Give Female DPs a Go: Carolyn Constantine ACS

As one of the few women to be accredited by the Australian Cinematographers Society, she's working hard to advocate for the health and status of the whole profession.

In August 2020, filmmaker and Director of Photography, Carolyn Constantine ACS, became the first woman to be elected President of the NSW Branch of the Australian Cinematographers Society.

Cinematography is one of the screen professions that’s even more male-dominated than most. When she received her accreditation from the ACS in 2017, Constantine was only the 11th woman out of 386 accredited members since 1965. But she’s intent on changing that, and is passionate about encouraging diversity both in front of and behind the camera.

Constantine is also at the forefront of the call from Australian cinematographers to be recognised as ‘key creatives’ by funding agencies, alongside directors, writers and producers.

Her career has been long and varied. Starting in Sydney back in the 90s, she developed her original and unique eye on projects like Cate Shortland’s award-winning early works Pentuphouse and Somersault (2nd Unit DOP and director); and on US projects like the feature Night Owls of Coventry by Sundance Award-winning director Laura Paglin. 

Then there was documentary. Constantine lensed a number of high profile projects with a specialty working with performance and visual artists, with subjects from Yoko Ono, to Brian Eno on his last trip to Australia, and the acclaimed Smoke & Mirrors show at the Spiegeltent. She was DOP for the doco Wide Open Sky which screened in competition at the SFF 2015 and won the Foxtel audience award for documentary, and in 2017  completed her own first feature documentary, Madhattan, as both director and cinematographer.

‘You can’t show what you can do if you are not given the opportunity… It would be great if more Producers and Directors gave female DPs a go. There’s a wealth of experience that we hold and we have a lot to offer.’

Carolyn Constantine ACS

In television drama, Constantine’s operating and DOP credits include Wildside, Rake, Please Like Me, Janet King and The Secret She Keeps.

But when we caught up with her to conduct this interview Q&A by email, Constantine was busy in Sydney working on the Stan drama series Bump, produced by John Edwards and Claudia Karvan.

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We asked her to tell us about her career trajectory, her key mentors, pet peeves and industry wishlist. She gave generous and constructive answers and we look forward to following her work both behind the camera and as an advocate for her corner of the sector.

Q: When did you first pick up a camera, and how did you know you wanted to be a cinematographer?

The first cameras I picked up were still cameras as I took up black and white photography in primary school where we learnt to both take photos and develop and print our own work. This passion stayed with me into my teenage years and served me well in my first job in publishing.

Although I had always had a passion for watching movies it never occurred to me that it could be a career until I met a group of film students in Paris in my early twenties. As we projected super 8 film onto white sheets stuck to the apartment wall I was instantly hooked and realised this is what I wanted to do… make films.

As soon as I returned to Australia I enrolled in the film production course at North Sydney Technical College where I specialized in cinematography.

Q: What were the key steps for you in terms of training, education, interning and first jobs?

I spent four years training at North Sydney Technical College at night whilst working in the industry during the day to get a foot in the door. My early jobs were as a runner for a commercial production company before I got a break as a clapper loader. I have worked my way up in the industry through the camera dept transitioning from loader to focus puller on drama. My first TV drama operating break came on the ABC drama Wildside where DOP Joe Pickering ACS put me behind the camera as an operator on this ground breaking series that changed the style of TV drama in Australia. Throughout this time I was continuing to practice my Director of Photography skills on short films that I would shoot between TV series. In 1995 I shot Cate Shortland’s first two films which went on to win multiple awards. I went on to direct and shoot 2nd Unit for Cate on her first feature Somersault.

In 2002 I was mentored by Andrew Lesnie ACS ASC when he was shooting Lord of the Rings. I spent a month living with him and his family and shadowing him at work. It was an invaluable experience which taught me so much as a DOP.

Within the year I was living in New York and shooting my first feature. I really feel the time spent with Andrew set me up well to deal with the challenges of shooting a feature.

Starting out as a clapper loader. Carolyn Constantine circa 1990. Supplied.

Q: You’ve also worked at AFTRS as a tutor. Are there any pieces of advice you find yourself having to give aspiring DOPs and camera operators?

Your career trajectory will probably not be a straight line.

Keep practicing your craft in any way you can as you never know when a breakthrough moment will present itself and you need to be ready both artistically and technically.

Q: In August 2020 you were elected President of the NSW Branch of the Australian Cinematographers Society. What do you see as the chief issues or challenges facing Australian cinematographers at the moment?

2020 has been a challenging year for the whole film industry and it’s really important to make sure we stay connected and look out for our colleagues as we negotiate these difficult times. The ACS has made a real effort to hold our usual Monthly Drop Ins with guest speakers as webinars and hold monthly expat Zoom Catch ups for members across the globe so we maintain the connections between members. Mental health is an important issue across the whole industry.

‘Cinematographers are not currently recognised by funding bodies as ‘Key Creatives’ and this needs to be addressed if we are going to get more equity into our Heads Of Departments and crews.’

Cinematographers are not currently recognised by funding bodies as ‘Key Creatives’ and this needs to be addressed if we are going to get more equity into our Heads Of Departments and crews.

The ACS is also working on a world first study in association with Deakin University to look at career barriers for Australian cinematographers to help create initiatives to open up new pathways.

We also just launched our #whosinyourcrew campaign to make DPs and other people who make decisions about crewing aware of trying to make a film crew more diverse and reflective of the society in which we live. These changes will ultimately improve the work that is produced.

