“I hugged the camera tight… and broke 6 ribs” – Adventures in cinema with Los Angeles DOP Cristina Dunlap
Cristina Dunlap is a Director of Photography, born and raised in Los Angeles. Her work has a depth to it, a heightened reality – a height which goes both ways, plumbing the depths of loss with Elizabeth Moss or exploring colorful surreality with Moses Sumner.
Unitbase spoke to Cristina via video call about work during lockdown, the ergonomics of camera vests and what vital pieces of kit she takes on every shoot.
Hello from London! How are you doing? Have you been safe during lockdown?
Hello from LA! I think it’s been pretty weird for everyone. I’ve been staying safe and trying to keep busy. I was in a really bad car accident in December, and so I’ve pretty much been stuck home since then, and then lockdown started. So I feel like it’s been a really strange year at home.
Woah. That sounds like the start of 28 Days Later. Are you ok?
Yeah I’m doing ok now, thanks. It was while we were filming, our picture car crashed. So I was holding the camera, and I broke 6 ribs. Luckily I walked away, considering the circumstances.
With 6 broken ribs, you walked away? That is tough behaviour.
Yeah. I think because I was in so much shock. It’s amazing what adrenaline can do!
Was the driver ok?!? Also, what model camera was it?
Yes, everyone was a bit banged up but we were lucky that we survived. Everyone was just happy to be alive in that moment. I think I was the most injured because I was holding a 40lb camera, and when I knew we were gonna crash I just kinda hugged it so it didn’t get loose and hit somebody. And it was an Alexa Mini. The camera was fine, thank you for asking.
Amber Mark Feat. DRAM - Put You On Camera: Arri Alexa Mini Lenses: Cooke Speed Panchros
What did you shoot Lizzo’s Juice on?
That was Alexa Mini. We put some film grain on, and we put some VHS on too. The director Quinn Wilson really wanted it to feel like you were flipping through TV channels. So the Late Night TV performance was supposed to be more ‘70s feeling, and the QVC stuff was supposed to feel more modern.
Do you enjoy working to someone else’s style?
Yeah! It’s always a fun challenge. I just found some old stuff for Unitbase – I found an old underwater film camera with flashbulbs. Single use flashbulbs for underwater. I used it once and realised that I’m not a strong enough swimmer to hold something that heavy and get what I wanted! And I found a cool old VHS camera.
We can’t wait to see what you list first.
And when you’re ready to book her; hit up Pattie Sueoka at THE GERSH AGENCY.
It’s hard to figure out what the protocols are now, thanks to Coronavirus.
Yeah. Especially on a film set. I just did a short film, and while they were really safe leading up to it; everyone was tested 2 or 3 times leading up, then within 2 days of being onset. But just being in a space – the actors can’t wear masks. And in some of the scenes, he was angry or he was yelling and being the person at the camera, that close to it, you’re like “well; there’s nothing I can do”. But I think the production company did a really great job of taking all measures possible to keep everyone safe. It really gave me hope about the future and being able to safely work during all of this.
And have you been able to shoot anything else while under lockdown?
It’s been a strange return to student filmmaking days during the pandemic. I shot a commercial at home, and we weren’t allowed to prep the camera. They just dropped off the Alexa Mini. I hadn’t built a camera in so long. I can do it, but it was taking me too long! I Facetimed my AC and said “can you help me speed this up a little bit?”
I found some old gels in my garage, and some Duvetyne, and I had to do everything myself. I had to borrow a couple of lights from my Gaffer. It really made me appreciative of how important everyone is on set!
Who starred in the commercial?
It was one of those jobs – my agency said companies are getting desperate to shoot, so they’re asking for a picture of you, whoever you’re quarantining with, pictures of your house, what car you drive, your back yard. To put together a deck, and these companies are going through them and basing commercials around what they have access to. Ours was never released which I’m a little bummed about as I was being paid as a SAG actor if it screened; but I’m also relieved as there’s nothing I hate more than being on camera. It was a bit of torture for me.
I was with the director on Zoom, and the client and agency were hidden, and they were feeding him notes and he was feeding it back to me. Like, “can you just make it a little more natural?” I was like, I’ve never been more uncomfortable. For five days. It was a lot. I had to draft my boyfriend in as an AC and teach him to pull focus. I definitely prefer having a crew to shooting by myself!
Did you do any other work during lockdown?
Yeah, Netflix did a Pride special that just aired on the 30th. And we had to send kits to 52 talents. I would walk them through the process of setting up all the gear we sent. We sent them ring lights, we tried to keep it really simple, because most people had no patience for trying to do this. We were on Zoom for like 10 hours a day. We did one with the guys from Queer Eye, and they’re super busy on quarantine. I think there’s a ton of publicity going on currently so they’re setting up a lot of different companies’ equipment! It’s a lot for anyone to handle who is ued to being filmed by a crew. Suddenly you are your own gaffer, sound, DP & DIT.
What camera do you send 52 random people?
It was originally supposed to be the Blackmagic; so we had better quality. And as time was running out and shipping costs were estimated, we ended up getting 50 iPhone 11s – people could just upload the footage, and not send back memory cards. I hate to admit it! An iPhone is certainly no match for a real camera!
What’s in your kit bag that you take to set?
Sometimes I bring my 35mm stills camera. But every time I bring it, I feel like we’re rushing to make the day. And people get a bit annoyed if you stop to take photos. There’s certain ones that it works on. I do bring it in case I can use it. A light meter. Like a weird bag of nylons and crystals, stuff to put in front of the lens to obscure if we need to. And there’s some plastic beads that I bought online, like a curtain. If you put those in front of a long lens – if you’re doing music video stuff, and want to get weird and flarey, it can create really amazing effects.
And my Easyrig, of course.
Aha – is that your secret weapon?
Well I was never someone to go out and buy a camera. After student debt, the idea of taking out any more loans for something was daunting. Especially watching the technology change so quickly. In Los Angeles, where the market is so oversaturated, if you buy a camera, even keeping it at a camera house, it seems hard to make your money back. So it never occurred to me as a wise investment. I bought an Easyrig, because they didn’t have any that fit women at the time in rental houses. I tried one on and it changed the way I could move with the camera. It’s a vest situation rather than just a string that goes across. And I think it sits higher on your hips.
I bought that and I keep it at a rental house. I’m in a group of female cinematographers the ICFC (The International Collective of Female Cinematographers), and I think my Easyrig has been used by a number of the members.
Do you always operate on your own shoots?
Generally, unless I have Steadicam or something. But I’m a bit of a control freak about framing, so unless i can have HMEs and can talk someone through exactly how to shift the frame, I prefer to just do it.
As you have bigger budgets, are you getting what you want and what you need to do your job?
I mean, yes and no. Budgets – there’s never enough money. No matter what’s going on, they’ll find a way to spend money on other things. There’s very few projects where they’re like “sure get whatever yo want and no one questions it”. The last time that happened it was like an Overstock.com commercial. They were like, yes you can have a Steadicam every day, and yes you can have Master Primes, and yes you can have two bodies so you don’t have to switch from Dolly to Steadicam. It was great, it allowed us to move quickly, but artistically it would be nice to have those things on other projects.
Spiritualised - I'm Your Man Camera: Arri Alexa Mini Lenses: Angénieux Optimo 15-40mm & 45-120mm
You’re shooting your dream project; what camera do you choose?
If I can get film on a job, that’s always my first choice. But it’s very rare that actually ends up coming through. There have been a number of jobs that are maybe smaller budget, but they say they’re budgeting for film. “So the rate’s really low, but you get to shoot film, so will you do it?” And I always say yes, but it always seems like in the 3 days before we start shooting, they’re like “well, actually, we realised it’s just not gonna work!” And then it switches to digital and it’s just kind of a shitshow because we didn’t get the film we were expecting. And I think film requires less intense lighting in some cases, because it’s just already more beautiful and the dynamic range is better. So then you kind of shoot yourself in the foot from the beginning because you’ve been planning to shoot on film and then it switches to digital.
So they offer you the opportunity then take it away…
Yeah. I mean, I don’t think people are deceitful, I think it’s more of an optimism. I reached out to you trying to find discounts for that film! Then it becomes my responsibility to do some of the producing which I really… I used to work in production, and I don’t for a reason. Because I hate it.
It’s a really difficult job. I think most people on a set have no idea what a producer or a production manager has to go through to just get you to the startline. I like to think I have more compassion for production because I understand what it’s like trying to stretch a budget to accommodate everyone’s needs.
NFL Films actually used to be the biggest user of 16mm, they had their own lab. How do we get more people shooting film in an era where the wholesale use of film is over?
I wish I had the answer to that! I mean, there are certain directors and DPs who can make those demands. It felt like film was having a resurgence for a bit, but after the industry being shut down, “pandemic times” is always the answer when it comes to budget.
Are you running out of people who can handle film?
No. It’s hard to find loaders sometimes, but usually because the film projects have lower rates, so there’s not always someone available to work under scale. But I think a lot of people still know how to load film and love shooting film because it’s such a novelty; and people really have to focus in a different way.
