Director of Photography, Jennifer Bird on the commercial shoot Coca-Cola Give using a Canon C200, Ronin, and ReadyRig.
Among us, our titles include cinematographer, director, writer and producer. We are all storytellers and business owners in the Atlanta area. While we think it’s painful that being of the female species makes us unique in the industry, it most certainly does. UCLA’s "The Hollywood Diversity Report" reports that only 7% of films are directed by women, making us a rare breed indeed. While we look forward to the day where viewing everything through the lady lens won’t be necessary, we know that for now, it presents a unique perspective. So we’re going to lean into that and share from our experience.
Director of Photography, Jennifer Bird on the commercial shoot Coca-Cola Give using a Canon C200, Ronin, and ReadyRig.
Alicia East (AE): Since this topic is about women in film, let’s just come right at it. Have you ever had the experience where you're on set, ready to introduce yourself and people are looking around for the real DP?
Jaime Randel (JR): I’ve had people assume I'm the makeup artist multiple times.
Jennifer Bird (JB): There are a lot of up and coming female camera assistants setting the groundwork to become camera operators and DPs. The representation right now is very small, but the future looks really bright for female cinematographers.
I haven’t experienced blatant sexism in the industry and there are a lot of men that are really great allies for women. I’ve never heard, “I don't want a woman on set or, "I don't want her as the DP.” It's more like there was a job where I was assistant camera and I was ready to move up to be a camera operator. And they were like, “Oh, well she's too short.”
I've experienced more of a second-generation gender bias. It's really subtle things that make it seem like it's not about your gender.
JR: That's a really good point. It doesn't come out in direct ways and I work with a lot of really great people. It's more if I walk onto a set with new people, especially when I was just starting out, where you always sort of feel a little extra pressure to prove yourself.
Advice and tips
AE: What tips would you have for young people getting into the industry?
JR: With the gender thing, I'd say just let things roll off your back and figure out how to have confidence in yourself. Even if you feel someone is being a little sexist, just don’t take it personally. Let the work and your confidence in your abilities speak for itself. Focus on building your own skillset, being confident in yourself and knowing that you can do the job. Eventually, even if you get a little pushback or a little attitude once in a while, just being confident in yourself and knowing that you can do the job helps establish you as a leader. And that part is across the board too—for anybody coming into the industry.
AE: Anyone is going to have to prove themselves to some extent, and they're going to have to be comfortable with themselves behind the camera or in their role. They're going to have to have confidence or else they're going to fail no matter what.
JB: When you're first coming out into the industry, it can feel a lot more like you're being given a harder time because you're a woman, but as time goes on, all of that just goes away. I almost never feel that anymore. With confidence and experience, eventually, people just look at your work and your talent.
JR: I really do feel it's mostly a situation that happens with a new crew or a new director, just having to kind of go through those hoops of proving yourself again. But the more times you do it, the less scary it feels. You're not focusing on people's reactions to you. If somebody is doubting you it's not really your priority to care whether they approve of you. Just do a good job.
JB: My biggest piece of advice for people coming into the industry is to not limit yourself to one position. If you can't edit or operate a camera or produce, then you're really limiting the amount of skills you can offer to have different sources of income. There are months where I just edit and then I'll get a call and I'm going to DP three different projects and then next, I'll direct and produce a project. If I limited myself to just being an editor or just being a camera operator, it would be really hard to survive.
AE: What business-specific tips do you have for new people?
JB: If you are running a set, just have empathy for your crew. Little details really make the difference. Be forward-thinking. If you're going to be outside, have a bottle of sunscreen or bug spray on hand so your crew can be comfortable. Those are small things that only take a few minutes to prepare. And of course, have bottled water and basic snacks on set. If people are crashing food-wise or if they're thirsty, they're not going to perform as well. People are going to be a lot happier to work with you if they know that they're going to have a good experience on set and get paid in a timely manner. It just makes the overall experience a lot more joyful.
AE: And you have people who are going to answer your call and put you first if they have multiple offers.
AE: Let’s talk about the one-woman-band thing. How do you handle that?
JB: I've tried really hard to get away from the one-man-band stuff because there are so many opportunities for the shoot to go wrong. That person who hired you is usually trying to put way too much in and they don't have enough resources. It jeopardizes your safety and the safety of the gear. I know it's kind of a necessary evil, especially when you're first coming up, but I'm always pretty adamant now at least having one other person on set.
