7 Awesome Female DPs

For International Women’s Day in 2017 I wrote about “seven female DPs you didn’t know you’ve been watching”. Since then I’m happy to say that both the number and visibility of women behind the camera seem to have improved, though there’s still a long way to go before equality is achieved. So here, on the eve of this year’s IWD, are seven more female DPs whose work has caught my eye.


Natasha Braier, ASC, ADF

Braier is best known for Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon. On this film she began to develop a unique technique she calls “lens painting”, whereby she creates a custom filter for every shot by applying a range of substances (presumably onto an optical flat). “I have a whole set of five suitcases with different materials, different powders and liquids and glitters, things like that,” she said in a 2020 interview. Braier’s other features include Amazon Original Honey Boy, and she’s currently shooting the pilot of American Gigolo for Paramount. Her awards include several for commercials and three for Neon Demon, and she was number 15 on The Playlist’s “50 Best and Most Exciting Cinematographers Working Today”.


Catherine Goldschmidt

Born in California, raised in New Jersey and now based in London, Goldschmidt studied cinematography at the American Film Institute. Her credits include episodes of Doctor WhoA Discovery of Witches and new Amazon series Chloe, as well as the upcoming Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon. She has provided additional photography for the features Hope Gap (shot by another female DP to watch, Anna Valdez Hanks) and Spider-Man: Far from Home, while her short-form work includes the Qibi comedy series Dummy starring Anna Kendrick (impressively framed simultaneously for 16:9 and 9:16 aspect ratios). Goldschmidt founded the female DPs’ collective Illuminatrix along with Vanessa Whyte.


Magdalena Gorka, ASC, PSC

Gorka is a graduate of the Polish National Film School. I remember seeing her on a panel at Camerimage in 2017. She talked about how getting the look right in camera was important to her, because she worked on low-budget productions and she didn’t always have control in post. These days she’s shooting Star Trek: Strange New Worlds so presumably the budgets have gone up a bit (though who knows about the control). She also lensed the entire second season of Netflix Euro-thriller Into the Night, several episodes of underdog superhero saga Doom Patrol, feature films including Bridesmaids and Paranormal Activity 3, and music promos for Katy Perry and Elton John. Gorka was recently welcomed into the American Society of Cinematographers.


Kate Reid, BSC

With a background in art and a year at the University of California under her belt, Reid studied cinematography at NFTS. After graduating she worked as a camera assistant under such DPs as Balazs Bolygo, BSC, HSC and Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC before rising to the rank herself. Her early work included documentaries like Years of Living Dangerously and award-winning shorts like Nazi Boots. She now shoots a lot of high-end TV, including episodes of Game of Thrones, action thriller Hanna, detective drama Marcella, and upcoming dark comedy The Baby from HBO. She was nominated for an ASC Award this year for “Hanged”, her episode of Josh Whedon’s sci-fi show The Nevers.


Nanu Segal, BSC

It was while Segal was studying chemistry at university that she became an avid cinema-goer and began to consider a career in this industry. “It seemed to offer the perfect combination of technical intrigue and artistry,” she told Primetime. She subsequently attended film school and learnt from the likes of Seamus McGarvey, ASC, BSC and Sue Gibson, BSC. Segal has shot the features Marvelous and the Black Hole, Old Boys, The Levelling and An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn. Her shorts include Bit by Bit, For Love and All of this Unreal Time. She contributed second unit photography to Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.


Ari Wegner, ACS

Wegner attended a Melbourne film school where she made shorts with fellow students in her spare time. She has shot commercials for brands like Apple, and TV series like The Girlfriend Experience for Starz. In 2017 she won a BIFA for period drama Lady MacBeth (gaffered by one of my regular collaborators, Ben Millar). Last month she became the first woman to win a BSC Award for Best Cinematography in a Theatrical Feature Film, for Montana-set drama The Power of the Dog. This, and the many other cinematography awards the film has scooped, are the just reward for Wegner’s unprecedented year of prep with director Jane Campion. The pair took inspiration from another impressive and talented woman, turn-of-the-20th-century Montana photographer Evelyn Cameron.


Zoë White, ACS

White has shot 12 episodes of the multi-award-winning Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale, garnering Primetime Emmy and ASC Award nominations for her episode “Holly”. There’s many ways to translate the way you want something to feel,” she said in a 2019 interview about the series, “and there’s a lot of gut instinct that comes with deciding what it is that you think is most effective for a particular moment.” White also shot the pilot for Netflix drama Hit and Run, and two episodes of Westworld plus aerial photography for two more. Her indie work includes short psychological thriller The Push (winner of Best Cinematography at Brooklyn Horror Film Festival 2016) and coming-of-age drama Princess Cydney. 

