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Changing the Cinematography Landscape: Interview with Cinematographer Emilia Mendieta, Part 2

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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 and kind, Emilia 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. Emilia has a lot of irons in the fire, and was just featured for several weeks on the ICFC (International Collective of Female Cinematographers) Instagram!

Read part two of my interview with her below!  


I know you also have a background in teaching. Do you feel like that experience has impacted your cinematography career at all, or do you look at the two as separate entities? 

Emilia on the set of HOTEL REFINEMENT

I don’t think that they are separate entities. A lot of that comes from my own personal philosophy – wherever you are in your life, you never really get there by yourself. Someone (and often many someones) along the line gave you a break, an opportunity, or helped you out. You might have taken that opportunity and made the most of it, but someone helped you. And because of that, I truly believe that you should pay it forward to others. I grew up in academia (my parents have worked in higher education their whole lives) and I have a deep appreciation for all of the teachers and mentors I’ve had across the years who pushed me forward, helped me, encouraged me to be better (and make mistakes!), and who were just generally supportive of me. I wanted to pass it forward but didn’t want to make my career out of it. For me, theory and practice go hand-in-hand and I didn’t want to get stuck just doing the theory part and never going out and actually making movies. Which is what I saw teaching as prior to being at AFI. AFI taught me differently – it showed me I could pursue both.  I was constantly surrounded by successful Cinematographers who were also teachers – and great teachers at that!

The other thing that makes me not think of being a Cinematographer and a professor as two separate entities is that I feel that teaching makes me a significantly better cinematographer. The secret I discovered is that to teach something, you really really have to understand it backwards and forwards and then be able to convey that information to someone else in an engaging and understandable way. In that process, you sort of internalize that knowledge and it becomes second nature. It makes me reinforce and update my knowledge of cinematography constantly. It’s great! 

What is the best advice you’d give to a young cinematography student today?  

Three things:

  1. Don’t be afraid to take creative risks (just please, for the love of god don’t do anything unsafe or stupid. SAFETY FIRST!). That’s why you’re in school. Some of them will pan out, and a lot of them won’t but you’ll come out the other end a better cinematographer either way. You’ve learned that something works (or doesn’t). It’s harder to take those creative risks when you’re out of school mostly because usually there is a lot more on the line and that means that while there could be a lot to gain from taking that risk, there could also be a lot more to lose. So, experiment while you can! Some of my favorite things that I shot while in school started with the phrase what if I….(Insert hairbrained idea here…Like shooting a whole movie that was mostly day exteriors at an f/2.8. My gaffer thought I was nuts for that one. But it turned out great!)
  2. Story is king. Repeat with me: Story. Is. King. Good cinematography supports, enhances, and elevates the story, it does not obfuscate it. And trust me, if you understand the story, you can do your job properly.
  3. Stay curious.

Still from TO THE NEW GIRL

A fellow AFI alum, Rachel Morrison, was just the first woman to be nominated for an Oscar in cinematography. Is it inspiring to see women like her making an impact? 

I can’t even really describe what seeing Rachel being nominated meant to me. I’ve been a huge fan of hers ever since she came to do a Cinematography Forum (screening followed by a Q&A) with Fruitvale Station at AFI when I was a first-year fellow. To see her not only be the first woman nominated to for the Oscar but also be the first woman to be the cinematographer on not only a Marvel film, but the highest grossing Marvel film to date proving that not only she was an incredible artist, but also a could also be commercially successful cinematographer (and achieving both of these things within the same MONTH) was profoundly inspiring to me. She embodies everything I want out of my career (and life), but I also have a profound admiration and respect for her work and her approach to cinematography.

The thing is, as much as Rachel inspires me (and what Rachel did for the field is HUGE), I think there are so many other women out there making an impact in many other ways too. There are a number of incredibly accomplished female cinematographers making quieter, albeit impactful strides in the field – from women who have been fighting the fight for decades and who have opened the field to younger generations to women who are making dedicated efforts to raise the visibility of female cinematographers. I see their effect on the field because I am fortunate enough to interact with them somewhat often. I think one of the biggest things that Rachel’s success this year brings to the table is visibility and representation which is something that is so incredibly important.

