Beacons Of Hope
“Cinematography has truly saved my life,” director of photography Julia Swain says in the opening minutes of the documentary. Directed by Swain, the movie charts her journey to find and connect with other women who are working in her chosen and beloved profession — a career, she notes in her narration, that has helped her navigate overwhelming personal tribulations. The resulting documentary features archival material as well as more than 20 new interviews with such cinematographers as Anette Haellmigk, Autumn Durald, Cybel Martin, and ASC members including Natasha Braier, Reed Morano, Amy Vincent and Joan Churchill — the latter of whom shares a story about her union card that provides the documentary’s title — as well as Local 600 national executive director Rebecca Rhine, Marvel Studios’ executive vice president of production Victoria Alonso, and others. In presenting their stories, the documentary showcases powerful examples of women overcoming the motion-picture industry’s barriers to entry, offering a vision of hope that Swain describes as “a love letter to young cinematographers.”
Swain partnered with cinematographer Teodora Totoiu to shoot Lady Cameraman, which they did over the past few years, all the while building their careers and shooting a range of projects for other filmmakers. Panavision provided most of the cameras and lenses for the documentary, and the final grade took place at Light Iron’s Hollywood facility with senior DI colorist Corinne Bogdanowicz. Panavision recently caught up with Swain, Totoiu and Bogdanowicz to discuss the project, which premiered at the 2020 Camerimage International Film Festival.
Panavision: What inspired you to make this movie?
Julia Swain: I was getting ready to graduate from film school, where we had all these amazing DPs in residence, including Bradford Young [ASC], Rodrigo Prieto [ASC, AMC], Guillermo Navarro [ASC] — and then we had Mandy Walker [ASC, ACS]. Seeing her made me realize that she was this one woman shooting at that level. So I set out to meet more of these heroes and learn about the pioneering women in cinematography.
Did the shape or the focus of the project evolve over the course of its making, or is the final movie essentially what you first imagined?
Swain: This film has evolved immensely. It is not the film that I thought I set out to make in the beginning. I started this film just looking at where these women come from and how they light, but when we watched that cut, it was lacking something. By nature, I’m not one to seek out conflict, which is probably why I had been taking a very gentle approach, but clearly there was a reason why it was all these women in my film, and to make the strongest film I could, I realized I had to dive into what that meant. I wanted to talk about the problems women have faced and the immense amount of time it’s taken for women to rise up in the industry, but without it going into total darkness. So I brought some of them back for a second interview, and I talked with them about being a mom and a DP, and what this life looks like specifically from a woman’s perspective.
Teodora Totoiu: I think that really added to the film, because it suddenly became less about, ‘This is how you become a DP and this is what you do technically on set,’ and more about, ‘this is how you feel when you’re doing it.’ That change helped a lot.
Teodora Totoiu (left) and Ellen Kuras, ASC.
Teodora, when and how did you become involved in this project?
Totoiu: Julia was one of the first people I met when I interviewed for graduate film school. She was a year above me, and she made me feel so calm before my interview. We became friends, and then during my third year, she mentioned this project. I loved the idea, and that’s how it all started. When we started shooting, I was in my final year and Julia had just graduated.
What did your shooting schedule actually look like?
Swain: There were long gaps. I joke that DPs are the hardest documentary subjects because there’s not a lot of footage of them, they don’t like to be in front of the camera, and they’re super-busy. [Laughs.] We’d be trying to plan the day before a shoot, and I wouldn’t be sure that they would be able to come to the interview because — and I knew this — our schedules change day to day. But we were lucky, and we did have days where we got to shoot three women in a row because they just happened to be in town.
It was a long process. We’d edit, and we’d get feedback, and then we’d have to go and get something else — there were a lot of repetitive steps. Knowing who this is for and the amount of amazing people who are involved kept me motivated to keep going.
How did you find and connect with everyone who’s interviewed?
Swain: I had friends and mentors like Johnny Simmons [ASC], Dagmar Weaver-Madsen and Bill McDonald, who knew I was setting out to make this project, and they would help me with introductions to the cinematographers I didn't already know.
