Since I started my cinematography career, I am often asked “what it means to be a woman cinematographer.” After rephrasing the question as “what it means to be a cinematographer” I simply answer that as a Director Of Photography it is my responsibility to come up with creative ideas about how to express the visual telling of the story through the unique use of lighting, camera movements and composition. This is what drew me to the art of cinematography, which to me is the most beautiful job imaginable.
Although it’s true that there are very few female DP’s and that the field is often thought of as a “boys club,” I believe that when it comes to talent and creativity, it is passion and determination that makes a person reach for the sky — not gender.
I always keep my mind, eye and imagination open to what is best for a project. I balance taking risks and not overthinking shots with a level of pre-planning and understanding on what actual design and visual language the story requires.
I approach a project in the same way I approach life and that is with the understanding that there are multiple ways to get things done. I come up with creative and innovative ideas and use those solutions in both my life and in my work.
I feel that I bring freshness to my work based on the fact that I am a woman and see things from that very personal, unique and creative perspective. That’s why I was so excited when I read the script for “Mad Women,” a film project written and directed by Jeff Lipsky. I really enjoyed and identified with the mother and daughter lead characters, one of whom was mature, strong and ready to change the world and another who was young and just discovering life through love and sexuality.
As a woman, I intimately understood the emotions the characters were experiencing, and as a cinematographer, I knew that the challenge would be to somehow visually tell their story purely through their eyes while including all the sensuality and desire they were experiencing.
I began visualizing how to place the camera in order to discover every moment, breath and gesture as portrayed by the actors from a sensual woman’s point of view instead of just as lustful objects as I’ve so often seen. I determined that the naturalistic approach was the right feeling for the film and I suggested to Jeff that we light each scene with a Renaissance look including as many intimate extreme close ups as possible. Jeff agreed and so I began to plan how best to visually break down each scene. On some of the sequences I also had to ignore my own personal feeling as a woman in order to make some of the more difficult choices.
Two of the most challenging sequences, which both involved some level of eroticism, were a sexual encounter between the main female character Nevada and her boyfriend and an extremely intimate scene between Nevada and her mother.
Since some nudity was an integral part of the story, I thought it was essential to slowly reveal it through a woman’s point of view. I also decided to follow the actors in the most intimate way and capture their feelings and emotions without distracting them or invading their space.
It was also intriguing to try and discover, through a cinematographer’s eye, an innovative way to show intimacy without analyzing or judging — especially since Nevada was exploring her sexuality with both genders.
I decided to use extreme long soft edge lenses while keeping a certain physical distance so as not to be too intrusive. I basically became a sensual spy with a camera. That technique became so effective that eventually it was as if the camera and I were not there, yet we were able to capture each moment of passion. In the end, the actors felt so comfortable that they actually thanked me for the unobtrusive style that I shot the movie in.
I realized that because I often work in different countries, where I don’t speak or understand the language, I developed the ability of quickly picking up local gestures and body language and even the physical look of different cultures and places.
Interestingly, I usually hold the camera as if it is part of me and the feeling is as if I am dancing or making love with it. However there were times during the filming of “Mad Women” when I actually felt that the camera had a life of its own. Since my relationship with the camera on this film felt so different than anything I’d experienced before I simply decided to screw with it and the relationship between us. It was almost the exact emotions the actors were having with their characters. I even started flirting with the camera in order to tease it into capturing emotions that a machine should not normally be able to do.
And so I explored my own inner feelings and humanity with the camera while the camera seemingly captured its own visions of the world we were filming.
Through this process I came to fully embrace the reality that as a cinematographer and human being I am not interested in acting like a man — or even acting as a successful woman in a man’s world. I simply want to enjoy the fact that I am a woman, period. Because in the end I know that talent, creativity and skills have no gender.
Award-winning cinematographer Valentina Caniglia AIC is known for her work in over 20 films including “Pomegranates and Myrrh” (2009 Sundance Film Festival). Caniglia shot Jeff Lipsky’s “Mad Women” using a RED Epic camera with Zeiss Ultra Prime lenses and at a 2.39 aspect ratio.
“Mad Women” is opening in theatres beginning this Friday, July 10th in NYC (at the Village East Cinema), on July 24th in LA (at the Sundance Sunset Cinema), and then nationwide in August. For more info about Valentina Caniglia go to: www.valentinacaniglia.net and for Mad Women go to: www.madwomenmovie.com.