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Shooting For The Stars: Women Cinematographers

Shooting For The Stars: Women Cinematographers

Articles - Directing

I Shot Andy Warhol (1996)

In the male-dominated world of filmmaking, women
have traditionally been excluded from leadership positions. But
today more and more women are forging a path in the uncharted territory
of the technical side of moviemaking: namely, cinematography. It
isn’t uncommon now for a woman’s name to be listed after the Director
of Photography credit, particularly in independent films and documentaries,
and there are signs that even Hollywood is opening its doors to
women cinematographers. The pioneers, who broke into the film world
in the 1970s and ’80s, have opened the doors for young women today
not only in terms of opportunity, but as role models and mentors.

"You have to be daring," says Christine
Choy, Chair of the Graduate Film and Television Department at New
York University. Born in the People’s Republic of China, Choy came
to the United States by herself at the age of 14. Trained in architecture,
she entered the world of filmmaking at 22, cleaning and cataloging
film for a radical organization called Newsreel. When the riots
broke out at Attica prison in New York State, according to Choy,
the all-white male staff felt uncomfortable going there to shoot.
With just a day’s training on the use of the camera, they gave
her a few rolls of film and sent her and a girlfriend upstate to
cover the rebellion.

I Shot Andy Warhol (1996)

"We drove to Attica and began filming without
knowing that the National Guard was pointing guns at us," Choy
recounts. While she was interviewing prisoners and ex-cons about
prison conditions, Governor Rockefeller ordered the National Guard
to go into the prison and start shooting with machine guns. The massacre
was filmed by a cameraman from ABC-TV Buffalo, but the footage was
suppressed for political reasons.

"He was so upset that his footage was never
broadcast," says Choy, "that he gave me his film." Combining
it with her own interviews and animation, Choy made her first film,
Teach Our Children, which won First Prize at the 1974 International
Black Film Festival. Since then she has made over 40 documentaries
about social and political injustice. In 1989 she was nominated
for an Oscar and won several other awards for Who Killed Vincent
Chin , and this year she was awarded Best Cinematographer at Sundance
for My America.

A self-taught cinematographer who learned to shoot
by "making mistakes," Ellen Kuras emphasizes that women
DPs have to trust their instincts, find the confidence to overcome
any challenges that arise, and try not to be intimidated by men.
Armed with a background in anthropology and still photographyand
a Fulbright Scholarshipin 1983 Kuras set her sights on the Lodz
School of Film in Poland. When she couldn’t get a visa, she decided
to get involved in documentary film.

"I worked as a production assistant and an associate
producer. I tried to get as much experience as I could." In
1985 she decided to make her own documentary, which is still in
progress, about a Laotian refugee whose father once worked for
the CIA.

"I was more of a director at that point," Kuras
explains. "I’d gotten someone to shoot for the first five
days, and when I saw the dailies I realized that they didn’t have
what I was looking for. So I decided to shoot it myself."

A couple of years later, when a friend’s cameraman
couldn’t go to Cambodia to shoot her thesis film, Kuras convinced
the friend to let her shoot it. At the time, she was "very
scared. I didn’t know how to meter correctly, and I didn’t know
how to do a lot of things. But I knew that I had to trust my eye
and my feeling about the situation and how to depict it." The
film, Samsara, was shown at festivals around the world, and won
Best Documentary Cinematography at the FOCUS Awards in 1990.

Swoon (1992)

A few years and a few small films later, Kuras
got her chanceto shoot a feature when producer Christine Vachon was
looking for someone to DP Swoon, director Tom Kalin’s first film.
Kuras recalls, "I was really in the dark about how to shoot
a dramatic film. I’d never had any sort of education, I’d never done
anything dramatic before and I’d never shot in black and white." But
this didn’t deter Kuras, a powerhouse of confidence and intuition.

"I really had to ask myself some key questions:
What is this scene about? What does Tom want to say? And how can
I best show that with the camera, lighting and movement?" Besides
having no experience, Kuras faced the challenge of shooting Swoon
on "no money." She explains, "We had a doorway dolly,
shot on regular 16mm and had only enough film for one or two takes." But
again she followed her instincts, and it paid off. Kuras won the
Best Feature Cinematography Award at Sundance in 1992 for Swoon.
In 1995 she won the award again for Angela.