7 Awesome Female DPs

“Kingsman: The Golden Circle” and the Glorification of Sexual Assault

The first Kingsman film made me very angry – in fact I wrote a blog post explaining exactly why it was so misogynous. I was therefore planning to avoid the sequel like the plague, and instead a friend and I set off for the local Vue this afternoon with  a voucher for two free tickets and the intention of seeing A.A. Milne biopic Goodbye Christopher Robin. Unfortunately, on arriving we were told that a broken projector meant that the screening of Goodbye Christopher Robin was cancelled. Neither of us were very enthusiastic about anything else that was showing, but Kingsman: The Golden Circle was starting soonest, so we plumped for that.

Though silly, and providing little screen time to women, the movie was tolerable until it reached the middle with a sequence set at Glastonbury. The scene required our “hero” Eggsy to implant a tracking device on a woman called Clara. For reasons not explained, and extremely difficult to imagine, the tracking device must be implanted in her vagina. That’s tantamount to rape with a foreign object, isn’t it? Or some equally serious and horrifying crime.

Eggsy sets about seducing Clara. She offers to pee on him. He declines, pops to the loo and rings his girlfriend Tilde (yes, somehow that reprehensible anal sex reward at the end of the first movie became a long-term relationship) to warn her that he is about to sleep with another woman because it’s necessary to his mission. Her response boils down to: that’s fine, so long as you marry me afterwards. (What?! It’s 2017 and we’re still portraying women as being fine with cheating men, and wanting nothing more in life than to “snare a man” by getting married?)

At around this point I got up and walked out, shaking with anger and sick to my stomach. I felt dirty, like I had just stood by and watched a gang rape. With the exception of my friend, everyone else in the audience was laughing and (seemingly) enjoying it. It was not an experience I wanted to continue to participate in. I can’t imagine how it made female viewers feel.

I’m told that the next scene featured an uncomfortable sequence in which Eggsy gradually reaches into Clara’s knickers, followed by a CGI zoom into her vagina as the tracking device enters. It sounds like the camera kind of raped her. Ugh.

Now look, I’m not saying that movies shouldn’t have scenes of rape or sexual assault, or whatever strange and abhorrent crime Eggsy commits by placing a foreign object in an unwitting woman’s vagina. Kingsman is loathsome and unacceptable because of two things:

1. Eggsy is the “hero” of the film, the “good guy”, the one who is meant to be loved and idolised. If he was the villain, it would be clear to all viewers that his actions were wrong, but because he is the hero the film implies that his behaviour is not only acceptable, but “heroic” and “good”. Kingsman teaches its teenage audience that the objectification and violation of women is to be admired.

2. Clara is completely unaware of what is being done to her. At least in a rape scene the woman knows she is being violated and can try to fight back. Here the whole thing is played for comedy. Not only is Clara ignorant and completely powerless, but the audience is made complicit in her assault by being encouraged to laugh at her because she doesn’t know what’s going on. It’s like the whole thing is a sick game; indeed there is dialogue between Eggsy and his fellow agent Whiskey in which it is made clear that they are competing to assault Clara. She is humiliated and degraded in every possible way.

Director Matthew Vaughan responded to criticism of the first Kingsman’s misogyny by saying that it was a joke, pushing the sexist tropes of Bond films to the extreme. The backlash should have informed him that this was a bad idea. Instead of taking the hint, he went even further with the sequel. The only possible conclusion is that Vaughan and his fellow filmmakers genuinely hate women. It is simply staggering to think of the number of people involved in the movie who apparently thought this sequence was perfectly okay.

Come to think of it, who else do we know that likes being peed on and grabbing women by the vagina? Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised that, in a world whose most powerful man believes he can do what he wants with women’s bodies, movies will express the same ideology. It’s sickening and depressing.

“Kingsman: The Golden Circle” and the Glorification of Sexual Assault

5 Rebuffed Complaints About a Female Doctor Who

Reaction to Jodie Whittaker’s casting as the new Doctor pretty much broke the internet last month. While the majority appear to be in favour, a significant minority reacted with hostility.

At first glance, the haters did seem to have a reasonable point. The Doctor is a man, has always been a man, so it’s weird to regenerate them into a woman. After all, there are constants across every regeneration, different as it may be to its predecessors. For example, the Doctor always has a British accent. If the Doctor ever gained an American twang, there would be outrage; the Doctors’ Britishness is a fixed point of their ever-changing character. Is it so unreasonable for their gender to be another fixed point, something to anchor their character and reassure viewers that despite the new actor, this is still the Doctor you know and love?

But as soon as you start to think about it, this argument collapses completely. After all, Doctor Who‘s 54-year history is littered with contradictions and continuity errors. The majority of the episodes produced under Steven Moffatt were full of plot-holes, so to suggest that there is anything fixed, immutable and logical about the show is utterly ridiculous. It’s pure fantasy. Fantasy – that’s a key word that I’ll return to later.

Let’s consider some of the most common negative reactions that appeared online…


1. “It’s Not Doctor Who any more.”

People said that in 1966 when the Doctor first regenerated. They said it when he was exiled to Earth in the 70s. They said it when it got campy in the 80s. They said it when the American TV movie was made in 1996. They said it when Russell T. Davies resurrected the show in 2005. They said it when Tennant left in 2010. And now they’re saying it again.

