Today, Monologue Blogger’s Conversation Series brings you our most recent guest, Cinematographer Valentina Caniglia. Valentina was born and raised in Italy and ventured to America when she was 20 years old to pursue her passion and dream of being a professional Cinematographer.
When Valentina arrived on the film scene in New York, there weren’t many opportunities for women working in the camera department. Despite this difficulty, Valentina has proven that if you love what you do and persist, anything is possible.
In our conversation, Valentina shares with us a closer look into her life with what inspired her to want to make films, her struggles to prove her skill and the creative approach she takes as a Director of Photography.
When did you first gravitate towards the idea of becoming a cinematographer?
My father has always been deeply passionate about cinema and he knew all about movies and directors from the most unknown films to the famous ones. When I was 7 I asked for a camera and he bought me a Kodak film camera which I used to take pictures of people and landscapes. I didn’t know what a cinematographer was in reality until I was 8 years old and my dad showed me two great films, The Conformist (il Conformista) directed by Bernardo Bertolucci and DP by Vittorio Storaro and the Godfather directed by Francis Ford Coppola and DP by Gordon Wills. Every shot looked like a painting and I said to my dad, “I want to do what I see here,” pointing at the screen to the lighting, framing, camera movements. “I don’t know what it is…” I said and my dad replied, “You want to be a cinematographer.”
Why did you decide to come to the United States to pursue your passion for cinematography?
I originally applied at the Centro Sperimentale in Rome. Since they accept 6 people every three years and I didn’t have the right connection to be accepted, I was rejected and I decided to go in London first. I spent 3 years in London and then I went to the US to study at NYU. The choice of being in the USA was because I wanted to be able to be a Cinematographer who could film in every country, with a wide range of technical and creative knowledge. Being in New York, I was able to meet directors from all around the world and explore visuals from a foreign point of you.
What are some of the films you think pushed film forward when it comes to light?
There are many films that visually gave me a push with the lighting and I can mention a few like: Fallen Angels, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, The Conformist, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, Red, Persona, Elephant and so on. I would consider that all those films were lit primarily to tell a story and they were amazing because they visually described the story through lighting. Those films were not only beautiful but with a sense of lighting motivation for the story and the character’s state of mind.
Even though I like to give a sense of motivation for lighting and express the content of a story, in certain cases, I don’t like to give too much information through motivation of the lighting because it sours it by telling the audience where the lighting is coming from just because there is a source in the frame, like a window, a door or something else to motivate the light source. I think that every frame, light and movement should go along with the story without so many explanations of why and where the lighting is coming from. Either if it is a surreal story or a character driven story or a stylized story the cinematography goes along with it and creates a style that expresses emotions, or non emotions depending on the story.
I think that in any project I light, frame or move the camera as a cinematographer I should be a “fluid” eye to feel behind the camera and to go beyond the story.
Do you have any influences and if so, who may they be and what is it about that person that you were inspired by from their work?
My major influences were mostly painters and still photographers who I never met in person but I loved to admire the expression of their lighting, framing and composition through their work. The idea of understanding everything through one canvas was magical to me. As I say in every project I light, frame and move the camera thinking that I start from a Canvas, I paint with light and dance with the camera. It would be accurate to say that my influences were Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Matisse, Picasso, Daumier, John Patmos, Bosch, Richard Serra, John Patmos, Murakami, Sigmar Polke, Kara Walker, Arnulf Rainer and others.
Can you talk to us about your process, from when you first read the script to realizing the visual look of the film in production?
My approach is pretty simple. I have a tendency to read the script twice once from the Director Of Photography’s eyes and again from Valentina’s emotions. I try to discover what images could best translate the words into visuals that better serve the story but mostly that can deeply give emotions to an audience. I analyze the character’s state of mind and I think of what frame, lighting, composition and camera movement can externally reveal the thought images coming from the internal progression of the character’s state of mind, while going through the telling of the story. If I like the script, I would like to meet the director and get to know him/her to listen while I can give my impressions on the visual look.
What are the deciding factors for you that make you agree to doing a film?
A story that contains a dream like elements as well as creative aspects for a character driven story as well as a passionate director who loves his/her work.
What do you consider first before committing to making a movie?
The first consideration is the content of the material. If I think I am the right DP for the story, I start to consider it.
