Movies are about looking, and no one involved in the making of a film is more directly responsible for the frames we look at than a cinematographer, or director of photography. Together with the director, the cinematographer shapes the visual vocabulary and texture of a film, making choices that have huge implications for style, tone, and storytelling. No director, no matter how all-encompassing their vision, can put it up on the screen without someone to attend to camera placement, lensing, lighting, and focus.
It’s one of the most important roles on any set, and historically it’s all too often been a gendered one. Even in the early days of cinema, when pioneering female directors like Lois Weber and Alice Guy-Blaché were at the forefront of silent filmmaking, camerawomen were rare: in the 1920s, newsreel shooter Louise Lowell was advertised as “the first and only camera-maid in the world.” No major Hollywood film of the studio era employed a female director of photography. The American Society of Cinematographers, founded in 1919, didn’t admit a single woman until 1980, when Brianne Murphy joined. As recently as 2019, it counted only eighteen women among its 390 members. This disparity is a key factor in one of mainstream cinema’s historic biases, which film theorist Laura Mulvey famously named the “male gaze.”
Still, the last five decades have seen several generations of women take up the tools of visual storytelling to shoot on their own terms—often working in tandem with female directors. Now playing on the Criterion Channel, Female Gaze: Women Directors + Women Cinematographers surveys this extraordinary tradition of women collaborating behind the camera. To accompany the series, we reached out to five of the trailblazing cinematographers whose work it features. Asked to pick and discuss a single scene highlighting their contributions to a film and their working relationship with the director, each of them focused in on different aspects of their craft, from choosing the right lens or film stock to conjuring a tone or evoking a point of view with the camera. The result is an illuminating look at the art of cinematography from five women who’ve spent their careers pushing the envelope in a changing industry. —Will Noah
Stories We Tell
Iris Ng on Acting Behind the Camera
Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell is a poignant and personal investigation into family lore that blends documentary and fiction—combining interviews with the director’s friends and family, Super 8 archival footage, and staged recreations that bring to life the secrets of her mother’s past. This excerpt from the film features a collage of those elements.
Stories We Tell was my first feature as a cinematographer. Sarah Polley was a longtime friend—I was already familiar with her story and members of her family, and I had met her mother years ago. So when she first approached me about filming an extensive interview with her dad, Michael, there was already a comfortable dynamic established. He’d written a beautiful memoir, and she wanted to explore the idea of telling his story and see whether it could serve as the beginning of a documentary project. To test this, we gathered a small crew at his condo with an HD camera and a bunch of tapes, as well as a Super 8 camera that we loaded with negative film to capture footage to complement the interview. It ended up being a revelatory experience. A lot of how the film eventually formed came from that day, including the idea that we had to film on Super 8. The film was about memory and storytelling and excavating the past, and we immediately realized that the feeling of Super 8 lent those moments an undeniable layer of nostalgia. From there we embarked on a five-year process of creating an expanding radius of interviews, as well as what developed into an elaborate process of filming recreations.
When we first looked through Michael’s library of home movies from the seventies, it gave us so much, and really dismantled our notion of what home movies could look like. We had this idea that they’d be shaky and amateurish, but his movies were so thoughtful and beautiful and skillful and steady-handed. It taught me to be careful about coming to a project with preconceived notions about how something should look. So those movies became our reference for the recreations. We had to think about how to channel his style, because we’d sometimes be reenacting moments when he was behind the camera. There were technical things that we had to research, such as how to match the original home movies, which were filmed with reversal film stock in a certain camera with a certain shutter speed. We used different film materials to create proximity to or distance from the past: negative film stock for more modern, behind-the-scenes moments and reversal for the recreations. But we also had to think about how the person behind the camera would behave, who they would be drawn toward focusing on at any given point. In the process of shooting these scenes, Sarah and I created ways for the actors to interact with a character I was playing behind the camera. So having the lens embody a particular friend or family member justified its presence and removed us from a fly-on-the-wall aesthetic, which would have looked more suspicious or contrived.
This scene plays like a montage of all the different types of material we used in the film. There’s the central interview with Michael, the actual archival home movies, Super 8 behind-the-scenes footage, and the recreated scenes. Sometimes we were creating a very literal visualization of someone’s story, and sometimes we were creating incidentally captured moments that weren’t so on the nose. These moments you see in the film are brief because you’re not supposed to have the perfect illustration of what’s being talked about—and because it’s edited brilliantly throughout, as a viewer you are never given enough time to dwell on any one type of footage long enough to scrutinize it too deeply or question where it came from. Just as it’s not in our nature to constantly question every moment of our lives, it’s not in our nature as film viewers to question the magic of cinema or be doubtful of the material that forms the narrative.