Change, evolution, moving with the times – these are the reasons that Doctor Who is the longest-running sci-fi show on the planet. The world has changed enormously since William Hartnell first flickered onto the screen with his magic blue (grey) box. It’s the show’s ability to develop in step with the real world  that makes it a continued success. These changes are visible in the ever-improving VFX, the topical themes of the stories, the shifts in tone under new showrunners, and crucially through Who‘s groundbreaking concept of regeneration.

Doctor Who is change.


2. “We have lost an important male role model.”

I saw a post from a man who was angry and upset to lose what he saw as a crucial role model in his life. His argument was that male heroes are usually more physical and violent, whereas the Doctor’s more intelligent approach made him great for encouraging men into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) careers. Peter Davison, the fifth Doctor, expressed a similar concern.

But it is women who are under-represented in STEM industries, not men. And if you’re looking for other intelligent male role models, how about super-brainy Sherlock? Or engineering genius Tony “Iron Man” Stark? Or most of the Star Trek captains and science officers? Even if you reject every other film and TV show’s male heroes as not intellectual enough, you still have the other twelve Doctors. Can’t we let 50% of the population have one female Doctor in there to look up to?


3. “It’s a cynical move.”

It’s no secret that Doctor Who‘s ratings have been steadily declining in recent years, so some people have come to the conclusion that incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall cast a woman purely to generate controversy and draw attention to the show.

Undoubtedly Chibnall would have seen the press and social media interest as a bonus to casting a woman, but it can’t have been the sole or primary motivator. Chibnall is first and foremost a writer, and no writer would ever cast a lead actor to bring their character to life if they didn’t believe absolutely that that actor was right for the part. The first woman in the role is bound to attract a greater degree of scrutiny and criticism than another man when her episodes start screening, so if the show is to have a hope of impressing the critics then the Doctor has to be an excellent actor with an impeccable track record. And Whittaker is definitely that.

This move is far from cynical. It’s bold, refreshing and relevant, and for this fan at least it gives me more excitement about the next season than I have felt for some time.


4. “It’s political correctness gone mad.”

Political correctness has become a dirty phrase, but all it really means is being careful not to offend oppressed or minority groups unnecessarily. So to say that Whittaker’s casting is political correctness gone mad is to suggest that it’s placating people who have no valid complaint of oppression or under-representation.

Let me say it again: twelve of the thirteen Doctors are men. (Thirteen of fourteen if you count the War Doctor.) Only one is a woman. That’s less than 10%, compared with 50% of the population being female. That is the very definition of under-representation. And let’s not forget that Whittaker’s casting was announced after the men’s Wimbledon final, not the women’s, because we still live in a world where women, and all the things women do, are considered less important than their male counterparts.

Casting a female Doctor is not “political correctness gone mad”. It’s taking a small step towards correcting a huge imbalance.


5. “I won’t be watching any more.”

I suspect the men who wrote comments like this did not stop to consider the more limited choices their mothers, daughters and sisters have in this matter. If women threw their toys out of the pram every time a TV show or film came along with a male lead, they wouldn’t get much else done. Women have got used to watching stories led by the other gender; we men must learn to do the same.

To the people who still say, “but the Doctor is a man,” and suggest that casting female leads in new shows would be better than swapping the gender of an established character, you may be right. And when 50% of all big franchises have female leads there will be no need to do this kind of thing, but until then, it’s necessary. Until then, us men whining that we’ve lost something in this situation is like a millionaire crying because they dropped a penny down the drain.


Finally, let’s return to that keyword, fantasy. Because I think the most significant things about Whittaker’s casting are the kids in the playgrounds who will grow up with choice. The girls won’t always have to play the kidnapped princesses, or the love interests, or the companions, while the boys get the roles with agency; they can play Rey, or Wonder Woman, or the Doctor. That can only be beneficial to the future of our society.

5 Rebuffed Complaints About a Female Doctor Who

7 Female DPs You Didn’t Know You’ve Been Watching

We’ve all heard the shocking statistics about the tiny proportion of DPs who are women. So when you watch film and TV, sadly, you might assume that you’re always watching the cinematography of a man. Today’s post encourages you to think again.

To mark International Women’s Day, I’m highlighting the work of seven female DPs who are lensing mainstream productions, and whose cinematography you’ve probably seen. All of these women are great role models for aspiring DPs.


Sharon Calahan, ASC

Raised in the USA’s Pacific Northwest, Calahan studied advertising art, illustration, and graphic design. Her first job was at a TV station, where she worked as an art director but also got involved in lighting sets. She joined Pixar just as the company was starting out, becoming the lighting supervisor on Toy Story, before graduating to director of photography for A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2 and Finding Nemo. In 2014, Calahan became the first DP working purely in CGI to be admitted into the American Society of Cinematographers. By this time, her extensive experience of studying and mimicking natural light had led her to take up landscape painting, and for Pixar’s next release, The Good Dinosaur, director Peter Sohn used Calahan’s landscapes as the visual template for the entire look.


