Things I’ve Learned as a Moviemaker: Cinematographer Nancy Schreiber

Nancy Schreiber, ASC was the fourth woman ever voted into membership of the American Society of Cinematographers.

This weekend, the New York- and Los Angeles-based moviemaker will be the first female to receive the ASC’s prestigious Presidents Award at the society’s annual gala, held February 4. With more than 100 credits to her name, Schreiber has earned two Sundance Cinematography awards, Emmy and Independent Spirit nominations and a Kodak Vision Award for her work on indie features such as Your Friends and Neighbors for Neil LaBute and The Nines for John August. Her extensive TV credits include ABC’s The Family, HBO’s The Comeback and FX’s Better Things.

Congratulations on the honor, Nancy! We salute her with these 12 things she’s learned behind the camera.


1. Try everything once, or maybe even twice. Don’t fall into the rut of being comfortable with what you have done before. This includes cameras, lights, lenses, formats and more.

2. Surround yourself with people you like to be with on and off the set. You will probably spend more time with your crew than you will with your own family.

3. Be nice to everyone. The production assistant who gets you coffee may be your boss someday. Not long ago, I was contacted by a director, Josh Grossberg, who had been a PA on a shoot I did many, many years ago. Josh said he had admired my work and my presence on set, and wanted me to shoot his upcoming film, loosely based on the Trayvon Martin story. Good thing I was well-behaved, way back when!

4. Cinematographers: You are not the director. So get into your director’s head. Find the director’s strengths. Get in sync. Is she or he better with actors or is she or he knowledgeable technically? Offer suggestions but be prepared to let go. Be the best collaborator possible.

5. Use your people skills. Develop them if that is not your strength. People always laugh when I tell them my psychology degree has come in handy—but it is true!

6. Communicate. Talk with your crew every day before call, and at wrap, making sure there is harmony and everyone is getting what they need. Communicating with production is of the utmost importance—it is crucial that you make your days and stay on time and on budget. If the relationship with the director and 1st AD runs smoothly, everyone should be on the same page about the shot list, shot order and projected time for lighting the scene.

7. Over prepare in pre-production, as well as the night before and the day of—so you can let go and be spontaneous “on the day.”

8. Don’t be so focused on the technical that you are not paying attention to the moment. As I learned from the great Conrad Hall, there is nothing like a happy accident. He recounted one such accident in the riveting finale of In Cold Blood: “While lighting the scene, I noticed that the light from outside was shining through the water sliding down the window pane and projecting a pattern resembling tears on the face of Robert Blake.” It has been said that the visuals cried for Robert Blake’s character.

One of my own happy accidents happened when I was shooting Chain of Desire with Malcolm McDowell. A large HMI that was supposed to shine through a giant stained-glass church window wouldn’t strike. While waiting for the head to be changed, I noticed that the sun was streaming in another window, better than any fixture ever manufactured. We were able to re-block and add smoke, and managed to get the powerful scene before the sunbeams disappeared.

9. The production designer is your best friend and ally.

10. If you are coming up through the ranks wishing to be a cinematographer, shoot as much as you can, when you can.

11. Understand coverage and editing. Some people have a hard time with the concept of crossing the line. I always explain that it is like the way a basketball game is photographed for television. The cameras are always on one side of the court and never cross that line. It is just like that for cinematography. (But, of course, we cross the line for artistic reasons. If you know the rules, you will be able to break them.)

12. Find your own voice. MM

The American Society of Cinematographers Awards will be held February 4, 2017. Photograph of Nancy Schreiber on the set of Loverboy by Macall Polay.