"You have to be thick-skinned, have strength
and stamina," says Nancy Schreiber, only the fourth woman
to be admitted to the American Society of Cinematographers. "It’ll
be a rough road. You have to be willing to sacrifice your personal
life at the beginning and to take any job to get experience." Schreiber,
who had no technical background at all when she began, says, "The
last thing my mother ever thought I would become was a technician.
It just wasn’t a woman’s thing."

While majoring in psychology, Schreiber ran a movie
theater at the University of Michigan that showed foreign and underground
films. That’s when, she says, "I got the bug." After
college she moved to New York and took a six-week crash course
in filmmaking. On her first film as a production assistant, she
did everything from getting props and costumes to assisting the

"It was haphazard that I got into the electrical
department. During production I was the best boy electric because
there was just nobody else. I had no idea about anything. I just
did it and found I had an aptitude for it."

Lured by the magic of lighting, Schreiber became
a gaffer. Ten years later, she hit a brick wall when trying to
get paid shooting work. "It was very hard for women in those
days. The only women shooting were in news and documentaries." But
Schreiber was tenacious. She made her own documentary, Possum Living,
which gained critical acclaim on the festival circuit and in The
New York Times. "All of a sudden," she says, "everyone
thought I was a documentarian."

After shooting documentaries for three years, Schreiber
realized, "People wanted to put me in a little box. I was
worried that people would not hire me in other arenas if they thought
I was just doing documentaries." Determined not to let anyone
box her in, Schreiber began shooting music videos and student films,
while doing "classier" documentaries like the Amnesty
International World Tour, featuring Bruce Springsteen, Sting and
other celebrities. After shooting two feature films, Schreiber
got an agent and her career took off. Chain of Desire, which she
shot in 1991, was nominated for an IFP Spirit Award for Best Cinematography,
and she won a Primetime Emmy for Celluloid Closet in 1996. Schreiber
continues to shoot features, documentaries and music videos. "I’m
not a snob about just being in features," she says. "I
love spending hours lighting a set, but I also like shooting from
the hip. There’s an excitement and energy and spontaneity that
you don’t get in other kinds of filmmaking." Being the DP
for Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography (1993), was not
only a great honor, says Schreiber, but also enabled her to explore
the high-definition medium.

Cinematographer Claudia Raschke

A romantic driven by her passion for the arts,
Claudia Raschke came to New York from Germany in 1983 to become
a dancer after receiving a degree in Fine Arts. The course of
her life changed when a friend asked her to help him shoot a
student film. "When the director said, `Action!’ the entire
crew, like magic, became invisible and only the actors were performing," she
recalls. "That was the spark." In cinematography she
had finally found a medium into which to channel all of her passions: "I
have choreography with the camera movements and the actors. I
have painting with the lights, and I have sculpting by creating
three-dimensions on a two-dimensional plane."

Because she didn’t have a technical background in
filmmaking, in 1985 Raschke enrolled in a two-semester intensive
program at NYU. She soon found a mentor, Diana Taylor, who took
her under her wing. "She taught me so many things" Raschke
says of Taylor. When she first asked Taylor how to get into the
business, she replied, "Get your hands on whatever you can
and shoot and shoot and shoot." Raschke took her advice and
continued shooting student films at Columbia University while working
as a camera assistant.

Claudia Raschke on the set with Armin Mueller-Stahl.

Her break came when one of her student films was
nominated for Best Cinematography by the Student Academy in 1989. "At
the screening at the Columbia Film Festival, director Susan Seidelman
commented that she was surprised to see so many female cinematographers
at Columbia. The truth was, it was only me," Raschke explains.
But the comment intrigued agents. Her four years of shooting for
free had finally paid off.

By 1990, Raschke had an agent. She put together a
better reel, upgraded to DP in the union and shot her first black-and-white
feature, Charlie’s Ear, in 1991. Since then she’s shot a feature
a year, in addition to TV and documentary work. Shooting Bob Balaban’s
The Last Good Time (1993) allowed Raschke to combine her romantic
sensibility with her passion for dance.

Tami Reiker represents a new generation of women

"I totally planned my career every step of the
way," she saysunlike other female DPs who came to film through
different fields. Driven by the goal of becoming a director, Reiker
went straight to NYU’s film program after high school. "After
directing my own film [at NYU], I realized that I was more attracted
to visual styling than acting." It was while working as an
intern on a feature, Forever Lulu, that Reiker decided she wanted
to be a DP. She had met her first role model, DP Lisa Rinzler. "Because
of this experience, I never even questioned that there weren’t
female DPs." After graduating in 1987, Reiker worked as an
assistant and joined the union. A couple of years later she decided
to buy her own camera. "I knew that buying my own camera would
jump-start my career, so I took out a big loan and bought an Arri
SR." The next step in Reiker’s carefully plotted career was
to get an agentone of her own choosing.

