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“A Progressive Set of Best Practices That Evolves With the Industry”: The Documentary Cinematographers Alliance

Three women and one man sit on tall stools in a wood-paneled room with large windows.Eden Wurmfeld, Julia Liu, Jenni Morello and Nelson Walker at DCA's Sundance panel. Photo credit: Nausheen Dadabhoy.

Despite its recent formation during the fall of 2021, the Documentary Cinematographers Alliance has already put forth a comprehensive guideline of “best practices” DPs should advocate for and adhere to while working on any given nonfiction shoot. This document also serves as a rubric for directors and producers to measure the safety, sustainability and collaborative nature of their documentary project. The DCA also acts as a de facto community hub for DPs all around the country, with group chats and festival panels organized to connect these below-the-line workers—and, most importantly, provide a safe place for transparently sharing their wages, various working conditions and their own amendments or contributions to the “living document” of best practices.

Ahead of the DCA’s panel co-presented with the Documentary Producers Alliance during the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, I spoke to co-founders Julia Liu, Ashley O’Shay and Jenni Morello about how the organization came to be, what they hope for the future of doc DPs, as well as their best and worst experiences on a shoot.

Filmmaker: Can you walk me through the foundation of the Documentary Cinematographers Alliance? I know you banded in 2021, but I’m curious how you all became connected and decided to form. 

Liu: It actually started in a weirdly organic way. A group of doc DPs, maybe five or six of us, would meet to talk about our careers, hopes, dreams and goals. We had a lot in common in terms of the challenges that we faced. This was also all during the pandemic, so there were two main things that planted the seed. The first was that as people started going back to work very early on during the pandemic, there wasn’t very much regulation and standardization of safety protocols and testing, so we were all comparing notes on how to keep ourselves safe. The second thing that signaled to us that, “Hey, we need to be chatting and communicating more” is that everyone’s rates were all different, especially the guys versus the girls. Those two things combined made us realize, “There’s so much that we need to make transparent amongst ourselves, to build power and help further our careers while also protecting and advocating for ourselves. There’s no Documentary Cinematographer Alliance—why isn’t that a thing?”

Morello: After Sundance 2020, I realized we needed to create our own alliance. I don’t think I had realized that almost all facets of our documentary industry had an alliance, including the composers! We spent 2020 having Zooms with as many documentary cinematographers as possible, trying to listen to what people would want out of the group, and there was the obvious advantage that we had all suddenly found ourselves at home with no work. The overall sentiment was [that we should form] a community, since we all so often work alone, a place where people could candidly ask questions, find mentors and feel supported by their peers.

O’Shay: Like many other industries, even though a lot of the beginning conversations were around safety practices, hazard pay and everything we were facing during the peak of COVID, it slowly changed into this larger conversation around equitable practices that we can engage in with producers and directors. That’s when it solidified less around COVID best practices to just best practices [in general] as documentary cinematographers.

Filmmaker: How did you collaborate on a set of best practices? Were there any previously established models that you wanted to either challenge or emulate? 

O’Shay: I was brought into the steering committee later on, but I remember participating in one of the larger community chats where folks were just talking about different facets that we eventually incorporated into best practices, whether that’s around how long the workday should be, how many meals you should have, what your turnaround time should be, how you want to contribute creatively to a project—even if you’re not the lead DP or it’s not a feature-length film. Just really establishing your creative voice as a doc DP and feeling that you have the support for that. 

Morello: There is a camera union, but most of us are non-union, though we do have some members that are. So, this was a document for documentary cinematographers, but most of the models are based on camera union rules that we wanted to expand on, but tailor for our industry. We sent the [document of] best practices to as many DPs as possible and got people to add things. It was an inclusive document, and we even shared it with some producers in the early days to see how they would respond to seeing these things in writing. 

Liu: Sometimes there was disagreement—there were a lot of times where things weren’t really cut and dry. But then we would try to take the pulse of the industry and err toward forward-thinking. And yes, most people are non-union, but there are also a lot of people in the local 600—I’m in 600—so we’ve incorporated a lot of those rules that the union sets to keep people safe, like getting a meal every six hours. In terms of safety, free-driving is a thing that the union has stopped and made a hard line in the sand on. You’re not supposed to do handheld [shooting while] driving in the front seat of a car—which docs do a lot—because if the airbag is not disengaged, even a slight bump in the road could make it come out and smack the camera up in the person’s face. There’s a really horrifying crash test dummy video online that demonstrates just how dangerous it is. Yet it’s a practice in the doc world that I’ve been asked to do. And I’ve done it, you know? We’ve all done it. But that’s a thing that many of us are trying to push back and say, “Actually, that’s too dangerous. Is there another way we can get this shot? If not, do we really need it?” That’s an example of something people disagree about—some people are like, “I do that all the time!” But we’re trying to build towards a progressive set of best practices that evolve with the industry. 

O’Shay: Filming in the car was not something that was being discussed even five or ten years ago. To address your question about if we looked to any other documents for inspiration, we definitely looked to the DPA [the Documentary Producers Alliance]. At least for me, it was like one of the first doc alliances to put something out into the industry. Industry-wide, folks are definitely starting to have these conversations. There’s also the Alliance for Documentary Editors. There are just a lot of different organizations now to advocate for us in this space. 

Filmmaker: I’m sure it’s hard to quantify with only a little bit over a year under your belts, but what are some of the DCA’s highlights so far when it comes to your effort to promote these practices? 

O’Shay: Back in 2021, we did a soft launch of the best practices at DOC NYC during one of their “PRO” days. It was an introduction to the DCA, but it was also our first time publicly talking about these guidelines. I think it was a really fruitful conversation. There were a lot of  DPs in the room, so it was great to have folks come up to us afterward and talk about the need for it. 

Then back in September, we had a conversation at IDA’s Getting Real conference with DP Emily Topper, who is a member of the DCA. It delved into her cinematography practice around a couple of films, but also provided examples of when [shoots] have been more aligned with the best practices, and when she’s had experiences that have not been that way. We also have a Slack group where our community lives. I would say that space goes beyond just the best practices: Folks share new tech that they’re interested in, people look to crew up for gigs.

We recently started a BTS channel for a lot of the folks at Sundance, so they could talk about the films that they’re bringing there. We’re definitely trying to strike a balance between promoting the best practices and making our community feel like they have the courage to advocate for themselves. We also want it to be a community space, we don’t want it to just feel like we’re constantly yelling into the void [laughs].

Liu: We always joke about how DPs never get to work together, because you’re just by yourself on set. But actually, we’re friendly people! We want to have community, and there’s so much we can gain from talking to each other and comparing notes. It’s crazy to see on the Slack channel people comparing their rates. People really want to see a public rate sheet, and what we’ve decided is that it’s a really powerful thing to share amongst ourselves, but it’s not something that we’re ready to necessarily go public with. 

It’s been cool to see especially women and women of color say, “Oh man, that’s what people are charging? I need to up my rates.” That is transformative. I remember that happening for me, so to see that happen for others is amazing. That helps all of us thrive. What’s the saying, “A rising tide lifts all boats”? I mean, we don’t want to be racing each other to the bottom [laughs]. 

O’Shay: No, not at all! 

Filmmaker: This is something that you brought up a few minutes ago when you spoke about trading field notes, but it has me curious about some of the worst conditions you’ve experienced on a gig. What about some of the best? Can you speak to how common/uncommon some of these experiences are among fellow cinematographers and DCA members? 

Morello: We so often work on projects that are well-funded with big crews, alongside projects that are not well-funded with small crews. Because of this large gap, I would say it’s very common for our members to have had both horrible experiences and great experiences. I personally have had all different types. It’s hard to list some of the worst conditions I’ve experienced—besides not being paid—but often they surround bad communication. Like, for example, working a 13-hour-day and only having four hours of sleep before my call time. But I’ve learned to advocate for myself and make sure people know that the work will suffer! Our jobs are physical and sleep is so important. Some of the best experiences I’ve had have to do with great communication, a respect for the craft and collaboration, and the acknowledgement that we are all humans who are trying to make the best film possible.

O’Shay: For me, I don’t know if it’s because I’ve just gotten a lot better at advocating for myself or putting things in contracts, but I would say I only experience questionable practices maybe 25-30% of the time that I’m working in the doc space. It may also be because a lot of the people I work with are frequent collaborators, so we’ve gotten into a rhythm and they understand what I require when I’m coming on as a DP or camera operator. I think the most common experience for me is producers thinking that there’s this endless supply of energy that we are able to provide as DPs. One of my biggest changes in the past couple of years has been really advocating for a 10-hour workday. I’m in Chicago, and when you go to other hubs—like New York or LA—the 12-hour day is the norm for them. But my brain stops functioning after eight hours, if I’m being honest, so even 10 hours is a stretch for me. My horror stories have been when producers just weren’t responsive to that. 

I’ve also had days where it just feels like we’re shooting without a purpose. Sometimes you’re literally just filling up these hours with content, and it might be because I’m a director too, but you know they’re not even going to use half of this. We want to get in and get out. If you’re able to plan for that, it becomes a lot easier for your DP to prepare and to know what fail safes we need. Sometimes you can’t get a meal every six hours, or sometimes you might have it early or late, but if I feel like my producer or director is having that transparency with me, I feel a lot more supported. I start getting frustrated when all of a sudden I feel like I’m freaking producing! I sometimes have to be like, “We need to take a break for lunch.” And don’t try to get me to start filming something with somebody in the middle of my lunch [laughs]. Especially when it’s a non-urgent situation. If it’s a political film and we’re at a rally and we need to be present, that’s different from these more constructed docs that we’re sometimes working on. I think there’s also a tendency for your DP to be a catch-all for every other part of the production that you didn’t plan for—an extra line producer, a B-cam, an assistant camera, all of these things you sometimes think you can skirt around because it’s a doc. 

One of my best experiences, for example, is a doc I filmed for five or six days in Texas last year, during the middle of the summer. We came in knowing that we had to do these 10-hour days, but that it was also gonna be really grueling on our bodies. But we had adequate prep conversations where we were talking about the schedule that we would be looking at from day to day. It was a co-DP situation, so we each had our own sound person and a producer between the two of us. We took the appropriate amount of breaks for meals, and when we felt like we got the scene, we stopped filming. We didn’t just beat our bodies down. We were all really good at advocating for ourselves, and the director-producing team was just receptive to all of that—it may have been because the director was also a DP. 

Liu: I’ve been pretty lucky in terms of my horrible stories not necessarily being about somebody not following the guidelines. It’s more just working with really hard personalities. That takes a lot of patience and understanding—and just trying to get through the day [laughs]. But that’s pretty rare, honestly. I feel really lucky that I’ve been able to choose to work with repeat clients and collaborators. A lot of times, I become friends with the people I work with, or we’ve already been friends. One director that I’ve done four or five features with is a dear friend from college, you know? But I think I’m pretty good at trying to advocate for myself, especially at the beginning. If I get pushback on really basic stuff at the very beginning, I’m like, “Thanks for the opportunity, but this isn’t right,” because it’s not worth it in the end. 

In terms of my best experiences, I keep talking about this driving piece, but it’s a really concrete thing to measure, like, “Does this person care about my safety?” At first, I was the person who would be like, “Yeah, I’ll do it!” But then I was kind of shamed by some friends who were like, “You still do that?!” I didn’t even know I could say no to doing handheld in the front seat. Then I tried it on one job. I said, “Actually, that’s not really safe. I feel comfortable filming from the backseat, because I’m buckled and there’s not an airbag that’s going to smack me in the face.” The director and producer were like, “Of course!” The fact that there was no pushback was just amazing. I asked again on my next shoot, and this time I said, “How about we hard-mount the camera instead?” I actually got two shots that way. I hard-mounted on the windshield and was filming from the back seat. They were thrilled that they got two angles, and everybody was safe. 

It’s so important for people to realize you’re a human and not just a robot or another piece of equipment. If they think they got the shot and just let you know, “Hey, we’re done, you can put that heavy camera down,” it’s amazing. For one, the editors will thank you for not having all this extra footage. Two, the more you can preserve your energy for when you actually do need to be shooting, the better. 

Filmmaker: Finally, what has the broader response been from fellow doc cinematographers—especially along lines of race, class and gender—and the doc industry at large? 

Morello: One of the biggest things we heard from other cinematographers was that we want to be included in developing the look and style of our films and attend color corrections. Being treated like a collaborator makes for more seamless productions. But I think our fellow doc cinematographers are also very aware of these discrepancies behind the camera. All of our early conversations were around making sure that the majority of our founding members represented a diverse group of people. 

O’Shay: I think our biggest hiccup or struggle right now is trying to connect with folks that aren’t DPs, which is a big reason why we keep having these panels. We’re working on this panel at Sundance because we want to be in conversation with producers and directors, too. DPs are below-the-line personnel, so the hard part is getting out of the mindset of trying to prove why you should receive a lot of these things. Instead, we need to be saying, “I know I’m below-the-line, but I’m integral to this creative process.” A big part of this is also increasing knowledge, and there will be some growing pains with that, which is fine. 

I’m absolutely always interested in uplifting the voices of Black people first, then people of color in general. Even on our steering committee, we have three women of color, a white woman and a white man, which I think is a good balance for us. But it’s interesting, because I think there are certain situations where as a woman, a person of color or someone from a lower economic status, someone on the other side of the camera can identify with you. It’s happening all the time to me now where people will very clearly reach out to me because I’m a Black DP. Sometimes I’ll be like, “This subject matter has nothing to do with my life,” but I understand that there are certain situations where [my presence] can be a comfort. But I still don’t think there are enough women or people of color in these technical roles, documentary or otherwise, in general. 

Liu: The whole idea of diversity is very pervasive, and getting tapped for a specific film to shoot a specific community that the director and producer aren’t necessarily a part of is something that we still have to contend with. They want you, as a person of color or as a woman, to stick a camera in somebody’s face and have them tell their story. It’s a big responsibility. This might be a tangent and doesn’t necessarily have to do with the guidelines, but it’s a larger conversation we’re having.  

O’Shay: But it’s definitely in the queue. We’re so focused on getting launched right now, but even when we were at DOC NYC, I remember talking about this a little bit. I think that especially after 2022, there’s this feeling that, “I have to have a person of color on my team or I’m going to get canceled.” But like Julia said, it’s no better if it’s an all-white or all-male producing staff, because then you are the scapegoat in that situation. I have tons of people who have said, “They literally brought me on [to this project] so that I could go into this community. Why am I the bridge?” There needs to be a broader conversation of why they even feel like they have the authority to tell these stories. 

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