How did you approach framing and lighting the interviews?
Totoiu: We wanted to keep the lighting consistent overall but introduce some visual distinction through color. One thing we talked about was, ‘Are there any colors we associate with their films or shows?’ For example, when we shot Ellen Kuras [ASC], we were thinking of blue inspired by Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and for Autumn Durald we thought of pink because Palo Alto had recently come out. That was a fun way to distinguish them a bit while still keeping the interviews cohesive overall.
Were you able to have two cameras for each interview?
Swain: We always tried to have two cameras. One would be a static tight eyeline to me, and then the B camera would be on a slider or a dolly, tracking back and forth. The A camera might start in a medium and the B camera would be more of a cowboy, and then we’d switch lenses halfway through so the A camera saw the whole chair and the B camera was a beautiful closer shot with some movement. Because we were on stage, we always had room to move back, so we could do our wider interview shots on a 40 or 50mm, and the longer lens might be a 75mm.
Did you feel any pressure as you were lighting these cinematographers?
Totoiu: All the time! [Laughs.] We were very lucky that they were so patient and kind with us. There were definitely instances, especially when we were just starting the project, when the cinematographers would sit down and be like, ‘Put that key a little higher up and tilt down.’ They just knew exactly how it hit their face. But that was really exciting, especially because I shot so many interviews and docs after, and I felt like I now understood all of these little details that they pointed out while they were in their chair.
Swain: That’s the thing, too: Even if this movie didn’t go anywhere, we’ve had the most amazing experience and have learned so much from every single one of them.
How did you source the behind-the-scenes footage of the cinematographers at work?
Swain: All of the DPs helped, which was amazing. But it was still very sparse, so after some of their interviews, we would set up a time to come visit them at work so we could shoot some B roll of them in their element, doing their thing. I think the most powerful thing to witness is them working, leading a team, with a camera on their shoulder. It was really important for us to have as much of that imagery as possible.
A significant part of the film’s impact comes from the first-person perspective and narration. Julia, did you always plan for your own story to be part of the documentary?
Swain: That was not something I set out to do. I didn’t want to tell my story. Being vulnerable is scary. I’ve learned, though, that being vulnerable connects you with people and helps them see themselves in the story you’re telling. The ASC has helped a lot with this film in terms of resources and feedback. They helped me send it out to a bunch of editors to get their thoughts, and one of the biggest things the editors said was that there was no one to follow. It was just interview after interview; there was no one taking us through the story. I realized the more self-aware the doc could be, the easier it would be to follow, and the stronger it would ultimately be. As scary as it was, it felt right to take that stance because I think a lot of young women are wondering the same thing: Where are the ladies at these top levels? Who are the women I can look at who have done this? Who can I turn to?
Totoiu: I’m so proud of Julia because I know she was nervous about getting too personal in this story, but I think that’s what makes this film so strong. To be vulnerable, and to explain your journey and why you’re making this film to begin with, I think that makes the film more resonant, especially to aspiring DPs.
Rachel Morrison, ASC at home with her son.
Seeing Rachel Morrison and Quyen Tran in their homes with their kids also adds a powerful dimension to the movie by showing these artists, at the top of their craft, in this personal space outside of work. How did that footage come about?
Swain: In the evolution of the film, as I realized how personal it was becoming, I approached them and asked if we could photograph them with their kids to personify this idea of motherhood and what it looks like in the context of this profession.
Totoiu: Julia and I shot Rachel and Q at their homes on the same day. I was at Q’s house and she was at Rachel’s, and we got to spend a day with each of them, hanging around their families, getting to know them and their kids. When we initially interviewed both Q and Rachel, before we went to their houses, everything they said about family life was really inspiring. I’ve always known that I eventually want to start a family, but there was always that fear: What would that do to my career? But seeing them made it seem so doable. Seeing how passionate they are about their craft but also how they love their families and are so involved, it made me feel like I can do this, too. And right now I’m actually 7 months pregnant. Getting to know them really helped me feel more excited about the future that I’m about to start, and not scared about it. Being able to peek into that world in that intimate way has been so helpful and inspiring.
