Editor’s update: On Jan. 23, Rachel Morrison earned a 2018 cinematography Oscar nomination for her work on Dee Ree’s “Mudbound.” This story discusses the work of Morrison and others before the nomination was announced.
THE PERSISTENT CALLS for Hollywood to spotlight the female experience often concentrate on narratives and filmmakers, but as the film industry works on improving gender diversity there is even more work to be done when it comes to the field of cinematography.
In 2016, women made up 5% of cinematographers (also known as directors of photography, or “DPs”) working on the top 250 domestic-grossing films, according to the most recent annual study sponsored by Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film. As of 2017, no woman has ever been nominated for the cinematography Oscar. Still, those working behind the camera are hopeful that change is coming.
“It used to be 2% for studio films and maybe 4% including indies, so 5% is higher than I’ve ever heard,” says Rachel Morrison, a cinematographer whose most recent projects include awards-season contender “Mudbound” and next year’s Marvel Cinematic Universe installment “Black Panther.” “Part of the problem is that we’re always categorized as female DPs. It would be so nice to get to a point where when you say ‘DP’ it’s like ‘doctor’ or ‘teacher’ and you think of either gender. But because we are an anomaly there’s a tendency to create a sub-category.”
Morrison has been working since 2002 after graduating from NYU with a degree in photography and from AFI with a degree in cinematography. She took a job as DP for reality show “The Hills” in 2008 to help pay off her student loans, and it wasn’t until 2013, when Morrison worked with director Ryan Coogler on “Fruitvale Station,” that she really felt as if she were moving up in the ranks. Coogler fought for her to join him on “Black Panther,” making Morrison the first female cinematographer on a Marvel film.
“I actually didn’t find I was put through the ringer on that one,” she notes. “I think a big part of it is having a director you’ve worked with before champion you.”
Her experience isn’t dissimilar to that of Ellen Kuras, a cinematographer who also broke into the industry working on indies. Kuras, who most recently worked on documentaries “Jane” and “Wormwood,” started as a director but quickly realized she could ensure her particular vision better when she held the camera herself. Kuras won a Sundance prize for excellence in cinematography in 1992 for “Swoon,” allowing her to continue on to films like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Blow.”
I think one of the key things for me in being successful is that I never victimized myself.
“I think one of the key things for me in being successful is that I never victimized myself,” Kuras says. “I never told myself, ‘Oh, well, I never really had a chance.’ I have to say now, looking back on that time, it was a very unusual path. A lot of women have had many more struggles than I have in the film industry. It’s been much harder for others to be able to get there and I can’t necessarily say why. I didn’t come up through the ranks as a lot of people do — I just went right to being a cinematographer and my work was well-known pretty much from the start.”
Kuras says she hasn’t faced much sexism on film or documentary sets, but things differ on the advertising side.
“When I moved into the commercial world, that’s when people would look at me with raised eyebrows,” she remembers. “On more than one occasion, I would come onto set and the agency person would start talking to my camera assistant thinking that he was the cinematographer. And he would say, ‘Oh, no, no. She’s the boss.’ I really had to take hold of myself every single time I would walk on set and reassure myself that I did the best I can.”
Kuras was one of the first female members of the American Society of Cinematographers, or ASC, an organization founded in 1919 that works to promote the art of cinematography. Kuras joined in 1997, nearly two decades after Brianne Murphy became the first woman invited into the ASC. Kees Van Oostrum, president of the ASC, has been working specifically on encouraging more female members in recent years. Currently 7% of the ASC consists of women, which is up from 3% only two years ago.
“It’s been a very male-dominated industry since the beginning,” Van Oostrum says. “If you look at Brianne, who became our first [female member], and you look at her history, she had to pretend to be a male to get the interview. There was a built-in idea historically and culturally that women were not cinematographers. That was a man’s job.”
Today the ASC is actively looking to be more inclusive and show young women that there is a place for them behind the camera.
“When you want to become a cinematographer and you have the aspiration to be a cinematographer, you need to see a light at the end of the tunnel,” Van Oostrum notes. “If you look at the job field and see that no one is really doing it, then you think, ‘Why should I even go through the trouble of trying?’ That’s the perception these days that you can change by showing that there are women cinematographers who are very good and very successful and have careers.”
