March 31, 2023
10 QUESTIONS FOR CINEMATOGRAPHER EMILY TOPPER
1. You graduated from Production Division with a focus on cinematography. What year and program?
Graduated 2004, but I think it's on record as 2005 because I didn't go back to pick up my diploma until the following year. I guess I'm not one to stand on ceremony.
2. What made you choose Cinematography as your track?
I came into the program knowing that I wanted to focus on cinematography, having spent a few years working in productions and being able to observe the different positions on set. I saw grad school as the chute I would jump onto to "become a cinematographer."
3. Who are your influences in the field?
I was exposed to the gonzo filmmakers of the cinema verite in college—Agnes Varda and all of her pals. I continue to marvel at the "lightning in a bottle" quality the camerawork in those films has. More recently, I loved the cinematography of All Those Sleepless Nights.
4. What kinds of films do you like to shoot, and why?
I love shooting documentaries. Part of the reason is the small-size crews. We work in close formations and get to know each other in profound ways. Also, the demands of the work are relentless, and I thrive on that intensity.
5. How would you describe your style?
I would like to think that I don't have a style, that I adapt what I do entirely to each director and each project. That is the attempt, anyway. Of course, I have to admit that my own proclivities do worm their way in. I tend to be drawn to projects that are not hyper-polished or glossy, that allow for a more rough-hewn approach to the cinematography. I love a handheld camera, lighting that doesn't feel "lit," framing that feels entirely synchronous with the person that I'm filming.
6. You had three documentaries at Sundance this year: Pretty Baby, Plan C and Judy Blume Forever. I know that’s not normal! What was it like to have three such highly publicized projects at the most highly publicized festival?
Three films at Sundance was, for me, a mind boggling, happy occasion, and I feel very lucky. Two of those films were with directors I'd worked with for over a decade on many other projects, so it feels like a milestone reached not just for these projects but for our much longer creative relationships. Sadly, as is often the case for us itinerant cinematographers, I was off shooting a film during the festival and missed the entire thing!
7. Here’s the dreaded question. We know that cinematographers of big Hollywood films are overwhelmingly male. But is that true in the documentary world? And if so, how does it affect your ability to find work?
It's so hard to ever know what life would look like outside of the body that we are in, and I've never felt like I had a full grasp on this question. I can see instances where my path felt steeper because of being female, but also instances where it has helped me. My very first film at Sundance was After Tiller, a film about women's reproductive health, and I know for a fact that the directors only considered working with female DPs because filming in these clinics would not have been possible otherwise. About 5-10 years into my path, I felt that there were more opportunities for me in documentary than in other kinds of filmmaking. Maybe that is because the documentary work system has more permeability. There are more chances given. At any rate, I've leaned into that and really focused on documentary work. Lucky for me, it turned out that I absolutely love documentary filmmaking. Now I'm starting to see how documentary filmmaking is opening the door on other opportunities.
8. You’ve shot several projects with big name musicians: TSwift, Gaga, Britney, Levon Helm; What do you enjoy about shooting musicians?
I love filming with musicians. My experience has been that they intuitively understand the filmmaking process because they know creative work so intimately themselves.
9. What are you working on now that you can tell us about?
Din Din, the rare fiction film that I film, is now in festivals. Of course, I am sworn to secrecy about all of my current projects. I will say that the pace is dizzying. Documentary cinematographers (knock on wood) seem to stay working no matter what is going on in the world. Now I've probably jinxed it.
10. What work do you have out in the streamingverse that you want people to go watch?
Light and Magic on DisneyPlus (about ILM, the special effects division of Lucasfilm) is near and dear to my heart. To tell the story of a bunch of artists that had so much joy and pluck was a happy escape in 2020. Judy Blume Forever will pop up on Amazon in a couple of weeks. Judy is one of those giants who seems even bigger in real life. She was so warm, so funny and an insanely fast speed walker.
For more about Emily Topper and her work: emilytopper.com