Lighting Legacy

Nancy Schreiber, ASC

As the fourth female member in ASC’s history, out of only 15 total, and as a member of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Emmy and Independent Spirit Award-nominated cinematographer Nancy Schreiber, ASC, who will receive the 2017 American Society of Cinematographers President’s Award at the 31st ASC Awards gala this February, has forged a singular path in the industry—not just with talent and persistence, but also visibility and a willingness to take on positions of responsibility. With nearly three decades behind the lens, her body of work is an absolute legacy, having helmed classic films like Your Friends and Neighbors for director Neil LaBute, as well as historic documentaries and music productions like The Celluloid Closet and Dixie Chicks’ Shut Up And Sing for directors Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck. In addition to plentiful commercial work, Schreiber’s camera can currently be seen on a number of network and cable television shows like ABC’s The Family, HBO’s The Comeback and FX’s Better Things.

The historic DoP has also served on the ASC’s Board of Governors and the Women In Film Foundation Board, as well as on several festival juries, including Sundance, the L.A. Film Festival and the Spirit Awards. Not one to rest on her laurels, Schreiber is well known for mentoring many up-and-coming DPs, and also plays an active role in the ASC’s new Vision committee, which promotes diversity and gender parity. Recently, the Vision committee hosted an event at the ASC’s Hollywood clubhouse—140 women, all working in the tech fields of film and television, attended to listen to the panel of cinematographers talk about their achievements, and challenges, inspiring those making their way up the ladder.

Nancy Schreiber, ASC
On the set of Loverboy. Photo courtesy of ASC

Cinematographer Kira Kelly, from the five-time Emmy-nominated Hulu show East Los High, was on the panel, along with Schreiber, at the Vision event. We spoke to Kelly afterwards and she paid tribute to Schreiber.

“The panel included her and about 6 other ASC members,” says Kelly. “It was extremely intimidating for me because I was the only non-ASC person up there. Nancy went out of her way before everything started to check in with me and assure me that it would all be fine. The whole day she was funny, a little irreverent in the best way imaginable, and encouraging to every woman in that room. It’s a challenge being a woman in our industry, but I can only imagine how tough and determined women like Nancy had to be to create the path for us. My career is possible because of Nancy Schreiber.”

We spoke with Schreiber recently to cover the highlights of her career and to find out what kind of advice she has been giving a new generation of content creators.

“I have had interns work with me becoming loaders, first and second ACs, or electricians, and moving up to operating for me. I always support their career decisions as it is so important to give back,” says Schreiber. “I also like to shoot with first-time directors, as they can be quite inventive and break ‘the rules,’ keeping me on my toes. I like to advise young people to study painters and photographers. When I was a junior in high school, I was an exchange student in Holland, able to immerse myself in the museums of Amsterdam. I’m certain my exposure to the Dutch masters, reveling in the light of painters such as Rembrandt and Vermeer, affected my career path as a gaffer and cinematographer. So I tell students and younger cinematographers to visit museums and galleries in between jobs—keep your eye fresh and inspired.”

Schreiber’s career all started when she answered an ad in the Village Voice to be a P.A. “The crew was fairly small on my first-ever production job,” she pointed out, “so it was an incredible place to learn. The gaffer taught me a lot, and I found I had an aptitude for this path, and was bumped up to best-boy-electric quite quickly. A year or so later, I joined the union in New York, and that’s how my career began.”

Working in the electrical department kept her steadily employed, but Schreiber was always looking for a break into creating the visual beauty onscreen itself. She had grown up in Detroit and remembered being excited by Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, as well as seeing art house films such as A Man and a Woman, directed by Claude Lelouch.

Although she didn’t go to formal film school, Schreiber did get a cinematic education at the Elgin Theater in Chelsea, New York, as well as taking a short course with Jim Pasternak, who got his start in movies as Otto Preminger’s assistant. Her first serious exposure was at the University of Michigan. By day, she was studying psychology and history of art while taking a few photography courses. By night, she was programming and running the Alley Cinema, part of the film cooperative in Ann Arbor, alongside co-programmer and projectionist, Jay Cassidy, ACE, (now a renowned editor, best known for the David O. Russell films Silver Linings Playbook and Joy).

