How I Became A... Cinematographer
The Debrief: What's it really like to work as a young female cinematographer?
Artwork by Hailey Hamilton
Natasha Mullan, 27, is a cinematographer and studied Film and Television Production at the University of Westminster in London. 'I always loved art and portrait photography and I guess it just merged into moving image,' she told me. She currently lives in LA and has worked on the likes on The Revenant and True Detective, amongst others.
I work in a 'loader' position at the moment
'I basically download all the footage, if there’s anything broken I’ll order in equipment, and replace it, I keep time of everyone’s in and out times, make sure they all get paid, I will often stand in for the seconds, do the clapper board, I send off all the media for the entire film to the post production house and make sure the notes are there with it, so everyone’s always in the loop.
'It really varies on every film: on The Revenant we were so remote, in the middle of nowhere, we had to have a wireless signal all the time going to the monitors for the director and the DP (Director of Photography) running around so we had this box in order to transfer a wireless signal from the cameras to the monitors. It was very complex and a huge thing if it had gone down.
'I’m basically the go-to person in the department. It’s one of those annoying jobs where you’re the last to be thanked but the first person to be told off. But it’s a wonderful position for learning and I’m basically able to oversee everything and I have to have such strong relationships with everyone.'
London is crucial
'I wasn’t sure whether to go to London or Bournemouth - Bournemouth has a more established reputation but London was London and I knew that’s where the work was going to be. For me it was about being able to do things on a weekend, or talking to any people that came in and harassing them and telling them I’m available at any moment: I can come in for free, I can do anything. Obviously it's easier to just hop on a tube than get on a train from Bournemouth so it was definitely crucial, I think. Even now, being in LA, it’s so connected to London.'
University isn’t always necessary
'For me it wasn’t like I was born into this: I definitely didn’t know anything about it and there’s not really an A Level that teaches you about it either, so for me, yes it [university] was important. A lot of it was learning how to measure light and learn about different cameras and different lenses and different kinds of equations, I guess, and how to work things out.
'I’ve never regretted it and I wouldn’t change it but I would say if I did have the opportunity to not be in debt and maybe did have an ‘in’ when I was 15/16 and I started interning, then that would have been preferable. That said I think you learn so much quicker when you’re actually on the job and have more of an understanding and a longer time with the equipment. I think in most industries now that there’s a big question mark of how vital university is if you can get those extra years in the actual field.'
Science and maths are important
'There’s a lot more science and mathematical than you think because it’s measuring light and teaching you how to add that all up because our eyes compensate for everything.'
Manual labour is a big part of it
‘Even though there’s a creative side, you’re still very much lifting heavy objects and you know everything about electricity and what type of amp can be plugged into what and all these kind of aspects. So because of that I guess it’s a very male orientated job.’
It’s an extremely sexist industry
‘I would rock up to set and often get pointed in the direction of the make-up truck or the costume and they’d assume that I definitely was not in the camera dept. I’ll often get questions from all sorts of people asking directions, assuming I’m a PA, it could be really well intentioned and not meaning to offend but it’s just people assuming.
'What I started to do, at least in England definitely, and I’ve started to get a lot more comfortable now, is wear huge, baggy clothes and definitely no make-up and put my hair up in a cap. Being blonde as well it just kind of… I feel like it stands out or it’s just another stereotype of being maybe slightly more ditzy or whatever they may think. I just wanted to be taken seriously.
'I was always nervous for the first day or two to really be taken seriously and quite often I’d be asked to go and grab something that’s a tiny little box rather than the heavier thing next to it because they’re assume I couldn’t do it, and the guy who they asked to do it is already carrying a billion things and it just didn’t make any logical sense.
'I'm not saying that to put young women off joining the industry. But when I joined fresh from university, I was thrown in at the deep end, and the misogyny I faced made me really nervous. It still sticks with me now, so I'd rather other people knew what they were facing beforehand. But that said, once you're established being a woman can become a bonus - you're such a rarity that you stand out and people remember you.
'On this last job I was on, I’d worked with these guys for maybe six months everyday and one day I came in having been to a party, with nail varnish on and I put my gloves on and wore them all day. I kept getting comments about wearing them and my boss, who’s quite tough, said to me ‘Look, why are you wearing gloves?’, and I was like ‘I have a manicure and I don’t want anyone to see’. He was not someone I thought would be soft but he’s really resonated with me because he said ‘Why are you embarrassed?' and I told him that I didn't want to seem unprofessional and like a girl and he was like ‘The thing is, you are a girl, and you’ve just got to embrace that. You’re here not because you’re a girl and who cares? It’s just nail varnish.’ Which is of course what you should think but in my head I’m in this man’s job and I don’t want to seem weak.'
Men outnumber women
‘I don’t work with many women. The first woman cinematographer I worked with was on True Detective out here [in LA] and it was really amazing to see her. And then there's Vinyl which came out last week, and the DP of that is also a woman, and it’s so inspirational to me. It sounds stupid, but it's nice to see that they just come in their nice normal clothes, and they'll wear jewellery or whatever they want, rather than disguising the fact that they're a woman. Seeing them being really comfortable in their own skin is really important to me.
The Revenant was very interesting because there was maybe about 10 women in the hundreds of crew. Mostly there was two of us in the camera department and one of the girls was only there for half the time.
I remember one day, two women came in as backup camera people and three of us were carrying some big camera equipment and walking through the set and everyone turned around to look. They were actually startled by the sight of us.'
You do have to work for free
'I definitely had to [work for free] in my first year out of university, that’s one of the things that film school didn’t help us with as much as they maybe should have done; making us aware of that catch 22 - that you need to live in London but at the same time living in London costs so much money.
'I really didn’t want to take any money from my parents just out of stubbornness I guess but my parents did help me, definitely, for the first year and it started to pick up. But if it wasn’t for them I definitely would have struggled.
'I would say that you can try to get a part-time job but you’re likely to come up against a bit of a problem every week because work’s so sporadic; you might find out 12 hours before you work that you’ve got a job, so then you’re likely to let someone down. I started to do that at the end of university and then I got asked to leave from a restaurant job because I wasn't able to commit to them as much.
'When you are working, it’s a very highly paid industry especially in America. In England you get paid a little less.'
A lot of it is word of mouth
'Jobs are very few and far between to begin with because you’re trying to build a rapport through word of mouth because it’s not like acting or something where you get an agent and they put you out for things, it’s really word of mouth that just takes time.'
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