Why Are There So Few Women in Camera Departments?

In an eye-opening 2014 investigation of gender within the UK film industry, Stephen Follows showed that just 92% of DPs are men. Why is this?

“Women just aren’t interested in that techie stuff,” is a common refrain, but then how do you explain the much greater percentage of women working in stills photography (anywhere from 17% in the UK to 51% according to a US report)? I believe the difference is that, unlike photographers, cinematographers are surrounded by large crews – and the attitudes and prejudices of those crews can hugely impact how comfortable and welcoming a career it feels.

Leslie Hill, one of Hollywood's first female camera assistants
Leslie Hill, one of Hollywood’s first female camera assistants (1976)

An excellent female camera assistant I once worked with mentioned, towards the end of the shoot, that she almost turned down the job. It was because of something a male member of the production department said to her during preproduction: “Can you even carry heavy camera kit?”

I had actually had a conversation with this man earlier in prep concerning the way he spoke about women, and his defence was that he was joking, he didn’t mean it. But even if this was true, the fact remains that the project nearly lost a very competent and experienced member of the camera team (who, for the record, had absolutely no problem lifting a heavy camera package onto my shoulder day in, day out for weeks).

How many  productions, I wonder, have lost talented female crew members because of similar misogynous remarks or assumptions? And how many such remarks does it take before some women might say, “Well, I’m a great camera assistant and I’d love to be a DP some day, but I’m giving up and switching careers because I just can’t take all this sexist bullshit any more”? How many such remarks until some women might even start to believe that they really can’t do the job as well as men?

Ellen Kuras, ASC, cinematographer of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind amongst others
Ellen Kuras, ASC, cinematographer of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind amongst others

This is surely part of the reason for the huge gender disparity amongst cinematographers – because some women have been teased, doubted, persuaded and bullied out of the department, maybe not openly, maybe not directly, but gradually and insidiously with a bigoted remark here, a misogynous joke there, and so on. And whether it’s intentional or not, it has an effect. Even calling lamps “redheads” and “blondes” is another grain of sand on the ten mile beach of misogyny. (Instead call them 800s and 2Ks – little things like this do add up.)

The responsibility is on all of us, men especially, to make sure we are not contributing to this culture, that we are calling out this behaviour when we see it, and that our departments are comfortable places to work for both genders. Some producers and directors complain that there simply aren’t enough women applying for positions in the camera dept, but if together we can create an environment that values them, I believe we will eventually find just as many women applying as men.

I’ll leave you with a couple of articles that highlight some of the excellent female cinematographers working today:

IndieWire: Top Women Cinematographers Reveal 7 Best Tips for Career Success

And So It Begins: Why are there no Female Cinematographers?

Why Are There So Few Women in Camera Departments?

Stop/Eject Festival Results

se-festivalsLast year I blogged about how one of my films, The One That Got Away, fared at film festivals. I promised to do the same with Stop/Eject…. well… better late than never!

To recap The One That Got Away’s results, at a total cost of £71 I entered this three minute puppet film – which cost almost nothing to make – into 36 festivals, choosing mostly those with no entry fee, just middleman costs. It was accepted into just two.

Stop/Eject was a bigger production, though still a DSLR short with an entirely unpaid cast and crew. It was financed by two crowd-funding campaigns, one in preproduction and one in post, which raised around £4,200. Although the second campaign’s budget included money towards festival entries, we later opted to run a third campaign from which we raised another £600 for additional submissions.

I had decided early on that I wanted to go all-out for festivals with Stop/Eject, entering all the top tier ones and then a number of smaller events too. The British Council has a list of ‘key’ festivals (you can apply to the Council for travel funding if your film gets into one of them), and it’s also worth checking out the lists of Bafta- and Oscar-qualifying festivals.

Over a two-year period, producer Sophie Black and I submitted Stop/Eject to 47 festivals, at a total cost of £772. Some submissions were direct, but most were via platforms like Withoutabox, Shortfilmdepot and Reelport. Wherever possible we sent online screeners, but some festivals only accepted physical DVDs or Blu-rays, so the £772 includes postage costs, but not duplication; see my breakdown of the film’s post budget for that info. With the exception of Aspen, we always entered before the Early Bird deadlines so as to pay the lowest fee and have the greatest chances of being programmed, because festivals do not wait until the final deadline to start filling up their screening slots. The most expensive entry was Berlin at £45 (€50), but at the other end of the scale a few festivals, like Torino, were free.

Our first official selection, Raindance, came almost a year after we had started submitting. Full disclosure: our exec producer has worked for Raindance and put in a good word for us. Nonetheless, we were delighted and we hoped that screening at a top tier, Bafta-qualifying festival would bring us to the attention of festival programmers around the world and lead to at least a few invitations and further selections.