“We showed a different film every night,” she recalls, “from foreign films to edgy gems from the American Underground. But just Monday through Friday, because, on the weekend, the venue became a blues club. This was my film school: Truffaut, Renoir, Goddard, all the Italians, Kenneth Anger, Maya Deren. The most money we ever made were on nights we showed Ingmar Bergman films with Sven Nykvist’s haunting cinematography—or the Marx Brothers.

“For me,” she continues, “light is where so much emotion can be communicated. I still use some conventional lights, such as HMIs and tungsten Fresnels, but I also use the newer LEDs. I love the versatility of dialing in whatever color you want without needing to use gels, and the consistency in color in the LEDs is much improved in recent years. But there’s one drawback, which we’re seeing in our cities. The available exterior light, which has been sodium or mercury vapor, is being replaced by cool LEDs, which are wonderful for saving energy, but render our night palettes bland and monochromatic! Now we need to put our own color back in, should we desire varied color.

Nancy Schreiber, ASC
Courtesy of Bruce Bramelin

Schreiber keeps abreast of all the latest camera and lighting gear. Having shot 16mm and 35mm film on ARRI and Panavision cameras, as well as digital on Panasonic, Sony, Red, Canon and each of the digital ARRI cameras, which she admits she prefers despite being “camera agnostic,” Schreiber is also looking forward to shooting with the new 65mm ARRI 65 and Panavision DXL cameras very soon.

“On LaBute’s Your Friends and Neighbors, we fought to shoot anamorphic, but the producers and studio were against it, citing extra costs, critical focus and the need for additional light,” says Schreiber. “Back then, anamorphic lenses were not as prolific as today. So we ended up shooting widescreen in Super 35. Neil invited me into the extensive rehearsal period, where I was able to study how best to shoot and light the actors, to portray the true depth and complexity of human nature.”

Schreiber is somewhat “old school” in preferring to operate through a viewfinder, even though early digital cameras weren’t great in this respect. She likes to block out everything but the action in the frame, and tries to avoid operating off a monitor as much as possible. As for lighting, she says that sometimes less is more.

“I once filmed Steven Spielberg filming Dustin Hoffman at Willem de Kooning’s studio in the Hamptons and they were discussing when a painter such as de Kooning will know when the work is finished,” she explains. “I think about that when I tell the AD that I’m ready. Given all the time in the world, I might tend to keep tweaking the light. One thing I learned early on, between takes, is that actors really don’t appreciate our running in to make changes. Be sure you are ready to roll when you let the AD know you are ready. Unfortunately, too many of us are asked to roll on rehearsals and are not able to make necessary fixes once the stand-ins leave and the actors come on set. So I push for a semi-rehearsal, where actors go through their positions by the numbers, without emoting.”

“Don’t lose your sense of humor—that’s important,” she continues, when asked about some of the advice she must give her many mentees over the years. “Stay conscious of what’s going on around you. Some DPs are just so focused on getting the shot, without keeping open communication with production. Don’t forget to look out for your crew. My background in psychology has probably kept me in good stead, and because I started out in the electrical department, I can “talk the talk,” which has helped, especially when I have traveled and picked up local crews.

“Within the first hour, I had a crew testing me to see if I knew what I was doing. By being knowledgeable, while staying open and respecting their expertise, mutual respect was established, along with camaraderie,” Schreiber concludes. “Back in the day, when there weren’t as many female DPs, I suppose I was a novelty. I kept focused on the job at hand, however, staying confident, but being kind to all. Running a crew requires people-management skills as well as, of course, making what’s on screen as beautiful and appropriate to the story as possible. If you have ‘the passion’ nothing can keep you from succeeding in the best career imaginable. I feel so lucky to have found this fulfilling creative life as a cinematographer.”

Sophia Stuart writes about movies for Cinema Thread, Esquire, International Cinematographers Guild Magazine and Ziff Davis PCMag.