Q: What does it mean to be accredited by the ACS? How does that process happen?

Accreditation is the highest honour that can be bestowed on an ACS member. To gain accreditation your body of work is presented to a peer judging panel.

The Accreditation Committee consists of a panel of ten Accredited ACS members. At least 8 out of 10 must agree to your accreditation.

Once you have gained accreditation you have the right to use the letters ACS after your name.

Q: You were only the 11th woman out of 386 accredited ACS members since 1965. Why do you think we have so few female cinematographers, and what are the barriers or challenges for women in this craft? Are we making any progress on this?

I think the biggest barrier is opportunity. You can’t show what you can do if you are not given the opportunity and although things are changing it has been very slow. It would be great if more Producers and Directors gave female DPs a go. There’s a wealth of experience that we hold and we have a lot to offer.

Q: You’re currently working on TV series Bump, produced by John Edwards and Claudia Karvan, and negotiating the new Covid safe way to work. What stage of production are you in and what can you tell us about it?

We are currently mid production and the shoot is going great. I can’t really talk about Bump as we are still in production except about it being textual and intimate in its visual approach.

Q: What are the main ways you’ve had to change the manner in which you work since COVID?

Social distancing and wearing masks are now the new normal on a large film set. We have hand sanitiser stations, a nurse and Chief Covid manager and each department has a nominated Covid officer to help enforce compliance.

Things are a bit slower as we take turns to  access sets but people are getting used to this new way of working. Some days its hard to operate the camera in a mask as the viewfinder fogs up, especially cold early mornings.

Q: Can you tell us anything about the brief on the Tim Minchin music video ‘I’ll Take Lonely Tonight’?

I directed and shot this in the middle of lockdown. The brief was to make it one shot in a white studio but after listening to the song and talking to Tim I added some more visual elements that enhanced his amazing performance. I worked with metaphors, hence why he is in a small red boat in the middle of the ocean, and aimed the changing visual mood and tone of piece to reflect his evolving state of mind.

Most of the video is a carefully choreographed shot achieved with a dolly and a crane set up in a very large studio with a socially distanced crew. The textual kaleidoscope breakout was shot with Deb Brown, an amazing Bangarra dancer, with the textual elements and plates being shot on location.

With over 250K views it’s had a fantastic response and Tim was a legend to work with. Take a look:

Q: You directed as well as shot your first documentary Madhattan in 2018. Can you tell us a bit about that project and what it was like to be in the director’s chair?

I lived and worked in New York for eight years and also have had the privilege of shooting a lot of documentary projects in Central Australia and the Kimberley.

When Flic Brown, a milliner from the Kimberley told me she had been asked to show her collection at New York Fashion Week I just knew I wanted to make a documentary of her journey. It brought together two worlds of my life that I knew very well and I loved the idea of being with an artist at the very beginning of their creative journey.  Being in the director’s chair was a natural transition for me as I was also the cinematographer.  Having shot many observational documentaries for other directors you are often making decisions on the go so when it came to my own film it was similar process. I loved translating this story emotionally and visually and the whole creative process.

Q: Can you name your mentors or unsung industry heroes?

Sally Bongers (Sweetie 1989) and Jane Castle ACS were female DPs I looked up to when I was starting out. I worked with Sally as a clapper loader and was so upset when she stepped out of the industry as I always looked up to her as a role model. Joe Pickering ACS, Lou Irving ACS and Andrew Lesnie ACS ASC gave me some of my first pivotal breaks.

Q: Pet peeves or things that annoy you on set?

I can’t stand people chatting on set about unrelated things when I’m trying to set up a shot.

Q: The thing you love most?

I love that everyday holds something new, unexpected and challenging and how I get to combine art and technology to tell amazing stories.

Q: The thing you find hardest?

Finding time to do social media posts. It’s a relatively new tool for me, hopefully it will become more second nature.

Q: What inspires you?

I draw upon all forms of art to find inspiration, that’s what I love about NY, I was surrounded my so many amazing art forms everyday.

Q: Can you complete this sentence: If there was one thing I could change about my job or the industry it would be….

That the gatekeepers looked at and drew upon the broader diverse pool of talent this country holds so people don’t feel like they have to leave the country to get an opportunity.

Q: Top tips for collaborating with a DOP?

  • Bring all forms of inspiration/ art to the table as a starting point for discussion.
  • Be confident in your ideas and let the DP into your head so they can help you visualize them.
  • Have a plan but be open to the creative moment.
  • Communicate/ workshop all thoughts, especially in pre production.
  • Have fun with the process and collaboration, it’s a fantastic job we do!

Q: What are you looking forward to, and where can we find you?

Having operated and shot hundreds of hours of drama including shows such as Wildside, Young Lions, Rake, Please Like Me, Janet King  Pulse  and The Secret She Keeps I look forward to bringing my passion and experience to the new wave of Australian drama. Find out more about my work at www.carolynconstantine.com.au

This profile was assisted by Dame Changer, an Australian professional women’s collective, providing opportunities in training and networking for women in the screen industry, and The Power of Visibility.

Rochelle Siemienowicz is a journalist for Screenhub. She is a writer, film critic and cultural commentator with a PhD in Australian cinema. She was the co-host of Australia's longest-running film podcast 'Hell is for Hyphenates' and has written a memoir, Fallen, published by Affirm Press. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram