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Changing the Cinematography Landscape: Interview with Emilia Mendieta, Part 1

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Recent headlines regarding women in entertainment can be disheartening, but focusing on how we can make this industry a better place for women and minorities is the key positive spin on all the negative headlines. The stats for women in positions of power on set are still shockingly low, and one of the lowest is for female cinematographers.

In addition to being well-trained, smart and kind, Emilia Mendieta has a lot of great ideas about the current state of her field for women, how up-and-coming Cinematographers can best move their careers forward, and why becoming a teacher has helped her further her own ambitions. Read part one of two of my interview with her below!


Emilia MendietaWhat got you interested in Cinematography? Is this what you’ve always wanted to do? 

Actually, it isn’t what I always wanted to do! I always wanted to be a filmmaker (that has been an immutable, constant thing since I was 8 or 9) but I wanted to be a Director and had taken steps in that direction my whole life. When I was 23, I was working as a Graphic Designer and Videographer for a tea company based out of Brooklyn, NY. They sent me down to Ecuador (where I grew up) to grab some footage of their operations down there. I had a bit of an “ah-ha!” moment while I was following some Guayusa farmers and a Peace Corps volunteer through the Ecuadorian Amazon. I realized that what I really loved about filmmaking was telling the story visually through the design of the images you see on screen. From that moment on I started shifting the choices I was making professionally, gearing myself up to become a Cinematographer.

Emilia MendietaYou recently graduated from AFI with an MFA. Can you tell me about how your education has impacted your career thus far? 

After the “Ah-Ha” moment, I realized that if I was serious about being a cinematographer, I should go really immerse myself in that world. I thought pursuing an MFA in Cinematography would be the best way to do that – just kind of dive into it. It was a good time to go back to school too – I’d been out of my undergraduate program for 2-3 years by then and had some life experience and work experience under my belt, so I felt I could go back to school with a fresher perspective and with a clear focus of where I wanted to go.

I had been quite reticent about pursuing a Master’s degree prior to that realization because I felt that most MA or MFA film programs are too broad in their scope and didn’t go deep into a particular area of filmmaking. There’s only a handful of programs that are area-specific, and so I applied the ones that had a good Cinematography program. AFI was always on the top of my list and I was beyond ecstatic when they admitted me – I was sure the odds were stacked against me because of my limited experience as a cinematographer going in.

AFI was an amazing, terrifying, stressful, incredible experience. I say terrifying because I’m pretty sure I spent the first 6 months in the program scared witless about how little I knew and had to constantly remind myself that I’d enrolled myself in grad school exactly because of that – because I wanted to learn. I’ve never worked harder in my life, but it was the intensity of the AFI program that made me who I am now.

All that hard work, and the experiences I had in the program, are a good chunk of the reason why I feel confident in my skills and vision and ability to tell a story as a Cinematographer, which to me is pretty amazing considering I went in barely knowing how to open a C-Stand. Skills and experiences aside, AFI also introduced me to a group (and extended family) of seriously talented, amazing people who are now some of my closest friends and creative collaborators.

So, I guess to answer your question, getting my MFA at AFI was a good way to really immerse myself into the art and craft of cinematography. It gave me the foundation to play in bigger leagues. On a personal level, I feel I got a lot of confidence in myself from it and it reinforced the idea that Cinematography was most definitely the path I wanted to pursue. I’m happiest when I’m running around set behind a camera with my lightmeter in hand and I can’t really imagine myself doing anything else. I seriously love what I do!

Lastly, my MFA also opened up opportunities to teach filmmaking in higher education which is something that had been on my radar, but that I had not seriously considered doing until after I graduated.

Emilia MendietaTell us about what you’ve been working on lately! 

Oof. A lot? I’m finishing up my second narrative feature as a Cinematographer, HOTEL REFINEMENT sometime in the next few months. We shot most of it on weekends between late last year and early this year and have one more weekend to go. That one was a really fun project. Super small crew and fun material. The only way to describe it is a “surreal film noir”. We had a very small budget and not a lot of resources, but I got to be really creative on it.

My first narrative feature TO THE NEW GIRL, which I shot last April with you is also going through post. It was an all-woman team which was a pretty awesome experience and I’ve been very fortunate to be somewhat involved in the editing process (as in…they let me sit in on some of the editing sessions!), which is so great. Looking forward to doing final Color for this one soon.

The other major thing I’ve been working on is not super cinematography-related, but also is in a way? For the past year I’ve been collaborating with Tish Lampert, a photojournalist, as a graphic designer for her upcoming book “I PROTEST: To Create An America We Can Believe In”. It is a compilation of images Tish has taken in the past 20-odd years documenting protests and political movements in the United States. It covers everything from the anti-war protests in the Bush-era through the March for Our Lives protests in March this year. It’s a pretty remarkable body of work, and Tish is such a remarkable woman, it’s been a privilege to collaborate on this project with her. We finally finished it in mid-May and are planning to get it published hopefully by early fall.

I’ve also got a few other projects in the horizon, but I’m superstitious so I’m not going to discuss them until they’re concrete things…. 🙂

Emilia MendietaWhat do you typically do when you are between projects? 

This is a weird one because I do work in academia (higher education) as well so that usually eats up my time in between projects. I’m a bit of a workaholic, but I’m trying to lead a more balanced life in general. I do a lot of yoga to deal with the stress of my work life (I do hot yoga at Modo Yoga LA) and to keep fit and energized (you gotta take care of your body in this line of work!), but I try to go to the studio as much as possible whenever I’m not on set. I also love cooking! I meal prep the hell out of my weeks and I like playing with modernist cuisine techniques. One of my favorite (albeit somewhat unhealthy) things that I’ve made in the past 6 months is “thrice-cooked fries” (got the recipe off the web) using my sous vide as one of the cooking steps. Yeah…I own a sous vide…gotta admit it has been a bit of a lifesaver when it comes to healthy meal prep actually. Also sometimes I’ll whip out my cello (I’ve played for about 18-odd years now) and practice for a couple of hours. Does wonders to help me keep my stress and anxiety in check! And I also write. I’m working on a few screenplays and a novel. They’re coming along slowly. Very very slowly.


How can people get in touch with you?

  • You can check out my website at www.emiliamendieta.com and contact me through there for jobs.
  • My Reel (freshly updated!): https://vimeo.com/135901169
  • And follow me on Instagram (@emi_mendieta). I post about my work, my photos, my travels, and everything I cook/eat along the way.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Changing the Cinematography Landscape: Interview with Emilia Mendieta, coming next month!

Laura Hunter Drago

About Laura Hunter Drago

Laura Hunter Drago is a producer, writer, and actress living in Los Angeles, California. When she’s not making art, she works in marketing & web design. Laura is a proud SAG-AFTRA member and guest speaker at the SAG Conservatory, is the assistant editor-in-chief of Ms. in the Biz, and is the co-founder of New Girl Pictures. She also likes baking, obsessing over Olympic ice dancers, and having long conversations with her dog Buffy. She dislikes being bored. Most recently, Laura is finishing up post-production on her first feature, To The New Girl and hosting a podcast about women in the entertainment industry called Creative Herstories.