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Being a Camera Operator on a Documentary at Sundance: DP Barbie Leung on 'Half the Picture'

Before the lush celebrity gift suites, the sold-out Q&A sessions, and the long lines of frozen but eager cinephiles trying to grab the hottest ticket in Park City, a movie was made -- and it was hard work. And behind the producers and directors and actors who led the charge, a "below-the-line" crew of anywhere from tens to hundreds of craftspeople worked to bring filmmakers' visions to life. They're the post production engineers, the editors, the camera operators, or the composers whose names are in the credits but not the numerous story pitches to Sundance press outlets like the COW. Union or non-union, aspiring or veteran, these individuals spent weeks of their life behind the scenes dedicated to telling a story. And in my 2018 COW Sundance Film Festival coverage, I'm telling their stories.


New York based cinematographer Barbie Leung is highly relatable, especially among film nerds in Park City this week: she describes herself as "the high school kid that rented movies from the library when I was 16 when other people were outside." After her film theory education at University of Rochester, she spent time exploring where to go next. Her first gig in the industry was on a student thesis feature film (where she went in to be a PA and ended up script supervisor) and then hopped from indie to indie, learning all the roles, putting the pieces of how a film production works together, and gaining the confidence she needed to pursue her chosen path.

That path ended up being camera operator, where she worked as an assistant camera operator (AC) and enjoyed being "close to the action" before realizing she needed to make a choice about how to proceed. Frustrated by the slow upward movement in the traditional union path, she decided to forego that ladder and pursue being a cinematographer on the vast number of independent films in the city.

Barbie camera operating on feature documentary Half the Picture (photo credit: Tommy Ka)

"I couldn't really see [progressing from the bottom of the camera department traditionally] happening, especially for women, people of color, or a woman who is a person of color. I definitely didn't have the vocabulary we have now, and that I have from being older. At the time in my twenties, I was confused and I couldn't see the path forward. I couldn't see anybody that I felt was similar to my background that did that."

Finding the hunger to want to shoot, Barbie moved forward to market herself strictly as a cinematographer and camera operator, passing on jobs for roles she didn't want to pursue -- a choice that was admittedly difficult but ultimately worthwhile, if the long list of credits across narrative, commercial, new media, and branded content on her CV is any indication.

This week, she's at the Sundance Film Festival as part of the camera crew (specifically, camera operator) for Half the Picture, directed by Amy Adrion with Yamit Shimonovitz and Soraya Sélène as co-directors of photography. The documentary explores the lack of female directors working in Hollywood and the EEOC investigation into discriminatory hiring practices that have contributed to this issue. The film makes its world premiere at the festival this week.

I met up with Barbie at the packed (and warm) Atticus Tea House on Main Street this weekend to talk about her experiences as a camera operator and cinematographer. After our interview, she handed me her card. It's simple and no-nonsense: vital information on one side, and frames of her (beautiful) work on the other. She's fully done being reluctant about being a woman in a role where over 95% of workers are men. "This is me, this is what I do. Would you like this? Then call me."

Creative COW: How did you get involved on Half the Picture and what do you hope people take away from watching it?

Barbie Leung: Half the Picture is a feature documentary and it explores women directors in Hollywood. There have been a lot of studies and statistics crossing over into mainstream media, but there hasn't been a high profile documentary where you can really see women film directors with major studio pictures or successful indies speak about it. I was a camera operator on it because of all the experience I had with being in different indie film productions in New York. I had a really long time friend who joined the union and was off doing her union thing, and didn't have time to do this and passed it to me. She was in LA and gave the LA crew my name because they were shooting in NY and didn't have any connections.

The film is really unique in that you can see the directors speaking in their native environments, and that's a driving concept of Amy's film. We're filming angles where you see Catherine Hardwicke or Kimberly Peirce sitting under flags and boom poles and bounce boards while talking about this subject. It feels like she's in her element. We say it all the time in cinematography, and amongst women cinematographers: you have to see us to believe it, that a woman does this role. It makes it a given. It's a subtle but very powerful thing to have that image.

I haven't seen the whole film yet so I'm only privy to what people said on said during my segments as camera operator. But I hope people can just know there are this many women working. That they can be consciously aware of it. Like maybe somebody liked Boys Don't Cry, but did they remember Kimberly Pierce directed it? To be able to notice that, maybe people are just now realizing there are great women directors. I feel like the minutiae of what we're discussing, it's really good too. But the overarching element is that -- being aware of how many women directors there are.