JR: I wish I had realized when I was doing one-man-band stuff just to ask for $300 more so you can have another set of hands—even if it's just a PA. It doesn't have to add a ton to the budget, but it makes such a big difference. There is just so much opportunity for things to get overlooked. Mistakes happen when you're having to run everything and it's just not realistic at all.
Jaime on set as DP on an upcoming local Atlanta short film directed by Jonothan
Mitchell." Photo cred: Mariana Novak
AE: Setting those expectations is really a client relations thing. How do you go about setting expectations up well from the beginning?
JB: Having contracts is a useful piece of business advice. It seems like something so obvious, but especially when you're first coming up, it might feel awkward and you want the job so bad that you don't want to put any legal pressure on the person you're working with. But it's so, so important because it gives you the right to the footage, the right to the rate you agreed on, the shoot length, and the payment terms you agreed on. It also helps protect you so that if something does go wrong, you're not held legally responsible for it. Just so many things that you wouldn't ever expect to happen. Everybody goes into a project with the best of intentions, but something totally unexpected can happen. And if you have that contract in hand, you're protected.
AE: It's wonderful for you and it's really good for the client too because then there's never any question. No one has to remember what we agreed on three months ago.
JR: Get a deposit if at all possible. Especially if you’re paying crew.
JR: If you’re just starting out and you're also a female, you may have that added pressure of, “I got a client and I'm just grateful to have this job. I'm not gonna put any pressure on them.” I had a lot of that desperation when I first started out. And the reason I made a lot of those mistakes cause I just didn't have that confidence to ask for those things.
AE: It actually ends up putting more pressure on everybody not to have a contract. It's the counterintuitive thing about it. And all of those asks are reasonable.
AE: What kind of mentorship have you all experienced from anybody or anybody in the industry?
JB: In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg said that a lot of women fall into this trap of looking for their mentor, thinking that once they find that person they’ll be able to become the thing they want to become. But instead, you just need to take every opportunity you have available. You’ve got to be hungry for experience and work. I think it's especially important for women not to be waiting around.
JR: It's a little harder to find somebody to kind of see yourself or your future self in. For me, rather than mentors, I have my peers and we band together as each other's support system. I don't really have a female mentor at an upper level to look to for advice right now, but I would like to be that for someone else when I get there. I definitely have heroes that I look to—people like Reed Morano or Rachel Morrison.
AE: What draws you to them?
JR: I went to the Savannah film festival in 2015 and Reed Morano had her first feature that she had both DPed and directed, which I thought was really cool. I had already loved her style of cinematography and then seeing her carry a feature was really impressive. She went on to work on Handmaid's Tale and now she's a common name in the cinematography and directing world. She's been a really big inspiration.
JB: Reed Morano is super fearless. She'll be seven/eight months pregnant and still be camera operating—holding a fully-loaded film camera on set. I also appreciate that she really doesn’t want to be known as a female DP—just a really talented one. That's something that really speaks to me because I think that when we set these gender divisions, it actually makes it a lot harder to achieve equality.
AE: It's kind of a double-edged sword.
JR: Yeah. It's tough. I'll actually have people say, “You're my favorite female DP” and while I appreciate it, I would rather just know they’re hiring me because they like the work. It's interesting because you wonder if you’re getting hired in part because it checks a box. In today's climate, it almost helps you stand out.
JB: Yeah, I'd agree with that.
AE: What are the challenges unique to women?
JB: One of the big things Sheryl Sandberg talks about is when women are thinking about starting a family, they start putting off the new promotion or moving to a new city because they're worried about how they’re going to take care of this child and their career. But she was talking about literally going for that promotion or taking that new opportunity because, by the time that you need that extra income for your child, you'll have put yourself in a place to do that.
AE: This is a really tough one. There are a lot of opinions on this one. As a business owner who is pregnant with number three, I have some of my own.
JR: How has that been two kids already and being in production? How do you do it?
AE: We have to think about it with everything. There's a period of time with each kid where I simply cannot do what I normally do. My husband (Joseph) can continue pretty much as normal except for a very brief window. But even then, we have been scheduling as many shoots as possible with back-up dates so he can be available for at least the delivery date, which is unpredictable. I am not committing to produce any shoot during a certain timeframe because I have to hold up the standard and know what we can deliver. So the reality is that I am a little limited, even before having the baby.
The other tricky thing is there's no maternity leave. I have to create that for myself financially and with how we commit our time and what we write into proposals. It's a really, really different ballgame.