Quyen Tran in her garden with her daughter.
How did you come to partner with Panavision and Light Iron for this project?
Swain: I was graduating and was going to shoot my first indie feature, and I had been connected with Alexa Lopez as my rep at Panavision. That feature got pushed, so I called Alexa and said, ‘I have this other project that I actually need to focus on. It’s this doc about women in cinematography.’ Alexa then supported me throughout the project and has become a huge source of support and inspiration to me since. Not only did Panavision supply so much of what we needed, but then Alexa connected me with [Light Iron head of business development and workflow strategy] Katie Fellion, and we were able to work with Light Iron to finish, which was amazing.
What were you primarily focused on during the final grade?
Swain: We obviously wouldn’t touch the film clips that these cinematographers have done, so we focused on the interviews and the B roll that we shot, dialing in skin tones and bringing the colors out. We focused on the different tones in each interview and tried to enhance what was there.
Corinne Bogdanowicz: Julia and Teodora wanted everything to feel natural. They wanted the footage shot with different cameras to have a similar tone, so that was really what we focused on, getting the contrast levels and the colors to be in line as it plays through and making everything feel more of one piece. We’d go a little softer with the contrast in certain areas to make things flow.
Totoiu: Making sure it felt cohesive was a big deal. Depending on the camera that we’d used, some of the images were more saturated than others. It was really about honing in on the details, adding a little bit of vignetting for example, or if we were in a room that looked completely different from the other interviews, mimicking a similar look. It was always small details that we were adjusting to make it feel a little cleaner.
Bogdanowicz: The main thing with documentaries is that there’s a bunch of interviews that were shot at different times with different cameras. So we jumped through and set looks for each location, each setup, and then we went back through and cleaned things up to make everything flow. This type of project is like a quilt: You have all these pieces that are all very different, and you make them all work together. [Laughs.]
Nancy Schreiber, ASC.
How did the three of you actually collaborate during the grade?
Bogdanowicz: Julia and I were in two separate theaters at Light Iron, and Teodora was watching the stream remotely — which is how most sessions go these days.
Totoiu: Because of my pregnancy and COVID, I didn’t feel comfortable flying down from Seattle, but to still be able to be a part of it was amazing. I had an iPad Pro, and it was set up so I could see the full screen and then zoom in.
Bogdanowicz: So often when we’re doing the DI, the DP is off shooting something else, and we’ll have a conversation or we’ll send stills back and forth, but now we can either collaborate live remotely, or we have platforms that we can upload files to for them to review on their own, which is also great. There’s a lot of flexibility. In this case, everyone was able to see everything at the same time and give their notes. We did a Google Meet video call so we could all see each other and talk with each other as we were going through; we have an iPad set up in each room in the facility for that, and Teodora joined the call from Seattle.
Cynthia Pusheck, ASC.
What feeling did the interviews — and the project as a whole — leave you with?
Totoiu: I get a boost of energy and inspiration every time I watch it. It’s a doc that I wish I could have watched right when I started pursuing work as a cinematographer 10 years ago. I feel so lucky to have met Julia when I did and to have been able to work with her on this. So much of what these cinematographers told us will always stay with me — what they said about being on set, family life, all of it. A common thread in the interviews was that the goal is to not be a ‘female cinematographer.’ We just want to be thought of as cinematographers. The whole point is to hire the person who’s right for the job. We’re passionate about our craft, and we want to work on things that we can give the best of ourselves to, regardless of anything else. That shifted the way that I thought, especially as I graduated. I had been in a whole different mental space before that.
Swain: All of these women are such amazing, positive forces. Every time I sat in that chair across from one of them, I was so on fire for my profession and so inspired to keep going. I feel invincible watching this movie. And it’s still scary, but I learned that being vulnerable connects us. Another big thing I learned is that everyone’s path is different, so you can’t put pressure on yourself. Everyone in the movie is an example of a completely different path. Every single person has their own story, and that’s a really beautiful thing.
Joan Churchill, ASC.
All images courtesy of the filmmakers.