What are some of the pros and cons of working on tight budgeted films versus high budgeted films?
On a low budget the pros are more freedom to take risks. I love to take risks and explore even if I don’t know that it will work, I change something and push it to the limits. I usually like to build rigs on any level and I like to test ideas until the end. I always have plans A, B, C, D, E,F, G and so on and I can quickly change the lighting, camera work without losing time.
That’s very true, Valentina. When we worked on ’98 ST – Playland’ together, one of the things that I appreciated so much about you is that if I needed to make a change to a set up, you were so quick to make it happen for me and this saved us valuable production time or else we may have fallen behind schedule.
I am pretty quick in setting up lighting and camera and while I pay attention to details, I like to give time to the director and the actors to work on the scene for performance. I plan in advance but if I can’t for production reasons, I come up always with alternative ideas right away. I have created incredible lighting scenarios and camera movements on the fly. When I walk in on a location I observe in 5 minutes from where I could light and from where I can hide everything. Being on a low budget is mostly important to understand that is not planned 100% so I have a tendency to go with the flow. I am a quick solving solution person.
My motto is : Nothing is impossible because everything is possible.
On an higher budget, it is all arranged and even though I have all my tools, time is a constraint. I am aware that I have to work under pressure and I honestly don’t mind I am pretty good at working under pressure with all kinds of lights and any crew size. In every situation, I am able to create and make magic with a style in order to tell a story. I think that in any budget lower or higher the key is to never forget that it is you that tells the camera what to do, not the opposite, so creativity is the key to express the director’s vision and be fair to the story.
I want to add that you have a wonderful tendency to put the director at ease. From day one I knew that I never had to worry about anything with the light once we discussed the scene together. That was a big deal for me.
What sort of directors do you like working with the most?
I like to collaborate with directors that are creative. The technical knowledge is easy to learn but the creativity and the ability to tell a story is something you are born with. If there is a mutual respect along with the knowledge of being dream makers, I think that itself is the most important thing in filmmaking. Many times, between the director and I there is an understanding with just a glance or a gesture without dialogue or the need of more. Sometimes silence is more effective then words. I always feed directors with my ideas and try to show them any reference that could to stimulate the look of the project. When I say references, I don’t mean only visual ones but also objects, music, words, anything that can better describe their vision which can melt with how I express it. I always thought that DPs are like therapists : able to understand and interpret the director’s mind.
Can you talk about some of the collaborations you have had with filmmakers and maybe any stories that stand out for you that you feel were good for you to experience?
All the collaborations that I had were good to me and mostly were great experience to learn from. I start with the thought that I am so lucky to be able to be a Cinematographer and create dreams on screen but mostly I am so lucky that I can do what I truly love to do in life. I think that’s the first step that I am aware of and grateful for it. I worked very hard to get to this level and it has been an amazing journey where all experiences I have had taught me something. I have filmed in all different countries from Africa, Middle East, Asia, USA, Europe and my collaborations with all filmmakers were extraordinary because the language of cinema is Universal and the passion and love to make every kind of project I’ve worked on from Commercial, Music Videos, Documentaries, Feature films was highly intense.
There aren’t many female cinematographers in the industry. What are some of the challenges you have faced being a woman DP?
Since I started there were not so many females in the camera department. The challenge was to show that I could do the job even if I was a woman. I mostly was aware that the camera department was limited to men where they created “Boys Club” but I decided that I would make it no matter what and I travelled from Italy, since I was 20 years old and I had no intention to leave without being a DP. I never thought about how hard it could be, the fact of being a woman in the field but I kept on making compelling images and being supported by directors who believed in me since to begin with. After I showed them that I could do everything, they never let me go. I think that’s the key.
I was a photographer in Black and White and I used to develop still pics in my dark room. (my bathroom) I worked as a war photographer. When I discovered about this amazing Cinematography’s job, I wanted to capture the essence of the stories through a motion media. I saw that being a Director Of Photography male dominated field and I went for it thinking that I would go make it just like I made it out alive taking pictures in conflicted areas with bombs over my head. I was always on the plane and I knew it was not easy for a woman to make a family and be a DP.
I would like to say to all women that if they would like to do something and they really love it, they should never listen to people that say, “you can’t do it,” because you can.