Anna Foerster, ASC


A German cinematographer and director, Foerster is perhaps best known for her collaborations with her fellow countryman Roland Emmerich. After working as an FX unit DP for him on Independence Day and Godzilla (1998), then second unit DP and director on Tomorrow and 10,000 BC, she graduated to first unit DP on Anonymous and White House Down. Anonymous is an independent historical thriller suggesting Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by Lord Oxford, while White House Down is of course an all-out action thriller. On the latter, Foerster came up with a number of clever tricks to hide the lighting units from the wide lenses she favoured. She also worked hard to sell the sound-stages that most of the movie was shot on as real day-lit interior and exterior locations. Foerster’s directing credits include Underworld: Blood Wars, and episodes of Outlander and Criminal Minds.


Sue Gibson, BSC

Derbyshire-born Gibson developed an interest in photography at the age of fourteen. She studied at Newport College of Art, then at the National Film and Television School (NFTS), graduating in 1981. After starting out in commercials, she shot her first feature, Hear My Song, in 1989, which won The Evening Standard Award for Technical Achievement. Her other feature credits include Mrs Dalloway and – in a very different genre – second unit on Alien vs. Predator. She worked extensively in British TV, particularly murder mystery, lensing episodes of Poirot, Marple, LewisSpooks and The Forsyte Saga. In 1992 Gibson became the first female member of the British Society of Cinematographers, and later served as its president between 2008-2010. She passed away last summer, and was posthumously awarded The Philips Vari-Lite Award for Drama at The Knight of Illuminations Awards for two of her Death in Paradise episodes, her final work.


Ellen Kuras, ASC

Born in New Jersey, Kuras studied photography and 8mm filmmaking after university, with a view to becoming a documentary filmmaker. After lensing the award-winning short doc Samsara: Death and Rebirth in Cambodia, her career diversified to eventually include such big-budget features as Blow and Analyze That. Kuras has also collaborated twice with French director Michel Gondry. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, she used her documentary background to put the realism into Gondry’s magical realism, with handheld cameras and naturalistic lighting. But she brought the magic too; for example, using a camera-mounted spotlight for a tunnel vision effect during the sequence in which Jim Carey and Kate Winslet try to hide within Carey’s memory. Although more classically composed, 2008’s Be Kind Rewind was similarly creative, featuring low-fi VHS recreations of big movies, and a memorable montage captured in a single developing shot. Kuras’ many awards include an unprecedented hat-trick of Best Dramatic Cinematography gongs at Sundance, and an Oscar nomination for The Betrayal – Nerakhoon, a documentary feature she directed.


Suzie Lavelle, ISC

Lavelle is an Irish DP who studied at NFTS before entering the TV industry as an AC. Her sumptuous, colourful and contrasty lighting has featured in some of the BBC’s most high-profile TV dramas. “The Abominable Bride”, her Sherlock outing, was nominated for a Primetime Emmy in 2016. “Cold War”, her contribution to Doctor Who‘s 2013 season, is one of the best-looking and most atmospheric episodes the venerable series has ever produced.  And, along with James Mather, she swept away the dull photography of Ripper Street‘s first two seasons and established the much moodier style for season three that would continue for the rest of the show’s run. Lavelle’s other TV credits include VikingsThe Living and the Dead, Endeavour and Jekyll & Hyde, and she photographed the award-winning features One Hundred Mornings and The Other Side of Sleep.


Urszula Pontikos, BSC

Hailing from Gdynia in Poland, Pontikos has photographed a number of indie features, including Weekend, Second Coming and Lilting. The latter won her the Cinematography Award for World Cinema (Dramatic) at Sundance 2014, but she’s also shot some of the most interesting British TV shows of recent years. Despite a self-confessed nervousness about the scale of the show’s night exteriors, Pontikos delivered confident, slick and atmospheric cinematography for BBC 1’s Cold War spy thriller The Game in 2014. The following year she photographed the first two episodes of Humans, setting the style for this hugely popular C4 sci-fi drama. She employed unusual eye-lights, symmetrical composition and linear camera moves for scenes featuring the robotic “synths”. Her other TV credits include the crime dramas Glue for E4 and Marcella for ITV.


Mandy Walker, ACS, ASC

Born and raised in Melbourne, Walker got her first industry contacts from a short film course she took after graduation. Persistently calling these contacts yielded some unpaid work and her first feature at the age of just 25. More Aussie features followed, until a Chanel Nº 5 commercial with Baz Luhrmann and Nicole Kidman propelled Walker into the big-time with an epic drama, entitled – of course – Australia. Since then, Walker has lensed the likes of Natalie Portman (Jane Got a Gun) and Robert Redford (Truth). Her latest release is Hidden Figures, an inspiring and important drama about African-American women who worked on Nasa’s space programme. Walker used subtle techniques to enhance the themes of racism and sexism, like placing the camera below the heroine’s eye-lines so that they were always looking up at the white men. Hidden Figures is in cinemas across the UK right now, and I highly recommend it.


