Dancing with the camera: an interview with cinematographer Valentina Caniglia

Cinema Femme is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.

I first met cinematographer Valentina Caniglia at the 2019 Girl Power Film + Media Summit in Brooklyn, NY, where she was on a panel about the female gaze. Valentina’s story is truly inspirational, from skating competitively in Italy, to NYU film school, to traveling all over the world shooting films, TV series, and commercials. I feel privileged to have the opportunity to interview talented women like Valentina. This interview has been edited for clarity and space.

GROWING UP

VALENTINA CANIGLIA: I was born in the south of Italy, in a city called Naples, so I grew up there. I was there until I was eighteen, then I left and went to London. After England, I came to New York as well. I wanted to go on the lighting path, so basically becoming a “gaffer.” At that time, there were no women or maybe on or two being a gaffer; it was very difficult to break into that wall. I decided to start as a DP (Director of Photography or Cinematographer).

REBECCA MARTIN: I’d love to hear more about how that was, breaking in to that.

Valentina Caniglia

CANIGLIA: At that time it was very difficult to break into DP as a woman. But I can tell you, if you can imagine, at that time, there were all grips and electrics, where there were mostly guys. So there was no way you could break in unless you could really try a long path. And I didn’t want that, I just really wanted to start to shoot, and be a DP.

MARTIN: When you were at NYU, were you studying filmmaking?

CANIGLIA: I did a program that was film production, and there was cinematography as well. I was taking other classes like producing, directing, editing, philosophy, writing, film criticism even though I knew I didn’t want to fill all these positions. So that was really interesting to explore that other side. So I could know all about filmmaking, so I could be a better cinematographer.

MARTIN: That’s exciting. What was your first project that drew you in to the field?

CANIGLIA: My first project was like a Super 8 project, it wasn’t a feature, because it was more like fifteen minutes, which my friend, my other friend director and I, wanted to do about roller skating dancing. We decided to do it because I was a regional champion in skating, on roller skates.

It was really natural for me to dance with the camera, go with the wheels, in a way. At the time there was not like the normal skating, it was the roller skating dancing competitions, and it was the ’90s, so people were learning to do that. And since I was a child,I liked to go skating; I became an original champion.

So for me, it was really natural for me to dance with the camera, go with the wheels, in a way. At the time there was not like the normal skating, it was the roller skating dancing competitions, and it was the ’90s, so people were learning to do that. And since I was a child, like five or six, I liked to go skating; I became an original champion, then I was sixteen, then I left. Because I wanted to pursue the film career.

It was funny, because my mom had to decide between me and my sister, who wanted to do basketball, and so we tossed a coin and I won. My mom had to do this because the courses were given on different days, she couldn’t drive in one week four times all in different days and schedules. So she said, “You have to choose what sport you are going to do. One day it is available skating and another day basketball.” So we just tossed a coin and the one sister is going to follow the other one in their activity based on the way the coin flips, which ended up being mine. And my sister hated it. She tried it and then she quit. And I can still skate.

MARTIN: Oh my god, let me know when you go skate again, I would love to come and watch.

CANIGLIA: That’s why DPing came very natural to me, when you dance with the camera. It compares to if you’re a skater or a dancer. Because if you roller skate, you learn how to dance, you’re prepared for that, you know you’re prepared for the final event, which is like dancing in competition.

“I DANCE WITH THE CAMERA AND I PAINT WITH THE LIGHT”

Valentina Caniglia and Elliott Gould

MARTIN: During your panel discussion at the Girl Power Film + Media Summit, you said that when you are filming a person, it’s like a dance as well; you’re really in tune with the person while you’re filming. I love that.

CANIGLIA: Every story is different. I see it as an opportunity to really express the vision of the director, to really translate her/his vision. And in a way, as I always say that I dance with the camera and I paint with the light. A cinematographer is a combination of framing, lighting, and camera movement; this is what I feel you really have to be because you execute the visual part of each projects. And you’re there for the director, to support the vision. It’s also important that the director hires you because she/he sees that you have the touch so that you can add a lot to the story in coming in with the right ideas, creativity, knowledge. I see that the cinematographer is a combination of technicality and creativity so she/he has to have both. Some people become really technical and other ones become so creative that it can almost be like a wall between the two. I think that both should travel together to be there for the director, and for the producer as well in order to have the right equipment.

THE RELATIONSHIP

CANIGLIA: Basically the director calls you, hires you, based on your work, your body of work. Then she/he calls you in, to see if you actually get along. And then she/he sends you the script. The first thing I do is to listen to them a lot, to understand their vision, and after that I can give my input.

I’m not afraid to actually speak the truth. It’s important to tell them in every occasion what could be done and what could be modified. I don’t think that there is something that cannot be done; I think that something can be achieved while going through another process instead of the one that all think can be used. Both of us go through a journey, a journey that we started from the beginning; we really go together, to see, to explore, to envision, if it works, you know?

Mostly I respect a lot, directors, and I have a lot of respect towards them, they are the people, that sees you as the person who translate the words of the script and makes them into visuals. Execute their vision, basically.

ON SET

MARTIN: During the Girl Power Film + Media Summit panel, a lot of the women cinematographers said they don’t like to be referred to the “woman” on set, but as the “cinematographer” on set. And I love that. I know that topic was the female gaze, that’s what you all were talking about. Just looking at your reel, I could see some kind of femininity with the shots. I know you were saying you were one of the only female cinematographers, and wondered how that influenced you and your work with working with mostly male directors.

I never got intimidated. I came all the way from Italy to do this. So I was not intimidated. I mean it was a male-dominated industry, but now, it’s much better.

CANIGLIA: I’ve got to say, I never got intimidated. I came all the way from Italy to do this. So I was not intimidated. I mean it was a male-dominated industry, but now, it’s much better.

I say to myself, I would find a way, to actually break into that. It would probably not be the usual way, you know maybe there could be another way, everyone has different stories. I’m very intrigued by the fact that everybody finds a way to break in if it works for them. I have to be honest, I was never concerned by being the only one on set. I always wanted to see a 50/50 on set to give an opportunity to all work and make their dreams a reality.

MARTIN: That’s great.

CANIGLIA: I’ve always had that moral support from directors by women and men. For example, in 2008, we shot a film in Palestinian territories, and it was a female director, and she called me from Palestine, and said she wanted me to be the DP of her film. It was kind of a difficult time there. We had three main actors, it was a narrative film, and the film had its US premiere at Sundance. In that moment, I didn’t feel like we were a “woman” director or a DP, we were united. I think that’s the most important thing, that the director trusts you.

MARTIN: What was the name of the film and the director?

CANIGLIA: “Pomegranates and Myrrh” (2008). But before her, for example, I worked with another director that was here in New York, and I actually won best cinematography for.

MARTIN: Congrats!

CANIGLIA: Thanks. And along the way, I worked with a few women directors, and men as well. The ones that hired me always trusted me and my skills, so they never doubted. Even at that time when there was a 35mm camera and the camera was more heavier and larger, there was no doubt that I could do it.

MARTIN: That’s great. I give you a lot of credit. I can’t even imagine. But I’ve been talking to other women filmmakers who use cameras, and they’re like, no problem. It’s very inspiring.

CANIGLIA: Once you have the camera on your shoulder, it’s like a relationship between you, the story, and the camera. The camera becomes invisible. And you are becoming like the story, because the camera becomes like a character. By the end of the day, we are there to express the state of mind of the characters in the movie. And also to tell a story.

For example, in commercials or branded content, which I do as well, it is important to have the audience understand the product. It’s challenging because branded content and commercials, it’s like filming mini films. So you have to actually tell a mini story and get to the point, and so that relationship becomes even tighter; you get to know the director right away, and then you have to do things in a few moments.

In feature films and TV series, you have longer periods of time to establish a relationship. In commercials, you know the director, you know the actors, you know the product, and you know that you have to tell a story as well to achieve the goal to catch the interest in the product.

I think it’s challenging like a featured film or a TV series because in feature films and TV series, you have longer periods of time to establish a relationship. In commercials, you know the director, you know the actors, you know the product, and you know that you have to tell a story as well to achieve the goal to catch the interest in the product. What’s nice about commercials, branded content, feature films, TV series, and all projects is that you become one person with the director. You have the back of the director, and the director has your back. In commercials and branded content, you have to work with the client, and that’s an important part of the team as well.

I think it’s important, because along the way, you’re establishing a language with the director. And you know the director actually gives their trust in you and you’re really there for them and to support them.

CREATIVE PROCESS

MARTIN: What’s one project you had where you really enjoyed the creativity you could use?

CANIGLIA: Recently I really enjoyed my collaboration with the director of a recent film called “Quail Hollow” (postproduction), and it was actually shot in Louisiana, and the director (Javier de Prado) is from Spain. I really liked the creative process. He actually fought to have me there; without me, he wasn’t going to do this movie. We were introduced by one of the producers of the film and met over Skype. It was very well done as a creative process. He pushed me to the limit, and I did the same. So we took the risk together. It was really nice, and there were a lot of special effects done on camera on set, so many great challenges. It was a very action movie, more like you know, inspired by “Stranger Things,” the TV series.

MARTIN: I love that show!

CANIGLIA: I really liked the process. So when you really get on the same level, it’s the kind of relationship that you really want to spend time together with the visuals. That’s important, because everything goes along. I also recently really enjoyed a collaborative film that I shot with Deborah Kampmeier. We shot with Isabelle Fuhrman; it was a feature film, but the subject matter was very important.

MARTIN: What was the name of the film?

CANIGLIA: “Tape.” What I liked about it, Deborah was very open. We decided to do different points of views, with different cameras, with different lenses. We weren’t afraid to actually go all about it, to tell this story that has to be told. It was very sensitive, it was very deep. We wanted the audience to really identify with the subject matter, to who’s looking at what. The POV was very different, identifying with different lens, and different cameras. It was really interesting to do that.

Another recent movie I enjoyed filming was a feature film too. It was really nice, an LGBT movie “Road of Bygones,” directed by Astrid Ovalles [who also acts in the film]. That movie was pretty magical. Astrid and I decided that it was really important that we established a relationship through gesture. We did not do a lot of preproduction together, but we understood each other right in the moment.

MARTIN: That’s great. So these last films you mentioned—”Quail Hollow,” “Tape,” and “Road of Bygones”—where can we find these films?

CANIGLIA: They will be coming out all in 2019.

MARTIN: This is great timing. So excited!

STYLE

MARTIN: Any advice for female cinematographers breaking into the industry?

CANIGLIA: If they want to be a cinematographer, they should really see beyond and behind what the reality is. Because everyone is going to say it’s difficult. Everyone is going to say it’s impossible. But competition is in every field. But it’s about you, it’s about your style, it’s about your personality. As a cinematographer now, I think you have to build your own style. It’s so easy to get a camera and press the red button, but how you tell the story; that is the most difficult thing, based on experience, and your imagination.

For example, before I give my impression for the director, usually I always start listening to the director what their vision is, and so I listen, I try to get the most information that I can, so I can get to know them. I’ve learned recently, because I read a lot, so what I do I take a book and try to picture it in my mind, and then go to location, I go to every part of the book where it could be located. I feel like it’s the motivation of my brain. Even go further with my imagination. This actually helps me to see beyond. Sometimes we really need to explore more and see beyond the frame. Be realistic, know that there are the rules, but to know that there’s the reality, but open to traveling beyond that. Because sometimes what it appears, is not how it is. For example, when you travel in India, the north is not the same as the south. Don’t go with the fact that you already have an expectation. If you go with that idea, you cannot be open.

What helped me become a cinematographer, was I came from another country and I saw things differently, and I started to explore, even like a bus stop. It was something like, wow, something to explore. Seeing beyond it, that’s really important.

That’s what they want to see, they want to see that you have your own style. And supporting the director, that is the most important thing. And being like a business person, you know, people opening their own production company, and have their own camera. I respect that. But right now, everybody can have a camera, even rent a camera, it’s very cheap. But your strength should not just be in your camera, it should be in your style and in how you execute in a specific way the director’s vision. Right now it’s a bit more challenging for young DPs because you really need to build your own personality and style. And telling story with motivation, not only the beauty. If you make a beautiful image and it doesn’t make any sense for the story or if there’s no motivation behind it, most of time is just “beautiful” and could be “empty.” The audience is going to know it and feel it.

Now we’re dealing with a very sophisticated audience, and a lot people, they know when you’re moving the camera and why you’re doing it.

Now we’re dealing with a very sophisticated audience, and a lot people, they know when you’re moving the camera and why you’re doing it. The fascination of that is to surprise them and do something different that still gives motivation but is unexpected. Something original, in a way intriguing and not to reveal it in an easy manner. The great thing is that the audience is going to discover and always ask themselves, “What is going to happen next?”

They want to know what’s going to happen, and maybe you’re going to trick them. What you don’t see sometimes could be more powerful.

So I say to upcoming DPs, don’t be afraid, and try to build your own personality and style. So the director can say, “I hired you because of your style.” And the point is to not become like everyone else, that’s the beauty in it.

So I say to upcoming DPs, don’t be afraid, and try to build your own personality and style. So the director can say, “I hired you because of your style.” And the point is to not become like everyone else, that’s the beauty in it.

2 Replies to “Dancing with the camera: an interview with cinematographer Valentina Caniglia”

  1. I appreciate a lot this interview. How it has been built ! A great idea , Valentina! You know that I follow you since you made “Road of Bygones” with Astrid Osvalles & Orianna Oppice as Directors. Go ahead, please. Without a Cinematographer, a film will be a grey square! Thanks so much for the work you do & for teaching your Art to young and older fans you have!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.