But it was not to be. Another year of rejections followed, by which time we had run out of top tier festivals to enter and moved down to smaller ones which had piqued our interest for various reasons, or been recommended to us.

We were eventually selected for six more festivals: Fargo Fantastic Film Festival, Southampton International Film Festival, the Underground Film Festival in Corke, the Short Cinema Festival in Leicester, Worcestershire Film Festival, and Beeston Film Festival. We were nominated for awards at three of these events, and ultimately won Best Drama Short at the Underground Film Festival.

If you’re keen to know all the details, I’ve put together a spreadsheet of all the submissions we made, the costs of entry, middleman fees, and results. Download it here.

Were those seven official selections worth the £772? Effectively we paid for seven screenings at £110 a pop. Or to look at it another way, we paid for seven laurels for our poster at £110 a pop.

With producer Sophie Black and co-writer Tommy Draper at the Short Cinema Festival
With producer Sophie Black and co-writer Tommy Draper at the Short Cinema Festival

Many have posited that the whole film festival circuit is a con, that festivals have become gatekeepers in the way that studios and agents once were – check out this very interesting article. At the very least, I do think the odds of submitting cold to a top tier festival and getting in are astronomically low.

One interesting little side effect was that, thanks to our Raindance selection, we were able to submit Stop/Eject for Bafta’s Short Film Award. We made the long-list for the award, meaning that we were one of fifteen films from which the five nominations were chosen. To be honest I’m a little relieved we didn’t get nominated, because then I might have felt obliged to use the exposure to push my directing career, rather than focusing on the cinematography career which I’m so much happier in now.

Finally, if you haven’t seen Stop/Eject and want to judge its festival-worthiness for yourself, here it is…

Click here to view more Stop/Eject-related posts.

Stop/Eject Festival Results

Above the Clouds: Week 4

IMG_0725Day 18 / Tuesday

Yesterday some of the crew started the long drive up to Skye, but for a lucky few – me, MUA Helen and actors Naomi and Andy – our journey starts today with a flight from Luton to Inverness. From there it’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive across the Highlands to the Kyle of Kochalsh, where Gary is waiting for us with his motorhome and the crafty table all set up. Soon afterwards the vans arrive, and the Yellow Peril. From 4pm we are shooting on a little ferry, big enough to hold three or four cars, as it pootles back and forth, back and forth between Skye and the mainland. It is, I think, the most stunning location I have ever shot in. The mountains tower over us from either side of the water, which sparkles in the sun. Although the light turns cloudy pretty quickly, the scene looks epic. All I do is add the usual dashboard LEDs in the picture car, and some sky bounce from Celotex, and darken the skies a little with an ND grad.

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Day 19 / Wednesday

For some reason there’s no water at the cottage where many of us are staying, so it’s a slightly whiffy cast and crew that rocks up in another stunning location this morning. In common with the whole shoot to date, the weather – and therefore the light – is very changeable. We have to roll between the squalls that drift across the valley. An interesting continuity issue arises with the mountains in the background of shot: the light on them keeps changing as clouds move across them. The weather here really is something else; this morning we saw a rainbow so close and so low to the ground that it felt like we could have walked over and touched it.

IMG_0751In the afternoon we’re at yet another stunning location, a bench overlooking a bay. For once the light is fairly constant and sunny, which gives us lovely sparkles in the sea. Again I frame the master like the painting in the Turner, with the horizon bang on the vertical centre of frame: clouds above, landscape and characters below. When we flip around to shoot the singles, the light is hard on the actors’ faces, but frontal, which at least is the most flattering kind of hard light. And it fits well with the dialogue, which references it being sunny, so it wouldn’t make sense to put a diffusion frame up. All I do is have runner Jacob stand just out of frame with some poly, which lifts the shadows a little and makes sure we see into Naomi’s eyes when she looks away from the sun.

Day 20 / Thursday 

IMG_0768Various small driving scenes to start with. Rupert and Max reconfigure the camera as per our test of week 2, and I climb into the Yellow Peril’s modest rear seat to capture the action. I black out the rear window to get a classic dark-to-light depth effect: underexposed backs of seats in the foreground, the actors (including Naomi’s reflection in the rear view mirror) correctly exposed in the midground, and the view through the windscreen slightly overexposed in the background.

We also shoot exterior up-and-pass shots of the car amidst the spectacular scenery, before crossing the Skye Bridge to record a scene in a mainland village. Here we’re shooting dusk-for-night, so I set the white balance to 3,200K and heavily grad the sky. For shots inside the car, I plaster multiple Litepads over the windscreen, gelled with half CTO. The intention was for these to represent the car’s courtesy light, but with a fair amount of daylight coming into the vehicle the effect is more subtle, serving only to warm up what would otherwise be very cold skin-tones at 3,200K.

IMG_0775On the final set-up, appropriately enough, a car with clouds painted on it happens to drive by. And with that, principal photography is wrapped. There is a fifth week to do at some point, perhaps September, when a certain critical role has been cast, but for now the shoot is over. Andy, Naomi, Helen and I will meander back to Inverness tomorrow, while the rest of the crew drive south. I’ve had a great time, and I look forward to seeing a rough cut and shooting the remaining scenes later in the year.

Keep up to date with Above the Clouds on the official Facebook page or Instagram account.

Above the Clouds: Week 4

Above the Clouds: Week 3

IMG_0572Day 12 / Sunday

A split day, starting with two scenes at two different petrol stations (one of them open!). It’s a sunny day and when the cast stand next to the Yellow Peril (the picture car) they are bathed in yellow bounce. We build on this by bouncing more light with the gold side of a Lasolite.

IMG_0590Next we have some interiors in a soup kitchen, which will intercut and contrast with the dining room scenes from day one. Whereas the dining room had perfect three point lighting with a Rembrandt key, I want the soup kitchen to look much less pleasant, so I use toplight, broken keys and cross-light to bring out the texture of the peeling walls.

Our last scene is a night exterior. A sodium vapour security light which we can’t turn off is already backlighting the set. Rather than fighting it, we beef it up using the 1.2K gelled with Urban Sodium. This forms half of a cross-backlighting set-up, paired with a 1×1 LED panel gelled with Quarter Plus Green. Another 1×1 gelled with Mustard Yellow provides a pool of light in the background, while the 4×4 Kino gelled wth full CTB supplies a tiny bit of ‘moonlight’ fill. I’ve never lit a scene with so many different colours, but it feels realistic because there are so many different kinds of streetlamps and security lights in our towns and cities these days.

Day 13 / Monday

IMG_0595In the pub all day. The scenes are meant to have an evening feel, so we black out the windows with thin weed-blocking material which lets a little light through, and close the curtains. On a tungsten white balance we get just a little blue glow coming through the curtains. The window in the door has no curtains, so we gel it with .9 ND and it looks convincingly dusky outside.

Fairly standard stuff today, lighting wise. Cross-backlighting for bar scenes, a bit of blue glow in the deep background from a kino to give depth and show up the smoke.

We echo the Turner scenes with a symmetrical shot of Andy and Naomi seated in front of the fireplace. For a soft, pleasing key we bounce fire both the Dedos into a poly board. A double CTO-gelled LED panel on the floor enhances the backlight from the fire, and the pub’s practicals do the rest.

One of the last close-ups we do has an alcove in the background. It bothers me that the brickwork in there is the same shade and tone as the foreground brickwork – we’re losing the dimensionality – so I have Colin run in with a bit of half CTB to cool down the sconce slightly and separate the alcove.

Day 14 / Tuesday

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IMG_0613More micro sets in Leon’s living room. One of them is a tiny under-the-stairs bathroom, which we light with a single bare bulb hanging down into the shots. Again the Alexa’s dynamic range allows me to hold all the highlights and shadows, even when Andy is inches from the bulb, and it looks completely authentic on camera.

For the first time I try gelling the Rosco Litepads to match the tungsten Dedos. It doesn’t work; the Litepads are noticeably greener. If I try that again I’ll need to spend some time to find the correct cocktail of minus green and CTO gels.

IMG_0633Day 15 / Wednesday

After one final micro set in Leon’s living room we move upstairs for some crucial scenes in the master bedroom. I light it with a 2.5K HMI coming in through the window, that being really the only option. I shape this with gels, diffusion and black-out on the window or the lamp-head itself. For example, when we do Naomi’s close-ups I stick two or three layers of opal to the middle section of the window. That way we keep the nice hot streaks on the background wall, but Naomi has a much softer light on her.

The only other sources are the two 6×2″ Litepads hidden in the wardrobe behind a key prop, dimmed right down so they just silhouette the prop very, very slightly. For the final bedroom scene I go purely with available light, since the sun is now shining in at a nice angle, hitting the bed and bouncing back up into Naomi’s face.

It’s our last day in Kent, and many of the crew will be returning home tonight and commuting for the rest of the week, so it feels like the end of an era. Nevertheless, we remain detached and professional. No-one kidnaps Naomi’s stuffed dog Rupert and messages a picture of him tied up and gagged with gaffer tape, and definitely no-one retaliates by kidnapping Colin’s dashboard Spider-pig.