That’s all for now, but some other great DPs to check out are Charlotte Bruus Christensen (The Girl on the Train), Uta Briesewitz, ASC (The Wire) and Cynthia Pusheck, ASC (Magnolia).

7 Female DPs You Didn’t Know You’ve Been Watching

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?

Star Wars Episode VII: The Feminism Awakens (Spoilers)


J.J. Abrams, though one of my favourite directors, has something of a chequered past when it comes to representing women on screen. Although noted for female leads in some of his projects (the TV shows Felicity, Alias and Fringe), he’s not averse to showing them in their underwear to grab ratings or boost ticket sales. The season four premier of Alias springs to mind – a scene with Jennifer Garner in lingerie was brought to the start of the episode as a flash-forward in a cynical effort to hook audiences – as does the gratuitous shot of Alice Eve in her underwear in Star Trek Into Darkness, which rightly caused an internet furore.

So I waited with mixed feelings to see where Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens would fall on the misogyny/feminism spectrum. BEWARE: SPOILERS AHEAD.

The film presents two new central characters, vying for the position of protagonist: John Boyega’s Finn and Daisy Ridley’s Rey. For the first few reels, the script seems to be trying too hard to be feminist: Rey is constantly rebuffing Finn’s patronising attempts to protect her. This reeks suspiciously of the “post-sexism” portrayal of female characters, whereby they serve the same old plot function of damsel in distress, but are made “strong” by perfunctory attempts to assert their authority and complaints about how reckless and useless the men are – even though the patriarchal script still has those same men save the day.

screen shot 2015-10-19 at 10.31.30 pmThis theory seems to be confirmed as Rey is knocked unconscious and carried off to the villain’s lair, leaving us to assume her plot function is indeed just to be rescued by Finn. Aboard the Death Star, or whatever they’re calling it, villain Kylo Ren creepily remarks that he can take whatever he wants from her. He proceeds to mind-rape her with the Force – a much darker interrogation than Vader’s implied use of the floating spiky ball thing on Leia in episode IV. But the film toys with our expectations as Rey turns this invasion back on Ren, and subsequently escapes her cell through her own agency.

Things get patriarchal again when a climactic light sabre battle sees Rey knocked unconscious as Finn fights the villain. But suddenly J.J. turns the tables. Rey recovers, Finn is knocked unconscious, and Rey triumphantly defeats the antagonist with a bad-ass combination of physical and mental prowess. At least, she defeats him as much as the antagonist can ever be defeated in the first part of a trilogy. Presumably in Episode IX she’ll send him spiralling fatally into the depths of a bottomless shaft, since the whole plot is just a re-run of the original films.

2326134Despite its female protagonist, Episode VII’s feminism is far from perfect. In common with other female leads in contemporary cinema, Rey is surrounded by a sea of male characters, as if the filmmakers have to compensate the audience for the lack of one big leading penis with a plethora of supporting penises. The movie only passes the Bechdel Test by the skin of its teeth, as far as I can recall – Rey’s conversation with Maz Kanata being at least partly about Luke, and dialogue between Rey and Leia not occurring until the film’s closing minutes.

Frequently throughout the running time, Rey is referred to simply as “the girl”. This is a recurring and worrying theme in genre movies: “Give me the girl”, “Let the girl go and I’ll give you the MacGuffin”, etc, etc. Apparently women are so insignificant and interchangeable that they need no names. Let’s hope that J.J. and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt were deliberately pastiching this as part of their subversion of gender roles.

Either way, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is refreshingly feminist and presents a great female role model. Hopefully there will be just as many little girls wanting light sabre toys as little boys (though I find the lack of Rey action figures disturbing). I doubt we’ll ever see a female Bond  – sleeping with hunky men then not caring when they get killed – but we’re moving closer to a female Doctor Who – two major Timelord characters having recently regenerated into women – and having a woman at the centre of the Star Wars universe is a definite step in the right direction for the world media’s representation of the gender.


Star Wars Episode VII: The Feminism Awakens (Spoilers)


Carole Landis
Carole Landis

We’ve all seen old movies in which the ladies’ close-ups are shot through a soft focus filter. What may surprise you is that many DPs still do this, only the filters are much subtler. And even if they don’t do this, almost all DPs will light women differently to men. Softer light sources, more flattering key angles and higher levels of fill are some of the typical differences employed in order to beautify an actress. I’ve done it myself.

The question is: is it misogynous?

Women tend to have softer facial features than men. So I could argue that by giving an actress softer lighting than an actor, I’m simply playing to the strengths of their respective physical features. And after all, it’s my job to make everyone look good, male or female. But I know that I’ve often spent longer lighting the leading lady’s CU than the leading man’s, because I’m trying to make it as flattering as possible, and I know that many other DPs do the same. There seems to be a consensus amongst cinematographers that men can be lit more for character, lit appropriately for who they are within the story, whereas women have to be lit primarily for beauty.

