I became a cinematographer by accident, the way many others become a cinematographer: I bought a camera.
I moved to Los Angeles in 2004 to attend the Writing for Screen and Television program at USC. As a screenwriter, I was in the lowest caste of the film school (as far as borrowing school equipment went), so when I was in my introductory film production class, I was faced with a conundrum. I’ve always strived to push my work to its limits, but I didn’t feel I could learn much about visual storytelling from the camcorders available at school, so a few short films and one machinima into the semester, I bought a DVX-100 on eBay with money I’d saved from a graphic design job.
The DVX is one of the finest digital cameras every made, was extremely popular, and had a huge following. I loved its manual controls, its simplicity and the power of feeling I knew how to get the best footage out of it I could (a feeling I’ve only ever gotten since with the Digital Bolex). Owning a DVX, and learning more about it, quickly led me to the DVXuser forum, a font of knowledge on DIY filmmaking, which was taking on a new digital mantle during the early oughts. Filmmakers like Stu Maschwitz, who wrote the DV Rebel’s Guide, were inspiring the Web 1.0 creators who would go on to become Web 2.0 YouTube stars, and from these resources I learned about and bought lens adapters, filters, sound gear, and everything I needed to create nice images on a not so nice budget–albeit in Standard Definition.
So I became the kid with a camera, which inevitably led to being the kid people asked to shoot their student films: I shot more than a dozen shorts between myself and my friends, as we struggling multi-hyphenates stumbled our way towards graduation. Projects I shot included an adaptation of one of Roald Dahl’s WWII stories, a Hong Kong-style shoot ’em up, an existential Western, a melancholy sci-fi tableau, and more than a handful of comedies.
Getting my mitts on a camera with which I could create images that I had confidence in (as opposed to the camcorders with terrible color, exposure rendition, jerky zoom, and 30fps frame rate that felt like every project was a CCTV feed) enabled me to push myself to my limits visually, taught me about the technology I was using and how to improve myself and gave me the freedom to experiment with creating different looks and moods that fit the myriad genres I was shooting. I got down and dirty often, running through the once-in-three-years rain in Death Valley, hanging off rock formations in Red Rock Canyon, sneaking into empty warehouses in Santa Clarita, all with the confidence that, with my camera, I could get beautiful images—anything I had the guts to capture. I certainly wasn’t Roger Deakins, but I felt like I could be, and that made an enormous difference in the types of projects I tried to tackle.
I don’t think many girls are able to share this experience.
Most artists, (and especially women, who are socialized from a young age not to be handsy and initiative-taking), need privacy and intimacy with technology in order to learn it inside and out, an intimacy which is hard to come by when you’re on a school waiting list or can’t afford to shell out for a camera of your own. The ability to try, and to fail—and subsequently to learn, and to grow—in private is instrumental in perfecting any craft. Women don’t usually get a chance to get familiar enough with any camera equipment to learn how to perfect the images that will get them hired on a professional level.
It wasn’t until years out of school that I realized that many of the women I knew who wanted to be career cinematographers hadn’t shot anywhere near the number of projects I had. At first my feeling was incredulity: "How come they haven’t shot as much as me? I don’t even think of myself as a cinematographer! Are they just not working hard enough?" But as I started to freelance in 2010, I came to realize that in the post-digital indie film era, the kit is king. That is, the kind of scrappy, run-and-gun projects that typically give aspiring DPs a foot in the door are also generally the kind of project that’s so low budget that they can’t afford to rent a camera package, so DPs are chosen not by visual capability, or the depth of their technical knowledge, but simply by what gear is on their list.
There’s a skewed feedback situation that occurs with low-budget freelance: those with the money to buy good gear get the better jobs that afford them to buy more good gear. I didn’t have good enough gear to get the jobs that would buy me better gear, so in order to level up my equipment, I’d have to eat ramen or my roommates’ leftovers for a month to afford a new lens, which I did on multiple occasions. And you’d be amazed at how having just the "right" lens or the "right" shoulder rig can open the door to more jobs; you learn pretty quick which companies have the most respected gear, and what gear makes you look like "a professional." Even today, when I have a regular paycheck, I’m flabbergasted at the ease at which filmmakers I know casually recommend I just pick up this lens, or that tripod, because I remember the days when buying a lens was like winning a Golden Ticket.
We know that men make more money than women in general, and command more authority as freelancers, which makes living the slumming, "starving artist" lifestyle of an up-and-comer much more difficult for women. Men group together to pool resources more than women, and men take action to acquire gear, because they are taught to lead, and women are taught that being part of a team is just as important as being a leader; that it’s not important to have and know how to use equipment if you have a guy around who can help you shoot.
