Monday, May 7, 2012

Why Are There No Female Cinematographers?


Last Friday, as I compiled, wrote and posted my list of My 11 Favorite Cinematographers, a harsh truth was confirmed: there really are no notable female cinematographers currently (or previously) working in film. While that’s a bold (and, as I soon learned, inaccurate) statement, the real question I’m driving at is: why are there no female cinematographers?

First off, let me make it very clear that I have no intention of answering that question, simply because I’m unqualified to. Fact is, stats don’t lie, and according to the Center for the Study of Women in TV and Film, of the highest grossing 250 films in any given year, only 2 percent of them are shot by women. That’s five movies. Another haunting figure: how many women have won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography? None. A woman would have to be nominated first in order to win, which has never happened.

So, why are there hardly any female cinematographers? Probably the same reason there aren’t many female directors, editors, film musicians, and so on. What’s the reason? Hell if I know. Hollywood misogyny, lack of awareness, absence of opportunity. Again, I’m no expert, I can only attest that it is a shame to hear a female’s name being called on Oscar night for categories limited to costume design, makeup, and female acting.

Let’s not run wild here, though. I don’t mean for this post to turn into a feminist-inspired bash on the film industry (although, I wouldn’t mind doing that someday). Instead let’s focus on the female exceptions to the craft of cinematography, of which there are several, sure, but not nearly enough.

Maryse Alberti
Alberti (right) with Darren Aronofsky
If you’ve seen the first 10 minutes of Darren Aronofksy’s The Wrestler, then you know Alberti deserves to be here. Tracking Randy “The Ram” Robinson as he signs autographs, drives his shitty van and attempts to get into his locked trailer, we stare intently at the screen, begging for the camera to pan around and get a full look at Mickey Rourke’s bruised and battered face. It’s a marvelous little trick that arouses our curiosity to no end (and that helped earn Alberti her second Indie Spirit Award for cinematography). The rest of the film is shot with that same timid inquisitiveness, resulting in digital cinematic bliss.

Notable Credits
The Wrestler
When We Were Kings (1996)
Happiness (1998)
Velvet Goldmine (1998)
Tape (2001)
We Don’t Live Here Anymore (2004)
Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)
The Wrestler (2008)
Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (2010)

Ellen Kuras
Arguably the most well-known female cinematographer ever (and the one whose gotten closest to an Oscar nomination) is Ellen Kuras. While her frequent work with Spike Lee (most notably on the gritty and gorgeous He Got Game, which I have previously said is one of Lee’s most technically flawless films), drew my attention years ago, and her use of Super-8 film stock in the flashback sequences for Ted Demme’s Blow is ingenious, her magnum opus has got to be Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Eternal Sunshine is a ballsy, unique film with a ballsy, unique script, that is executed with ballsy, unique vision. Nothing about the movie is normal. It breaks barriers and sets new limits. All of you who hailed Eternal Sunshine as the best film of the 2000s should most definitely give credit to Kuras. She made the thing fly.

Notable Credits
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
He Got Game - a still of which opens this post (1998)
Summer of Sam (1999)
Blow (2001)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2005)
Away We Go (2009)
Public Speaking (2010)

Rain Kathy Li
Rain Kathy Li has put in notable digital work, shooting the "Porte de Choisy" segment of Paris, je t’aime (the one where Barbet Schroeder tries to sell beauty products to a tough Chinatown salon owner), Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, and the frenzied indie Uncertainty. Shame there isn’t more to add.

Notable Credits
Paranoid Park
Paris, je t’aime – "Porte de Choisy" segment (2007)
Paranoid Park (co-shot with Christopher Doyle) (2007)
Uncertainty (2009)

Lisa Rinzler
The cinematographer who shot Ed Harris’ Pollock deserves to mentioned on most any list discussing worthy DPs, as it is one of the few films to actually nail the look of what artistic inspiration feels like. Watching Harris frantically (but with perfect control) paint a giant mural in his apartment is a remarkable cinematic feat. It’s the fluid combination of music, acting and cinematography that makes the scene so iconic. If you’ve seen Pollock, you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, then check it out. This scene alone makes the film worthy of your time.

Notable Credits
Pollock
Menace II Society (1993)
Dead Presidents (1995)
Trees Lounge (1996)
Three Seasons (1999)
Pollock (2000)
The Soul of a Man (2003)

Amy Vincent
Amy Vincent has a way of stylizing a film to suit its standards, rather than hers. To clarify: many cinematographers have their own unique look that makes them identifiable, others are capable of shifting their style to give every film the look it needs. Take, for instance, the warm eeriness of the Deep South in Eve’s Bayou, the cold emptiness of The Caveman’s Valentine and the harsh urbanism of Hustle & Flow. Also worth noting is Vincent’s work on Black Snake Moan, a film that deserves to be remembered for its raw, inspired look.

