ideas (some overtly expressed, many more covertly) to die down. But we're definitely headed in that direction.

SB: When it’s about technical subject; and operating a camera is one; right away people think you don’t know what you are talking about and don’t trust your capacity because of your gender. It is a shame because as a DP I know my role and what I can offer to a director. I know the techniques, I got a diploma, jobs, etc. but people will always see me as a woman first, so I have always the feeling that I need to prove myself a bit more. I have been very lucky because most of the times I worked with men and women who always trusted me and never overlooked me. The see me as a DP, not a woman, and that’s what I am when I am working.
This issue does not only concern female DPs, but also females in the sound department

Why has it taken so long for a female DP to be nominated for an academy award?

SK: Again, because there aren't that many of us, the chances of a female cinematographer being nominated are just statistically lower. But it's happening! Things are changing.

JC:  A combination of demographics and sexism. DPs are already predominantly male, and maybe no one is saying out loud 'women can't be great DPs', but it's not like words are absolute proof of anything. Men have more clout in the film industry. Females have had less opportunities and chances to be acknowledged, and to work on productions with the budget and resources to be considered Oscar-worthy. Sure, you can cite exceptions (for various reasons), but those are exceptions, and not the norm. Bigger budgeted things are more likely to be given to men than women. If something fails, men tend to be forgiven more easily than women. With so few women, a failure seems to be taken as 'proof' of a lack of skill.

SB: I am very happy and hopeful now that a female DP has recognized. It gives hope to female DPs to begin and continue their careers. After college, I asked myself if I would be able to do a technical job. This was not because I was scared of being incapable of the craft, I was sure I could. I was concerned that I wouldn't be trusted or given a chance because I am not a man and it is a male-dominated area. Nevertheless, when it is your passion, you will do whatever it is possible to do it.
The only sad part of this news is that Rachel Morrison and others DPs were already doing well, delivering interesting, high-level works since a long time ago.

What, if any, are the differences between female and male DPs?

SK: I don't know how I feel about this question. If you're talking about what kind of things we can shoot or situations we can handle, then of course, there is no difference. Literally the only difference is that there are so few ladies and so many men.

JC: I can't say I know I enough to point to specifics, but from what I feel: The male and female experience can be very different. We can look at the same thing and choose a different aspect to focus on. Our ideals and beliefs influence what we make. It'll affect how we choose to frame and shoot a subject. However, I think women are better at gauging another woman’s strengths.

SB: I don’t think there is any. In my point of view thinking there is a difference creates a difference. For me there is none. A DP is a DP, like a dentist is a dentist. I don’t question the gender. I question if they are good enough to deliver my expectations. I worked as a director as well, and I sometimes hire female DPs, sometimes male. At the end of the project, there is no difference, and you cannot tell if it is made by a man or a woman. The only difference will be the pay, which is not about the talent or the job title, but about our society.

When did you first realize you wanted to become a DP, what influenced you and why?

SK: I have always been drawn to visual storytelling. I was a dancer in high school so the breakdown of movement within a contained space has always fascinated me. Photography was also a big hobby. So all this, on top of being a huge movie buff growing up, lent itself very naturally to cinematography I think.

JC: I was at first drawn to lighting. The act of lighting requires physical work, and I found I enjoyed that. Shots are the fruit of that labor, and I was drawn to DP-ing after that. It's an emotionally satisfying experience that's also contributing to who I want to be as a person.

SB: I realized this when I was in college. Since a young age, I was drawing a lot. In school I was very interested in analyzing paintings from art masters. Then, when I discovered photography and I could have my own camera, I realized I could express more of my feelings, my point of view of landscapes, emotions, or people, just by playing with the frame, light and colors. Watching a lot of movies and analyzing them grew my passion for images and after two years studying Film Studies at University, I was sure I wanted to be the magician behind the camera. To be honest, I am very bad at telling stories by pen, but if you give me a camera, I’m more creative with my eyes and the one of the camera. I got mostly influenced by directors who were more cinematographers than writers, such as Tim Burton, Wes Anderson, Guillermo del Toro, and James Cameron. I was more interested on the making of a movie than the movie itself. I wanted to know how you can create something that is in your mind and make it visible to the rest of the world. How you can deliver a meaning, a story, an emotion through an image.

Are people surprised to hear that you are aiming to become a DP?

SK:  Surprised? Not really. People get excited like "Yeah we need more lady DP's!" which is cool that people are aware of that.

SB: No they are not. People always saw me as someone who aimed to go into an artistic career. I am also very manual and like learning by doing things by myself. So it was either Animation or DP!

Have you ever felt any disrespect as a female DP? If yes, what happened?

SK: No. But here's the thing. I have only ever shot student productions with directors who hire me because they know I can do a good job. All the gaffers and AC's that I work with, I consider friends. I have never felt disrespected on set as a DP. But I know that will change when I start working professionally with directors and producers and gaffers and AC's that I may not have worked with before. And I have heard countless horror stories from fellow female cinematographers who have been condescended to and belittled on set. Like dudes coming up to you and asking you if you "need a hand with that?" That shit is for real. It happens. It happened to me all the time when I worked almost exclusively as a 1st AC my freshman and sophomore year and I was working with people who didn't know me and thought I "needed help" because I'm a small, quiet, Asian female. It's frustrating. It's why I've stuck to working exclusively with people I know and trust when I entered junior year.