Day 16 / Thursday

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We are at Longcross Studio & Test Track, an ex-MOD facility in Berkshire. We stage a traffic jam on a road originally built for tank trials. The 85mm lens gets more use than it has the whole shoot so far. The compression of perspective works perfectly for the scene, enhancing the feeling that the characters are hemmed in both physically and psychologically.

Most of the action takes place inside the car and is shot raking across the characters from a side window. To get the best shape to the natural light, we black out the sunroof and place negative fill on the window closest to camera, then bounce in extra light through the windscreen.

The rota polar sees extensive use again, although sometimes it reveals weird circular patterns in the car’s window glass.

IMG_0650Day 17 / Friday

Our second day at Longcross, and this time we’re using the main loop of track. It’s non-exclusive, so occasionally a prototype sports car zooms past us, or a stills photographer hanging out of the boot of an SUV.

Day-playing grip Darren has brought his universal mount which we use as a hostess tray, shooting in through the passenger or driver’s windows. (Leon is not a fan of bonnet-mounted shots.) The rig prevents us from closing the window, which necessitates minor rewrites, but the shots look great and allow us to cover large swathes of dialogue relatively quickly.

The picture car is towed on an A-frame by Andrew’s Landrover. Riding in the Landrover are Leon, Rupert and me, each with a monitor. Leon’s shows a clean picture, Rupert’s of course has focus assist, and I switch mine between clean and false colours so that I can monitor the exposure as we go around the track. Leon connects his mixer to the Landrover’s stereo so that we can all hear the dialogue. Communication back to the picture car is achieved via radio with Max, hiding on the back seat, popping out to slate and even reading in lines for a phone conversation.

IMG_0658Col rigs the two 6×2″ Litepads to the dashboard. They mitigate the sunroof’s toplight by filling in the shadows very slightly, but more importantly they put a sparkle in the actors’ eyes, which always helps the performances come across on camera. I take a light reading inside the Yellow Peril before each lap, but due to the number of trees around the track, light levels during the takes are about two stops below what I get in the car park when we’re prepping. Fortunately the cloud cover is fairly consistent today so there aren’t hot patches of sun to contend with.

Today wraps the English portion of principal photography for Above the Clouds, and we sadly say goodbye to Colin, Zoë, Alice and Andrew. It’s been a really fun team to work with, and it will be strange next week without them.

Above the Clouds: Week 3

Above the Clouds: Week 2

imageDay 7 / Monday

One of our biggest days, shooting several key scenes from the first act of the movie. We’re in the Turner Contemporary in Margate, and getting this location is a big coup for the production. On the flip side, the amount of material we have to get through in our nine hour day is only achievable if lighting is kept to an absolute minimum. I know from the photos that Leon has shown me that there is plenty of natural light from the floor-to-ceiling windows and bright white walls. I also know that with eight scenes on the day’s schedule, there isn’t time to rig the kind of extensive negative fill we used at the roadside cafe last week.

We start in the Turner’s cafe, where angles towards the windows look great with the beach and seafront in the background and the daylight wrapping softly from behind and one side. In the opposite direction the light is extremely flat, but there is no time to do anything but hand-bash a little negative fill, grin and bear it.

Upstairs in the gallery, the sea-view windows are so big and there is so much bounce off the walls that there is only about a single stop’s difference between looking towards the window and looking away from it. Nonetheless, we bring in poly and Celotex for the seaward shots to add a little shape and put nice reflections in the talent’s eyes.

Responding to the formality of the gallery setting, there is an unspoken agreement between Leon and I to shoot on sticks and compose centrally or symmetrically. I end the day feeling that we have captured some of the film’s most iconic images.

imageDay 8 / Tuesday

Back in Margate for seafront exteriors. The weather is lovely to start with, but gradually goes down hill as the day progresses. For the first scene we have light cloud, and we use the 8×8 full grid cloth as a bounce to fill in the shadows. For close-ups we add silver from Celotex or a Lasolite to give the talent extra radiance and a glint in their eyes. (See my post on Health Bounce for more on this.)

The influence of yesterday’s gallery scenes is still being felt on the compositions. In wide shots I try to use the horizon to divide the frame into two halves, like the diptych the characters were looking at in the Turner: one above the clouds (or more accurately OF the clouds), and one below. I use a graduated ND filter on most of the day’s wide shots. Even though the Alexa’s dynamic range means that grads are rarely necessary to retain the detail in skies, and they can be added in post, I prefer to get the look in camera, especially on a micro-budget project where time in the grading suite may be very precious.

The day ends with a dusk shot of Oz shuffling along the seafront, which we shoot in the window between the streetlights coming on and the daylight dropping off completely. I set the white balance to 3200K to emphasise the evening look. The colour and positions of the streetlights aren’t great, but there is a lot of production value in the backdrop of Margate, bathed in cool ambience and sprinkled with points of light.

imageDay 9 / Wednesday

Our first scene is on a layby overlooking an estuary. Again the weather starts off nice but deteriorates as the day goes on. By the time we get back to Leon’s for the next scene, the rain is getting noticeable enough that continuity with adjacent scenes is an issue. We decide to wrap for the day.

The camera team uses the time to re-build the Alexa Mini as small as possible and test different lenses inside the picture car for upcoming driving scenes. Our main angles will be from the back seat, looking diagonally forwards for three-quarter singles and straight ahead for a central shot over both driver and passenger’s shoulders to the windscreen. We find that the 24 and 32 work well for the former, and the 20 for the latter. We have a 14, because I knew space would be tight in the car, but it just looks like a Top Gear Go Pro shot.

imageDay 10 / Thursday

We’re in another tiny set in Leon’s living room. Production designer Zoë Seiffert has dressed it as a beautiful/hideous den of clashing patterns and colours, and practical lamps. First up is a day scene, newly added to the script, so as with the Travel Inn I fire in the 2.5K HMI, this time with the curtains open. That might seem like a ridiculous amount of light for a room only about 10ft square, but only a powerful source like that creates all the bounce and ambience that sun would. I make sure the direct beam only really hits the floor. For some shots I put a white sheet over the carpet to maximise the bounce off the floor.

For the night scenes Colin puts all the practicals on dimmers and I place one of Leon’s ETC Profiles outside the window with Urban Sodium gel. Although the curtains will be closed, they are thin enough to be backlit by this ‘streetlight’. The bulb is even visible through the curtains sometimes, but it totally passes as a streetlight. That’s the only source of light when the characters first enter in silhouette, before turning up the practicals.

imageTo beef up the practicals, we rig a couple of Dedos to the top of the set and direct one through sheets of Opal hung from the ceiling, as a key, and use the other as backlight with half CTO on it. We tweak them around shot by shot to follow the blocking. For a scene with more character conflict, I lose the backlight and go hard with the key.

Later we move to another location – conveniently the cottage neighbouring the one where most of us are staying – for a little doorstep night scene. Again I rake the 2.5K along the front of the building, through the full silent grid cloth. In the singles we beef up the existing exterior sconce with three tungsten globes wrapped in Opal. I would rather have used an 800 bounced off poly, for a softer texture, but our package is pretty lacking in tungsten units.

After wrapping we throw a surprise birthday party for Zoë. Colin lights the party with a remote-controlled colour-changing LED fixture and smoke.

imageDay 11 / Friday

We have two hours in a charity shop to set up (including blacking out windows), shoot two scenes, and tear down. Leon decides to shoot them both using only torchlight, and choreographs the cast to light each other throughout the scenes. We hide silver Lasolites and other bounces around the set to reflect the torchlight when it doesn’t make sense for the actors to point their torches where they’re needed. We smoke up the shop heavily to show up the beams.

To anchor the shots, so the pools of torchlight aren’t floating around in a black nothingness, I set two lamps in the background. One, a Divalite gelled with Urban Sodium, spills out of a changing room, and the other, a 1×1 LED panel gelled heavily blue to suggest a computer screen, glows out from behind the counter. As well as adding colour, and colour contrast, to the scene, the pools of light from these two lamps serve to silhouette the characters so you get a sense of where they are when the torch beams aren’t on them.

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We move to a forest car park for the film’s only major night exterior. With our HMI package consisting of only a 2.5K and 1.2K, and no tungsten bigger than a Dedo, this was always going to be challenging. We place the 2.5K in the deep background, purely to light up the smoke and foliage behind the action. The action itself is lit by the 1.2K and two 1×1 LED panels, plus smaller panels taped to the dashboards of the vehicles in the scene.

To get it all done with the time and resources we have, a compromise must be made somewhere with the lighting. I decide that this compromise will be motivation of sources. Other than dashboard lights, there should really only be one source in this scene: the moon. If I had time, I would move the biggest source around to backlight every shot and then bounce it back as sidelight. Instead we leave the HMIs mostly where they are, and fly the 1×1 panels around to backlight or sidelight as needed. It makes no sense whatsoever, but it looks good.

Above the Clouds: Week 2