Notable Credits
Hustle & Flow
Eve’s Bayou (1997)
The Caveman’s Valentine (2001)
Hustle & Flow (2005)
This Film is Not Yet Rated (2006)
Black Snake Moan (2006)

Mandy Walker
Aussie Mandy Walker is arguably the second-closest female to be nominated for an Oscar, for shooting Baz Luhrmann’s excellent-looking Australia. Other prominent work includes shooting Ray Lawrence’s exquisite Lantana and Catherine Hardwicke’s moody Red Riding Hood.

Notable Credits
Lantana
Lantana (2001)
Shattered Glass (2003)
Australia (2008)
Red Riding Hood (2011)

Who’s Left?
Alexandra Pelosi
Honestly, not a whole hell of a lot. You can try going off this list provided by Wikipedia, but most of the work done by those cinematographers are of rare films few have seen.

Brianne Murphy has a number of credits on IMDb, she’s even won a Scientific and Engineering Oscar for the concept, design and manufacture of the MISI Camera Insert Car and Process Trailer, (though I’m not sure what that means). But notable feature film credits are nonexistent. 

Alexandra Pelosi (daughter of Nancy) has shot many of her documentaries, none of which have garnered commercial success. Ditto Ellen Spiro, whose many documentaries have never received wide distribution.
Winter’s Bone, dir. by Debra Granik
Now-revered female directors Debra Granik (who directed Down to the Bone and Winter’s Bone) and Lynne Ramsay (who made Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar and We Need to Talk About Kevin) both got their start shooting short films, but have since hired male DPs to shoot their features.

In short, I’m not sure why there aren’t more female cinematographers, or more females in the film business in general, I just know that the percentage of female DPs is staggering to the point of embarrassment. The same could be said for the lack of minorities in the business as well, but at the risk of having this post become an unhinged rant, I’ll leave you with the names above. Names of women who have proven they’re as good as their male counterparts. I just hope we start seeing more of them.

54 comments:

  1. Interesting post! I've also wondered why there aren't more females in these sorts of categories eithers. Though I don't think it's sexism, I just feel like maybe a lot of women aren't as interested in this field of work. There are many women as actresses, and that work in make-up, costume, but never with visual effects or cinematography, or the sound categories. I'm fairly certain this is just how things are. There are definitely less women going to school for Computer Animation, or in some sort of IT fields. Less women study science, or engineering, and I'd imagine less women go to film school. I guess it's similar that less men work in libraries, or work in costume. Women have always been more "art-based" (costume, art direction, make-up), and men more "technology-based". That's just how so many women are made up. It's not unheard of for women to love sports or play sports, but it's always majority men. Just my take! But I agree, I'd love to see more women in the tech-areas of film!

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    1. That's an interesting theory. I'm not sure if women aren't interested in this work, or if they aren't interested in putting up with the insanely high levels of rejection that come with venturing into this kind of work. Either way, your points are definitely interesting.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

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    2. I just wanted to say I doubt that it is the "rejection" that women care about, as there are plenty of actresses and female dancers (both careers of high potential rejection). I believe Jane Campion made a similar comment about why women couldn't handle being directors. Truth is, if that were true, there would be no actresses, who take as much, if not more criticism than the directors, based on not only their performances, but their personal lives, what they look like, weigh, eat, so forth. :) So, I think making statements like that shouldn't be done uncritically.
      Also, the author's assertion that "stats don't lie" automatically made me take the article less seriously. Just some constructive criticism.

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    3. And thanks for leaving it in such a kind yet honest way. Seriously, I admire you for that.

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  2. Here's another DP I want to mention that I forgot about. Jeanne Lapoirie. She is truly overlooked for her work with Francois Ozon. Notably films like Water Drops on Burning Rocks, Under the Sand, 8 Women, and Time to Leave that I've seen from Ozon so far. There's a beauty to her work in the way she can create a mood with the interiors. She also can light a nude scene and make it look stunning. If you come across a scene in Water Drops in Burning Rocks where Ludivine Sagnier is fully nude with her boyfriend. There's something about the way Ozon directs that scene and the way Lapoirie lights that film. It's breathtaking. I highly recommend her work.

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    1. Dude, excellent choice. Water Drops on Burning Rocks is gorgeous... I had no idea a woman shot it. I'll definitely be on the radar for Lapoirie's work from here on out.

