Behind every great camera…

schoonmaker

It’s International Women’s Day – yes there is, it’s on the 19th of November – and last year we celebrated with a look at some of the women who had defined cinema in front of the camera, decade by decade. This year, we thought we would go behind the scenes, paying no attention to the man behind the curtain, and look at those perhaps less celebrated women who have shaped film from the back rooms.

Tia Kratter
by Emma Street

"BRAVE"

Tia Kratter is one of the Art Directors at Pixar Animation. She started in 1993 when the company consisted of just a few people and a single computer. She had met John Lasseter, the chief creative officer of Pixar when they had both worked at Disney. Kratter was a background artist and contributed to dozens of Disney’s films in the 80s and 90s including The Black Cauldron, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and The Beast and Aladdin.

Kratter had a key role in making Toy Story – famously Pixar’s first feature-length film. A process she described as ‘making a movie by the seat of our pants. We literally had no idea what we were doing’. She claims her business cards gave her job title as ‘Imperfectionist’. She was responsible for making sure that the computer generated imagery didn’t present a world that was unbelievably slick and flawless. Her artwork ensured that there were smudgy finger marks on the drawer handles in Andy’s bedroom and the skirting boards appeared convincingly scuffed.

Since then, Kratter has worked as Shading Art Director on ‘A Bugs Life’, ‘Toy Story 2’, ‘Cars’ and last year’s tale of teenage rebellion and inconvenient bear magic, ‘Brave’.

Production for Brave took 6 years and Kratter’s team were involved from the beginning. Twelve artists spent twelve days in Scotland originally in order to get an understanding of the landscapes. Kratter said that she expected the scenery to be green but originally envisaged the bright greens of golf courses and her native California. The time spent in Scotland – along with sketches, paintings and thousands of photographs – enabled her to familiarise herself with Scotland’s heathlands, hummocks and changing weather conditions. Kratter provides a link to the real world outside of CGI which is crucial to Pixar’s success. The audience may not always be aware of it but the painstaking care and considerable talent has been expended on each branch and pebble in every single scene is what makes Pixar’s films such works of art.

Although she claims that she has the best job at Pixar, Kratter has quit the company on multiple occasions. In fact she has sent an email on April Fool’s Day every year since 1998 announcing her decision to leave. She cites the most outlandish reasons she can think of and her post-Pixar career plans have included airbrushing monster trucks, working for Madame Tussauds and having her co-worker’s baby and naming it Manhattan Gin. Her emails fooled the late Pixar founder and Apple superman, Steve Jobs on three separate occasions.

Kratter is not currently working on a Pixar movie. Following her 6 year stint on Brave she is recharging her batteries and working at Pixar University, the internal educational branch of Pixar. As a core member of Pixar staff, she will doubtless be donning her Shading Art Director hat again soon – I imagine the attention to detail on it is fabulous.

Agnès Godard.
by Phil Concannon

The body of work that Claire Denis has developed over the course of 25 years is one of the most impressive and eclectic in modern cinema, and one constant factor in those films has been the presence of Agnès Godard by her side. Godard is the director’s regular cinematographer, having worked on all but a handful of the director’s films since they first collaborated on Chocolat in 1988, and together the two women have created some indelible images. Think of the graceful movement of bodies in Beau Travail, the fleeting intimacy of Vendredi Soir, the familial warmth of 35 Rhums, or the blood-soaked sensuality of Trouble Every Day. While Denis had another director of photography working on her last film White Material, I hope this formidable team will soon be reunited to capture even more shimmering, tactile, evocative visuals.
It’s not just Denis who has benefitted from Godard’s peerless eye behind the camera. She worked as part of the camera crew on Wim Wenders’ beautiful Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire, and the restless immediacy of her camerawork is one of the key factors in the overwhelming emotional impact of Erick Zonca’s The Dreamlife of Angels. Like another great director of photography, Roger Deakins, Godard has recently took her first steps into the world of digital cinematography last year, but it made no discernible impact on the clarity of her vision, as Ursula Meier’s Sister once again showed how adept Godard is at framing characters against the landscape that surrounds them. “What’s great about Agnès is that we start from zero each time,” Meier has said. “Agnès has had an enormous career, but when we do a film she puts all her guts and passion for cinema into it as if it’s the first film.” That insatiable passion and consummate artistry is why it remains such a special privilege to see the world through Agnès Godard’s eyes.

Film Editors
by Clio

allen

The professor on my Film Studies course was a lovely chap.  The author of several sharp, insightful books and articles, the definitive works in several subjects, in person he was rather vague, easily distracted and given to slightly rambling digressions, which would pop out randomly in the middle of class.  One in particular I still remember over 20 years later, even if I don’t recall what prompted it.

The talk turned to film editors, and Prof mentioned that it was one of the few branches of the film industry which consistantly had high proportion of women working in it.  “I’m not sure why”, he mused, “but perhaps it has to do with the nature of the work itself.  The physical cutting and sticking together.  A bit like sewing”.

The years have passed (and now I’m rather prone to rambling digressions myself), but this one fact has stayed with me.  Perhaps because, coincidentally, I worked as a digital video editor for a time.  Sadly, I don’t have the statistics to test my ex-professor’s theory, but it fits in with a common narrative surrounding women’s work: that when they do things, it’s a craft, but when men do them, it’s art.

So thank goodness for the women editors whose high-profile careers and supremely successful films anyone would be proud of, regardless of gender.  Anne V. Coates, cutting from a blown-out match to the rising desert sun in Lawrence of ArabiaDede Allen, whose innovative techniques on Bonnie and Clyde helped define the New Hollywood.  Verna Fields, making us jump while hiding the rubber shark in Jaws.  The late Sally Menke shaping the disparate strands of Tarantino narratives into coherent movies.  And Thelma Schoonmaker bringing the same balletic sensibility to the fight scenes in Raging Bull as to the ball scenes in The Age of Innocence.

Film editing was one of the first branches of the industry to convert to digital, so the sewing analogy no longer applies.  But I hope that, particularly with role models like these, from time to time my old professor still mentions the predominance of women in the cutting room.

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2 thoughts on “Behind every great camera…

  1. Actually, it almost certainly IS a thesis, somewhere.

    No room for this in the piece but I am always amused that the other branch of the film industry with the highest proportion of women in it is costume design, which involves actual sewing.

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