Throughout March we are featuring a series of discussions with some of today’s most influential women cinematographers and gaffers. These artists talk about their journey into the industry, advice to young aspiring artists, and the art that has had an impact on their work. This edition features Cinematographer Emilia Mendieta Córdova (Code_Switch, To The New Girl, and the upcoming film Hotel Refinement.)
When did you become interested in working in film? What made you want to get into the industry?
I’m one of those “I’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker” people! I’ve always been a storyteller, but the moment I realized I wanted to be a filmmaker boils down to when I was 8 and my dad borrowed a projector and screened the original “Star Wars” trilogy onto the wall of our house. It just blew me away. And at that moment I just knew – it’s what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to tell stories in that way. I also knew that it was going to be an uphill battle in many, many ways but that never really deterred me. I just enjoy the process itself – I love collaborating on a creative project and telling a story visually.
Describe your journey in becoming a cinematographer, as well as your experiences at AFI. What was the process like for you?
I was hell-bent on being a director until I was 24. I was working for a tea start-up in Brooklyn as their in-house videographer and graphic designer and in the Spring of 2013 they sent me down to the Ecuadorian Amazon to get some video of their operations there (the tea they sold is native to the area!). So I found myself hiking through the rainforest trailing a Peace Corps Volunteer and a Guayusa farmer with a camera strapped to my chest. I realized then that I didn’t know enough about cinematography to capture the incredible beauty around me and then it struck me – what I loved about filmmaking was the visual storytelling aspects of it. More than anything, I loved creating the actual image and crafting it to tell a story. So I got back to New York, applied to AFI, quit my job, and moved to LA. The rest, they say, is history!
As for my experience at AFI – it was transformative. When I went in I felt overwhelmed – I felt eons behind many of my classmates, most of which had a lot more experience as cinematographers than I did. I came out the other end comfortable in my skin as an artist and confident in my skills as a cinematographer. I grew so much as an artist and as a person in two years. It was challenging in many, many ways but I love a good challenge! While at AFI, I allowed myself to explore and take creative risks. Sometimes they didn’t work out the way I wanted them to, but that’s also what allowed me to grow. That’s one of the best pieces of advice I got from an alum – people sometimes get hyperfocused on producing “the best” or “the perfect” film but film school is a great testing ground to take creative risks and figure out what works and what doesn’t! I also feel like I made some really good friends there – I learned so much from them while in school and continue to learn from them and their experiences. They’re a great support system professionally and personally – they’ve been there for me through thick and thin and we continue to support each other as we chug along! As for my teachers – Sandra Valde and Stephen Lighthill, ASC in particular have been immensely supportive mentors both during and after AFI. My relationship with them inspired me to pursue teaching opportunities (I’ve worked as a Professor at USFQ and UDLA in Ecuador and worked as the AFI Cinematography Coordinator for two years) that have been enriching.
What advice would you like to give young female aspiring cinematographers?
I remember this one time a friend who is also a Cinematographer and I were discussing where our careers were at that point and we ended up realizing that we had inadvertently been making each other anxious – they were anxious because they hadn’t shot a feature and I had two under my belt whereas I was anxious because they had an agent and had just shot a commercial for a major brand! Truth is – it’s really easy to look around at your peers and compare their careers to yours but you have to stop and remind yourself where you want to go. And be confident in it! As long as you’re on your way there, you’re doing ok. Erin Wesley put it beautifully in a recent post she made during a takeover of the SPORAS Instagram. We all have unique points of view and unique aesthetics and therefore our paths as working Cinematographers are unique as well! Also – lift each other. There’s enough stuff hell-bent on tearing us down in this world just because we’re women without adding ourselves to that chaos. I’ve gotten to where I am in great part because of the women who have championed me – it was a woman who hired me to shoot my first feature, a woman who put my name forward for my job at AFI, a woman who trusted me with the first sci-fi project I shot, and a woman who trusts me with the creative vision for all of her music videos. I strongly believe in championing other women and paying forward what was done for me, even if it is in small ways – especially for women that have less access to opportunities to flourish. You never know what can have a big impact!