We know women are underrepresented throughout the industry, but the stats seem to be especially low for female cinematographers. Do you have thoughts on why those numbers are so low and what can be done to help improve them? 

You know, even for someone who knows how low the numbers are, it still surprises me to actually see the stats. I recently had an impactful experience that illustrated the numbers in a very powerful way.

I was invited to the ASC Awards this year and Kees Van Oostrum, ASC – the current president of the ASC – did a small speech about increasing the visibility and number of not only female cinematographers but cinematographers coming from minority backgrounds (there’s not a huge amount of diversity in the field either….). At one point, he had all of the female cinematographers in the room stand up. I did a quick survey of the room. About 60 of us stood up. 60. Out of 1500 attendees at the event (a nice chunk of which were cinematographers). And most of us were scattered across the large ballroom. I think that paints the picture about how few of us are out there.

The good thing about Rachel and everything else happening with Hollywood right now is that when people ask me what I do for a living, I’m happy to report that they (1) recognize and have an idea of what a Cinematographer is, (2) seem genuinely happy to meet a woman in the field, (3) seem to recognize that there aren’t a lot of us out there, and (4) ask me this very same question that you’ve asked. I think that’s really good! It means that there is an awareness of the issue and it is a step in the right direction.

And while I’m on the subject of this year’s ASC Awards…I have three words for you: Alan Caso’s speech. If you haven’t looked it up, you should (I know it is floating around the internet). It was really amazing to hear someone not only recognize the problem, but recognize their own participation in it, actively pledge to change it, and then ask everyone else to start doing the same. I think that is huge because as Mr. Caso says in his speech, the problem is not just about the lack of women in the field, but the lack of overall diversity in the field. I think it is great that a lot of these issues are finally being brought to light and that things are beginning to shift.

This all being said, there’s a lot that plays into answering this question, but for me one of the biggest things it always comes back to is the problem of visibility.

When I was teaching undergraduate-level filmmaking back in Ecuador during the fall of 2016, one of my first classes for my mid-level audiovisual production class was a basic intro into low-budget lighting and after preaching the wonders of a well-placed foamcore board while shooting day exteriors, a student caught up with me as I was heading back to my office. They told me they were really glad I was their professor. I asked why – as it was my first semester teaching at that university and it wasn’t like I was super well known even in the film community down there. She said “Because I’ve never seen a woman cinematographer before, and I’ve always thought about maybe doing that, but I also thought that was a thing only guys did. It’s great to know you’re out there.” That both made me swell with pride and also punched me in the gut. Hard.

It was amazing to be opening up the possibilities for someone just by existing as a woman cinematographer, but it also highlighted the fact that it was a huge problem that students weren’t aware of women cinematographers in general. The really frightening thing is, that at that age, neither was I. And I went to a highly liberal, former all-women, liberal arts college. Part of the reason I didn’t think about going down this path earlier is because I never really was exposed to a lot of women making a career out of cinematography. Double problem. Hell, I don’t think I could name a single female cinematographer until I got to AFI. Triple problem. My own personal journey into the field happened regardless of the visibility issue, but when I think back on it, I constantly ask myself, what if I had seen examples of women in the field? Would I have maybe considered going down this path earlier? And then of course that begs the question…how many potentially amazingly talented cinematographers are we missing out on simply because it has never occurred to them that it is a career they could choose because they have never seen others like them reflected in the existing field? Representation matters! Because the thing is…we’re out there. Yes, fewer in numbers, but out there nonetheless.