As partners in life and business, we have to be a team in all of it. For the initial period after having the baby, something just has to give. The first time, I just thought I would do everything I normally did and just take a week or so and then I'm going to go back at everything. And I did that and I really paid for it. Physically and in every other way. The alternative for me was to just accept a period of time where I’m not going to do it all. And that can be okay too. I've done both and I feel a lot more peace within myself in the latter.
Beyond those early days, when I have just accepted that there are some limits, we are totally committed to operating as a team. When my work is ramping up, he steps up and vice versa. It doesn't mean that it's all smooth, but we have a commitment to supporting each other
If either of us had the mindset that because I'm the mom, it's all my job, it would be damaging and destructive on every level. I mean, for our relationship, for business—all of it.
About those 16-hour workdays
AE: I listened to an interview with the director for the last Mister Rogers movie. She talked about how she did one movie and basically never saw her kid. And then with this one, she was like, “I don't think Mister Rogers would want us to do a movie—considering everything he stood for—where we just abandon our kids for a period of time.”
And so she approached it totally differently. It's common to have super long days, which is what she had done on the other project. But with this one, they would skip their lunch hour and have shorter days. She said most people—including the actors— preferred working through lunch. There's always food on set, but your role is not always needed. So you can eat during your breaks and skip the long lunch hour. She said a lot of people on that set had little kids and it was just a way that she was able to do it that was different than the industry.
JR: I read something about that. A reality for women in the industry is the unrealistic time expectations to be away from home for 12 to 15 hours. A 10-hour day like she did makes it a lot less unrealistic. It's more like you work a nine to five then.
AE: When that is your life and you don't have other demands, then this culture really perpetuates itself. But everyone benefits from being able to go home and see their kids or just live their lives. I mean, that benefit isn't just for the moms.
That idea of balance in the industry is huge too. It just runs rampant where everybody is working around the clock and killing themselves and then you, a director, do something like this and it's so shocking.
JR: Right? Why is that so unrealistic?
AE: The industry is so known for it. It's just common to be on a set where everybody knows that they're going to put nine to five on the timesheet, but be there 9 to 9 or 9 to 11. That’s when it’s nice to have your own business and get to dictate some of the terms.
JR: And it is nice when you are in the position of power to be able to treat your crew the way that you would want to be treated. On Jenn’s projects, I know my time's going to be respected. We usually wrap on time and get payment on time or even on the day of the shoot.
JB: You go through so many difficult experiences when you're coming up where you are literally waiting on that check to arrive. You check the mailbox every day and it's just the worst. And we are in a fortunate enough position to usually be able to pay people on the day or at least within two weeks of working with them. Our industry is unlike many others where you would go and pay for a service on the day you receive that service. In this industry, waiting for 30 days is common, but it's hard.
AE: And then it's common even if your invoice terms are net 30 to have clients do net 60 or net 90 and not think anything of it.
The bottom line
It is a great time to be coming up in the industry, but whatever role you desire, you’re going to have to work hard and deliver. Like anything you want to do, there will be challenges. Just get after it and make sure you’re enjoying whatever you do. It’s your life and livelihood: You may as well have a kick-ass time of it!
Note: Interview edited for clarity and brevity.
Brave Voices Media is a full-service production company based in Atlanta, GA. We are a director/DP (Joseph) and producer/office manager/writer (Alicia) and we work with a mighty network of audio technicians, colorists, composers and more. We specialize in true stories and believe amplifying brave voices—in partnership with our clients—is part of what we are on this earth to do. And we have fun doing it!
For Jennifer, finding innovative ways to reveal the heart of the story through carefully crafted cinematic images and unexpected shots is the most rewarding aspect of filmmaking. Jennifer is passionate about making both commercials and documentaries, having worked for clients including Delta Air Lines, Coca-Cola, Porsche, AT&T, National Geographic and many other companies. Currently, she is living her dream of having her own company, Bird Mountain Media, and co-operates it with her fiancée and life partner Luke McMahon. Find out more on their website and on Instagram.
Jaime Randel is an Atlanta-based cinematographer who shoots commercials and branded content, narrative shorts, and music videos. Her work has been screened at numerous film festivals including the London Fashion Film Festival, FASHIONCLASH Film Festival in The Netherlands, The Savannah Film Festival and Dragon Con Independent Film Festival. Most recently, she was awarded Best Cinematography at the Atlanta 48 Hr Film Project 2019 (for our short “Grimoire” which won best film), and a 2018 Silver Telly Award for Cinematography for Branded Content. Find out more at her website and on Instagram @wrapped_in_pianostrings.