Celebrating 5 Great Female DPs from 2016
2016 brought some much needed diversity to the Oscars, especially in the cinematography department. Four of the five nominees are first-timers, two were shot primarily on 35mm, Bradford Young is the first African American to be nominated in this category (for Arrival), and we even got some indie love with a nomination for “Moonlight!” However, the Oscars still aren’t representing enough women behind the camera (in any category). At ShareGrid, we might not have the same clout at the Academy, but we can still celebrate the work of five female DPs who killed it in 2016.
Natasha Braier - The Neon Demon
The Neon Demon is hands-down one of the most beautiful films of 2016. Its bold color palette and near-perfect lighting is striking even during extended moments of stillness (which are often). Braier chose to shoot on vintage Cooke S2 and S3 Panchro lenses (Crystal Express) from the 1960’s and credits them for the porcelain skin tones she was able to achieve in combination with the ARRI Alexa.
If you’re into a cold, formalist, aesthetic, Braier’s work on The Neon Demon is as good as it gets. Frankly, it’s a shame that she wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for this. Replacing the more traditionally beautiful Lion with the stranger, more arresting, The Neon Demon would have made for a pretty perfect summation of 2016.
Charlotte Bruus Christensen - The Girl on the Train/ Fences
Charlotte Bruus Christensen lensed two major movies this year. The first, The Girl on the Train (shot on 35mm with Arricam LT, Arricam ST, Zeiss Master Prime and Fujinon Alura Lenses), is a Gone Girl-esque psychodrama that bears an unmistakable visual resemblance to the work of David Fincher and Alfred Hitchcock. The psychological state of Emily Blunt’s Rachel is reflected visually. Christensen plays with depth-of-field menacingly around Blunt’s face throughout the film, sometimes utilizing deep focus to create anxiety and other times keeping the focus shallow to enhance the mystery.
In Fences (shot on 35mm with Panavision Panaflex Millennium XL2, Panavision C-Series, ATZ and AWZ2 Lenses), Christensen gives the actors a lot more room to work. Her challenge here is to cinematically adapt an intimate stage play. Director/Star Denzel Washington gave Christensen a lot of creative freedom and, together, they made some very interesting choices. From Awards Daily:
“This house that we used was ten feet wide. There were three boxes with low ceilings. Denzel is a tall guy, and we’d have five people in the room who’d take up all the room. How on earth were we going to make the camera invisible? It was a challenge, but again it was also about carefully working out these things in rehearsal. They’d come in and feel what they needed to feel. He knows the camera and how actors work for the camera, so we let the actors do what they needed to do, but we did have to squeeze the camera in there. It was hard in there as we shot with anamorphic lenses. You can’t focus up close; you have to be at a distance to make that lens work.”
“In movies, they use the handheld camera to create tension, to bring fear. We used it in all the joyful moments. When he comes home and he’s a driver, we went handheld to support that joyful moment. It is love and they love each other. With every scene, we just broke them down and worked with the challenges of being on location.”
A great DP is adaptable to the needs of each project. With movies as different as The Girl on the Train and Fences, Christensen shows that she’s up for any challenge. To do that in a single year is especially impressive.
Kirsten Johnson - Cameraperson
Cameraperson is a tone poem of extra documentary footage Kirsten Johnson shot over a 20-plus year career. It’s much more complex than the B-sides collection its premise sounds like. The film, presented in non-chronological order, moves from faraway, war-torn, countries to close subjects like Johnson’s childhood home. It might not be a technical achievement the way The Neon Demon is, Cameraperson's arrangement poses a plethora of ethical and philosophical questions about the shooter-subject dynamic. As a documentary, Johnson's work is more notable for what she chose to shoot than how she chose to shoot it. From “Citizenfour,” to “The Invisible War,” and “Fahrenheit 9/11,” Johnson has truly done it all.
For filmmakers, it's incredible to see all of the stories that never made the final cut of Johnson’s projects; serving as a poignant reminder that our extra footage might contain more stories than we realize. Watch this movie.
Polly Morgan - The Intervention
Nothing about The Intervention is designed to draw attention to itself, including the cinematography. As a shooter, keeping up with the demanding low-budget schedule and capturing the ensemble cast’s performances to their fullest extent was the real challenge. Director Clea DuVall talked about this for The Movable Fest.
“We shot with two cameras handheld all the time because I wanted to get a lot of the reaction shots. I had a very, very talented DP [Polly Morgan] who moved so fast and worked her ass off and every day we didn’t have enough time – we had too many pages to shoot and somehow we managed to do it, but I wanted to tell a lot of the story and reveal what I could about the relationships through the people who weren’t talking and their reaction to what was happening. It was definitely a conscious choice to allow everybody to inhabit the characters and exist and tell the story through their behavior.”
Getting out of the actors’ way but not producing a boring image can be a tough balancing act for a DP (and a supremely underrated skill to have). Polly Morgan delivers with a healthy mix of composed symmetry and handheld looseness.
Mandy Walker - Hidden Figures
Hidden Figures is the Oscar-nominated 2016 movie with Janelle Monae and Mahershala Ali that didn’t get Best Cinematography love (thanks, Moonlight). However, you shouldn’t overlook this 35mm, vintage anamorphic-shot, beauty. The film, about a team of African-American women who provide NASA with crucial mathematical data for the space program, pops with color in all the right places. Many Walker studied documentaries and news footage from the 1960’s to help bolster their number one goal; to get the “Kodachrome look.” To get it, she shot with Panavision cameras on Kodak 100D, 250D and 500T with E-series, T-series and Primo Zoom anamorphics. With a masterful eye for both large-scale NASA sets as well as small, intimate, family room scenes, Mandy Walker’s work on Hidden Figures should not be ignored.
2016 saw more than just great cinematography from individual women. The International Collective of Female Cinematographers (ICFC) was formed as a collective to establish that "female Directors of Photography are not, in fact, an anomaly." Hopefully 2017 will only reinforce that sentiment.