John Schwartzman, ASC on the cast of Armageddon: “They’re easy to shoot, easy to light. They’re mainly men. Men, you’re not worried about, ‘Is there a bag or a shadow here?'”

Liv Tyler in Armageddon (DP: John Schwartzman)
Liv Tyler in Armageddon (DP: John Schwartzman)

There was understandable outrage about Frozen when head of animation Lino DiSalvo was quoted as saying that the female characters’ facial expressions were more restricted than the men’s because of the need to “keep them pretty”. It’s the same kind of thing. The message here seems to be that it’s more important for women to look good than to have character. Undoubtedly this contributes on some level to the general lack of substance that female characters have in cinema.

This issue must also be seen in the context of the punishing beauty standards which women are held to in our society. Most moviegoers will not think about the lighting and filters that may have been employed to make actresses look better. Many women watching will simply see an image of beauty which society tells them they must aspire to. But they can never reach it, not without a DP following them around everywhere, any more than they can reach the standards of beauty set by Photoshopped magazine covers.

Douglas Slocombe, BSC: “Cameramen have always been obliged to make the leads as beautiful as possible. This can create problems because sometimes the ideal lighting for the actress might mean spilling unwanted light over other parts of the set, compromising the mood you are trying to create. I generally favour mood over actors in wider shots, and then concentrate on the face in the close-ups.”

Allison Doody in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (DP: Douglas Slocombe)
Allison Doody in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (DP: Douglas Slocombe)

The standards cut both ways. If all women are pressurised to look beautiful, actresses are doubly so. You have only to look at the casting breakdowns, one of which Rose McGowan called out recently, to see that.

So let’s imagine I ignored beauty concerns and lit an actress purely for character. What might happen? The director and producer, whether male or female, might not be happy. (“Her face is one of our biggest selling points,” I once heard a producer say of her lead actress.) The actress herself may not be happy. Her agent may not be happy. An actress who does not look good onscreen may well find it harder to get work. I don’t think I have the right to subject the actress to these possible negative consequences.

And what about the make-up artist, who probably spent much longer making up the actresses than the actors, and may not get hired again if the actresses don’t look beautiful on camera? Or the colourist, who could track a softening filter to the actress’s face in post without my knowledge or consent? Is there any point in me bucking the system if they don’t too? Would I find it harder to get hired if the women on my showreel didn’t look beautiful?

M. David Mullen, ASC: “The sad truth is that most (not all) women look good with a flat, frontal key light – sometimes soft, sometimes hard. Look at most head shots that actresses carry around – they all look like they have no nose, only two eyes and a smile… There is usually a happy medium where the lighting can look good and dramatically correct and the actress looks good as well – but sometimes I get asked to ‘cross the line’ and glamourize a close-up beyond what is correct for the scene.”

Amanda Seyfried in Jennifer's Body (DP: M. David Mullen)
Amanda Seyfried in Jennifer’s Body (DP: M. David Mullen)

Maybe it’s not my problem? It’s my job to make people look good, but it’s society that tells me what constitutes looking good for a man and for a woman. But of course I’m part of society, and if we all shirk responsibility like that, nothing will ever change. And any situation where a man (92% of DPs are men) has control of how a woman looks is a potential arena for misogyny.

Undoubtedly it’s a grey area, walking the line between character and beauty which no metric can ever define, and perhaps I’m worried about nothing. But since this issue is rarely discussed, I’m very interested to know what people think.

Your thoughts please (via Twitter or Facebook).


The Misogyny of Kingsman: The Secret Service

posterKingsman: The Secret Service is about a working class young man (Eggsy, played by Taron Egerton) who finds himself amongst the new recruits for a top secret service of upper class spies. Directed by Matthew Vaughan, the film tries to say something about class – that it’s not defined by your background, but your attitude – and has attracted some interest for casting an able-bodied actress (Sofia Boutelle) as a disabled character. It may sound liberal, but it’s actually very right-wing – Obama gets his head blown up, and the bad guy is an environmentalist.

But the film’s biggest issue, for me, is its misogyny.

Kingsman: The Secret Service has four female characters.

The first (Samantha Womack, née Janus) is the hero’s mother – a female character existing only in relation to a male one. Her boyfriend beats her up – a damsel in distress serving only to be saved by the hero.

The second (the aforementioned Sofia Boutelle) is the bad guys’s henchwoman. Superficially she’s pretty cool and bad-ass, but really all she does is follow the commands of her boss – a man.

The third (Sophie Cookson) is set up as if to be the love interest, but that angle is never pursued. Instead she fills more of the ‘best friend’ role – that’s a little more original – but she’s the single token woman in the ranks of new recruits. And she’s the worst recruit. She messes up all the time and has to be saved by the hero.

But it’s the fourth that really made me ashamed of both my gender and my industry.

