The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Oona Menges

Oona Menges grew up with cinematography in her blood — her father is Academy- and ASC Award-winning director of photography Chris Menges, ASC, BSC. “My parents’ friends were all filmmakers and Magnum photographers, so I have always been around cameras and discussions of images,” she says.

Menges has an impressive list of mentors that includes Ivan Strasburg, BSC; Robert Alazraki, AFC; Ashley Rowe, BSC; Angus Hudson, BSC; Barry Ackroyd, BSC; Robby Müller, NSC, BVK; John Mathieson, BSC; Alan Almond, BSC; and Chris Seager, BSC. Not surprisingly, Menges got an early start, working as a runner on set while still a teenager before graduating to clapper loader when Sandi Sissel, ASC gave her the position on the film No Secrets.

“I was beaten into shape by two excellent camera assistants, Jacqui Compton and Sue Zwilling,” she recalls, adding that her days as a loader and focus puller taught her the importance of prep. “You have to surround yourself with the best and most positive crew you can, and remain flexible and ready to grab opportunities. There is no room for ego.”

For Menges, cinematography is an art form dependent on capturing energy: “My overall philosophy is that light is a spirit. When this concept is embraced, magic can happen.” Although she loves digital technology, she worries that it sometimes works against the creative process. “We can be too focused on all the bells and whistles, with clinical and polished films as a result,” she says, adding that the digital world has also “produced a generation of producers and directors who think we now have such powerful sensors that our jobs are practically obsolete — ‘if you can see it, shoot it.’ They don’t understand that exposure is the least of it.”

Menges says that her best experience with digital was on a series called Different for Girls. “We sent the ‘mags’ straight to [colorist] Matt Watson at Shed London with no downloading or DIT on set. He then uploaded the rushes for the execs in New York and for us on-set in London. So we were treating it exactly as though it was film, but with all the positive contributions of digital.”

Menges’ devotion to an intimate relationship with her images leads her to continue to operate whenever possible. “I have worked with operators and enjoyed it,” she says, “but I feel disconnected when I don’t have my eye to the camera.”

Becky Parsons

Becky Parsons also became interested in movies thanks to her father, though in her case her dad had no ties to the film business. “He was a layout designer and typographer — nothing to do with the film or television industry,” she explains, “but he always had the latest consumer video cameras and TVs, and was — and is — an avid follower of film.”

Living in London, Parsons would often stumble across productions shooting in the streets. “I remember seeing a Steadicam in action for the first time as a young kid at Billingsgate Market. That was the first time I thought about the different jobs in moviemaking.” Parsons studied photography, performance art and audiovisual mixed media at the Wimbledon School of Art (now Wimbledon College of Art) in England before moving to Halifax, Canada, to complete her studies at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.

Although her degree was in photography, she was shooting short films before she graduated, and after college she took whatever jobs she could get to gain experience. “I carried sandbags, put lights together, and at leaner times joined other departments like set dressing,” she says. She ultimately found work as a camera assistant on such projects as the TV movie Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story, which was photographed by Uta Briesewitz, ASC. “She went on to shoot The Wire,” Parsons recalls. “Her handheld work was impeccable.” Parsons was also mentored by photographer John Glover, whose influence on her work, she says, has been profound.

Both the celluloid and digital work of Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC continue to inspire Parsons and shape her own philosophy when it comes to cinematography. “I agree with his aversive attitude toward creating stunning images simply for the sake of creating stunning images,” she explains. “The job is more about creating images that are in service of a larger purpose.” Parsons skillfully applied that theory to her work on Weirdos, a coming-of-age story set in the 1970s that garnered widespread acclaim at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival — and is set for wide theatrical release in Canada on March 17. Parsons’ black-and-white photography was singled out by critics, and she loved the opportunity to shoot monochrome in a period setting. “It was a pleasure to see a moving black-and-white view of the world through the eyepiece, and to work with contrast alone,” she says.

Having shot in both color and black-and-white, and on film as well as digital, Parsons remains open to the possibilities inherent in all formats. “I feel blessed that I am from a generation that knows well what it is to shoot on film,” she says — and adds that “digital sensors able to dip more and more into the low lights create a whole new set of choices for the cinematographer. The study of this craft is wonderfully endless.”

Quyen Tran

Quyen Tran came to the cinema via still photography and photojournalism, disciplines that continue to inform her work as a director of photography. “Hailing from a photojournalistic background, I’m always looking to tell the story in the most economical way possible,” she explains. “With stills, you have one frame to tell a story. Sure, it can be beautifully composed and lit, but what is the essence of that frame? Why does it exist? What’s behind those eyes?”

It was while shooting stills on an NYU thesis film that Tran caught the movie bug and decided to apply to film school herself. She attended UCLA, where she met cinematographer-in-residence Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, who became a valued mentor, along with Johnny Simmons, ASC. In fact, she still implements a piece of advice from Simmons regularly. “He said, ‘Anyone can get the job done, but how do you want to do the job?’ — which really stuck with me,” she says.

Tran also received some valuable extracurricular education by spending time in her sister-in-law’s editing room, where she had the opportunity to study footage from films like There Will Be Blood. “I got to see [ASC member] Robert Elswit’s dailies, which was insanely amazing,” she recalls. “That taught me a lot about coverage and gave me a totally different perspective from what I was learning in the classroom.”

Tran’s time at UCLA led to her first job as director of photography — when she shot a professor’s movie before graduating — and she then moved on to projects like Girlfriend (2010), a $150,000 feature starring a young man with Down syndrome. “On that set I learned a lot about people with Down syndrome, and it really changed me,” she says. “It made me a more compassionate human being.”

 

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