Femme lensers poised to break Acad ground

First the bad news: When it comes to Oscar nominations, cinematography rivals the best actor category in number of women honored: zero. That comes as no surprise to Women in Film president Jane Fleming, who calls the discipline “by far the worst” in its male-to-female ratio. “Of the top 250 films of 2007, only 2% have female cinematographers, which is a pretty grim statistic,” she says.

Now for the good: This year, two female d.p.s stand a good chance of bucking the trend, thanks to their work on a pair of eagerly anticipated award-season pics. Baz Luhrmann selected Mandy Walker (“Lantana”) to lense his Down Under epic “Australia,” while Darren Aronofsky tapped celebrated documentary cinematographer Maryse Alberti for “The Wrestler.”

They are not alone, of course — Ellen Kuras made her name working with Spike Lee, Nancy Shreiber is Emmy nominated, and Lisa Rinzler shot “Menace II Society” — though most female d.p.s find themselves working on indies or docus. “Australia” and “The Wrestler” represent high-profile gigs, as well as a shot at Oscar gold.

Alberti got started taking behind-the-scenes photos on X-rated movies, a world that still valued lighting and 35mm film at the time. After networking with the crews of young NYU and Columbia film school grads, she was soon shooting arthouse and documentary features. As her career evolved to include such assignments as “Happiness” and “Velvet Goldmine,” Alberti made a regular habit of alternating with nonfiction projects.

“I’ve been all over the world for many different stories, from the miners in Bolivia to the king of Spain, to Antarctica, to India. I met the pope and the Dalai Lama, I did the war in Nicaragua and the revolution in Russia,” says Alberti, whose documentary background taught her how to manage unpredictable scenarios and compose on the fly. “There’s no take two, so you really learn to react,” she says. “You learn how to walk into a house and recognize this is the best place for the camera, to build the scene in your head.”

That experience came in handy on “The Wrestler,” which called for a realistic approach to semi-improvised situations. Using the films of Belgian siblings Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne as a model, Alberti and Aronofsky discussed the aesthetic of “Rosetta” and “The Son,” tales of working-class heroes that shadow their characters at a slight distance, often gazing at the backs of their heads as if trying to peer directly inside.

For scenes in the ring, Aronofsky brought the crew to real matches, staging fights between Mickey Rourke and actual wrestlers before authentic crowds of fans. Likewise, he staged the character’s day job in a working supermarket, allowing real shoppers to wander up to the deli counter and interact with Rourke while cameras rolled.

“There are moments in the movie that are truly a documentary because you see Mickey in the middle of 20 wrestlers, and he starts to joke around or play around,” Alberti explains. “(Aronofsky) really wanted to try something different.”

Grandeur and control

Coming off of his “Red Curtain Trilogy,” Luhrmann was also determined to reinvent his style on “Australia,” which is one reason he turned to Walker. The d.p. had built a successful career shooting big international commercials, which fit the director’s vision of combining the scope of films like “Lawrence of Arabia” with his trademark impressionistic touches.

“The intention was to meld the grandeur of a David Lean movie with the control possible (in) using George Lucas’ method,” Walker explains. “He called it ‘the Lucas-Lean.’”

The approach meant grabbing dramatic wide shots on location and then picking up the more intimate moments onstage, where Walker could extend magic hour as long as needed and manipulate the look to suit the emotions of the scene. The most ambitious sequence follows the bombing of Darwin, in which the crew smoked out the entire harbor and then filmed the action from small boats on the water, later relocating to a big tank to shoot coverage.

Though the look of the film is completely different from Luhrmann’s earlier collaborations with cinematographer Donald McAlpine, Walker insists her gender has nothing to do with the change. “Every film that I’ve shot is completely different,” she says.

Both Walker and Alberti reject the misconception that the physical demands of the job deter women from pursuing cinematography. At 5-foot-5, Alberti operates the 25-pound camera herself on documentary shoots but entrusts those duties to her crew on features. “You have to be in good shape, but not as much as a firewoman or a policewoman,” she says.

Of Walker’s 10 features, “Australia” is only the second that has been too big an undertaking for her to get behind the camera herself. “When I’m shooting commercials, I always operate,” she says. “I’ll be in helicopters or hanging off the back of trucks, and I just don’t think about it.”

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