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  3. That's interesting... from what I've seen at uni and on shorts I've done (and my course is about half and half gender wise, though it is more 'media' rather than film/TV), all the girls lean towards writing/producing rather than camera work or sound. It might have something to do with the fact that those kind of things are more 'physical' at times, rather than the organisational/thinking roles of the producer/writer/director. I do know a few girls who have done camera work, but even they lean more towards directing and producing. Also, nearly all the first A.D's I've met have been female!
    It might have something to do with the traditional notions that the 'physical' stuff is man's work. People just seem to go there automatically (not that they should, but still). The D.P on a set once asked me to help him lift up this massive dolly/cart/thing (I can't even remember) but it was so heavy. He kept saying 'It's all in the mind, anyone can do it!' but I couldn't lift the thing two centimetres, much less carry it up some stairs!! And the first time I was a boom operator, the directors had apparently asked whether I'd be okay to do it, surprised that I was a girl! hahaha
    I could write an essay here, I may stop now :P

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    1. Your AD point is interesting, because that's been my experience as well on movie sets. But for me (as a director) I'd much rather have a female AD, simply because I'd rather have a gal telling everyone what to do than a dude. It's more... comfortable.

      The physicality of the job as DP is an interesting thought too. Maybe there's some validity there, I don't know. I know some tough girls, that's for sure, but I don't know many people who want to lug all that shit around for a living, male or female haha.

      Write your essay!

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    2. I'm at film school currently and I can tell you the balance of males-to-females is off a bit already in the major, and there's only a scant handful of us interested in cinematography. The boys still express their curiosity, but we few gals are ever proving to them that not only can we handle carrying the heavy equipment, we can use it too! I find a similar sense of disbelief in my Steadicam class--I'm the shortest, the lightest, and the only female. But I've actually been doing quite well, considering the heavy system is half my body weight.

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    3. Hey Bridget, thanks so much for the comment. I'm so happy to hear that you're interested in cinematography. Please don't ever let social "norms" influence what you want to do. I wrote this essay in hopes of proving that ANY person can be accomplished in the craft of film. Best of luck to you!

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  4. It is sad that there aren’t many female cinematographers. I wish there could be something done about it, but really what can you do? It’s one of those topics that even if you can’t resolve, you can at least be vocal about.

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    1. Couldn't agree more. Can't do nothin' but preach.

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  5. Going back to the female Oscar winning categories, let us not forget either of Kathryn Bigelow's so soon!

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    1. Oh yeah, and how well deserved that was. LOVE Bigelow's films. I'm not saying women don't win Oscars, I'm saying they win them far too often, you know?

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  6. Now I'm totally interested in becoming a cinematographer. That's me...always choosing things that other women don't generally do. This is a great post!

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    1. Do it! Go against the norm.

      Also, thanks for your kind words!

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  7. A couple of the top of my head to add to your list: Agnès Godard (longtime DP of Claire Denis) and Caroline Champetier (Of Gods and Men, the upcoming Holy Motors)

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    1. Ohh good choices. 35 Shots of Rum is lovely, as is Of Gods and Men.

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  8. Wow, this is a long answer to my comment on your Favourite Cinematographers post ;).
    Cinematography sounds very interesting, and I've been thinking of becoming a cinematographer too... the question is if it's rentable to do in Denmark - they don't shoot many films here.
    Thank you for highlighting some amazing women in this post!

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    1. My pleasure, and thanks for your comment on the other post, it encouraged me further to draft this article.

      You're right, not a lot of flicks come out of Denmark, but if you're interested in being a DP, I say go for it!

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  9. Awesome piece. So surprising! Many of the films you've mentioned are pretty awesome so it's very clear we aren't lacking in talented female DPs. They are out there, doing their thing, working the grind.

    Cinematography was always an interesting subject for me. I studied it in film school and tinkered with the idea of becoming one after graduation. But the problem is (was) that I'm not creative. This is a tough field. I couldn't hack it.

    Thanks for writing this. Got some newfound appreciation for some of these movies.

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    1. Thanks for such kind words, Dave, it really was my pleasure to put this together, I'm just really glad people enjoy it. Cinematography is definitely tough, man. I like very unconventional film photography, so when people see my movie, some may like the way it's shot, and others may hate it. We'll see!

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  10. What an eye opening list,I never pay attention if a cinematographer is male or female.I really love the cinematography in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Paranoid Park.BTW,I also made a list about cinematographers recently on my blog,but more in a classic sense.

