Words: Marcio Delgado
Interview: Claudio Harris
Talent : Nathalie Pitters
Nathalie is represented worldwide by WPA.
London-based cinematographer Nathalie Pitters is not afraid of experimenting when it comes to storytelling.
‘The diversity agenda can be a double-edged sword.'
As a result, for the past four years, her portfolio has featured topics ranging from fashion to music and commercial pieces. In an exclusive interview for Lewis, the National Film & Television School alumni talks about breaking into the filming industry, procrastinating for fear of failure, and how the diversity trend can cast doubts on female professionals of colour.
What made you want to be a filmmaker?
My earliest memories of being drawn to images goes back to me as a young child, flicking through magazines I would find lying around in doctors’ waiting rooms, dentists, newsagents, the bus, everywhere I would go. I clearly remember the photography presented in publications such as Time Magazine and National Geographic fascinating me considerably more than images you would see in glossy women’s magazines. Back then I couldn’t unpack the foundational differences, but these experiences have shaped me as a professional, as I have since always said I would want to be either a photojournalist or a cinematographer. I am still hoping to one day do both – I have no idea when this day will come, but I am still aiming towards it. In cinematography everything is there for a purpose. Nothing is by accident. This is what has always interested me.
And how did you start your career?
The film industry is very hard to get into. Growing up, I didn’t have any family members involved in the creative world. So, I went online and literally typed: ‘how to work in film?’ and ‘how to become a runner’. Luckily, I eventually got the opportunity to become a runner in a short film and stalked the Director of Photography (DOP) every single minute spent on set, trying to absorb everything he would say, asking technical things.
Then, while working at a film festival, handing out flyers and bottles of water, a girl told me that it was easy to live in Japan as a teacher. I always wanted to visit Japan and, up to this point, my whole life had been in the UK.. I didn’t know the world. So, off I went. The initial plan was to go to Japan for a year. However, once there, every year I would tell myself: OK, I will stay one more year and then return to the UK. It quickly turned into four years living there. And, while I was in Japan, I bought a Canon 7D – which I was too scared to use, by the way. Looking back, I know that I was too scared because I knew that, if the results weren’t good enough, I would feel too frustrated to consider a career as a cinematographer. So, I was putting off using it, always inventing any excuse to avoid trying it, always telling myself I was too busy to start filming. When you have a camera in your hands and you press REC, and you end up with something that doesn’t look anything like the film you watched last night in the cinemas, that disparity is so terrifying for someone young and insecure. So, I just kept taking still images.
Was it easier to be a photographer than a filmmaker?
It was an escape. I still think photography is much more difficult. As a filmmaker, I get a variety of pieces to play with – dialogues, a visual location, etc – whereas, as a still photographer you are expected to convey a whole idea within a single shot.
Eventually, I moved back to London and after completing a filmmaking course where I learned the basics, I tried, unsuccessfully, to get a job within the film industry. No one wanted to hire me as a trainee, nor as an assistant. As a compromise, I managed to get non-paid jobs as DOP in small short films made with no budget. That is how I started building up my showreel. But even as my projects got bigger and work started to take off more, I still didn’t feel that I was able grasp the visceral core of the stories I was trying to tell. When I would watch my films, afterwards, I always felt that something was missing. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but even though I was still proud of them to some extent, a lot of them felt ’thin’, or ‘diluted’ in the visuals compared to how I had wanted to portray them. The gap between my taste and my abilities was still quite wide. You will always be your own worst critic, of course, but I could not reconcile the distance between where I was and where I wanted to be, I didn’t want to just shrug my shoulders and accept things as they were. knew I had a lot of work to do. So I decided to go back to studying and enrolled in the Cinematography course at the National Film and Television School, where I spent two years making mistakes, experimenting, learning from experienced and accomplished DOPs, and realising that cinematography is not something you can ever just ‘get’ - it changes with each project, trends, technology, politics... I will never stop learning!
Which project did you most enjoy being involved in?
My reasons for choosing each project vary greatly. Some projects appeal to me for the story, some for the visual concept, others simply because I either love working with or want to start a working relationship with that particular director. However, on the whole I enjoy projects where the director has a very strong vision and story - be it narrative or non-narrative and abstract - and I am able to really collaborate with the director on how the visuals are handled, bounce ideas off each other, sending references at 3am when a flash of inspiration hits, that sort of thing. With projects like that I know that on set that we will both get excited about experimenting with and manipulating the visual tools to tell our story and will not play it safe. I love it when both the director and I continually push each other to take the image further, that’s when it feels like you’re making something meaningful.
You are signed to WPA, a global talent agency. Does it help to be part of something like that?
I had people warning me that if I ever sign up with a big agency they would forget me because I would be a small nobody, that they would be busy with other filmmakers. But they have been really supportive. I hear from them 3-4 times a week with updates, helping me to chase invoices. You don’t need to have an agent, but I think it helps as people hiring will see it as more legitimate. Besides, it also increases your work options as an agency has more briefings happening at any given time.
Is the film industry in the UK seriously trying to be more diverse and inclusive?
I really think they are. There is an active push towards diversity right now, which is great. But there is a double edge sword to it, also. On the one hand, being a female of colour I am doubly under-represented within the film industry; so, if I can get jobs because the industry is trying to balance things a bit better, that is great. However, on the other hand, it brings me a lot of insecurities. I keep asking myself all the time: is this the only reason why they hired me? Do they actually like my work? Or, do they actually really like the work of that white guy and would rather work with him, but they had to settle with me because it will make them look better? Are they basing our collaboration on my portfolio, or does it happen to be because I am one of the very few brown female DOP in London? It feels really good that people are pushing for diversity but, on a personal level, I look forward to the day when it will no longer be an issue.
What is coming up next?
The reason I got into cinematography was to make beautiful and meaningful content. Finishing my degree and getting an agent felt like the first day of the rest of my life.
Now I want to go back to experimenting more, to work on commercial projects and passion projects alike, film and digital, narrative, abstract, everything! I feel lucky and privileged to be where I am.
Nathalie joined the Prime Time, a global platform committed to providing visibility for women working above and below the line behind the camera across the entertainment industry. To find out more about her work: www.nathaliepitters.com