You were a camera operator on this film, and you work as a both camera operator and cinematographer professionally. I think a lot of people aren't sure of the difference between those roles since sometimes the cinematographer operates a camera and sometimes they don't. But of course the cinematographer is in charge of everything in the frame, and the camera operator is in charge of operating the camera to accommodate the cinematographer's vision. How are these roles separate for you -- or not -- and how do you prefer to work?

A cinematographer definitely doesn't have to operate their camera. But a lot of cinematographers feel that it's really important to have that direct connection with the camera. It depends on the type of work they're doing, too. If they're doing indie work and there's a lot of handheld, you would want to feel the camera as an extension of your body. Or you're moving and connecting emotionally to what's happening, or kinetically to the action, you might want to be able to literally have a more direct connection between your brain and the craft of it.

A lot of it has to do with scope. I think most cinematographers have that preference, and when the scope is small enough, that's the best way to achieve the look you want. But sometimes when the scope of the film is too big, that's when it's helpful to have camera operators to help you execute different moves. As your productions are getting bigger, one person should be controlling each aspect of the task -- especially if it's smooth motion and you have a lot of gear. It's all about rehearsing it and getting into that grove.

It just depends on personal preference, the needs of the project, and how you like to work. I really do like operating as well when it's my project. I also like being a camera operator on other peoples' projects because you're communicating with another cinematographer and watching them work, and you can get into their head a little bit about how they like to frame things or how they want to feel out something. I think there's pros and cons and everyone will have a different process.

Still frame of Lena Dunham from one of Barbie's shots in Half the Picture. (Co-DPs Yamit Shimonovitz & Soraya Sélène)

What's your working relationship like with directors as a cinematographer?

I think especially where I am in my career, I work with a lot of first and second time directors who are still developing. They either don't yet know how to communicate with the cinematographer, or they're figuring it out because they've only worked with one other cinematographer and they don't really know these essentials. Mostly I approach it as: it's their vision and I'm here to help them. That means different things to different directors.

One way is actually have a drink or evening with a director. Go watch movies together, trade references that may or may not be related directly to the project that you're working, really trying to understand their sensibility and where they're coming from. Is it a writer/director -- especially in indie film that's often the case. Did they come from a theater background? Trying to figure out the most comfortable way to fit together, because ideally it's always a collaboration.

Those are really the kind of projects I seek out. Ones where I can be a collaborator. Some people might think 'oh it's a hired hand, you just show up and you shoot the thing I want'. But that 'want' is not just you telling me something, I need to understand where you're coming from before your words can make sense. You need that shorthand on set when you say something and we don't have time for those discussions. It's all about having those discussions. Understanding that person comes from, their background. Literally how did they grow up, what are their concerns and world view and how does that intersect with their art?

You also have to figure out how comfortable they are with the technology. Some people will need me to fill in the gap of how to achieve a camera movement. Does that camera movement fit into their budget? Is there a better way to do it? Easier ways to do it? All those things. And if the director is really comfortable with lens choices and they already know what they want, then we already know how to communicate. They can just tell me they want this on an 85mm. Whereas another director might say 'I imagine this to be wider or would have shallow depth of field,' some people communicate in those terms.

And it'll go all the way to an extreme where someone might just have a feeling, and I can really make my own decision and show it to them. They need to trust that I'm trying to fulfill their vision and not trying to add something that doesn't fit into it.

As a cinematographer, you're seen on set and behind the camera. But what other prep work and continued education is involved off the set?

Continued education is funny because it's always research. You're always having to keep up with what's happening with technology changing, tastes changing, and the interaction of that -- how technology will shape the tastes that we have. It's really important to have prep time for that. That can be in a narrative project or branded content. I just shot something for Redbull TV that was a much more experimental project. For things like that, it's really important to have prep time.

In the case of a film, after that mind-meld with your director and understanding their vision and that important preparation, we get into nuts and bolts. I should be on the tech scouts so I can tell someone if it's not ideal for the script they have. Breaking down the script, finding the elements, that's a really important thing. Words are free -- someone can write anything. But does it match their budget? Taking that, telling them the limitations of the location, making equipment lists, fitting it all into the budget, especially in indies. Budget is one of the most important things for them. I want them to get the most bang out of their buck for the producers.

Working with the assistant director (AD) to figure out how much time is necessary to shoot. A good AD will already have an estimate, but maybe there's some element to the shot that me and the director and gaffer and key grip have found a way to solve. It might need extra time, or it's a lot faster, so working with the AD to figure out a schedule and crewing up is important. I really like a good working crew, people who are good together and appropriate for the project. THere's a lot of work there too.

It's subtle and ongoing, every minute until you step on set. Once you get on set, it's just executing things. If you have good lighting diagrams, your key grip and gaffer can just look at it and have a shorthand. It's all quite nerdy, there's a lot of plotting and charts and Excel. And once you get on set, the part that looks cool is really just execution of weeks or months that you put into the prep. You want as much prep as you can, because once you get on set you're going to have problems. We all know this. Everything will go wrong. But if you have you plan, now you can be flexible because you know your ideal and you can react.

Behind the scenes working as director of photography on upcoming narrative feature Side Piece, directed by E.A. Moss (photo credit: David Bluvband)

What advice do you have for people who want to become a cinematographer, especially for those who are underrepresented on set?

If you're thinking of ultimately becoming a cinematographer, you need to figure out the way you want to get there. Think about if you want to come up in camera or grip and electric (G&E). To speak frankly, there are many more women in the camera department than G&E. It's something people are just more accepting of because of the perception that women are organized. And that's what being an assistant camera (AC) is, you're organizer and people like having you on set. Or do you want to go the G&E route, where there are fewer women? Many cinematographers historically have come up through G&E. That's a really big decision. It's very complex, and I'm always happy to talk to anyone who wants to talk to me about that.

Once you decide which way you want to come up, you also have to decide if you want to go union. If you're going union, there are a lot of steps to that. You need to be realistic about how much time you're willing to wait before you can become a cinematographer because if you're working full time and in the union, you actually are left with very little energy to do projects of your own. I was talking to another cinematographer today at the ASC party andt hey've seen a lot of their friends go into the union [and take a long time to work their way up] because it pays well, you have health insurance, all those things. If you value those things [over timing], maybe that's the way you go -- it's a lifestyle choice. The earlier you decide on that, I think it's better.

The biggest thing after that is you have to shoot as early as you can. Don't think you need to stay in a certain position for a certain amount of time. It really depends on your comfort level of stepping outside your comfort zone. You have to scare yourself. I think Rachel Morrison said it recently and in better words that with each project you work on, it needs to be an incremental jump. You're never going to get anywhere if you're not challenging yourself and scaring yourself with each project. You have to be bold. That way you won't have regrets. At least, that's my approach: try to improve in a large leap with each project.

Some people say shoot anything. That could be one approach, but one thing I've learned is that it needs to be quality. It's not the amount you shoot, you have to shoot smartly. The people you collaborate with, try to collaborate with people who are better than you. In a game of pool or billiards, you want to play with players who are better than you. Don't just play with people you're comfortable with. Find people that scare you a little bit and work with them.

Barbie at Atticus Tea House in Park City, Utah

Sundance Impressions: Three Movies on Sunday

Yeah, it’s Tuesday. I lost a day to travel, as I returned to Los Angeles yesterday in a sold out flight filled with exhausted looking film fans and the occasional indie actor. Our scarves and new boots have seen winter, and we’re through with it.

On Sunday I took full advantage of the festival, attending three world premieres in three different places across Park City. Thankfully the relentless snow had stopped and the shuttle service was back on track, allowing me to actually make it to all these films.

I Think We’re Alone Now, directed by Reed Morano, was first up for me. The post-apocalyptic story was just the kind of movie I really enjoy — which can make it hard to review objectively. But I ain’t never said this blog was objective, so screw it: I was into this film. It tells the story of a man left behind after some kind of apocalyptic event has killed everyone where they sat, stood, or drove. And this man is perfectly okay with that because he wasn’t a people person anyway. The best and richest parts of the film are in his routines and the textures they carry on screen. He’s perfectly content with his solitary life in upstate New York. Then one day, a woman shows up — and she doesn’t want to leave.

The cast and crew of I Think We're Alone Now

The conflict of companionship and loneliness that follows this is a really interesting look at how we all cope with ourselves and our needs. And I really loved that the story doesn’t bother to explore why the apocalypse happened or how to rebuild society. This character doesn’t care about that. For him, life goes on. Until it doesn’t.

Seeing Reed Morano’s name in the credits as both director and director of photography is also pretty great. Pretty dang great, yep.

Next up was Search, whose editors I interviewed earlier this week. As I described previously, this is a screen movie that takes place on a computer. But not just one computer or screen — multiple screens. If you’ve seen screen movies before, you might have expectations. This isn’t like that. It’s got zooms, pans, edits, dissolves. It just happens that you’re looking at John Cho’s Mac’s desktop. Search is the story of the disappearance of a man’s daughter and his mission to get her back. While that’s anything but a new story, the way this film unfolds makes it feel new.

The cast and crew of Search

I think it was really smart of the filmmakers (director Aneesh Chaganty and his co-writer Sev Ohanian) to use a story that has some basic building blocks an audience will recognize as a jumping off point for exploring it in an entirely different direction. There are stretches of the film where we’re watching Cho break into his daughter’s Gmail or go through her Facebook friends, and it’s surprisingly riveting. The twists and turns feel earned and realistic. It’s a lot of fun, and it uses some of the modern conventions of internet usage in new and interesting ways. I’m curious how people who don’t use the internet all that much will react to it, and how some of the sight gags involved might play upon a second viewing. The performances in the film are especially good — particularly John Cho, who had to act at a GoPro alone for a majority of the film.

And last for the day was Rupert Everett’s directorial debut The Happy Prince which was — yeah I’m gonna say it — anything but happy. The film tells the story of the final years of Oscar Wilde’s life, picking up after he gets out of prison for homosexuality. Everett also wrote the film and stars as Wilde, and he really does disappear into the role (and into his fat suit) to explore a complicated and sad artist’s spiral into depression and many many bad choices. The other films I saw at Sundance felt like they were trying something new and using their indie status to be a little bit different. The Happy Prince felt more like A Regular Movie you’d see nominated for Oscars and stuff.

But that doesn’t take away from how good I think it actually was. The cinematography and direction was fantastic, and the editing choices were great. From start to finish, it felt like the logical progression of a man’s fall from grace and into exile in France. Realistically it probably won’t stick with me, but I enjoyed having seen it. To punctuate my Sundance experience with an exploration of how we destroy great artists in their time and only choose to celebrate them properly when it’s far too late was an interesting choice — Wilde was pardoned in 2017.

This wasn't pleasant.

Also, I had to stand in the ticket overflow line for like a half hour in 13 degree weather to see it, so I’m glad it wasn’t terrible.

That was the end of my on-the-ground Sundance experience, and by the end I was nearly crawling to my airport terminal. Had I spent the entire week at the festival I wouldn’t be nearly spent because I would have paced myself a little bit more. Packing the full experience into 4 days required a little more of me. But let’s be real: I am aging rapidly and walking 5 miles a day in the snow is not something I am capable of sustaining.

Although I have departed Park City, my Sundance coverage continues this week with a few more interviews from your favorite below the line crew. Going and experiencing the festival first-hand was a really special experience. Sharing that with some old friends and new acquaintances was even more special. It’s been a long time since I stayed up until 3AM with friends talking about life and movies. I don’t share a breakfast table with like-minded people arguing about Avid very often. I never see three movies in a single day unless I’m laying on a couch in my pajamas. I’m thankful for the experience of Sundance and the people I met while I was there.

(I’m also thankful it’s 65 degrees in Los Angeles. But I am also under blankets.)

Posted by: Kylee Peña on Jan 23, 2018 at 6:17:36 pm Sundance film festival, post production, film, television

Sundance Impressions: Main Street, Friends, and Lizzie

Boarding my flight from LA, I knew I was in for an interesting trip when half the people around me were already wearing snow boots and hats. It was a chilly morning by Southern California standards, but my sweaty self was regretting even wearing a long sleeved shirt. (I really enjoy visiting cold places because I can walk outside and be comfortable. But I obviously don’t like living in them.)

Inside my press credentials, I was surprised and pleased to see a number for a hotline the festival created with the Utah Attorney General’s Office to report harassment, sexism, abuse, and discrimination. I hope other event organizers are taking notice (hello, NAB Show) because this is an obvious tool that should have been implemented years ago. It’s been an after-thought for so long, and it’s finally at the forefront.

The insert was inside all festival badges.

Wandering Main Street involved spotting actors I know whose names are on the tip of my tongue, people I worked with on projects in the past, and people I’ll probably work with in the future. And talking a lot about the threat of snow.

Adobe’s “Art of the Edit” panel this afternoon featured three Premiere-using editors discussing their craft and how it has and hasn’t changed. It’s striking to me how the number of self-taught, never-really-got-training editors are beginning to really take hold and outnumber the old guard. This is in large part thanks to accessible software like Premiere and After Effects. I think it won’t be terribly long before we have entire panels of established, experienced editors who don’t have a film-related anecdote. (I also think this is just fine.)

Adobe's panel on the art of the editor.