"For two years, whenever I would get a job that
I knew one of [this agent’s] DPs was up for, I’d tell the producer
to call and tell her `Tami Reiker got the job.’ By the time I sent
my reel to this agent, she said, `We hear your name all the time.’ " She
was signed immediately.

Reiker says she has followed the careers of the women
DPs ahead of her, particularly Lisa Rinzler and Ellen Kuras, to
find her path to success. And it seems to be paying off. Since
1992, Reiker says, she has been so busy shooting feature films
(including 1994’s The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in
Love) documentaries, music videos and commercials that she has
no time for a personal life.

Cinematographer Christine Choy.

Passion, hard work and tenacity are not the only
things women need to become DPs. Women constantly have to deal with
the sexist attitudes in the business.

"It’s a bitch to be a woman in this field," says
Choy. "Instead of being innocent until proven guilty, you’re
guilty until proven innocent from the get go." When Choy
was hired by HBO to make a documentary about people living on
L.A.’s skid row, she was told that her camera work wasn’t good
enough and was forced to hire someone from Hollywood. Using union
people doesn’t work in such a situation, Choy believes, because "you
have to really mingle with these people and win their trust," which
requires hanging out with them at all hours of the night. After
the cameraman shot 50 to 60 rolls of film that Choy describes
as "distant" and "useless," she went to the
flophouse at four a.m., shot some film, shipped it back to the
producers and "they loved it." Directed and shot by
Choy, Best Hotel on Skid Row won four awards.

Kate Moss in Unzipped.

Another challenge for women DPs is leading male
crew, who are not used to taking orders from a woman. "Once
a grip pulled attitude on me and walked off the set," says
Kuras. After taking him aside to discuss the problem and admonish
him for leaving and for talking to her in a disrespectful manner, "He
apologized to me because he knew hehad crossed the line." Kuras
usually prevents such incidents by establishing trust and loyalty
with her crew. "I always tell new crew members, `If you don’t
know something, just ask. I’d rather have you ask now and figure
it out than regret it later.’ When you give people that overture,
they feel more confident because they aren’t worried about someone
looking over their shoulder all the time. I think that’s what women
have experienced for years: someone looking over their shoulders,
waiting for them to fuck up."

Gaining the confidence of Hollywood producers is
another problem for women DPs. Unlike directors, who make creative
decisions, producers want a guarantee of expertise based on past
experience. Producers seem perfectly willing to take a chance on
male DPs who’ve never shot big-budget films, although they are
still reluctant to hire women with similar, if not better credentials. "Ultimately
people still doubt that you can accomplish the task," says
Raschke. "When you go to an interview or onto a set, as a
woman you are incompetent until you prove you know your stuff.
As a man, you are considered competent until you are proven totally
incompetent. We’re not given the same chance because we don’t have
a track record yet. If we had lots of female DPs winning Academy
Awards, nobody would doubt us."

Olmo Tighe in Postcards
from America.

Schreiber says that although there seem to be more
opportunities for women DPs in New York, the attitude in Hollywood,
where the stakes are higher, is different.

"Being a DP is a real position of power," she
says. "We run the set. But there’s a fear that decisions we
make affect the whole film, and it’s scary [to male producers] because
women haven’t been seen as technicians." Schreiber is quick
to point out the irony in the situation. "Producers think you
can’t handle a $20 million dollar movie, when you’ve done a $2-million
movie on time, on budget and made it look better than most Hollywood

Despite their difficulties, these women do believe
that times are changing, albeit slowly. Half the students admitted
to NYU’s Film Program today are women, compared with 10 percent
five years ago. More women are producing and directing films; and
though women DPs may still seem an oddity in Hollywood, they are
beginning to meet with big-budget producers. Finally, if this year’s
Academy Award nominations were any indication of a trend, there’s
hope for women DPs. As more independent films are acknowledged
by the Academy, women cinematographers have a better chance at
an Oscar nomination. Maybe then producers will stop viewing them
as "women," and start seeing them as the talented filmmakers
they are. MM

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