For me, the underlying desire or goal when lensing any film is the ability to channel a story through the perspective of the camera, and I’ve come to realize that’s rooted in the experience I had making Stories We Tell. Having to inhabit different roles during the interview and recreation processes conditioned me to always question my personal relationship to the subject and strive to channel that into the perspective of the camera. This method is something I lean on to find a starting point from which I can develop a visual approach, and it’s key to being adaptive and attuned to the shifting dynamics between the director, the subject, and the camera.
Thou Wast Mild and Lovely
Ashley Connor on Seeing Like a Cow
This scene from Josephine Decker’s sensuous Appalachian murder ballad Thou Wast Mild and Lovely takes place in the aftermath of a moment of lust, observed from the point of view of a cow.
The way Josephine Decker and I have always worked together, especially on our early collaborations, is really through chance. On Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, there was scene design, a point of view, and something specific we wanted to accomplish, but it was made on such a low budget that the level of planning was very minimal. We shot it on a DSLR for, essentially, zero dollars. I had two friends help assist me who don’t normally crew, so it was a lot of running around and pulling my own focus. We were all living together on a farm in Kentucky in the middle of nowhere, and for the whole shoot I slept in a laundry room on a mattress with my best friend, Zia Anger. I always call the set Breakup Island because there were a lot of people who had just gone through breakups or big life changes and were willing to go on this journey for no pay because they wanted to escape their lives.
By this point in the film, the sexual tension between the characters has been growing, and when they go together to look for the missing cow, some of that sexual tension gets burned off. This moment is supposed to be the switch when you realize Sarah does have agency and she’s smarter than we thought; she has a darkness and she’s plotting something. It sets the tone for the rest of the film as to who the voyeur truly is. It was complicated to get right, though, because the scene could have certain rape connotations. But we never thought of the scene that way, because she’s manipulating him into a kind of trap. It’s a power shift, and you realize she can bend him at her will.
When we set out to shoot this scene, our plan was to film the cow looking at the sex scene and then follow its trajectory throughout the day. We had all these grand ideas to work with this one cow named Buttercup and film over her shoulder. But when they threw me into the pen with her, she kept trying to horn me and it became clear that the cow was not going to do anything unless someone was literally pulling her along. Looking back, it makes me laugh to think about what we thought was going to happen versus what actually did—no cow is going to sit there and let you shoot over its shoulder. Then I had this idea, which was to be the cow myself—to put the camera on and start walking like a cow, go up to grass and pretend to eat it, do the cow mooing motion, etc. I filmed this and then played it back for everyone and was like, “Doesn’t it look like a cow’s point of view meandering around?” We all thought it was very funny and really leaned into this perspective-based experience. It’s become one of my favorite parts of the movie because that’s when the pleasure sets in of understanding that the camera is the cow.
A lot of directors would’ve said, “well that’s not what we wanted to do,” or “that’s not exactly the idea,” but Josephine was so excited by it. That’s what I love about her. And this is where she and I shine, in this small crack that happens in production where you allow for a pivot or for a chance to play a role. A lot of people are afraid to make bold decisions on the run, but she’s so fun to work with because she finds that exciting as well. I have these visual thoughts that I want to create, and others find them a little too aggressive for narrative work, but she’s always been someone who is like, “if you want to throw the whole thing out of focus, go for it.” She’s down for it all, and that’s the best marker of how we work together and of our deep level of trust and the magic that comes from our collaboration. Making the kinds of movies that I do with Josephine is a very fluid and physical experience for me, and my brain buzzes at such a crazy rate, my body belongs to the camera and the actors. I become an open bleeding wound—present to everything.
Odds and Ends
Michelle Crenshaw on Dialogue in the Round
In this scene from Odds and Ends, a science-fiction short directed by Michelle Parkerson for the AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women, an envoy from Earth attempts to forge an alliance with the intergalactic Urban Underground.
I first met Michelle Parkerson when she was doing a documentary on Audre Lorde, A Litany for Survival. I was a camera assistant at that time. I was working a lot in Chicago then—on union shows, Home Alone, all kinds of stuff—in the world of narrative, because I needed to know everything and anything about the visual aspect of storytelling. At a very young age, I knew I wanted to use the medium of photography to tell a story.
