By Megan Pham
Yes, I’m 104 lbs. 5’4” tall. That’s petite. Somehow, I’m working in Los Angeles for Shane Hurlbut, ASC, climbing up and down a 15 foot ladder, taking down Lekos rigged on the ceiling. I’ve always been afraid of heights but somehow I’m up there and finally realize that I’m getting better at stepping out of my comfort zone. This pretty much describes my Female Cinematographer Mentorship.
I’m from a small city called Albuquerque, New Mexico, where there’s a total of two highways. I grew up in a little house with English as my second language. Spending my whole life in Albuquerque, I was used to familiarity, and everything I needed was comfortably close. Then I was about to realize that with opportunities comes the challenging aspect of expanding my comfort zone.
Getting the Mentorship:
During my last year as an undergraduate film student at the University of New Mexico, I heard about Shane’s Illumination Experience Tour Workshop in Denver. A professor of mine told me to apply to the scholarship program that would allow for two students to attend the Illumination Experience for free. I got chosen. The day before the event, my friend (who was the other scholarship student chosen for the workshop) and I hopped in a car and drove straight to Denver from New Mexico.
I met Shane, and my mind was blown by all that I learned. After the workshop, I sent follow-up emails to the Hurlbut Visuals team to stay in touch and kept my eye on the Hurlblog for any opportunities. Later that year, I graduated and saw that Hurlbut Visuals was offering up a Female Cinematographer Mentorship! I didn’t think twice. I just applied and was elated when I got it, but this meant a big change.
Moving to Los Angeles:
I was super excited, until I turned the ignition off in LA and realized there was no familiar Frontier restaurant around the corner. I didn’t know anyone, and I was in this HUGE city. One of the things that got me through it was remembering something my grandpa told me growing up. He would tell me in Vietnamese, “People can take everything away from you, your possessions, your friends, your family, but they can never take away your knowledge.” What I got from this piece of advice is that knowledge can never be taken away. I’s the one thing that really makes you as a person. If you really want to be somebody happy, keep learning. My point of sharing this story is that sometimes you’ve got to just go for it. If you don’t take a risk, you’ll never have the prospect of opportunity.
I’ve had to wear many hats working for Hurlbut Visuals. Focusing on the tasks helped me keep my mind off the awkward adjusting-to-a-new-environment-phase. When you move to a new place and don’t know anyone, all you really can do is work because your social life goes to 0%. This really allows you to learn. I scrubbed cases, helped shoot content, have assisted with planning shoots, been a camera PA for Shane on a couple shoots, got the opportunity to sit in on Shane’s color correction sessions for the new AMC show Into The Badlands, even helped Hurlbut Visuals with graphic design elements.
Sometimes it’s just really strange being the only girl all day. Many days, I was told to grab a Pelican from a high shelf that I couldn’t reach and would have to embarrassingly ask one of the taller male employees to get it. Then I’d lug the big thing to a corner and wipe it down.
One day I was scrubbing Pelican cases in the corner, while watching these other professional guys prepping cameras at the shop. Shane’s 1st AC Derek Edwards walked up to me and said, “That’s how I started too, scrubbing cases. It makes you stronger.” What I took from this is that the little things add up to make you a stronger person. Be persistent and stick it out. Don’t let yourself get taken advantage of, but see the bigger picture, which is we all have to start from somewhere. Over time, those cases started to become lighter. They’re still heavy but much lighter than they were when I started.
Eventually Shane brought me on set to this big warehouse, and I showed up in my cargo pants super stoked to work. I walked in and there were big men everywhere, slingin’ around lights and tossing wrenches to each other. It was pretty intense, and I really didn’t know where to assert myself. Then Shane came up to me, gave me a screwdriver, and told me to take all the barn doors off the lights.
He also had me cut gels for the lights. Even though there were a bunch of rigged up lights flickering simultaneously to simulate a rave scene, he would make sure every light that was supposed to have gel over it was gelled. It definitely paid off with the final image.
At one point, all that needed to be done before the scene was ready were the gels and I had lots of pressure on me. I had to book it to the lights and slide the gel frames in. I had to run past everyone, dodge around, but yet keep my cool. This was another moment where I stepped out of my comfort zone. You really just have to get out there and work fast in this business. I was used to taking things at my own pace.
Starting the mentorship, I was really scared of failing. I think that there’s always a fear of failing, but as the months passed, it lessened because I got less focused on trying to impress people, and more focused on getting the job done right.
One lesson that David Weldon, Creative Director at Hurlbut Visuals, always tells me is to “Never be afraid of failing. You’ll fail, but that’s how you learn.” As long as you also keep an end goal in mind, I think you’ll be surprised at what you can do. If you feel discouraged, think about where you were a year ago, and remind yourself of who you want to become.
This is a post I shared on Instagram, before I learned I got chosen as a Female Cinematographer Mentorship recipient:
When times are rough, sometimes I just look at this to remind myself that progress is possible, and that if you set a goal, you will reach it if you put in the work.
My Message to Other Female Filmmakers:
The numbers need to change. Half of the world is composed of females. If we are only telling males’ stories, imagine how many stories we are missing out on. This leads me to another piece of wisdom that Shane has told me. One day, he sat me down and said, “You have to try twice as hard as a guy because since you’re a girl, they will automatically assume you can’t do things.” This means you REALLY have to get out of your comfort zone compared to a guy.
It’s a hard world for female cinematographers and I’ve been intimidated by being one of the few girls on sets, but to the other females out there, you can do it. If there’s something that I’ve really learned from this experience, it’s that you can achieve more than you think you can. Don’t be phased by what others may assume of you. Just get in there and do your best. Before you know it, you’ll be accomplishing things you didn’t think you could do before. For me, it was being high up on the ladder looking down, thinking, “Wait, wasn’t I afraid of heights before?”
To submit for the Hurlbut Visuals Female Filmmaker Mentorship (HVFFM) program, send your resume and reel to [email protected] and we will review and then send you a form with detailed questions to fill out.