Hanna Alström plays Princess Tilde, a character who exists to be captured by the bad guy and rescued by the hero. As if that’s not bad enough, Tilde offers Eggsy anal sex if he frees her. And if that‘s not appalling enough, the movie ends with a shot of her naked behind as she looks over her shoulder as if to say, “My hero, you’ve saved me. Now take your reward.”

Vaughan is unable to see the misogyny in this. “It’s a celebration of women and the woman being empowered in a weird way in my mind,” he says. He seems to think that because the woman offers the man anal sex it’s a clever reversal of all those movies where the hero beds the leading lady as his prize.

But how many people were sat in the cinema thinking, “Ha ha ha, how brilliantly Mr. Vaughan has satirised the cinematic trope of the hero ‘winning the girl’ by pushing it into the realm of absurdity.” And how many were thinking, “Yep, that’s normal.” And worse still, how many were thinking, “Yeah, take it up the arse, bitch, like you deserve.” The filmmakers might be horrified by that latter comment, but that’s the kind of attitude they’re reinforcing.

This objectification is not how I want to see women. It’s not how I want women or men to expect me to see women. And it’s not how I want society and the media to tell me I should see them. So I’d like to offer a few observations and suggestions to Vaughan and his co-writer Jane Goldman.


  • The prevalence of female characters who exist only to be saved can make men think that women cannot be equal partners or authority figures, which is bad for society as a whole.
  • It’s wrong to teach young men (who will be the bulk of Kingsman’s target audience) that they deserve sex.
  • It’s wrong to teach young women that they are expected to offer sex as a reward or a currency.
  • It’s wrong to teach anyone that sex is the only thing women have to offer.
  • It’s wrong to perpetuate the ridiculous trope that women need to accept anal sex from their partner on special occasions or as a reward, regardless of whether they’re fully comfortable with it or not. It’s equally wrong to train men to ask for anal sex from women and see it as a badge of honour, when they might not be comfortable with it either.
  • It’s wrong to require an actress to do gratuitous nudity, doubly so for a scene that seems to exist purely in the service of misogyny.
  • Jokes that satirise a trope by repeating that trope may well do more harm than good.
  • The closing image of a film can be very powerful. To close a film with an image that degrades 50% of the world’s population is irresponsible to say the least. (Technically there is another shot after the naked backside shot, but it’s the naked backside shot that everyone will remember.) Did you actually stop to think how a woman in the audience might feel being left with that image, particularly if she’s sat next to her boyfriend who has also been left with that image and may now be feeling some sense of entitlement?

There has to be more responsibility on issues like this from filmmakers who are reaching huge audiences. You have the power to change the world. Use it.

The Misogyny of Kingsman: The Secret Service

Women On Film: Characters or Glorified Props?

The cast of Your Highness
The cast of Your Highness
Last year I was offered the chance to direct pick-ups and reshoots for a low-budget feature. I watched the existing rough cut and it was utterly, unsalvageably awful. One of the key investors, however, had a list of suggestions to “improve” it. Amongst them – prefaced with the line, “Sex sells. Always has. Always will.” – was an entreaty for some gratuitous female nudity.

He would not have been the first person to try to save a bad movie with T&A.

Take the puerile 2011 “comedy” Your Highness. Already steeped in misogyny – the villain plans to rape Zooey Deschanel so that she’ll conceive some kind of demon, a plan which the script treats as more comedic than abhorrent – the film reduces Natalie Portman’s warrior to eye candy with a needless thong scene. Inevitably this scene figures prominently in the trailer.

Kate Beckinsale in Whiteout
Kate Beckinsale in Whiteout

Or 2009’s Whiteout, starring Kate Beckinsale as a US Marshall stationed at a research base in Antarctica. How is her character introduced? Setting up her deductive powers as she solves a case? Establishing her authority as she defuses a tense situation? Demonstrating her physical prowess as she chases down a suspect? No. She strips off and takes a shower, and the camera gets a close-up of her bum. For no reason whatsoever. Whiteout is immediately ruined because the audience has been told that the lead character is only there to be ogled. Presumably director Dominic Sena misguidedly thought that a little skin would improve the appeal of a film that’s uniformly inept, from the production design – a British character decorating his room with a huge Union Jack, seriously? – to the script, revealing its tedious backstory through clumsy flashbacks. (Even more depressingly, I’ve just read on Wikipedia that the graphic novel the film is based on had two female leads, but one was changed to a man for the film because the studio thought that would increase the audience.)

There are of course many, many more examples both in cinema – like the inexplicable Alice Eve underwear shot in Star Trek Into Darkness – and in the wider media, as evidenced by this brief but telling montage.

There will be some men reading who think gratuitous female nudity is harmless, even a good thing, but here are just a few reasons why it’s not:

  1. It’s a signpost that your film is bad, and you know it is.
  2. It undermines your female characters, weakening your story and the level of emotional engagement an audience will give to it.
  3. Your actress is a human being. How does she feel about it? What about the countless websites that will inevitably take the scene out of context and present it for male gratification?
  4. It perpetuates the objectification of women and misogyny in general, both huge problems in our culture today.
  5. It contributes, I strongly suspect, to the dearth of women behind the camera, by portraying them as glorified props rather than valuable contributors to the filmmaking process.