When I was doing indie work, my job was all over the place. I’d be operating sometimes; I’d be gaffing sometimes. In the indie world you do a little bit of everything. But on union sets, I was an assistant supporting the camera department, working with the DP. At that time, the industry wasn’t very receptive to women, much less African American women, in the role of director of photography. A DP is really in control of working with everyone on a project, from the crew (gaffers, grips, art department) to the production staff (producers, production managers, production coordinators), to above-the-line talent (actors, the director), and making sure that the images come to life. Not many producers or directors trusted women in that position. This was at a time when we were predominantly working with film, so the cost was very high. And the relationships you build with people are very insular.
A couple of years went by and Michelle called me about Odds and Ends. She had become part of a women directors workshop program for AFI. So when the opportunity came to be the cinematographer for the project, I was thrilled, because that meant I could think more creatively, and not just technically. And Michelle—being a sister, of course I wanted to support her. We were both in a transitional place: she was transitioning from working in documentaries to wanting to do something more scripted.
I wanted to shoot on film, but we were shooting in video, which back then was either ¾-inch tape or Beta. When Michelle called me, I said, “Listen, I have to have a gaffer, and a key grip. We have to have a dolly. We have to be able to do some camera movement.” Back then even having a dolly was a big deal. Especially in the indie world, because that means you need track, you need a person to move the dolly; that’s more crew. That was also the first time I was exposed to a new lighting instrument, which were tubes called Kino Flos. After a while we started using the individual tubes and adding color; and if you look at the film, you actually see the Kino Flos in some of the shots. Since it was this Dr. Who kind of sci-fi world, we were able to play around with color like that.
One challenge that I had was the scene in which the intergalactic council met. I had six women sitting around this table, and not much time. There was no fourth wall on the set, so we couldn’t show the reverse angle of the room. Everything was done with one camera. We had to get coverage, and make sure to give the editor something. It’s one thing just to go for beautiful shots, but you always have to maintain a certain screen direction and keep track of the sightlines. Each character was in her own head. So when the editor cut to someone, it had to be complementary to what was being said by someone else. You have to show listening. And you need a good script supervisor to help you.
There’s a lot of dialogue in Odds and Ends, so you’re sitting on someone for a long time. In television, it’s all about dialogue, but you’re always cutting to the person talking. But I love master shots. I love for people to know where they are. And because Michelle had such great art directing from Thomas A. Brown, the environment was important too. So you wanted things wide, because you wanted to show the audience where we were in the illusion. When you deal with dialogue in a more visual-cinematic way, it’s almost like theater. You want to be able to move around the person, yet engage the audience. And then on top of that, we were working with video! And in 4:3, a little square box, where you have to keep things in the center.
Because we were shooting on video, there was more depth of field. So even though I tried to have a lot of subject-camera separation, to have things fall off in the background, it was very hard to do in that format. Even if you shot with a wide-open f-stop, you still would get more depth of field than with film, because you needed more light for exposure. But what you saw on the monitor was pretty much what you got, so you could play more, at least with color. It wasn’t going to look like film, but the challenge was: How can I make it interesting in this analog video format?
The Headless Woman
Bárbara Alvarez on Latent Ideas
Early in The Headless Woman, Lucrecia’s Martel’s harrowing allegorical thriller, a middle-aged woman appears to hit someone with her car on a deserted road and decides to drive away.
When I received the call inviting me to work with Lucrecia Martel, whom I consider one of the top contemporary filmmakers, I felt like I had won the lottery. I wasn’t the first choice, and they contacted me about a month before shooting began. So I didn’t have much time to think about the project. I went from Montevideo, where I lived at the time, to Buenos Aires, where I only had a few weeks to discuss the film with Lucrecia and read through the screenplay. Then I headed to the north of Argentina, where the film was being shot.
Because of my admiration for Lucrecia’s work, I felt immense pressure to do well and contribute something special from a photographic point of view. The Headless Woman was the fifth feature I had shot, but it was the first time I was collaborating with a director whom I was truly a fan of. Keeping my nerves in check was a challenge, because all of the previous features I had worked on were directed by friends. I’m also not one of those cinematographers who prepares elaborate visual presentations, nor did I have the time. The work was very intuitive, and it came out of discussions with Lucrecia about her general desires.
The opening sequence was shot in one day, in the spring of 2007, and on the first week of the shoot. No ideas were occurring to me, which was nerve-wracking because this scene contains the film’s most important plot point, and we needed to convey this crucial moment practically in real time, and in a very powerful and explicit way. The protagonist, Verónica, is driving back home after a gathering with friends and family. Her phone, which has fallen into the backseat, rings. She bends down to pick it up, runs over something, recomposes herself, and then drives off again. The scene might seem simple, but it had to be extremely convincing for the rest of the film to work. Eventually I came up with the idea of doing a sequence shot from inside the car, with the camera next to her as she’s driving. Verónica’s experience is our experience, even if we’re not able to see what she sees. Because the camera is so static and intimate, we’re able to watch her gradual transformation from the beginning, when she’s relaxed, until the moment when she really processes the fact that she has hit someone and begins to despair. She drives for a while before finally stopping and getting out of the car to breathe, having realized this terrible thing she’s done and how casually she was able to do it.
