For my next installment of Cool Production Peeps, I am excited to introduce you to Julia Swain. Julia is an extremely talented cinematographer who works in both narrative and commercial. Most recently, Julia shot Lockheed, by James Franco, for the feature film Killing Animals produced by Rabbit Bandini and has collected many awards for her cinematography.
Julia has a great lighting style and an awesome attitude when it comes to this field. I’m hoping we can all learn something new by talking to her.
Here’s a look at her current demo reel:
RR: Julia thanks for taking the time to be on my blog. Let’s first start off by telling everyone how you got into the film business.
JS: Of course, thanks for having me, Rob! I’ve always wanted to be in this industry. With me, it’s the cliche story of my younger self borrowing my dad’s video camera during elementary school,
which used tapes. He gave me the tools I needed to experiment with as a kid and exposed me to movies that inspired me to make them myself. In high school, I won my first film festival and began to digitally edit my own movies, until I went to college for a more formal study of the art and execution. I worked in television as soon as I started college and did my own freelance, but I quickly found myself in production on narratives, which is where my heart is today.
RR: When did you realize you wanted to focus only on cinematography and not another role?
JS: Cinematography clicked when I started college. I discovered I wanted to be operating the camera and watching each movie come to life through the viewfinder. I fell in love with light. During my first year, I was the top pick in a directing class to fill the role as DP on weekly shoots. I also worked shooting television during college, which made me a great operator because we’d do a variety of ENG, sports, etc. I think the idea of having a library of images that I created was appealing to me when I started out. So much emotion is captured through images, and being a visual person I became keen on learning to communicate to an audience through them.
RR: Why do you feel it is important to focus on one aspect of filmmaking?
JS: Every role is so involved. There’s so much training and knowledge that goes behind being a great screenwriter, director, production designer, DP, etc. You have to know the different roles and how to communicate with your collaborators who fill those other roles, but each one calls for a great understanding of that particular craft both the technique and the history. Focusing on one allows you to be truly excellent at it, and it’s fun to learn aspects of other roles along the way.
RR: I think that is a great point, and something that people starting out should keep in mind. You seem to always be working on something. What do you do to continue growing and continue working?
JS: Consume, consume, consume. I make it a priority to see every film I can, read every article and book, visit every museum, watch other people’s work, and learn more about myself as a person. You have to know your own narrative. I also really value the relationships I’ve made thus far and I’ve been so lucky to work with wonderful directors. If I’m not on set or on location, I fill each day with meetings, camera tests constant activities to keep myself engaged with people and with art.
RR: Sounds like you are willing to put everything you have into this career which is something we can all strive to do. Who do you look up to in the film world? Any reason why?
JS: I admire so many people. I have so many talented friends in this industry. I look up to the many great cinematographers who have mentored me thus far. And as far as aspiring to follow in someone’s footsteps, the obvious one is Reed Morano. Not only does she captivate us with her imagery, but she’s an incredibly effective storyteller. I also share her love of emulsion and always will.
RR: In your opinion? What makes a good cinematographer?
JS:It’s a combination of your character and your technique. You have to be effective as a storyteller for the screen, all the while being a great communicator, leader, and artist. A great cinematographer cares not only passionately about the content, but the vision for it. They take the initiative.
RR: What’s been the best experience you’ve had? Any terrible experiences you can tell us about?
JS: Nothing super specific, as every set has been wonderful. One pretty recent experience, which was both the best and the worst, was when I found out I had cancer. I had turned 22 years old just days before. It took me overnight to decide I wasn’t going to sit around; I had to shoot more and continue being creative. Shooting movies got me through it. I don’t know what I would have done without shooting because cancer happened at a critical point in my life when I was about to start my MFA. I had been really high on life and the future of my career. That experience proved even more that I thrived on the art and the practice of cinematography. It saved my life.
RR: What advice would you give someone that wants to be cinematographer?
JS: Focus on what’s in front of you; not so much on how you’re going to reach your goals. It may happen in a completely different way than you expect, and most likely an even better way. Rise to every challenge and don’t be afraid to ask questions. The talented Brett Pawlak, who shot Hellion (Sundance), was quoted with a great piece of advice that was passed onto him, which was “other peoples successes, are not your failures.” That stuck with me when I read it. I think it’s important to be happy for other artists.
RR: Do you see yourself doing any other roles on set? And why/why not?
JS: I don’t, however, I’ve been asked quite a few times if I’d direct. I have directed shorts, and they’ve been received well, but I much more enjoy being behind the lens and a support to the director. I do love working with actors, but I simply don’t enjoy any other role as much as the role of cinematographer.
RR:What advice can you give young females in the production field that are worried about a male dominant job?
JS: Your work will speak for itself – gender is obsolete. It’s your work and who you are. Women in this industry should not feel intimidated at all. They should continue focusing on pursuing the career they want in this business. Yes it’s male dominated, but that’s changing. There are so many talented women in the industry and more are continuing to fill crucial positions on and off set as time goes on. Guys and gals get along really well when it comes to this wonderful creative art we get to do!
RR: My favorite question: What is the best and worst advice you’ve been given in this field?
JS: I’ve gotten so much great advice. One of the best was to never sacrifice your integrity or quality of work two crucial elements of who you are as a person and a professional. On the other side, I had a grumpy producer tell me a couple years ago that no one would ever hire a young female cinematographer and to quit altogether. I laughed. You have to love it when people underestimate you!
Thanks again for taking the time to answer these questions. There’s a lot of great advice that many of us can use in the field. I especially enjoyed hearing your take on women in the field and how one producer told you to quit. Glad to see you ignored him!