Cinematographer Quyen Tran on ‘Unbelievable’ and Learning From Roger Deakins (Guest Column)

Isabella Vosmikova/Netflix

As a female cinematographer, I am constantly asked how to find work or break into the system. Shooting the pilot for “Unbelievable” showed me that being a woman in this business isn’t about finding just any job — it’s about finding the right job with the right story and collaborators.

While studying film at UCLA, I knew I was drawn to narrative projects. The path was incredibly narrow, twisted, and steep at times, but my focus remained clear, thanks to early guidance from Roger Deakins, who taught for a semester as our cinematographer in residence. Under his mentorship, I learned that the story was the driving force behind his decisions. And today, the projects I connect with the most have strong, clear narratives. Thus, when director Lisa Cholodenko sent me the pilot for “Unbelievable,” I knew immediately I wanted to collaborate on it, even though I had just promised my family I was going to take time off.

As a mother of two, I strive every day to strike a balance between work and life. However, a story like “Unbelievable” rarely gets told, and I needed to play a part in its telling. Luckily, since Lisa and I had collaborated previously, she and the creators allowed me to take time off at the beginning of prep to go to Yosemite with my husband and children. I secured a crew, then went off the grid for four days.

Showrunner Susannah Grant and producer Sarah Timberman, along with Lisa, are all mothers, so they completely supported my family commitments. When I got back, rejuvenated, I was ready to tackle the script.

Lisa and I set to work breaking down the pilot, going scene-by-scene and talking through every grueling detail. The story focuses on a victim of sexual assault, and we decided early that we never wanted to see her through the eyes of the perpetrator — nor did we want anything to be fetishized or gratuitous. Susannah knew the rapist’s identity would not be revealed until the final episode, so it was important to always maintain the perspective of our victim, Marie. To empathize with her, we designed a way to place the camera at her exact point-of-view, even though it meant some discomfort for our actress, Kaitlyn Dever. Lisa and I sat with Kaitlyn during prep and discussed her comfort level with nudity, and how we intended to photograph those scenes. We even acted it out on a couch in Lisa’s office to be as precise and careful as possible.

It isn’t often you’re given time during prep to block scenes, let alone with the director, cinematographer and lead actor. However, if you have a supportive team of producers who believe in your vision, production finds a way. This special confluence of interests allowed us to explore elements of the story that weren’t even scripted. In our discussions, Lisa and I talked about “disassociation” and “disembodiment,” and the idea that every trauma victim deals with it differently. In this case, Marie disassociates from her body during this terrible act of violence. In the original script, Marie focuses on a poster of a beach at sunset, but we wanted to explore that idea, and actually transport Marie there. We discussed it with Susannah and she fully supported us.

However, the schedule did not allow for a beach day, so I pitched it as a “camera test,” before principal photography officially began, and we got the green light. With a tiny crew, we shot our unscripted beach memory scene, which I’m proud to say made the final cut. The energy and spirit of collaboration and purpose brought me back to my film school days (except our crew had a little more experience). I feel incredibly lucky to have had the support of the creative team and studio that understood my family situation, and afforded me the luxury of a short vacation. And through it all, they allowed us to put story first.

Storytelling can have the power to change perspectives and reach people on a human level. After being a part of this unique project and team, I have been striving to take on projects that might make a political or social impact.