So, I guess that’s my whole schtick, and how I’m trying to affect change.  I’m active about promoting women in cinematography and other technical fields of filmmaking while in the classroom and outside of it. I try to include films shot by women in the curriculum when doing film analysis. Also, when I teach undergraduate classes, I make sure the women in my class have a chance to participate in more technical roles as a DoP or a Gaffer (or as a sound person for that matter!) during their class projects. I noticed that a lot of women shy out (or a lot of times get pushed out) of those jobs and opportunities as early as when they’re doing class projects in undergraduate programs so I try to make sure they rotate through them in my courses. In professional settings, when someone asks me for recommendations for another DoP if I’m not available I make sure to pass on the names of at least two women. And I go around explaining what exactly I do to people and why it matters. I actually got my parents on board with the me-being-a-cinematographer thing when I told them what the job was and the stats of women in the field (being a pair of STEM academics they really really wanted me to go into STEM because that’s what they do but also because there aren’t a whole lot of women in STEM fields either). They sound like small things, but they make a huge difference! Especially in the newer generation of filmmakers being educated around the world at the moment. I also actively participate in programs and initiatives designed to bring more visibility to women in cinematography both at my job at AFI and the ICFC (International Collective of Female Cinematographers) which I am a member of.

Then there’s the final part of this answer…how can we as people make a change? Well, I think here are some easy ways to do it:

  1. If you are someone in a position to hire a DoP, my suggestion would be to interview at least two women when considering candidates for the position. There are a bunch of really talented, highly-qualified cinematographers who happen to be women out there. Half the battle is just getting your foot into that door, so this small action could be incredibly powerful to many women in the field. Don’t know where to find us? Very easy: there are multiple directories listing female cinematographers like the ICFC (International Collective of Female Cinematographers) website ICFCFilm.com. You can find a female cinematographer just about anywhere in the world or with any skill you might need. No excuses about not being able to find us!
  2. Similarly, if you are in a position to hire crew, try interviewing women for any position in the camera or grip/lighting department – especially heads of department. A lot of cinematographers start out making their way up in either department, so hiring women to be on your crew helps more women get more experience, and down the line helps them get more opportunities. One of the biggest things a lot of people in the position to hire DoPs say is that women overall have less experience then men who have been in the field for the same amount of time and that may make us under-qualified for a job. This happens because overall less opportunities are often available to us even at the entry level positions. So, having women on your crews makes huge strides in solving this problem! I would like to see us get to a point where we’re truly hiring the best person for the job, but that the candidate pool we’re pulling from when making that decision is more evenly balanced between men and women.
  3. If you are in film education – try including more films shot by female cinematographers into your curriculum and also encourage all of your students to explore all areas of filmmaking if they are considering a career in film. Maybe bring in female cinematographers as guest lecturers or as faculty. There’s a ton of active, successful women out in the field right now shooting big stuff, and who are excellent lecturers. And I tell you, making sure your students know about them makes a huge difference!
  4. If you’re neither of the above, you can always look into being more proactive about supporting content shot by women. Let your $$$ speak!

Still from HOTEL REFINEMENT

Do you have a “dream project” or kind of film you’d most like to work on? 

I’d love love love to shoot a Star Wars film.

Star Wars is the reason I became a filmmaker – my first experience watching “A New Hope” when I was 8 or 9 left a lasting impression on me because it was such a visually spectacular well-told story. And I’m still a huge fan.  I may or may not have shown up to watch The Last Jedi on opening night at El Capitán theater wearing an R2D2 hat… But really, Star Wars just encapsulates what I love about the experience of watching a film. The original trilogy still manages to take me along for the ride and makes me forget that I actually work in this industry. And I think there’s something really magical about a story that can accomplish that.

So, I’m just gonna put this out into the universe…can someone pass my name on to Disney/Lucasfilm and let them know I am totally available to shoot the next Star Wars? Yes? Thanks!

Other than that, I’d like to shoot Sci-Fi stuff in general. I’m a huge sci-fi nerd – I tend to like things in the vein of dystopian fiction and cyborg cinema. So, I’d love to shoot something along the lines of Ex-Machina or an episode of Black Mirror. If you have a project like that, send it my way too!

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.

 

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.