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    1. Oh nice, I'm gonna check out your list right now.

      Thanks for stopping by/commenting!

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  11. Very interesting article Alex, you make a great point and I, too, am really curious to learn why women are usually left out from the core movie business. Maybe it's because of what Ruth said- the idea of heavylifting, maybe it's plain mysogynism...I don't know, but I don't like it. That first shot, from He got game, is beautiful!

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    1. It is really interesting, isn't it? Interesting and worrisome. Anyway, thanks for your kind words Diana! He Got Game rules, check it out sometime!

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  12. I just started the job, working my way up any way I can - gaffer, AC, operator and DP. Very often I'm demoralized thinking just because I'm a woman I won't make it, even if I work harder and am more talented. Thanks for this post. It's nice to read there are some women out there making a name for themselves. I hope to be one of them some day.

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    1. Thanks so much for such a kind and candid comment. I really hope you get to make a name for yourself too. Email me at withrowag@gmail.com if you'd like. I'm going to be making another movie soon (well, sooner rather than later), and maybe we could work together!

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    1. THAT'S SO AWESOME. CAN YOU LINK TO ANYTHING YOU'VE DONE? I'D LOVE TO SEE IT.

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  14. I love that you posted this. I am a student and working professional in Cinematography and as an AC/Operator. The more work I get and the more people I talk to, I believe that there are a few main reasons that steer women away from cinematography. Those who go into filmmaking thinking they want to be cinematographers, are scared out of it, constantly being put to work against men and the industry "standards" of male cinematographers etc. It is also common for people to underestimate the actual amount of work, dedication and effort it takes to be not only a cinematographer but any member of a film set. It's no walk in the park! I have also seen an issue in those not willing to work towards learning and creating a balance between the art and the craft of cinematography, you have to understand all aspects both technical and artistic if you want to be the best and i've found many people simply aren't willing too. If you want to be in this business you HAVE to work for it! I want to change this and in the process I hope to one day inspire more women to take up the more technical, physical, and artistic positions on set.

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    1. Hey Claire, thanks so much for stopping by and leaving such an insightful comment. I'm really glad you enjoyed the post and were able to articulate reasons behind my main question.

      From where I'm sitting, it seems like everything you said is spot on. It sounds like you've been involved in far larger movie shoots than I have, but yeah, shit is hard work, no matter your role. I took on a lot of responsibilities for my last movie, including being my own DP, and I can honestly tell you that shooting the film was, for me, the most difficult part of the process. So technical, and so artistic. I love what you said about the balance of art and craft of cinematography, I couldn't agree more with that.

      Thanks again for searching this post out and leaving such a great comment. I see that you just started following me on Twitter, so I hope we can stay in touch on there!

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  15. www.reedmorano.com

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    1. Whoa, I love her stuff. Thanks for the link!

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  16. I had been wondering this as well, thanks for the post. I'm about to go into college soon and wanted to major in film to become a DP or cinematographer (something along those lines), but I've always been doubting whether or not it's a good choice since it's always discouraging to try to make it in the film industry as a woman. This post kind of motivated me to keep trying, but I don't know we'll see how it goes haha thank you

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    1. Thank YOU for reading and commenting.

      My advice: go for it. If working in film and being a DP is what you want to do, then fuckin' go for it. I know it won't be easy, but I definitely think you should try!

      Let me know if I can do anything else to help motivate you!

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  17. I used to want to be a cinematographer! Actually I still do :P thanks for this post!

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    1. That's a good call, and while I do love how muted Your Friends and Neighbors is, I can't say that anything else from her body of work stands out for me. Cathouse, maybe...

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  19. I found this article after reading the wikipedia list of all the nominees for best cinematography and finding the same sad truth that there are simply no nominations (let alone wins) for female cinematographers.

    This depressed me on a personal level, because I am a young woman who wants to be a cinematographer... But it kind of just makes me angry enough to really try at it. Also the fact that Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind (my favorite movie) had a female cinematographer kind of inspires me.

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    1. I agree that this essay points out some hard truths, but it kills me to hear you say that your frustration may trump your career aspirations. I mean this with the upmost sincerity: if you want to be cinematographer, then be a cinematographer. I'm a filmmaker, and I could care less what gender anyone on my crew is. If they can do the best job, then they can do the best job. Period.

      In fact, I was hanging out with a four-person Japanese film crew last week, and the only female in their troupe was the DP. You can do it. Keep fighting.

