For each new project cinematographer Sandra Valde-Hansen is hired on, she’s asked what her choice of camera might be. Although she always suggests film, because for her it’s the most natural, the simplest and the most efficient, she knows it’s about the story at hand, in the end.
"We, as cinematographers, have to fight for the best format that’s correct for that story," says the Florida native, "and when it’s digital, then I’m still going to put my best work into it."
And her best work has shown through in Gregg Araki’s latest, White Bird in a Blizzard, perhaps the indie breakout that Valde-Hansen has been waiting for throughout her more than 15 feature film credits since her graduation from the American Film Institute in 2006.
Araki, who’s known for his fast-paced cult films that ooze anarchical energy, went down a slightly different path with White Bird, which stars Shailene Woodley as a girl who has mysteriously lost her mother. It premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and was picked up by Magnolia for a VOD and theatrical release. Although it’s not completely unlike Kaboom, The Doom Generation and Nowhere, Valde-Hansen knows it’s definitely a departure.
All of Araki’s movies have been shot on 35mm, except for Kaboom and White Bird. The former went into production just as the RED had debuted, with its signature "poppy, bright, candy colors, slick and beautiful, like a fashion photograph" look, as Valde-Hansen describes it. That was actually right in line for the type of film Kaboom was visually, however. "Going into that interview," recalls Valde-Hansen, "I had to talk up my experience with digital. Since then, both of us have fallen in love with the digital process.
"I think I share sentiments with most cinematographers on the planet in that my favorite digital camera is the ALEXA," she continues. "That camera is still top of the game. The dynamic range is sub-to-none of the other digital cameras out there. In the low-budget world, it’s incredible how much information is retained and what it can see in low and no light. One of my biggest arguments for film is that I can take a camera out of the box, put it on my shoulder and we can start shooting. There’s a fairly similar argument for the ALEXA. It’s not perfect, but it’s definitely close."
Valde-Hansen was the one who introduced Araki to the ALEXA. She knew he’d like it because he likes to work fast and still produce beautiful images. "Gregg is the quintessential expert on indie filmmaking and how to get your movie successfully done in very little time," she describes. "So knowing and having experienced all of this, I knew the ALEXA was going to be the perfect digital camera for a Gregg Araki film."