My confidence, active participation—everything—improved after I shared this idea with Lucrecia, who then made some modifications. Establishing a collaborative atmosphere is important, and the best directors know how to motivate their crew members and instill a sense of confidence and mutual acceptance.
Sometimes ideas aren’t really generated by a single person; they happen in a specific context where all the forces are conjured to make us think about the best way possible to shoot a scene. And the idea that was already there comes down to one of us as if it were the work of a medium who is speaking for the collective or transmitting what we’re all thinking, but couldn’t up until that point put into words.
Ellen Kuras on Taking Risks in the Big Nothing
In this moment from Angela, directed by Rebecca Miller, two young sisters wander through a fantasy world called the Big Nothing after running away from their babysitter. There, they come across a carnival and meet a menacing stranger.
This scene was really important to me conceptually, not only for what it represented in the film, but also for the way it let me experiment with visual metaphor. The visuals were a metaphor for the Big Nothing. When one looks into the imagination and the recesses of memory, the edges are fuzzy. It’s not all clear. The night scene lent well to that: it’s creepy; there’s the stranger who’s preying on the girls. So I wanted to make sure that we knew as an audience that it was a step away from reality.
I decided to create this imaginary world with shift-and-tilt lenses, which were new to cinema. These lenses were primarily used in the world of photography. In conjunction with a bellows system, they enabled photographers to correct perspective that would otherwise be distorted by the lens. Think of the first cameras: they always used a bellows system—the accordion-like, expandable part of the camera that allows the photographer to move the focus plane (where the lens is) separately from the film negative plane. This also enables us to alter the distortion of the perspective. When you look up at a building, the lines of the building diverge. They don’t look parallel. Photographers call this “keystoning.” That’s the way our eyes see perspective. We use the bellows system to separately move the front lens mount of the camera so that it matches the angle of the building, thus making it appear parallel. This gives us the ability to throw part of the image into or out of focus. The ability to choose areas of focus on a two-dimensional image provided a painterly way for me to visually create the imaginary world.
The shift-and-tilt lenses first came to my attention in the early nineties through a photographer named Matt Mahurin. He was the first one to adapt cinema lenses onto a bellows system, which enabled him to change the plane of focus on a film camera. His early photographs and music videos were absolutely stunning—like moving paintings.
I wanted to try this out in a dramatic film, even though it was technically tricky to do; there are no focus marks on the shift-and-tilt lenses. The operator, behind the camera, who in this case was me, had to focus while looking through the lens. The difficulty was also compounded by the fact that we were shooting at night. I knew I could use the fastest film possible—film that was most sensitive to exposing in darkness—but I knew that the aperture would have to be as wide open as possible to get as much light in as possible. Not only did I want to use these lenses, but I also wanted to move the camera, which changed one more variable in the configuration. This was very risky when the characters were moving through space, the camera was on a moving dolly, and I was using a lens that was wide open, with no depth of field.
What made all of this risk worthwhile was the ability to make the images look like moving paintings. I could choose to focus on the left- or right-hand side of the frame, effectively making the other side smear into painterly nothingness. I was so determined to get that feeling. To me, the feeling was the most important part: the feeling of disorientation and of being in an ethereal, other world.
Yes, that was a big risk that I was taking. The carnival was a real carnival that allowed us to film there, so we only had one chance to capture our scenes. To up the ante, we were in upstate New York, so it wasn’t like we were in the city, where we could turn our dailies around the next night; we didn’t see the dailies until weeks later. These were the days of independent film, when scarce funds threw us into many creative challenges.
Thankfully the director, Rebecca Miller, was equally open to experimenting with visual metaphor. We sat down for many hours before we started filming, just to talk about the ideas at work in every scene. We were both really engaged in exploring how to use the camera as a metaphor. So when I suggested using the shift-and-tilt lenses for this scene, she was very much on the same page.
It was wonderful to work with a director with whom you’re so in sync. There were times when we would laugh because she would be behind the monitor, and after we would cut she would say, “Oh my god, El, at the moment when I thought ‘push in on the lens,’ you started pushing in!” When you know someone so well, you can finish each other’s sentences. And that’s the kind of relationship that Rebecca and I had while we were making those movies. To me, it was always the most special way to make films.