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Toward a More Panoramic Vision

A field long dominated by men, cinematography is honoring more women, who are going on to work for big studios.

April 25, 1999|ROBERT HOFLER | Robert Hofler is an editor at Variety

Despite an increasing number of higher-profile female directors and producers, the position directly behind the camera has remained by and large a man's domain. But that world is beginning to turn toward female cinematographers.

Sometimes this is because some female directors are more open to hiring them, but more often it's because women have begun to accumulate the expertise required to do the historically male job, which a lack of experience may have kept beyond their reach--until now.

Recent events offer evidence that the tide has turned.

Hardly anyone noticed, but movie history was made earlier this year when the usually exclusively male awards ceremony of the American Society of Cinematographers broke with tradition and recognized a woman, Lisa Marie Wiegand, with the inaugural Karl Struss Heritage Award for outstanding cinematography.

That Wiegand has not yet been hired by a movie studio or TV network is very much to the point, not that anyone would expect her to be.

At age 30, a recent graduate of the UCLA film school, Wiegand is precisely the kind of novice director of photography the Struss Award is supposed to honor. A few minutes later in the ASC awards program, actress Liv Ullmann introduced one of the lifetime honorees, cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, who has worked with everyone from Federico Fellini to Sydney Pollack.

"Someone asked me before I came here, because I am a woman, if I knew anything about cinematography," said Ullmann, who, besides acting, has directed five films and one TV miniseries. Where Wiegand's award points to a possibly successful but uncertain future, Ullmann's remark acknowledges the past absence of recognition--and more important, employment--for female cinematographers.

Which is not to say there isn't definite movement in that direction when one looks beyond the ASC awards and the Oscars show, which has never nominated a female director of photography (or "D.P.," as they're known in the industry).

This year, Lisa Rinzler took the cinematography award at the Sundance Film Festival, for her work on the feature "Three Seasons." Maryse Alberti and Tami Reiker were nominated for Independent Spirit Awards for, respectively, "Velvet Goldmine" and "High Art," with Alberti taking home the award.

But as any cinematographer will tell you, it's the work--not the honors--that matters. Regarding the source of that employment, two female cinematographers this year have definitely broken out from the indie-film world to make movies at the big studios, the launching pad for not only Oscars and ASC awards but significantly bigger paychecks as well.

Reiker shot Peter Chan's "Love Letter," to be released by DreamWorks in May, and Ellen Kuras, a Sundance winner for 1995's indie "Angela," is the cinematographer on two studio films this year: MGM's just-released "The Mod Squad," directed by Scott Silver, and Disney/Touchstone's "Summer of Sam," from director Spike Lee.

'It's an enormous step," Reiker says of moving from indies to the major studios. "It's this incredible validation of your work."

One has to go back to 1995 and cinematographer Rinzler's work on Allen and Albert Hughes' "Dead Presidents," which came out of Disney-based Caravan Pictures for a release through Hollywood Pictures, to find a situation even remotely akin to a female D.P. being directly hired by a major studio.

"It's the classic girls play with the dolls and the guys play with the trucks," says Kuras, whose feature-film career behind the camera began with 1992's "Swoon." "The D.P. is leader of the crew," she goes on to explain. "You're the leader of the gang. They don't follow the director necessarily."

She admits that seeing a woman behind the camera has taken some getting used to. "It's been a male-dominated world largely because the guys were the ones who first started doing it."

"Mod Squad" producer David Ladd claims to be unaware that he's broken ground by hiring Kuras.

"Are you kidding? I didn't know that," he says. But as for any overt discrimination, he's also not so sure. "I've had a lot of meetings where people are crewing up and I've never heard, 'Oh, she can't do it because she's a she,' " he says. "For so many years, it was a man's field and the talent pool on that side was simply greater."

Midge Sanford, who with partner Sarah Pillsbury is producing DreamWorks' "Love Letter," agrees.

"I know when we've looked for D.P.'s in the past, if we got 50 resumes, 48 of them would be from men," says Sanford, who also produced "How to Make an American Quilt" and "Love Field." "There are just far fewer women to look at to see if they were right."

Actor Jason Patric, who produced last year's indie film "Your Friends & Neighbors," actually went looking for a female cinematographer to shoot his Neil LaBute-directed movie.

Eventually, he settled on Nancy Schreiber, who heretofore had worked in television and documentaries.

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