From ‘Unbelievable’ to ‘Truth Be Told,’ How Parity and Perspective in Cinematography Aids in Storytelling

UNBELIEVABLEl to R: Lisa Cholodenko and Quyen Tran
Beth Dubber/Netflix

With peak TV refusing to actually peak, the consistent influx of new television content not only brings with it new opportunities to tell female-centric stories, but also more chances for women to take pivotal production positions. That includes cinematographers, who have the opportunity to tell these stories in ways that subvert the traditional male gaze.

Just looking at the sheer volume of television, the medium should provide more space for women in this role: There are now approximately 500 scripted series airing in a calendar year, which means there are at least 500 of these positions available.

Admittedly in the longer-running shows the same person usually stays with the project season over season. Due due to increasingly intense production demands, shifting schedules and a person’s commitment to multiple projects, newer series often see anywhere from two to five people in this specific high-profile position for a season.

But the training and hiring processes have yet to catch up, resulting in the number of female cinematographers working in scripted television in the 2018-19 television season maxed out at 5%, according to the Boxed In report for that time. According to Variety’s own research, representation is looking slightly better for the 2019 calendar year, rising to 6.6%, but these are still meager numbers overall.

“People tend to hire who they know and trust,” says Kirsten Schaffer, executive director, Women in Film. “Developing a new pipeline of talent is always important, but the most important thing is to expand the professional networks of female cinematographers who are already qualified to work, including greater numbers of women in the ASC [American Society of Cinematographers] and the guilds.”

Quyen Tran, who started her professional career as a photographer before moving into cinematography, says when she started out in the industry, she never thought about going into a male-dominated field. Rather than worrying that her gender would limit her success, she just focused on “becoming the best artist I could be,” she says.

Tran’s first major foray into television was in 2018 with series such as HBO’s “Camping,” and this year she set the visual tone for Netflix’s “Unbelievable,” a limited series based on a real-life rape case. The premiere episode of the series is told through the eyes of survivor Marie (Kaitlyn Dever) as she experiences the assault, an event Tran notes was imperative to handle with the utmost care.

“You have to schedule time during prep. We took time out to meet with the actress. You have to make it a priority,” Tran says. She and the episode’s director, Lisa Cholodenko, sat down with Dever to explain what it would look and feel like on set, as well as on-screen.

“We never wanted the perpetrator to have any power in the story; what we wanted to do was create a perspective that was only told through the victim,” she says. “Lisa laid down on the couch and I pretended to be the camera, and we showed Kaitlyn exactly how we would place the camera. It was shot by shot because we wanted Kaitlyn to get comfortable and we wanted to create a very safe environment. I do really strongly believe that having women in the creative roles really propelled this in a different perspective. I don’t know if I could see two men doing that.”

This is a sentiment Ava Berkofsky, cinematographer on both HBO’s “Insecure” and Starz’s “Vida,” echoes. “I had been on sets when I was coming up where it’s time to shoot a sex scene and the crew literally gets excited. And it’s so disturbing. All of a sudden the actor becomes an object to people — it’s an excuse for that — and I find that intolerable,” she says.

To combat this, Berkofsky has noticed some female actors request female cinematographers when they know there are going to be sensitive content scenes. Such talent is out there, it’s just a matter of working a little harder and asking for specific recommendations to find them.

One place to which television productions can look to find these women is independent film, according to Schaffer. There, 16% of cinematographers are women, and the working environment of shorter schedules sets them up perfectly for the pace of TV.

“Most female cinematographers’ primary concern is how to get the best shot to facilitate the story, but they are also aware of what images are missing from mainstream narratives and they are driven to bring those images to life on screen,” she says.

Nicole Hirsch Whitaker, a DP on “Truth Be Told,” says sensitive subject matter isn’t limited to sex scenes. In her Apple TV Plus limited series adaptation that centers on a true crime podcaster (played by Octavia Spencer), Whitaker would “go in super, super tight to see her eyes or her mouth or what she was doing” in emotional moments. Often this required having a hand-held camera inches from Spencer as she was performing, with Whitaker gently touching her to make her aware of the boundaries of her movements.

“It’s really about giving the actors the respect and the space to do what they needed in those very emotional scenes,” she says.

Adds Berkofsky: “If the actors are uncomfortable, I’m going to bring it to the attention of the 1st AD, and I’m the one holding the camera, so I’m not going to roll if someone doesn’t feel comfortable. I think a lot of female DPs are like that. There’s no joy in participating in something where someone feels uncomfortable. It’s a horrible feeling, and I think as a woman I’m tuned into that.”

These shows that Berkofsky, Tran and Whitaker have recently worked on were all created by women and feature many female directors. In the case of the second season of “Vida,” 100% of the directors were women, at the behest of creator-showrunner Tanya Saracho. Having women who run the show should inherently help in the perspective of the storytelling, as well as some of the biggest hires. But less than half (46%) of 2019 series featuring female cinematographers were run or co-run by women. Where the difference is often made up is in the directors of projects who recommend those they have worked with before.

Whitaker, who started in commercials, points out that sometimes the female directors in that medium were specifically looking for a female cinematographer to work with because they didn’t want to be the only woman on set. While her experience has shown her there are more female directors in commercials than television, programs are in place to get to parity behind-the-scenes of the small screen.

One is ReFrame Rise, a two-year sponsorship program endorsing specific female directors, which Schaffer says has a goal of having “more female directors hired on studio features and high-profile TV pilots [and] first episodes where ‘the look’ is established.” This program selects eight women at a time for the program, and they are put on every list of female directors generated by networks, studios and production companies because “visibility is extremely important,” Schaffer says. In the future, ReFrame says it is considering expanding the Rise program into areas such as cinematography, though they do not have any specific plans for that at this time.

Since the push for parity has thus far been so focused on such public above-the-line positions as writers, producers and directors, it is falling to individual department heads to pay close attention to who makes up their teams.

Tran says she has had female camera assistants for the past decade of her career, but she has also recently noticed that more female electricians and grips have been on set. “As long as people see me — especially the fact that I am not just a woman, but I am also a minority and a mother and I very openly talk about being a mother and being in the film industry — they know they can do it, too,” she says.