At the beginning of my career I had to listen to questions like, “Can you do handheld with a big 35mm Panavision camera or with big Anamorphic lenses?” Or, “Can you light this place?” Even if I was thinking, “Would you ask that to a man?” I simply answered “That’s it? Let’s do it. Simple.” I have been boxing for many years so that’s much better then to receive a punch. At least by the end of the day I won’t have a broken nose or a black eye.”
Do you feel that more opportunities are taking place for female cinematographers or less?
Yes, I think now it’s time for women to tell stories and there is more support.
There seems to be more films being made with female lead protagonists as well as more women working behind the scenes. Are there other components that give you ideas/inspiration to color the composition?
Mostly still photography give me some ideas but recently I explore the colors and I imagine to attach each characters to a color where I can identify them better so in my mind I know that depending on the role I identify the characters on that specific characteristics of visual colors.
Do you think you have a certain style in your work?
As an artist I think I have a unique style to combine technical skills with creative skills. I think all artists develop their style that usually comes from inside as a spontaneous emotion. I personally follow my imagination and I get inspired by my visual mind where I dream I would like to do it in a scene either if it is a naturalistic approach or a more stylized approach in lighting or framing. I make a visual imagination in my mind first then I talk with the director and if he/she likes it. I go for it. Since I love to write, I describe visually what I write to make it happen in reality on set.
As a Cinematographer, I approach the lighting through the words and description in the script then I build in my mind an imaginary mood for the film that it could be a reality or not but my style starts to develop and shape after being on set.
Do you try to remain versatile in your work or do you like to have a bit of your own signature in every film you do?
I like to be different and to approach every film in a different way with a touch of my style that still sticks to the story and to the director. Yes, I like to give a bit of versatility where there is a small hint of Valentina’s Cinematography, sometimes that can be invisible but still aware of being there if it fits the story. I personally think that if an image is beautiful only for an aesthetically point of view but doesn’t mean anything, it’s just empty. I think that the definition of beauty is personal and changes all the time depending upon the story you want to tell behind a visual frame, image. Something that appears beautiful to me can easily appear ugly to another person. I think to keep an identity in your work it is important without never forgetting what you are trying to convey from each projects you film.
What would you say are the most vital lessons a cinematographer needs to understand?
A lesson is patience, consistency, love, passion, consideration, teamwork, decision making, self-esteem, be able to share, be open minded, mostly the lesson to feel every frame, lighting and camera movements. In every single project I move, frame and light as if it would be my last cinematography job because I appreciate and I feel what I do.
What advice can you give to someone who is just starting out with the desire to tell stories as director of photography?
Be creative and experiment to develop your style but mostly your personality.
Are there any filmmakers, actors, producers that you would like to collaborate on a film with?
I think my dream is to be working with all filmmakers, actors and producers who love their job and love to create a teamwork. I am always looking to collaborate with a great and professional team.
Do you have a favorite lens? Camera? If so, please tell us why?
I am come from a film background and I like all film cameras but I do love working in the digital world as I have been filming a lot with Arri Alexa and Anamorphic lenses. I choose every lens and camera based on the story and project I film. Some lenses are softer or other ones are sharper so it depends on the look of the film.
Is there a particular kind of story genre that you prefer working within or are you pretty open to working in multiple genres?
I am open to work with multiple genres as long as it is a great story.
Do you have any desire to direct a movie one day?
As of now, no desire to direct.
Are there current or future projects that you are involved in that you would like to share with us?
I am currently prepping two feature films and two TV Pilots.
Do you have an ultimate goal or a personal place you would like to reach in your work?
I would love to win an Oscar one day. Also to see a film I DP once again at Sundance, Cannes, Berlin, Toronto and Venice film festival or films that are shown in the movie theaters and give an impact to the audience. My goal is to film incredible films and projects that draw attention and awareness of any kind.
What achievements do you aspire to?
I achieve to film on any level with a good quality and with great directors, actors and producers I would love to film Hollywood Feature films, TV series, Commercials, Documentaries, Music Videos, but also good Independent films with great stories and Independent projects. I would still like to travel and work on any amazing stories where I can create compelling images that goes with the stories.
I would like to add that life is a visual journey and as a Director Of Photography I would like to show more of my work thorugh feature film, Tv series, Commercials, Documenaries and Music Videos.
Thank you for taking the time to be part of the Conversation Series, Valentina.
To learn more about and follow Valentina Caniglia: