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Women In Cinematography: A Sundance 2015 Panel

Canon’s Women in Cinematography Panel. From Left to Right Laela Kilbourn, Rachel Morrison, Dagmar Weaver-Madsen and Paula Bernstein. Photo Credit: Carla Boecklin

Should cinematography be a profession based on ability or the DP’s gender? The question was explored during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival at the Canon Lounge on Main Street. Three cinematographers with films in this year’s festival, Rachel Morrison (Dope, What Happened, Miss Simone?), Laela Kilbourn (How to Dance in Ohio) and Dagmar Weaver-Madsen (Unexpected) gathered to discuss their craft and contemplate what, if anything, it means to be a female cinematographer.

Moderator Paula Bernstein, “Filmmaker Toolkit” editor at Indiewire, kicked of Canon’s “Women in Cinematography” panel by asking Morrison, Kilbourn and Weaver-Madsen how they’d like to approach the panel’s topic. The group unanimously decided they’d prefer to speak about their craft, rather than distinguish themselves as women performing the craft.

The panelist all agreed on the how they approach the basics of each project. Shooting style is defined by the needs of the story. They all have regular crew they enjoy working with, particularly if they are reusing similar locations for multiple projects. When they move from state to state, they hire people that are technically savvy, have a creative vision that matches the project and are people with personalities they can get along with for the long days on set. They will work with the other department heads to define palette and tone and the overall aesthetic of the film.

While each DP agreed that understanding the director’s vision for the film or documentary was crucial, they all had a slightly different approach to developing a mutual dialogue. Madsen spends time discovering which characters are the most compelling to a director. This process is especially crucial to defining a style when shooting documentaries. Morrison determines how experienced the director is and finds ways to understand the directors vision for the story, sometimes by focusing on paintings or other art forms. If a director is very inexperienced she’ll spend some time highlighting equipment and developing a director’s technical understanding of the camera department’s practice on set. Weaver-Madsen mentioned she has the director create a mix tape of music that exhibits the emotion in the story, stating she found this to be a good way to “learn the director’s language.”

It became evident that being a woman and a cinematographer wasn’t an easy path the three panelist traveled when Bernstein asked Morrison, Kilbourn and Weaver-Madsen about their mentors. While the work of other DPs inspired them, the three panelist had no specific individuals who took them under their wing as Morrison, Kilbourn and Weaver-Madsen advanced in their respective careers. Morrison described continuously learning and developing and expanding her circle of “peers” as she continues to work on larger budget films, but admitted it would have been nice to have a mentor along the way.

While the Film Independent Spirit Awards and the American Cinematographers Society have had female best cinematography nominees in the past, they are few and far between. To date, a female cinematographer has not been nominated for a best cinematography Oscar. Bernstein asked Morrison, Kilbourn and Weaver-Madsen if they would feel inspired to be vocal about the fact that they are women if it helped break down the door that seemingly blocks women from equally obtaining cinematography jobs. The panelist felt conflicted in answering the question. They’ve worked hard to make their way and be recognized for their work but agreed the percentage of female DPs is anemic.

Upon reflection,several of the panelists felt there are specific scripts and story lines where having a female DP may prove to be a benefit. This would include working on a scene with a young girl that may involve sensitive material or compromising situations.

To the young women in the audience looking for advice, Weaver-Madsen suggest they think of their career as if it were a very tall mountain.

“It may look impossible when you start. But you don’t get intimidated, you just take small steps and y you make your way up. Just be where you need to be, and just keep going.”