Dudes are more likely to have a friend with a RED they can borrow than girls are—and while I have seen amazing camaraderie between men in this business over the last ten years, I can’t recall a single instance in my personal experience of a guy loaning a camera to a female shooter. Now, I don’t think this is active discrimination, not by any means, but because of reinforced gender biases in hiring practices at every level of our industry, men simply feel more comfortable entrusting technology to men. Just like men are more likely to have a guy friend in the camera department on a show who can hire him on, or working at a rental house who can loan him gear for free, or able to knock a few percentage points off his purchase at the camera store.
These are valuable resources, key to anyone trying to break into the industry, that women, generally, do not have access to—and most of the time don’t even know they don’t have access to.
Until I was a gatekeeper in charge of a whole fleet of cameras at Digital Bolex, I never had any idea that emailing a company and asking for a loaner was a thing that you could do. It had never even occurred to me. The brand-partnering wisdom passed down from generation to generation of cargo-shorted camera department guy never quite made it to my ears, and I’m pretty sure none of the ladies I know got the memo either. Women don’t often look, dress, or talk the part (or have the toys) necessary to gain their entrance into the tree fort, and it’s in that tree fort that relationships and careers are forged.
Which is why I started a grant at Digital Bolex to give women access to some of these resources, so that they can bring a competitive edge to the table from the get go, and move up the chain just as fast as guys can. As someone who’s been passed over, even by close friends, for those with the "right" whatever at times, I know the importance of, a la Indiana Jones, bringing a gun to a knife fight. Gear is money, and if there’s one thing we know about Hollywood, it’s that money talks.
We also know from academic studies that women have a hard road in this industry: women make up 2% of working cinematographers, 6% of directors, are less likely to apply to jobs until they meet 100% of criteria, when men feel comfortable applying with 60%. This often makes it seem pointless to even respond to a job listing. I’ve learned over the years to apply anyway, just to prove I exist–say, if the listing is asking for one camera, and I have a similar or better one handy–but I’ve also learned to accept the "fuck you" responses and move on, which can be harder to do, and more viciously directed, when female. But if women can meet most of a job’s criteria, especially while exceeding that criteria, it should become easier for them to find work at higher and higher levels.
There are still biases we can’t control; there will continue to be men who feel women aren’t competent enough to compete in the cinematography big leagues. Even with two SXSW titles under my belt, it’s still rare for me to bag a follow-up email the simplest of job listings, which is deeply frustrating and has left me considering whether I should test out a gender-neutral moniker or create a mysterious Eastern European persona. But barring that, I focus on what I can control: my work, my gear, and my support of other female filmmakers.
Writing a thousand words or retweeting a link costs nothing but time; donating money to a crowdfunding campaign that could otherwise go to your gear stash or a future project costs a little, and recommending better-qualified women than yourself for certain projects costs a lot, in potential contacts, higher paychecks, and reel material. I do all three to the extent of my abilities, with the gut feeling and faith that it doesn’t matter if I’m the woman who cracks that ceiling first, whoever does it will positively effect the success of all the women able to break through as a result.
When I have hiring power, I try to work with women in my camera crew as much as possible, and—finally!—I’m directing a project this fall with one of my favorite young DPs, Lauren Haroutunian, whose work for RocketJump has accrued tens of millions of views. I met Lauren at USC ten years ago, and we’ve worked together behind the camera on a number of projects, so I’m giddy at the notion of building a partnership with a lady DP the way so many wonderful male duos, like Nolan and Pfister, are able to join together to create images and stories that inspire millions.
We are in a moment of extreme change in the industry—for maybe the first time we’re seeing women walking out of graduate programs and into directing and photographing indie features that can leverage social media and VOD to have a real financial impact. Many of these women, even those my age, may read the above and find virtually no experience in common. Which is exactly what we’re fighting for. I’ve seen many women caught up in the tuna net of inequality rue those who swim free for not acknowledging The Fight as first and foremost benefactor in their success, but the whole purpose of The Fight is that women after us, and hopefully some women around us, and even more hopefully us in future jobs (fingers crossed), don’t have to deal with the difficulties in getting hired that most of us do today.
Elle Schneider is a director and cinematographer from New York City, and co-developer of the Digital Bolex cinema camera. Photographer and co-producer of 2014 SXSW feature documentary "That Guy Dick Miller," which has played at over a dozen international film festivals this year. Recently she was second unit cinematographer for Geek & Sundry’s "Caper" web series and Troma’s "Return to Class of Nuke’m High" Volumes 1 and 2, and shot part of 2013 SXSW selection "I Am Divine." As a director, Elle has helmed "One Small Step," which premiered at the Short Film Corner of the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, and four commercials for Digital Bolex. She also directed "Pray with Us," a horror short now in post-production, and "Cuddle," a comedy which premiered at the 2013 HollyShorts Film Festival in Los Angeles. She is raising funds for her passion project, an action film called "Headshots," on Seed&Spark through 11/6.