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“It’s Super Important to Me to Light Scenes, Not Shots”: DP Jih-E Peng on Girls Will Be Girls

Two Malaysian girls ride a scooter during dusk.Girls Will Be Girls, courtesy of Sundance Institute

While attending a boarding school nestled in the Himalayan mountains, Mira (Preeti Panigrahi) finds herself confronted with newfound desires that she desperately wants to explore, a notion that horrifies her mother (Kani Kusruti), whose dedication to old-fashioned standards are likely a result of her own stunted coming-of-age.

Cinematographer Jih-E Peng, who previously collaborated with first-time feature filmmaker Shuchi Talati on her short film A Period Piece, discusses his approach to tackling this project, which included browsing the New York Public Library’s Picture Collection.

See all responses to our annual Sundance cinematographer interviews here.

Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the cinematographer of your film?

Peng: Shuchi Talati and I are longtime collaborators and friends and I had previously shot her sensitive and delicate short, A Period Piece. Shuchi and I speak the same filmic language and I love working with her: she is thoughtful, careful, has wonderful instincts and a critical eye—any cinematographer’s dream. We had a fantastic time working on the short together and I’m so grateful she brought me on to continue the collaboration on Girls Will Be Girls.

Filmmaker: What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?

Peng: I think both Shuchi and myself feel the exact same way about visual language in cinema. We both ground ourselves in story, and both feel that no visual choice should be made if it doesn’t move the story along. Shuchi is a director that very much considers the whole picture and edit during filming, and I try to be respectful of making sure she gets the necessary pieces and performances. We are both of the mind that sometimes: in the crush of production, if there are compromises to be made, you can compromise some visuals here and there but that you cannot compromise on the performance and crux of each scene.

Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them? How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?

Peng: Girls Will Be Girls is a story of sexual awakening set against the expectations of girlhood and what it means to be a woman. These themes obviously figure in a lot of the visual approach, namely in our approach to softness vs. rigidity, when the camera can relax and when it adheres to formality, the harshness or gentleness of the light and how it plays on their faces. But our central thread was to ensure that the audience was always in Mira’s internal space, that you felt a part of her world and the struggles that she faces in a deeply intimate way. It influenced when we chose to use a shallower depth of field, how close we were to her, how the landscape and world around her figures into her psyche.

My goal always with cinematography is that the visual language should be entwined in the story so closely that once the film begins, you never notice the cinematography specifically. It becomes part and parcel with the film, inseparable as its own piece.

Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?

Peng: Other forms of visual art are oftentimes my favorite way to reference. Shuchi and I did multiple visits to different museums and took full advantage of the New York Public Library’s Picture Collection. I like to identify the emotion in a completely abstract or seemingly unrelated image and break down what the elements are in the piece that make you feel the way you’re feeling. Shuchi would pick out things that spoke to her, even if they seemed ultra left-field, and we’d discuss each piece, and try to incorporate the essences of these things into the visual language of the film. We looked at Chinese and Japanese landscape pieces, for example, and talked about the use of vertical space and how it feels connected to Girls. Or look at a hanging sculpture that cast a lattice-work shadow and took note of its soft and sensual form and how that might translate into a film medium.

Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?

Peng: I think these challenges are the same in every production—trying to ensure visual cohesion and to give as much space as possible for the director is always tough with limited time and resources. I’m lucky to have had an incredible camera and lighting team, including Akanksha Shyam as my 1st AC and Sajid Shaikh as my gaffer; they were invaluable to helping achieve these goals in our circumstances.

Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?

We shot on the Arri Alexa Mini, which has been such a workhorse for me and so many other DPs in past productions. I’ve always loved Arri’s color science and image quality and its small form factor was helpful for moving quickly and limiting strain on crew. We shot on Zeiss Super Speed MKIIIs after doing tests; they had the right gentleness and softness we were looking for for the film. It was important to us that the optics ‘cradled’ Mira’s face, and they performed beautifully in that regard.

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Peng: As always, the lighting should connect with the emotion of the scene, either underlining the primary emotion or playing against it, depending on the full structure of the visual language. You do your best, of course, within the constraints you have. In this film and in our last, I wanted to really play with the movement of the “sun” for what it did emotionally for the characters. Having the harsh sunlight splash on parts of the interiors while the characters lived in its bounce light also gave a contrast that lent the scenes some gravity. At Mira’s age, everything feels like life and death, and it was important that the lighting reflected that quality and seriousness.

From a practical perspective, it’s super important to me to light scenes, not shots—I like to get properly set up in advance to minimize the amount of turnaround time we need for anything. It keeps the actors in flow and gives the director the space they need to work. Nimbleness is always really important to me as part of the workflow, and I’ll discuss at length with my gaffer to ensure that every part of our approach keeps that in mind. It’s tricky with limited units, but our gaffer on the job, Sajid Shaikh, was an incredible collaborator and a godsend to the film; our entire lighting team did fantastic work optimizing the most of what we had.

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?

There are a few that come to mind for different reasons, but an interesting cinematography challenge we faced was how to approach one of the pivotal “action” sequences towards the end of the film. What one would instinctively reach for (tracking shots and quick cuts to build tension) in such a scene felt very much outside of the language and feeling of the film, and we couldn’t quite figure out another reference that could be analogous. We wanted the sequence to have the same quiet tension of the rest of the film, and what ultimately helped us structure the piece were the particularities of the architecture of the school we were shooting in. We tried to use a lot of the preexisting visual elements available in real life to build tension, and ultimately, after a wonderful edit from Amrita David and Shuchi, it’s now honestly one of my favorite sequences of the film.

Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?

Peng: We worked with an incredible colorist, Mathilde Delacroix, who we communicated in prep to work out a basic look for the film. Unfortunately the schedule was such that we were unable to get that truly honed in for our on-set LUT, so it required a lot of trust on Shuchi’s part with me dialing certain monitor settings before takes for her and promising it “would look more like this after color.” (What indie cinematographer hasn’t done this at some point?) Mathilde achieved the vision we had originally had for the film effortlessly in the grade, and I couldn’t be happier or more grateful for our collaboration and her excellent eye and craft.


Film Title: Girls Will Be Girls

Camera: Arri Alexa Mini

Lenses: Zeiss Super Speeds MKIII

Lighting: Arri, Creamsource, amongst others, provided by All Film Equipment in Mumbai, India

Processing: Cosmodigital Paris

Color Grading: Mathilde Delacroix

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