Who was the first woman to win an Academy Award for cinematography?
Trick question. A female director of photography has never even been nominated in the category -- which is why it's remarkable that two female cinematographers are creating Oscar buzz this year: Maryse Alberti for "The Wrestler" and Mandy Walker for " Australia."
"The Wrestler," directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Mickey Rourke, is an intimate story filmed almost entirely with one hand-held camera during a down-and-dirty seven-week shoot. Director Baz Lurhmann's "Australia" is a technically complex epic that required six-camera setups and took eight months to film. The women who lensed these pictures are as different as the projects themselves.
Alberti, who lives in New York with her husband and teenage son, has worked on such films as "Happiness" and "Velvet Goldmine," but it's her extensive documentary background on projects like "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" and "Crumb" that excites her the most. "I love documentary because you enter all the small worlds that the world is made up of," she says. "The pleasure of making movies is to have your eye in that little rectangle, and when it works, it's a high."
That quest for experience is a defining trait for her. Alberti fled the confines of a small French village as a naive 19-year-old who longed to see Jimi Hendrix in concert in America, but Hendrix died while she was en route. She ended up hitchhiking the U.S. for three years, hanging out at small airports and talking her way onto private planes. The Instamatic she took on her travels developed into a love of photography and, in New York, she began snapping rock bands, then stills on X-rated film sets. From there, she made a leap to cinematography and turned her passion to docs, often wielding her own 16-millimeter camera. It was that cinéma vérité aesthetic and her "rock 'n' roll" attitude that caught Aronofsky's eye and has insiders talking about a nomination for the raw emotion she captured from Rourke.
"We were really shooting from the hip," Aronofsky says. "We'd see what [Rourke] was doing and respond. It wasn't about the perfect lighting, it was about creating an atmosphere that was completely naturalistic. Doing natural is a very difficult thing . . . it's underrated how difficult it is."
While Alberti is free-flowing and in the moment, Mandy Walker is all about preparation. "I like to be really well planned," says the no-nonsense Australian, who took on the biggest project of her career with "Australia."
Walker, a native of Melbourne who now spends most of her time in L.A. with her husband and 10-year-old daughter, knew she wanted to be a cinematographer by the time she was 15. At 18, she left school to become a runner on a film set and methodically worked her way up through the camera department, shooting her first feature at 25. She met Lurhmann in 2004 when he hired her to film his Chanel No. 5 commercial starring Nicole Kidman. Walker says working with Lurhmann means being prepared to improvise. "We would have a basic plan, and then he would come on set and something would happen and he would go, 'Where is that crane?' And we would have a 40-foot crane and a 25-foot crane all ready." But, she adds, the extensive location shooting in remote areas made that kind of foresight a challenge. "The most intense part of the shoot is getting those shots when we're in the middle of a salt pan and hundreds of miles from any town and we just had to make it work," she says, pointing out that at times the crew lived in a 250-tent compound. "It was an amazing experience."
Alberti and Walker agree that gender has not affected their success, and, while women are rare in their field, their work has been judged on merit. Walker says that while "absolutely there would be something special" about being the first woman to win an Oscar for cinematography, she doesn't dwell on being in a male-dominated profession. "I actually never think about it until someone asks me the question," she says. "I just feel that I'm employed because I'm good at my job. I never took it on as a gender issue."
While Alberti concurs, she admits at the beginning of her career there was sometimes the question of, "Can the little lady handle the big lights?" But she quickly formed a pragmatic comeback that proves success as a DP is more about brains than brawn. "I had to say, 'The little lady doesn't carry the big lights,' " she recalls with a laugh. "She points and the big guys carry the lights."
by Anita Chabria