Interview, Autumn Durald -
A Transforming Force
Hey, Autumn! Are you having fun shooting a western film?
Unfortunately the western I was supposed to shoot at the start of the year was pushed. When we do start shooting it will be a wild ride.
Are you doing things differently with this project or there are significant changes to how you shoot?
The short film has the same storyline so we already had a test run at the visuals. On the short film, I shot 35mm anamorphic and I flashed and pulled the film stock. I plan on doing that as well for the feature along with some other tricks.
As the imagery should tell the right story, and each story has it’s own look, Do you think it’s possible for a Cinematographer to have a particular visual aesthetic?
When I first started out I didn’t use to subscribe to this theory, however, I do now. I find that people often tell me that there’s definitely a particular visual style in all of my work. Which made me think more about other Cinematographers work I love, and now I can see why someone would say that. Every story has its own distinctive look, but a DP definitely brings their taste and eye to each project, and if you have a strong one then it shines.
How do you translate the combined vision of the writer and the director - on film? Have there been times when you went a little too adventurous?
All of my feature work, now six features have been with writer-directors. This makes it easy when talking to the director about the vision since he/she also wrote it. I wouldn’t say I’ve ever gone too adventurous, nothing the director and I didn’t dive into together. On the Arcade Fire “porno” music video/documentary film I shot for director Kahlil Joseph in Haiti we definitely did some adventurous things, but he is a very adventurous filmmaker so it’s par for the course when you shoot with him.
Do you feel that the courage to allow the moments of the characters and the overall atmosphere to be raw, not just as a form of a mental stimulation but more visible is something that makes increases the viewer’s investment into the film? Can it increase the emotional magnitude of the film?
Some stories should be told visually with a lighter touch, then the characters stand out the most. It’s not our job as Cinematographers to take our audience out of the story by showing how flashy our work can be or how cool our framing is. If our choices don’t suit the story and add depth to the emotional quality of the scene then we aren’t doing our job correctly. I don’t think an image has to be handheld and only naturally lit to feel realistic or raw. If those qualities are appropriate then great, but I do think you can manufacture a realistic tone through lighting it and keeping the camera more still.
When you are shooting, do you ever think about whether you would want the audience to be an experiencer standing by or let’s say a third actor in the film? How do you experience the movies or photographs you reference to or enjoy?
Definitely depends on the project. I’d say for Palo Alto it was important to express intimately what these teenagers were going through and have you feel like you were a part of their world. We also chose not to shoot it in a gritty handheld doc style. I don’t think the camera work or look has to be loose for audiences to feel like they are apart of the scene. Gia and I favoured a much more considered camera style and dreamy visuals, and we knew our audiences were sophisticated enough to relate.
Coming back to your process, can you talk to us about how you transform the use of light according to specific scenes and according to the nature of the film? Can you please share with us some of your experiences over the years shooting and working with light?
When I was at AFI (my graduate film school) my focus was always more lighting driven. The DPs that inspired me to choose Cinematography as a career had a very strong sense of light in their work. Gordon Willis, Harris Savides, Conrad Hall, and Michael Ballhaus. Sadly none of these DPs are with us anymore but their work is incomparable. So I made it a point early on in my career to learn lighting and what a gaffer does, and what they do well. I find the technical aspect of lighting intriguing and early on I always paid attention to what my gaffers and electricians were doing on set. When I read a script one of the first things I can visualize is how the light falls in the space or scene. I’m not sure why that is or when in my career this happened but it’s something that becomes apparent first. After discussing the look with the director this definitely evolves, but I start from there. If it’s a period piece there are already some limitations set in stone depending on the genre. I favour using hard and soft light together in a scene. And most importantly where the light comes from should serve a purpose.
Can you share with us the experiences you went through in order to widen your vision, your imagination and your dreams? Is it exhausting to spread your wings in a society as it is?
The two most important things a good DP should draw from is her/his sense of taste and their confidence. When you have a good sense of taste and the confidence to carry it out that’s where the images speak for themselves. It can be exhausting at times to get the projects you want to shoot. This career has a lot to do with determination and patience. Since Palo Alto, I get offered a ton of coming of age films. That is not the only story I want to tell or can tell. So it takes some work convincing this industry that you can shoot a variety of genres. Putting in that work can be exhausting but you’re a better DP for it. I wrapped a film called Teen Spirit last summer, it was an amazing experience and probably the film that most widened my vision and imagination. The film turned into something so special that I couldn't’ have predicted that when I read the script. Those are the most enlightening experiences, when you work your ass off, along with your team, and your directors’ vision shines and they ultimately put together a good film. Those experiences can be few and far between. That’s when you feel your wings spreading when everything just comes together and you’re proud of the final film you shot. Finding directors to work with that inspire you and you trust to tell great stories is one of the most important things I’ve learned making films.
Do you feel as more women come into filmmaking, they are going to bring an entirely new perspective to it and ultimately inspire a life from the heart than the mind?
The best and most successful films ultimately all come from the heart. That’s why you feel so emotionally connected to them. Female filmmakers started making films in the late 1800’s. It’s only now we’ve decided to shine a huge light on the subject. If audiences were paying attention, female told stories and perspectives have been out there for a long time. Now this current light on female filmmakers is allowing more women opportunities which are allowing more of those stories to be told. Hopefully, one day making it more of an equal landscape, mainstream films directed by women and men. Instead of what we’re most used to seeing at the box office, female and male stories told by men. I appreciate both perspectives, I think it’s fascinating to watch a female protagonist directed by a man and then see one directed by a woman. This diversity is what makes filmmaking so fun. You don’t need to be a male to tell a mans story and vice versa. Just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean I can’t shoot a masculine film. One of my favorite lensed films is BLOW, I remember the first time I saw it I looked up who the DP was. I was so delighted and inspired to see it was shot by a woman. Ellen Kuras is one of the reasons I thought I could even do this job when I finally decided to pursue it. Great cinematography or filmmaking shouldn’t see gender.
Before I ask you the last question, can you tell us, how would you compose silence?
Not sure how I would go about that, but if I was brainstorming a way to do it, I would start by sitting in a room with a Rothko painting.
Lastly, what would you suggest or share with other cinematographers?
Find your own sense of visual style and taste and run with it. Great work comes from the soul and only you can tell that story. Don’t be too concerned with making everything so precious in the frame. When you do that it tends to draw you away from the actual story and also the other artists making the film with you. You learn more about your style, the way you shoot and telling stories by all your mistakes. Take those mistakes and learn from them, don’t forget them. I am fortunate enough to do this as a career and I love my job, but this job is nothing without the people I work with. Filmmaking is a team effort and without that support, we as DPs can’t carry out our vision. Always appreciate your hard working crew and figure out the best way to lead them. And last but not least, for all you girls who want to be DPs but are discouraged by the lack of diversity in the industry, just go out and do it. There shouldn’t be anything stopping you. If you have a unique perspective and can create beautiful images, that is enough to get your foot in some door. I hope seeing more female shooters now is a testament to that.
Autumn's next project is Teen Spirit - Starring Elle Fanning & Directed by Max Minghella.
Interview with Autumn Durald Arkapaw