Kuras agrees. “The more that women become visible, the more that they are seen on set — it doesn’t seem like such an anomaly,” she says. “That’s one of the reasons I made myself so visible. I was thinking, ‘If I could do an $80-million picture and people knew about it, it would show other women that they could do it too.’ It’s not about breaking the glass ceiling so much as it is about having a really great glass cutter and cutting a hole and then giving a hand to everybody else to come up.”
Another challenge for female cinematographers is dealing with stereotypes. For one, how much does having newborn children come into play when you’re being considered for demanding hours on set? For Charlotte Bruus Christensen, motherhood was a factor when she was being interviewed for “Girl on the Train.”
“I had just had my twins at that point, and they weren’t quite planned, so before I signed on to that movie I thought, ‘Who on Earth is going to hire me? How am I going to travel the world with twins?’” she says. “I did an interview over Skype when the twins were only 8 months, and I thought, ‘They’re never going to hire me.’ In the interviews I told them that I had little girls because that’s part of the consideration. But they took me onboard, and they never questioned it. I don’t mind if people need to consider other things than my work, but once they hire you that decision is made. I don’t expect anybody to question it after that point.”
Christensen recently shot “Molly’s Game” with Aaron Sorkin and worked with Denzel Washington on last year’s “Fences.” She doesn’t know if there’s much of a difference in how various cinematographers work, mostly because she’s rarely onset with other DPs.
“I’m probably very sensitive, but I don’t want to say the guys aren’t that,” Christensen says. “Maybe I’m less technical? I learn about all the tech when I need it and I have no problem at all, but I won’t necessarily study all the equipment coming out this week. I don’t know if that’s to do with [gender], but I have a sense that some of the guys definitely know more technical things than I do.”
For Morrison, the greatest difference between male and female DPs is that the men are getting the mid-range budget films and the women aren’t. She jumped from small-budget indies to Marvel without ever working on a $30- or $40-million movie, which is typically the trajectory her male peers have followed.
“It took me like 10 or 12 indie movies before I got my first studio movie,” Morrison says. “I mentor a lot of young DPs, both women and men but mostly female DPs, and they’re getting calls after two or three movies, which is what I’ve always seen happening to my male counterparts. They’d have a movie hit big at Sundance and then they’d get a call from a studio. For me, that was where the disparity started. I never felt the inequity coming up the ranks until it got to the bigger budget.”
Morrison also points out that on bigger studio films, producers can help change the process. “Often the producers will present directors with a list of approved cinematographers, at least as a jumping-off point,” Morrison notes. “That’s where I think the change needs to start as well. We’re 50% of the population so it would be nice if we could comprise half the list.”
“The TV studios and the film studios are run by people of different backgrounds and a lot of them come from an old world, and they may still harbor — even unbeknownst to them — certain ideas,” Van Oostrum says. “We can make a difference by talking to the people who do the hiring and saying, ‘Listen, open your view of the world. Look at what the world is made up of and let’s make sure our film crews reflect that world, which includes women and minorities.’”
The Academy Award for cinematography was first awarded in 1929. Since then all of the nominees — and, by extension, winners — have been male. Netflix is currently working on a campaign for Morrison’s work on “Mudbound,” which won a prize from the New York Film Critics Circle and has been nominated for a Broadcast Film Critics award.
Indeed, other awards groups have been more open to recognizing female DPs. Perhaps reflecting greater opportunities for women in the indie sector, the current Spirit Award nominees for cinematography include two women: Elisha Christian for “Columbus” and Helene Louvart for “Beach Rats.”
Another encouraging sign: The numbers are better in the film schools, where a new wave of cinematographers and directors is learning the ropes of filmmaking. Currently 47% of graduate students in Film and Television at NYU are female (USC and AFI didn’t respond to requests for their enrollment statistics).
“I think for the first time it’s maybe an advantage to be a woman because people are realizing they need to plug these holes,” Morrison says. “But the focus has to be about making good work. I don’t ever want to be hired for a job because I’m a woman. And I don’t ever want to be recognized for a job because I’m a woman. Overall I’m actually really optimistic about the changes. I feel it’s palpable. I don’t think it will take the next generation of female DPs 10 years or 10 features to get their first studio movie. Doors are opening for the first time and it’s time to walk through them.”