Being a Camera Operator on a Documentary at Sundance: DP Barbie Leung on ‘Half the Picture’

Before the lush celebrity gift suites, the sold-out Q&A sessions, and the long lines of frozen but eager cinephiles trying to grab the hottest ticket in Park City, a movie was made — and it was hard work. And behind the producers and directors and actors who led the charge, a “below-the-line” crew of anywhere from tens to hundreds of craftspeople worked to bring filmmakers’ visions to life. They’re the post production engineers, the editors, the camera operators, or the composers whose names are in the credits but not the numerous story pitches to Sundance press outlets like the COW. Union or non-union, aspiring or veteran, these individuals spent weeks of their life behind the scenes dedicated to telling a story. And in my 2018 COW Sundance Film Festival coverage, I’m telling their stories.


New York based cinematographer Barbie Leung is highly relatable, especially among film nerds in Park City this week: she describes herself as “the high school kid that rented movies from the library when I was 16 when other people were outside.” After her film theory education at University of Rochester, she spent time exploring where to go next. Her first gig in the industry was on a student thesis feature film (where she went in to be a PA and ended up script supervisor) and then hopped from indie to indie, learning all the roles, putting the pieces of how a film production works together, and gaining the confidence she needed to pursue her chosen path.

That path ended up being camera operator, where she worked as an assistant camera operator (AC) and enjoyed being “close to the action” before realizing she needed to make a choice about how to proceed. Frustrated by the slow upward movement in the traditional union path, she decided to forego that ladder and pursue being a cinematographer on the vast number of independent films in the city.

Barbie camera operating on feature documentary Half the Picture (photo credit: Tommy Ka)

“I couldn’t really see [progressing from the bottom of the camera department traditionally] happening, especially for women, people of color, or a woman who is a person of color. I definitely didn’t have the vocabulary we have now, and that I have from being older. At the time in my twenties, I was confused and I couldn’t see the path forward. I couldn’t see anybody that I felt was similar to my background that did that.”

Finding the hunger to want to shoot, Barbie moved forward to market herself strictly as a cinematographer and camera operator, passing on jobs for roles she didn’t want to pursue — a choice that was admittedly difficult but ultimately worthwhile, if the long list of credits across narrative, commercial, new media, and branded content on her CV is any indication.

This week, she’s at the Sundance Film Festival as part of the camera crew (specifically, camera operator) for Half the Picture, directed by Amy Adrion with Yamit Shimonovitz and Soraya Sélène as co-directors of photography. The documentary explores the lack of female directors working in Hollywood and the EEOC investigation into discriminatory hiring practices that have contributed to this issue. The film makes its world premiere at the festival this week.

I met up with Barbie at the packed (and warm) Atticus Tea House on Main Street this weekend to talk about her experiences as a camera operator and cinematographer. After our interview, she handed me her card. It’s simple and no-nonsense: vital information on one side, and frames of her (beautiful) work on the other. She’s fully done being reluctant about being a woman in a role where over 95% of workers are men. “This is me, this is what I do. Would you like this? Then call me.

Creative COW: How did you get involved on Half the Picture and what do you hope people take away from watching it?

Barbie Leung: Half the Picture is a feature documentary and it explores women directors in Hollywood. There have been a lot of studies and statistics crossing over into mainstream media, but there hasn’t been a high profile documentary where you can really see women film directors with major studio pictures or successful indies speak about it. I was a camera operator on it because of all the experience I had with being in different indie film productions in New York. I had a really long time friend who joined the union and was off doing her union thing, and didn’t have time to do this and passed it to me. She was in LA and gave the LA crew my name because they were shooting in NY and didn’t have any connections.

The film is really unique in that you can see the directors speaking in their native environments, and that’s a driving concept of Amy’s film. We’re filming angles where you see Catherine Hardwicke or Kimberly Peirce sitting under flags and boom poles and bounce boards while talking about this subject. It feels like she’s in her element. We say it all the time in cinematography, and amongst women cinematographers: you have to see us to believe it, that a woman does this role. It makes it a given. It’s a subtle but very powerful thing to have that image.

I haven’t seen the whole film yet so I’m only privy to what people said on said during my segments as camera operator. But I hope people can just know there are this many women working. That they can be consciously aware of it. Like maybe somebody liked Boys Don’t Cry, but did they remember Kimberly Pierce directed it? To be able to notice that, maybe people are just now realizing there are great women directors. I feel like the minutiae of what we’re discussing, it’s really good too. But the overarching element is that — being aware of how many women directors there are.

You were a camera operator on this film, and you work as a both camera operator and cinematographer professionally. I think a lot of people aren’t sure of the difference between those roles since sometimes the cinematographer operates a camera and sometimes they don’t. But of course the cinematographer is in charge of everything in the frame, and the camera operator is in charge of operating the camera to accommodate the cinematographer’s vision. How are these roles separate for you — or not — and how do you prefer to work?

A cinematographer definitely doesn’t have to operate their camera. But a lot of cinematographers feel that it’s really important to have that direct connection with the camera. It depends on the type of work they’re doing, too. If they’re doing indie work and there’s a lot of handheld, you would want to feel the camera as an extension of your body. Or you’re moving and connecting emotionally to what’s happening, or kinetically to the action, you might want to be able to literally have a more direct connection between your brain and the craft of it.

A lot of it has to do with scope. I think most cinematographers have that preference, and when the scope is small enough, that’s the best way to achieve the look you want. But sometimes when the scope of the film is too big, that’s when it’s helpful to have camera operators to help you execute different moves. As your productions are getting bigger, one person should be controlling each aspect of the task — especially if it’s smooth motion and you have a lot of gear. It’s all about rehearsing it and getting into that grove.

It just depends on personal preference, the needs of the project, and how you like to work. I really do like operating as well when it’s my project. I also like being a camera operator on other peoples’ projects because you’re communicating with another cinematographer and watching them work, and you can get into their head a little bit about how they like to frame things or how they want to feel out something. I think there’s pros and cons and everyone will have a different process.

Still frame of Lena Dunham from one of Barbie’s shots in Half the Picture. (Co-DPs Yamit Shimonovitz & Soraya Sélène)

What’s your working relationship like with directors as a cinematographer?

I think especially where I am in my career, I work with a lot of first and second time directors who are still developing. They either don’t yet know how to communicate with the cinematographer, or they’re figuring it out because they’ve only worked with one other cinematographer and they don’t really know these essentials. Mostly I approach it as: it’s their vision and I’m here to help them. That means different things to different directors.

One way is actually have a drink or evening with a director. Go watch movies together, trade references that may or may not be related directly to the project that you’re working, really trying to understand their sensibility and where they’re coming from. Is it a writer/director — especially in indie film that’s often the case. Did they come from a theater background? Trying to figure out the most comfortable way to fit together, because ideally it’s always a collaboration.

Those are really the kind of projects I seek out. Ones where I can be a collaborator. Some people might think ‘oh it’s a hired hand, you just show up and you shoot the thing I want’. But that ‘want’ is not just you telling me something, I need to understand where you’re coming from before your words can make sense. You need that shorthand on set when you say something and we don’t have time for those discussions. It’s all about having those discussions. Understanding that person comes from, their background. Literally how did they grow up, what are their concerns and world view and how does that intersect with their art?

You also have to figure out how comfortable they are with the technology. Some people will need me to fill in the gap of how to achieve a camera movement. Does that camera movement fit into their budget? Is there a better way to do it? Easier ways to do it? All those things. And if the director is really comfortable with lens choices and they already know what they want, then we already know how to communicate. They can just tell me they want this on an 85mm. Whereas another director might say ‘I imagine this to be wider or would have shallow depth of field,’ some people communicate in those terms.

And it’ll go all the way to an extreme where someone might just have a feeling, and I can really make my own decision and show it to them. They need to trust that I’m trying to fulfill their vision and not trying to add something that doesn’t fit into it.

As a cinematographer, you’re seen on set and behind the camera. But what other prep work and continued education is involved off the set?

Continued education is funny because it’s always research. You’re always having to keep up with what’s happening with technology changing, tastes changing, and the interaction of that — how technology will shape the tastes that we have. It’s really important to have prep time for that. That can be in a narrative project or branded content. I just shot something for Redbull TV that was a much more experimental project. For things like that, it’s really important to have prep time.

In the case of a film, after that mind-meld with your director and understanding their vision and that important preparation, we get into nuts and bolts. I should be on the tech scouts so I can tell someone if it’s not ideal for the script they have. Breaking down the script, finding the elements, that’s a really important thing. Words are free — someone can write anything. But does it match their budget? Taking that, telling them the limitations of the location, making equipment lists, fitting it all into the budget, especially in indies. Budget is one of the most important things for them. I want them to get the most bang out of their buck for the producers.

Working with the assistant director (AD) to figure out how much time is necessary to shoot. A good AD will already have an estimate, but maybe there’s some element to the shot that me and the director and gaffer and key grip have found a way to solve. It might need extra time, or it’s a lot faster, so working with the AD to figure out a schedule and crewing up is important. I really like a good working crew, people who are good together and appropriate for the project. THere’s a lot of work there too.

It’s subtle and ongoing, every minute until you step on set. Once you get on set, it’s just executing things. If you have good lighting diagrams, your key grip and gaffer can just look at it and have a shorthand. It’s all quite nerdy, there’s a lot of plotting and charts and Excel. And once you get on set, the part that looks cool is really just execution of weeks or months that you put into the prep. You want as much prep as you can, because once you get on set you’re going to have problems. We all know this. Everything will go wrong. But if you have you plan, now you can be flexible because you know your ideal and you can react.

Behind the scenes working as director of photography on upcoming narrative feature Side Piece, directed by E.A. Moss (photo credit: David Bluvband)

What advice do you have for people who want to become a cinematographer, especially for those who are underrepresented on set?

If you’re thinking of ultimately becoming a cinematographer, you need to figure out the way you want to get there. Think about if you want to come up in camera or grip and electric (G&E). To speak frankly, there are many more women in the camera department than G&E. It’s something people are just more accepting of because of the perception that women are organized. And that’s what being an assistant camera (AC) is, you’re organizer and people like having you on set. Or do you want to go the G&E route, where there are fewer women? Many cinematographers historically have come up through G&E. That’s a really big decision. It’s very complex, and I’m always happy to talk to anyone who wants to talk to me about that.

Once you decide which way you want to come up, you also have to decide if you want to go union. If you’re going union, there are a lot of steps to that. You need to be realistic about how much time you’re willing to wait before you can become a cinematographer because if you’re working full time and in the union, you actually are left with very little energy to do projects of your own. I was talking to another cinematographer today at the ASC party andt hey’ve seen a lot of their friends go into the union [and take a long time to work their way up] because it pays well, you have health insurance, all those things. If you value those things [over timing], maybe that’s the way you go — it’s a lifestyle choice. The earlier you decide on that, I think it’s better.

The biggest thing after that is you have to shoot as early as you can. Don’t think you need to stay in a certain position for a certain amount of time. It really depends on your comfort level of stepping outside your comfort zone. You have to scare yourself. I think Rachel Morrison said it recently and in better words that with each project you work on, it needs to be an incremental jump. You’re never going to get anywhere if you’re not challenging yourself and scaring yourself with each project. You have to be bold. That way you won’t have regrets. At least, that’s my approach: try to improve in a large leap with each project.

Some people say shoot anything. That could be one approach, but one thing I’ve learned is that it needs to be quality. It’s not the amount you shoot, you have to shoot smartly. The people you collaborate with, try to collaborate with people who are better than you. In a game of pool or billiards, you want to play with players who are better than you. Don’t just play with people you’re comfortable with. Find people that scare you a little bit and work with them.

Barbie at Atticus Tea House in Park City, Utah