At the premiere of Lizzie I got my first taste of the Sundance screening experience: the ticket holder line, the sad glances from the waitlist line, and the buzz in the theater as a fresh, new movie begins. Lizzie is a psychological thriller based on the story of Lizzie Borden and the axe murder of the Borden family, directed by Craig William Macneill and edited by Abbi Jutkowitz, starring Chloe Sevigny and Kristen Stewart. Sevigny and Stewart are definitely at their best in the film with great characters and occasionally sharp dialogue, which is quiet, tense, and slow to build. But when it builds, it gets downright scary. It’s not surprising to add that Lizzie is pretty violent, and as I was thinking about my take on the film, I wondered if seeing a woman involved in this level of carnage (in a non-pulpy sense) was unconsciously affecting my opinion. It’s going to take a while before I really have a clear opinion, but I do know this: Lizzie ended up being a challenging and timely depiction of female rage.

The cast and crew of Lizzie in a Q&A after the screening.

Aside from the bustle of Main Street and the thrill of seeing new films, it’s also worth mentioning that just getting away and being around friendly faces — particularly those in our shared condo, which is full of television and film editors — has been appreciated and necessary. Three of us took a break from the Sundance scene this evening and made dinner at home, sharing olives and tapenade and red wine next to the fire. I love the theme of the sharing of stories at the festival, especially when they’re our own.

Follow me on Twitter and Instagram for more updates.

Dinner with friends.

Posted by: Kylee Peña on Jan 20, 2018 at 7:49:44 am Sundance film festival, post production, film, television

Follow Me at Sundance Film Festival this Week

Tomorrow morning, I'm jetting off from sunny Burbank to snowy (frigid, icy, frozen) Park City, Utah to cover the 2018 Sundance Film Festival here on the COW. I've got furry snow boots, long underwear, and a handful of tickets that cover everything from the fest's most anticipated to most experimental offerings. And I've got my own angle.

Before the lush celebrity gift suites, the sold-out Q&A sessions, and the long lines of frozen but eager cinephiles trying to grab the hottest ticket in Park City, a movie was made -- and it was hard work. And behind the producers and directors and actors who led the charge, a "below-the-line" crew of anywhere from tens to hundreds of craftspeople worked to bring filmmakers' visions to life. They're the post production engineers, the editors, the camera operators, or the composers whose names are in the credits but not the numerous story pitches to Sundance press outlets like the COW. Union or non-union, aspiring or veteran, these individuals spent weeks of their life behind the scenes dedicated to telling a story. And in my 2018 COW Sundance Film Festival coverage, I'm telling their stories.

I'll be talking to directors and producers and writers of course, and I'll tell you all about the films I see and the scene that's set in Park City, but my goal is to bring you insight into the daily lives of the crew -- the ones with the 10 or 12 hour days, the ones who worked their way up through unpaid "for exposure" promises, and the ones who unwaveringly service someone else's story.

In our current political climate, in Hollywood and everywhere else, learning more about each other and respecting one another's work and life has never been more important. The #MeToo movement has opened a dialogue we've never been able to have with each other before. Time's Up, the legal defense fund set up support those who have experienced sexual harassment, assault, or abuse in the workplace, is making the right moves toward keeping that dialogue happening and protecting those who want to have it.

But we can't forget our below-the-line crew in these conversations. For every actress who has been assaulted by a filthy producer, or every director coerced by a power-hungry executive, there are thousands of female crew members in production and post who are caught in a nuanced power struggle every day. Many of them are harassed, assaulted, and abused too. Most of them can't or won't ever speak up because they remain in a position where they would lose work, maybe forever.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

#MeToo is going to shape a lot of Sundance coverage this year because it's going to change how we view the films in the festival. That will be challenging for some people who have old traumas reawakened, and offensive to others who view equality as a loss of power. But regardless of your opinion or your past experience, something has shifted and its affecting Hollywood -- and the best thing we can do is try talk to each other. A lot.

In the coming days I've got conversations to share with operators, assistants, producers, editors and many more. I'll be sharing what I see here on this blog, as well as shorter, quicker takes on my Twitter and Instagram feeds. Film and television editor Meaghan Wilbur will also be on the ground in Park City serving as a contributing editor and tweeting some #hottakes from the theaters.

Back to packing now -- is four scarves enough? I'm bringing four.

Posted by: Kylee Peña on Jan 18, 2018 at 11:27:47 pm Sundance film festival, post production, film, television

Focusing on post-production, from editing and motion graphics to personal experiences and the psychology of being an editor.


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