Camerawoman Julie Monière filming in Katmai National Park, Alaska.
Wildlife and documentary cinematographer Julie Monière says that working hard and forming connections helped her build a career in filmmaking. © Julie Monière

The paths into filmmaking are many and varied, and high-end cameras are now more affordable than ever. However, it is still an overwhelmingly male-dominated environment – a fact highlighted by the controversy surrounding the all-male nominee lists in the directing categories at 2020's major industry awards.

So how did the women who have managed to carve a career in filmmaking get their big break? As documentary and charity filmmaker Holly Butcher observes, there's "no one linear way into filmmaking". French cinematographer Julie Monière opted to study biology in Bristol, England, in the hope that it would help her secure work with the BBC Natural History Unit, which is based in that city. British independent documentary filmmaker Phoebe Holman advises harnessing the power of the internet to get your work out to the widest possible audience, while LA-based director of photography (DOP) Alice Gu started out shooting videos for rock bands.

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The journeys these women's careers have taken them on have not always been smooth. Finding funding for projects is a perennial problem, as is persuading people that they're up to the job, especially when they start out. But all agree that passion – and being polite – will get you a long way.

Here they reveal a bit more about their pathways into film, share their tips and advice for aspiring female filmmakers – and indeed, for budding filmmakers of any gender and background – and reveal the things they wish they'd known at the beginning of their careers.

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Camerawoman Julie Monière filming with a Canon camera.
Julie believes we should teach girls from a young age to be more confident and to dream big. "They need to know that they can do whatever they want," she says. © Julie Monière
Camerawoman Julie Monière.

About Julie Monière

Julie’s 15 years of filmmaking has taken her to some of the world's most hostile environments – from the deserts of Morocco to the depths of an active volcano. Her work includes DisneyNature's Penguins and Seven Worlds, One Planet for the BBC.

Julie Monière

"After moving to Bristol and getting my biology degree, I started working part-time for Tshed, a company that rents specialised equipment, mainly for documentaries. Through their contacts, I got my first gig on a BBC documentary, filming elephants at night with a thermal camera in Kenya.

"You need to be dedicated, passionate, creative and technically able. At the beginning, working long hours and doing free gigs is part of the deal. It gives you a chance to prove yourself and find the people you want to work with. Make sure you keep in touch with producers [after a project has finished] so they never forget who you are.

"Shooting your first film requires you to believe in yourself and be organised. Don't be too precious about it – it won't be perfect. Nothing is, but you will learn a lot along the way. Don't forget to share it with others. Networking and work experience are keys to success. Go directly to production companies so they can put a name to a face, show your enthusiasm and your will to learn."

Filmmaker Phoebe Holman.

About Phoebe Holman

Phoebe is a multi-award-winning independent documentary filmmaker and content producer who specialises in unearthing new and untold stories that showcase social problems, celebrate difference, break down stereotypes and represent the underrepresented.

Phoebe Holman

"My first paid gig in filmmaking was in TV. I worked as a runner on the series Harvest for the BBC. It was hard work, as you're at the bottom of the ladder – and people often let you know that – but without runners, production would be so much harder. My ethos is to treat people as you would like to be treated.

"If you have ideas, create a trailer-style video, or get on Instagram and YouTube. The internet is the power now – you could be a sensation overnight if your content works. If you want to be a straight filmmaker then life is more challenging because you have to rely on funding for your projects. This is notoriously hard to get, especially for documentaries. But perseverance and experience in the field help.

"To get experience, tell people you want to work on their projects. You'll start to develop an idea of what kind of filmmaking you enjoy. If you want to operate the camera, start in a kit house or as a runner; if you want to be in editorial, work alongside a director as a runner; if you want to work in production, get to know producers and production managers.

"You don't need technical skills to break into the industry. They help, and will set you apart from others, but you can learn on the job. Be friendly, on time and positive – shoots often take an unexpected turn."

Documentary and charity filmmaker Holly Butcher films boats on a river.
Holly Butcher's work for charities and commercial clients has taken her all over the world. © Cristina Barcus Rubio, British Red Cross
Filmmaker Holly Butcher.

About Holly Butcher

Holly is a documentary and charity filmmaker. Her first documentary, The Home for Broken Toys (2019), won multiple awards at festivals, and will be touring cinemas in the UK and China in 2020. She is currently contracted to the British Red Cross.

Holly Butcher

"There's no one linear way into filmmaking. The most important thing to have is palpable passion and a good work ethic. By working hard and continually creating, you're more likely to be remembered and recommended for gigs. Also, be nice! Recommending others for work you can't do helps keep everyone afloat and that kindness is often returned.

"I think the most important and pressing issue is how we address the gender and societal divide for BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic] women, and women from disadvantaged backgrounds. There is a growing number of strong female voices in documentary film and photography – which is wonderful to see – but most often these voices are of privilege. Across the board we urgently need better representation and diversity, and I believe it's the responsibility of those in power to help address the imbalance.

"They should be providing more grants, funding and creative opportunities to a wider pool of budding filmmakers. But I also believe in grassroots and collective power. The more we can do collectively to generate change – setting up local groups, rallying, reaching out and listening – the better."

A still from Alice Gu's video short on drink-driving, showing a young woman in a car.
Alice Gu says that one of her most meaningful pieces of work was a short film highlighting drink-driving in New Mexico. © Alice Gu
A still from a healthcare advert shot by Alice Gu of a teenage girl in a green shirt sat at a long dining table.
Alice has also shot commercials for a range of clients, from clothes brands to healthcare providers. © Alice Gu
Filmmaker Alice Gu.

About Alice Gu

Alice is a director and DOP from LA who has worked extensively in print and live action, and has had her work premiered at Sundance Film Festival. The Donut King, her debut directorial feature, will premiere in competition at SXSW 2020.

Alice Gu

"Now that I'm a bit older and wiser, I can honestly say that the biggest challenge in my career was being taken seriously as a female voice – that I had the skill, experience and know-how to manage a crew, manage time, manage budgets. When I was DOP-ing in my 20s, I had a director say to me: 'Well, I'll never hire a woman to shoot a car job'. I was so terrified of saying the wrong thing that I just nodded in agreement. If someone now had the audacity to tell me I couldn't shoot a car commercial, they would get a little piece of my mind.

"I think the basic principles for breaking into the industry today are the same as they've always been: focus, commitment, dedication and a curiosity for learning and experimenting. The technical skill needed is a trained and curated eye. You want to be able to hone in on your taste and point-of-view, and be able to trust your instincts. Watch as many films as you can: really figure out what you like and don't like. That's your voice! It's unique to you and only you.

"On a personal level, being open-minded and flexible are quite important. You can and should prep, but, inevitably, things change on the day, and you'll have to roll with the punches. As for shooting your first film, I say go for it! Your only hurdle is yourself. Do it, practise, love your craft. And ignore any naysayers."

كتابة Gary Evans

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