If writers spent more time on crafting good characters, particularly good female characters, they wouldn’t need gratuitous T&A or any other spurious fixes. Stronger female characters are starting to appear in cinemas, but often they’re far from ideal. This article from Dissolve questions the quality of some of the superficially strong female characters in recent blockbusters. Putting a woman in an action role just so she can wear a skin-tight costume and demonstrate her physical flexibility is not equality. There’s a long way to go yet.

Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and director of the Avengers movies, has some excellent and impassioned stuff to say on this subject. I’ll leave him with the closing words.

Women On Film: Characters or Glorified Props?

Representation of Women in my Films

There have been a lot of articles going around lately about the representation of women in the media. A lot of the statistics are pretty shameful. A New York Film Academy study of the top 500 films of 2007-2012 found that less than a third of speaking characters were female, there was almost three times more female nudity than male, and the ten highest paid actors made over two and a half times more money than the ten highest paid actresses.

I’ve always considered myself fairly enlightened on this issue. From my first major film project (The Beacon, 2001) I began a deliberate policy of alternating the genders of my leading characters with each movie I made. But before I get a sore arm from patting myself on the back, let’s delve a little deeper by applying the Bechdel Test to my films. To pass this test, a film must have

  1. at least two named female characters
  2. who talk to each other
  3. about something other than a man.
The Beacon
The Beacon

The Beacon is a cheesy action film about Sarah Mayhew (Lorna-Jane Hamer), a council clerk who ends up saving Britain from a biochemical terrorist attack planned to be launched from the Malvern Hills. I switched up the traditional gender roles by making Sarah an action heroine who has to save her useless boyfriend from the terrorists. It easily passes the first two steps of the Bechdel Test, but I had to skip through 55 minutes of it before I reached a conversation between two women that wasn’t about a man.

Soul Searcher
Soul Searcher

Soul Searcher is a marginally-less cheesy action film about an ordinary Joe (Ray Bullock Jnr) who is chosen to be trained as the new Grim Reaper. While it passes step one, that’s as far as it gets; leading ladies Heather (Katrina Cooke) and Luca (Lara Greenway) never speak to each other. There is a brief exchange between Clubber Girls #1 and #2, but since they don’t have names, and their only purpose is to be put in jeopardy by a man (alright – a demon, but a male demon) and saved by another man, I hardly think this counts. Massive fail.

The Dark Side of the Earth, apart from a five minute sequence shot in 2008, exists only as a screenplay, so it’s the screenplay I’ll judge. The protagonist is a young woman, Isabelle (played in the pilot by Kate Burdette), who sets to out to re-start the earth’s rotation after it shudders to a halt, nearly wiping out humanity. There are brief exchanges between Isabelle and some minor, but named, female characters in which they talk about things other than men, but the one proper conversation she gets with the only other significant female character concerns a man. And at least on some level, the reason she goes on the quest is to impress a man. So technically Dark Side passes, but it’s hardly a glorious victory.

The Picnic
The Picnic

My three Virgin Media Shorts entries have little or no dialogue, but even without applying the test, it’s easy to see how sexist they are. The Picnic is a silent film revolving around a man trying to get revenge on another man for stealing his girlfriend. Woman as prize. Hardly enlightened. (Earlier drafts of the script had the gender roles reversed. I can’t remember why I changed it.) The One That Got Away makes the female character a trophy in exactly the same way. And Ghost-trainspotting doesn’t have any women in it.


Stop/Eject, on the other hand, seems well-placed to pass the test with flying colours, with two of its three main characters being women and plenty of conversations between them. Unfortunately, the whole movie is about the death of a man. It does pass the test though, because the final conversation between grieving widow Kate (Georgina Sherrington) and mysterious shopkeeper Alice (Therese Collins) is not about the man. It shames me to recall, however, that Alice was (a) originally written as a man, and (b) not given a name until Therese requested one.

In general, writing this article has drawn my attention to the imbalance in the number of characters of each gender in my films. Even those movies with female leads are otherwise populated predominantly by men. I think I have a tendency, and I’m sure many of you out there do this too if you’re honest with yourselves, to make characters male by default, and to only make them female if there’s a “reason” to.

I know that some people may say, in defense of their own films or actions, that they did not intend to offend or oppress. I certainly did not aim, when making Soul Searcher, for example, to oppress women. But that is no excuse. Everything we do, say or create will be judged in the context of our society, and if – in combination with things said, done or created by others, innocently or otherwise – it contributes to a culture of oppression, then it is wrong. So for my own mistakes, I apologise unreservedly.

As with all of my blog entries that point out my own failings, I record this publicly to burn these mistakes into my memory and reduce the chance of me making them again. I hope too that it might make others out there consider their own work in the light of the important issue of gender representation.

Representation of Women in my Films