What camera do you shoot on?
I haven’t gotten to shoot 35mm since college, I’ve only done 16mm jobs. I most recently shot on the Arriflex 416.
And when you’re shooting digitally, what do you look for in your DIT?
It’s funny, there was something I listened to recently, with Roger Deakins and Joachim Zell, his nickname’s Jay-Z, he’s a very famous German color scientist. He works with all kinds of people; he was saying that they did a study and most people who have regular DITs that they work with, they’ve found that their eyes process color in a similar way. Because people process color in different ways. They didn’t know beforehand! It must be just finding someone that aesthetically you have the same likes and dislikes.
It’s like a romantic relationship.
So romantic. It’s very rare on music videos to get a DIT that can also do LUTs and color timing, anything live-graded onset. Generally when I’m working with anyone I just look for someone who’s really excited about what they do. A lot of the people I work with are so happy to be doing what they’re doing. So if we wanna look at 10 different LUTs, we do!
The Gaffer doesn’t get enough love. Or Grips. I’m aware that “Grip” means something different in the UK and the US – over here, they are responsible for all things to do with camera setups and movement.
The Grip is completely in control of shaping the light. Flags, any diffusion, and also the movement of the camera.
Who has more space to be creative between the Gaffer and Grip, in the US?
I don’t know, I thought early on it was the Gaffer. But I think Grips are so crucial. I would say they’re quite equal. They have different jobs; when I was starting out, I didn’t really understand what a Grip did. They were setting up flags at Video Village, or pushing the dolly. But they’re the engineers of the set. They problem solve everything, they rig things. I’ve had on the day the Director say “oh it would be really great if we could just rotate the camera 180°, make it do a flip.” And for that you need a gearhead, and it’s expensive. But I’ve had Grips that are like, “oh no, we’ll build something” and they get out some pipe and a cheeseplate, and they’ll get like a hand crank. And they’ve build like a rotisserie chicken that you can spin the camera 180°. Just on the spot. Grips are extremely creative.
There was another time we were shooting a feature outside, and there was a city light that was LED and very ugly. And the city would not let us turn it off. It was probably 40 feet in the air. We were on the roof of a building and it was just ruining the shot. And one of my Grips took two pieces of 20 foot pipe and tied Blackwrap to the end of it and used them like giant chopsticks. And reached across the side of the building and wrapped the light in Blackwrap and blacked it out. So! You never know.
I don’t think people realise just how essential Grips are.
I find that producers who are not from the US working here think that you can cut budget by just having a Gaffer [and no Grip]. That’s like saying we’re just gonna have a wardrobe person and not a makeup person. That’s a completely different job! You can’t just cut a crucial member of the team. It’s just a difference in what’s on your plate here versus the UK. When I shot the Coldplay music video in London I realised how different the duties are of a Grip are there.
Coldplay - Cry Cry Cry Camera: Arri Alexa Mini Lenses: Kowa Cine Prominar
I shot the Coldplay music video in the UK, and trying to cut back – I find that producers from not from the US working here think that you can cut budget by just having a Gaffer [and no Grip]. That’s like saying we’re just gonna have a wardrobe person and not a makeup person. That’s a completely different job! You can’t just cut a crucial member of the team. It’s just a difference in what’s on your plate here versus the UK.
And you’re building a core crew of people you need to work with?
There’s a few different people I work with and love working with. Once you’ve done a few jobs with someone, you have a secondhand knowledge of what the other person likes and how they work. I’ve found it hard to branch out, especially working in new places, I get nervous about whether we’re going to be on the same page creatively or not. Because here, most of my crew I talk to whether we’re working together or not. Just about photos we saw, or references we liked. It’s this constant conversation.
Have you faced any other disasters onset?
Honestly, I think those disasters happened when I was in production, and working on the producing side of it. Because my heart wasn’t in it. And now – we’ve definitely been in challenging situations, where you can’t have what you want, or things are difficult. But there’s always a solution, there’s always something that can be done. You have to make compromises. But I think if you really love what you’re doing, and you’re working with people who love what they’re doing, it’s fun to solve a problem. Rather than, in production, I was like, “I don’t know, we’re out of money, I can’t invent it, sorry!” Not the type of problems I wanted to be solving. Whereas now, “we don’t have enough light” – well, can we put some mirrors outside and time this round the path of the sun, and so you always have an HMI that doesn’t require a generator.
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In the Moses video, he’s on a stage – we were supposed to shoot in there, and the generator couldn’t sustain a big light. My Grip got a mirror out and we made a spotlight by taping round a mirror, and he would follow him across the stage with him. Another Grip being full of creative solutions.