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  20. I've been a female filmmaker in a male dominated industry for a couple of years now, and all I can is, that it's really hard. Not because it's a technically nor physically challenging job, but rather that a double standard exists in the film industry. I've had countless meetings with other women in the industry and we all agree. To not examine it or look over it, is just someone living in denial. I've witnessed countless incidences of when men sneer, challenge, and basically put down women in higher positions in front of their peers. I don't think the men intentionally try to make women question themselves and constantly remind them where they're place is in society, but that there is a subconscious machoism that lives inside of unexamined men. I've been on countless sets, from million dollar high budget films to zilch dollar indie productions, and it's all the same. Women are treated in a very subversive way on and off set. I can see why all my girlfriends who aspire to be directors and cinematographers just give up sometimes. They are tired of being treated like outsiders of the field. That however, hasn't discouraged me to stop. I love filmmaking too much to stop what I do. It takes a really strong woman to overcome these challenges, and it's why I have even more respect for the women who are amazing cinematographers and directors.

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    1. The content of the first part of your comment disgusts me. I simply do not understand the need, want, or desire to put women down, in a public or private setting. Some of the best, most creative, most knowledgeable people I've worked with on films are women, and I would welcome working with women anytime, on any film.

      It does make me very happy that, despite the odds against you, you keep on going to do what you love. There's hope in that for a lot of people.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and leaving such an honest comment. Who knows, maybe we'll work together some day.

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  21. I'm a female DP in Toronto. The comments about the physicality of the work always come up. Thing is, once you stick it out a while and slug away at the indie stuff, eventually your career will get you to a point where you routinely work with professional crews. Professional crews = respectful (professional) people. That's when you become an ideas person again. I always prefer to camera operate, but hell, I could even hire someone for that, too. It's silly to let the physical aspect hold you back, regardless of your gender or size. Find a way to build a body of work and soon enough you'll have other professional collaborators working with you to achieve your vision as a DP.

    I was teaching filmmaking classes at a college for a while and had to field questions about gender very frequently. They'd ask me if I was ever given a hard time. I would my students what I'm about to say here: only work with cool people. Problem solved.

    Maya

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    1. Maya, thank you so much for this comment. I love the philosophy of your work ethic. Surrounding yourself with cool people is certainly never a bad thing.

      On that note, let me say that my god, I wished you lived in LA. I'm close to filming my next movie and would LOVE to have a DP for this one. I shot my last film myself, and while the look of it was well received, being a DP is so much work, and I would love to have someone as skilled as you heading up that area. I've looked at all of your work on Vimeo and your style is exactly what I want my movie to look and feel like. Great work, and if you ever come through LA, let me know!

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  22. Hey Alex, it is too bad indeed! You never know, sometimes I do consider the move... I'll definitely get in touch if it happens :) Thanks for your comments, and great blog! I was happy to happen upon this article.

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    1. Thank YOU again for reading and commenting. Best of luck to you :)

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  23. Just want to say that this is a fascinating thread, loving all the comments and my to watch list has grown.
    I'm a Wildlife DoP (www.sophiedarlington.com) and the more of us that carry on doing what we do - let it be based on merit - the better.
    Best wishes to all!

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    1. Hey Sophie, thanks for stopping by and commenting. I've been checking out your work for the past hour or so. Really impressive stuff. I mean... wow, what a life you've led! It's people like you who will encourage female DPs to follow their dreams, industry "standards" be damned. Thanks again for the comment!

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  24. A very interesting and informative read. I agree wholeheartedly there should definitely be more females in all sorts of occupations. And how Ellen Kuras hasn't been nominated for an Oscar by now is worthy of a criminal investigation.

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    1. Thanks man. I love that the message of this post has endured for so long. Kuras should have at least two noms by now.

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  25. Thank you for this. How did I not know Eternal Sunshine had a female DP?? I teach film in WA state, and despite our best efforts, only about 15% of our students are female, and even fewer focus on cinematography or directing. I directed my own short last year, hoping it would be helpful to them to see a woman in a leadership position on set. I remember when I was an undergrad in film school, and I was indeed intimidated by the technical stuff. Somehow I had this uncomfortable suspicion that I just wouldn't be able to handle it. I know now that I could have; I just wasn't ready to break my own boundaries yet. Anyway, I shared this post on our program's FB page. Thanks again.

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    1. Wow, thank you so much. I'm honored that you would feature this post on your program's FB page. I'm also glad that you "got" my intention with this post. I would love to see more women working behind the camera in the film/TV business period. But we DEFINITELY need more female DPs right now.

      Thanks again for the kind comment, it really does mean a lot to me. Feel free to link to your FB page here so I can like it!

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