How Female Cinematographers Defy Hollywood’s ‘Abysmal’ Odds for Success: ‘Never Let It Deter Me’

“Filmmaking is not a male skill… we can all be storytellers,” cinematographer Polly Morgan tells TheWrap

Ari Wegner, Mandy Walker, Polly Morgan (Photo illustration by TheWrap; Netflix; Warner Bros.; IMDb)

Mandy Walker decided to become a cinematographer when she was 14 years old. She’d already been doing a lot of still photography — her father built her a dark room in their backyard in Melbourne, Australia, where she processed her black and white pictures — but then as she entered her teen years, she found herself drawn to the bigger canvas of motion pictures.

So, when the director of photography for “Elvis” and Disney’s 2020 live-action “Mulan” was 18, she set out to find a job in the movie business, only to discover there weren’t a whole lot of women working behind the camera as cinematographers or their assistants. “I thought, ‘There’s no way that there’s not any women in this job,’” Walker told The Wrap. “Why? I never understood it.”

Three decades later, not much has changed. Aside from several notable exceptions — including Polly Morgan, who shot “The Woman King;” Ari Wegner, an Oscar nominee for her work on “The Power of the Dog” and Rachel Morrison, the first woman nominated for an Oscar in the cinematography category for her work on 2017’s “Mudbound”  – there still aren’t many female cinematographers working in Hollywood. 

According to the most recent Celluloid Ceiling report, women made up just 6% of cinematographers hired for the top 250 domestic-grossing films of 2021, up only a couple of percentage points from the researchers’ first survey in 1998. “Last year, 94% of films had no female cinematographers,” said Martha Lauzen, founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. “Needless to say, the representation of women in this role is abysmal.”

Most of the attention regarding the hiring of women for off-camera positions in Hollywood has focused on directors, where some progress has been made. Women helmed 17% of the 250 top-grossing films of 2021 — up from 13% in pre-pandemic 2019. But for some reason, cinematography has remained more stubbornly a male domain.

“It’s sort of been like politics,” Walker, who is based in Los Angeles, told TheWrap. “There’s always been men in this job and maybe it was because the cameras were heavy or whatever it was to start with, but it just persisted.”

When Walker first started as a camera assistant, she recalled, she faced sexist attitudes and noticed people looking at her from other departments “because they weren’t used to having a woman on set and in my job.” But, she added, the comments stopped after a couple of weeks, when her co-workers saw she was doing her job like anyone else.

Women have more opportunities in independent film, where they made up 40% of directors of indie features screened at 20 top film festivals in 2021-22, according to a new study by Lauzen and her team, but still only 21% of cinematographers.

Polly Morgan began her career in 2003 in London as a production assistant before becoming a camera trainee a couple years later and ultimately working her way up to cinematographer. “When I started, there was this sort of feeling that people didn’t necessarily want to hire women because they were just going to leave the business and go and have kids, so it’d be a waste of time,” she said.

Cinematographer Mandy Walker on the set of “Elvis” (Photo: Ruby Bell/Warner Bros.)

Even as recently as a decade ago, women knew they would have to fight for DP positions. “I never let it deter me because there wasn’t there was never anything else that I wanted to do,” Morgan said, acknowledging that it was even more challenging for an earlier generation of trailblazers such as Ellen Kuras, who is known for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004) and “The Betrayal” (2008) as well as Amy Vincent, who shot such films as for “Eve’s Bayou” (1997) and “Hustle and Flow” (2005).

Meanwhile, the advent of digital cameras has helped spur the democratization of filmmaking. The #MeToo movement also spawned a “big wake-up call,” Morgan said, by helping to shine a light on the underlying causes of sexual harassment and abuse – including the lack of representation of women throughout the industry.

“We just started to realize that filmmaking is not a male skill,” Morgan said. “Aren’t we all going to be richer for the fact that if our stories are told by women or people of color, like we’re all going to be the better for it because we all can be artists and we can all be storytellers?”

Not surprisingly, female directors are more likely to hire female DPs. According to Lauzen’s study, 34% of indie films with a female director also had a female cinematographer (compared to just 10% of films with only a male director). “In every study of both film and television that I have conducted over the years, I have found that when a film has at least one woman director, the percentage of women in other key behind-the-scenes roles also increases,” Lauzen said. “By accident or design, the finding shows that women hire from their networks just as men have hired from their networks for years.”

Still, Walker believes Hollywood has become more inclusive of women over the years. As a governor of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, she pointed to a successful push a couple of years ago to increase the number of women in the academy’s cinematography branch. And she herself is pushing for even more inclusion, mentoring either a woman or a person of color each year.

“I personally am making a big effort to encourage women into my job,” she said.

But there’s still a long way to go. Morgan said there are “so many stories” she could share about sexism on the set – but chooses not to revisit those moments. “Just know that even though it does still happen, that we are slowly moving forward,” she said, adding that women face challenges not just in cinematography but also in visual effects and film composing. “Those careers are very much still heavily dominated by men.”

Nina Menkes, director of the 2022 documentary “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” about the gendered politics of shot design, added:  “If you have a woman director of photography in the middle of a highly sexist system — where women [are] consistently represented [as] young, beautiful, sexualized, fragmented bodies — it takes a lot of strength for that person to push back.

“But the more it becomes equal,” Menkes continued, “women might have the courage to say, ‘Why do we really have to shoot the scene this way?’ — like zooming in on [an actress’] derriere for an hour and a half or whatever.”

The more people recognize the great work being done by today’s female cinematographers, Walker said, the less of an issue it will be for women to be hired going forward.

“I’ve always been really confident that I can totally do my job and that I’m going to succeed,” said Walker, who recently wrapped production on Disney’s live-action “Snow White.” “I just took that on when I was 14. I think that it gives other women confidence to get into it and then we just have to encourage those women and give them opportunities.”

Brian Welk contributed to this report.