What are some changes you believe the industry should make to help female filmmakers have their voices heard moving forward?
Ooof that’s a loaded question! But I think something that will make a huge difference, in the long run, would be more gender parity below-the-line. One of the things that irritate me is when you see a big studio movie that is patting itself on the back for being diverse because they have a female producer, a female director, and maybe a female writer and then having no women occupying significant positions below the line as department heads. Or sometimes even existing in the whole department for that matter. It’s even worse for women of color working below-the-line. I think incentives like Ava Duvernay’s ARRAY Crew and department-specific databases such as the ICFC (International Collective of Female Cinematographers) are great steps forward but there also needs to be other changes made in hiring practices as well. When interviewing or hiring people for a position – interviewing at least one woman (although ideally more) can make a huge difference. Or if you are someone who is in a position to recommend someone, to make sure that at least one of the names you’re passing on is a woman. The more women that can even get access to those initial hiring opportunities, the more they can network and gain more experience and get access to more opportunities. The last thing is – if you are a woman in a position of power like directing or producing, advocate for gender parity below-the-line too! Especially when it comes to department heads for fields like Production Design, Cinematography, Sound, Editing, and Composing. These positions have a huge amount of influence over the creative vision of the story, so making sure more women are in these positions is a way to amplify female voices. The other place to improve below-the-line gender parity is at film schools. As a Professor, I’ve had female students who have been hesitant to crew on more technical fields even on school projects because their male peers have either claimed those roles as theirs or have made them feel unconfident in their technical skills. Even something as small as making sure that everyone rotates through all crew positions and has access to and confidence with an operating camera, lighting, and sound equipment can chip away at these biases from the start.
Growing up, did you have any inspirational Directors, DP’s, Gaffers that have inspired you.
My first OG filmmaker inspiration was George Lucas – I’m just inspired by all of the technological innovations in visual storytelling prompted by the stories he was telling and worlds he was creating. The incredible thing is that legacy of pushing the technological boundaries of filmmaking is still present in a lot of “Star Wars” projects such as The Mandalorian – which has been a trailblazer in both the creative and technical fields of visual storytelling. As for gaffers, I’m a huge fan of Jim Planette since I realized he gaffed a lot of my favorite films growing up. Michael Pessah, ASC, who taught History of Cinematography at AFI, brought him in as a guest lecturer for a class on E.T. and Planette describing his approach to lighting a lot of the scenes was, well – pardon the pun – truly enlightening! Currently, some of my favorite DP’s are Mandy Walker, ASC, ACS, Rachel Morrison, ASC, and Steve Yedlin, ASC – I just have massive respect and admiration for them and their work.
What are some of your favorite films? Have any of these films influenced your work?
Overall I love Sci-Fi that has a dark/dystopian bent to it like The Thing, Blade Runner, eXistenZ, Ex Machina and E.T. (E.T. gets dark!!!). In the TV realm, I gravitate towards shows like The X Files, Fringe, Black Mirror, Firefly, and Stranger Things. But my absolute favorite film is Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. That veil of film magic is still there when I watch it. I forget I’m a filmmaker, and I just let it take me for a ride. That all being said, I’m just going to put it out there in the universe – working as a cinematographer on a Star Wars project (TV or film!) is a goal of mine! As for films that have made an impression on me, that would be Raise the Red Lantern. I always go back to it in some way in all my projects – the way its visual language is constructed is the inspiration for my framework. A more recent favorite is The Farewell. I was born in Kansas, grew up in Ecuador, and have spent most of my adult life in the US. I identify as Ecuadorian-American so The Farewell resonates with me because I think it captures the difficulty of being caught between two cultures that make up your identity and sometimes struggling with being an outsider in both. It was such a beautifully told story and Awkwafina’s performance is amazing…I really can’t say enough about how good it is.
Could you tell us about a show or project you are currently working on?
I’ve got a couple of music videos for Charley Young (@mscharleyyoung) in the works. We shot two music videos with a micro crew in October 2020 in Montana – one for her song Minefield that was released last November and the second one for her song I Want It Now which is due out on April 9th. We shot both of them on a Varicam with Cooke Anamorphics provided by BeCine. The interesting thing about them is that both songs and videos are opposed to each other in tone, feel, and visual approach. Minefield is a love story with a softer, romantic, almost melancholic vibe whereas I Want It Now is a dark sci-fi / western-noir story with a powerful, edgier, and aggressive presence. I’m particularly excited about I Want It Now because both the story and the aesthetic approach feel very much in line with the movies and genres I love. I’ve only shot one other Sci-Fi project – Sigin Ojulu’s Code_Switch – and it’s a genre that I’ve found surprisingly hard to break into as a woman. So getting a chance to shoot another Sci-Fi piece, make it my own, and run with it was exciting. As for the other music video I have in the works, it’s also for another of Charley’s songs that are slated to be released late in the Summer this year. We’re still in the process of discussing what exactly the music video will be but we’re aiming to shoot in late May / early June. I love collaborating with Charley though – Charley and I go way back. We met as undergrads at Vassar and have been collaborating ever since! We like to challenge ourselves with every new project and that always makes me push myself in interesting technical and creative ways. Beyond that, I’ve got a few feature projects I’m attached to on the near horizon but that’s all I can say about that!
Below is “a shot from Code_Switch, an Afro-futuristic, Sci-Fi USC Short directed by Sigin Ojulu. Code_Switch is straight-up one of the best stories I’ve been lucky to work on – it is smartly written and directed and was visually ambitious. This is the opening shot of the short which we shot at one of the USC soundstages. I lit it with a spacelight skirted with duvetyne above the robed figure and then I hid strips of LiteGear LiteRibbon under the bottom edges of the plexiglass “screens”. I wanted to create an ominous, almost cult-like feel to the shot to set the tone of the short. Shot on an Arri Alexa Mini with Zeiss Super Speeds.”
The following shots are from Emilia’s first feature film which was released last year, To The New Girl. It was a very unusual project in that it had an all-female creative team and that while it is based on a stageplay, it retains a lot of its theatrical feel. We shot it in a black box theater so the challenge was how to make a film with a bunch of actresses delivering monologues against a black background visually engaging. No pressure! It was fun to have everything stripped away – it pushed us to think creatively about how we could use the visual language to enhance the powerful performances we were capturing. Shot on an Arri Alexa with Cooke S/4s and currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
A shot from Emilia’s second feature film, Hotel Refinement (currently in the final stages of post-production). “It’s a small indie oneiric neo-noir that I shot throughout 10 weekends in Oakland, CA. In this shot, the main character has been on the run with his girlfriend for a while now and the uncertainty of their nomadic life is beginning to weigh on him. I wanted to capture that heaviness through the chaos of the Bay Area landscape. I wanted to compress space in an almost surrealistic way for this wide was shot so I captured it on the 300mm end of a Canon 75-300mm zoom lens with a Sony FS7.”
The following shot is from the music video for Charley Young’s song Minefield. We filmed at sunset at Whitefish Lake, MT on a Varicam LT with Cooke Anamorphics. It is a love story with a melancholic ending so I wanted to emphasize the magentas, purples, and soft pinks of late sunset for her performance. We worked fast, with Charley nailing every shot in a single take.
You can catch Emilia Mendieta Córdova’s latest work in Charley Young’s music video Minefield. I Want It Now will be released on Charley’s YouTube channel on April 9th, 2021. To the New Girl is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime. Keep up with Emilia on her Instagram @emi_mendieta.