I saw a Facebook post by an acquaintance (fellow female cinematographer) not too long ago about a male actor literally taking a c-stand out of the hands of a female grip because "she was a lady and shouldn't have to do that". So it's not just about guys being friendly and asking: "hey you need some help?" they are literally humiliating and preventing women from doing their jobs.

JC: As a female DP, not particularly. I've had the fortune of working on set with many women and friends who respect my abilities. However, I have had instances working in other positions where some men feel I can't handle lifting things while I'm in the midst of doing so.

SB: I am very pleased to say no. When I explained what I was doing, people told me that I would never be one, because it is a man's job and as a woman I can’t lift a camera, materials, etc. I have had the fortune of never feeling disrespect as a female DP, but I know that this disrespect can come from other male DPs. It is a shame because we share the same passion. Of course, this is not applicable to all of them.

How is working as a female cinematographer in a male-dominated industry?

SK: There are things to love and things to hate. I hate that there are so few of us, I hate knowing that I will have to prove my worth as an artist, a technician, and a leader over and over just because I am a woman. But putting in 120% is also so gratifying. When you are a woman in a male dominated field and you do well, you stand out. And here's the thing too: every mentor I've ever had who really put in the time and dedication to teach me and nurture my growth as a DP, was a guy. Neeraj Jain, Tsubasa Matsumoto, Amaal Mustafa, Derek Mindler, Omar Nasr... the list of MALE DP's I have met at Tisch who guided me along the way, always encouraging me, always telling me "chin up"…I would be incredibly remiss if I didn't point this out. I had brothers who took me under their wing and raised me up. I might have a little bit of talent, but I owe so, so, so much of everything that I have learned in the way of being a DP to some really, really amazing men.

JC: A few other things I want to say about my experience as a female on set. My favorite male DPs to work with have been really hands off and don’t hover when I’m learning something. They give suggestions without [the feeling of] “taking over”.

My favorite sets have had at least half if not more female crew. A really frustrating moment I remember was someone asked the key grip lifting a light “are you sure that’s not too heavy for you” when they were already lifting it and clearly not struggling. It was unnecessary and he even took something out of her hands at one point. It’s been two years and I’m still salty.

SB: There is nothing really I can say. Whilst working on sets, with amateurs, movie’s lovers, or professional, I never felt my gender was a problem. It’s mostly a feeling that surrounded me, since I know it’s a male-dominated area, of proving myself more so that I do not get judged due to my gender. It’s because I don’t want to give them that excuse “oh it’s bad because you are a woman”. But I truly believe that if you work is good or better than the others, people will know in a way. Even if I don’t get any awards, public recognition, both my crew and I will know that we did the best job.

Which cinematographer do you look up to and why?

SK: I really admire Kate Arizmendi. She’s an up and coming commercial and music video director in NYC. She’s super young and incredibly talented. She AC-ed for a really long time and one day [decided] “to hell [with] this, I want to be the one calling the shots”. Her [work] is very beautiful and she shoots a lot of 16mm and 35mm film, and I think she is really making her mark in the branded content world. She adds an element of soul and artistry to the commercial world.

JC: Ellen Kurwas. She's of an older generation, and I admire how she's sustained a career. I can't say how much harder it was in the 80s. She's been nominated for best documentary in the past.

SB: If I have to name some that inspired me, I would like to name Andrew Lesnie for Peter Jackson’s movies, Dion Beebe for Memoirs of a Geisha, and Dan Laustsen for The Shape of Water recently. I can see that every choice they made with their directors was analyzed and put in on purpose. Not just to make it look nice, but to tell a story. For me cinema is like a giant cake with layers of stories; it is made using the director’s screenplay, the costumes, the lights, the actors, the sound, the editing, and the images.

What changes do you hope Rachel Morrison’s nomination will bring?

SK: I had a really amazing conversation a couple months ago with fellow DP, Zoë Yi, and she said something really smart that I think cuts to the heart of it. It's not so much that there aren't women out there, young girls who dream of being DP's. There are so many of us! If the graduating class of 2018 is any proof, there are so, so many women who want to pursue cinematography. The hardest part is fighting through the bullshit. You know? Like gritting your teeth when a man asks if you "need a hand with that" or when producers question your capability when they realize they've hired a female technician. It can be really tempting to give up or just be like, eh, not worth it. Rachel Morrison fought through the bullshit, she cared more about her work and about cinematography than she did about what people said to her. That's fucking badass.

JC: That it'll be less 'weird' and 'wow' to see a female cinematographer.

SB: I hope now, people will be more enthusiastic about a cinematographer's work than his/her gender. If women DPs are good, they have the right to get recognized as much as men without any stereotype.

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Rachel Morrison mentions in her The Hollywood Reporter interview that eventually she wants the industry to get to a point where a DP is just a DP, and not labeled as a “female” DP.

But until that happens, we are going to keep fighting for the recognition and remembrance we deserve. Perhaps through all this we will make enough noise that the world will never forget how equally powerful this half of its people are.

© Katusha Jin (2/01/17) FF2 Media

Top Photo: Rachel Morrison on the set of Mudbound.

Middle Photo: Jenny Chan.

Bottom Photo: Sunnie Kim setting up camera with 1st AC Jaydn Gosselin on Sacrificial Child directed by Liam Tiernan.

Photo Credits: Danna Kinsky, Steve Dietl, Veronica Dang

*Sunnie Kim is currently the cinematographer on short film Thistle Creek.