Cristina Dunlap is a cinematographer based in Los Angeles specializing in music video and commercial video content. Over the course of her career, Cristina has shot for clients and artists including Cartier, Ford, and The Chain Smokers.
What first got you into photography and cinematography? What was your first camera?
I have always loved to view the world through a lens. For as long as I can remember, I have been filming or photographing any subject that would let me. Growing up, I was always stealing my parents’ VHS camera and making music videos or short movies with friends. I think my first video camera was a mini DV that I got for my 12th birthday.
Talk about your earlier work: what was the turning point that made you into the artist you are today?
The summer after I graduated high school, I started working as an on-set photographer for music videos. I had always thought I wanted to be a photographer but watching the cinematographers on these sets opened up a whole new world of possibilities. I was so amazed by the creativity involved in the work of being a DP. You don’t have to tell the whole story in a single frame; so much can be conveyed through the way you move the camera or design the lighting. From the first set I worked on that summer I knew just doing photography would never be enough. I wanted to learn how to tell a story in motion so that so I could be a part of the dynamic and collaborative process of filmmaking. I spent the next few months sketching out all the lighting setups I saw and asking the DPs on set as many questions as they were willing to answer.
Who’s your favorite musician that you’ve worked with?
I recently shot two videos for Lizzo (“Juice” and “Cuz I Love You”), directed by Quinn Wilson. Lizzo and Quinn have been working together creatively for years and their collaborative process was a magical thing to be a part of. There is so much trust and cohesion in terms of artistic vision between them and I think everyone on set could feel it. Their dynamic really set a tone that allowed for a lot of creative freedom. On top of that, Lizzo is such an immense talent. I will never forget hearing her sing “Cuz I Love You” acapella for the first time; even the most veteran crew members on set were absolutely blown away by the power of her voice.
Who’s your favorite director that you’ve worked with?
It’s so hard to pick because every director I’ve had the pleasure of working with has brought something wonderful and unique to the table. I recently had the opportunity to work with one of my closest friends and a fellow DP Bérénice “Bear” Eveno on the video for “Party of One” by Brandi Carlile. Bear recently transitioned to directing and over the course of our careers we have always shared advice and ideas as cinematographers so the fact that she asked me to come on and DP the first video that she did not shoot herself was really an honor. Elisabeth Moss came in as the creative director and also starred in the video opposite Nicole Disson. Working with such talented actresses, we really wanted to give them the space to explore and go wherever the scenes took them emotionally. We didn’t want the camera or lighting to be in the way or to force them in any direction so we had to come up with a very specific plan for how to light unobtrusively and still get the dramatic look we were after. Working with a director who is so attuned to the language of cinematography was actually to my suprise quite freeing. I felt that I had her complete trust and I think we were able to achieve so much in our one day shoot because of that.
What are the advantages/disadvantages in filming a music video and narrative?
The budgets for music videos these days are all over the map so that is always a challenge when you are used to having certain equipment at your disposal. I have to admit I do love the creativity can sometimes sprout from this challenge. Some of my favorite shots have come out of budgetary constraints. Not being able to afford a certain light or other piece of equipment forces the crew to get experimental and figure out a new way of doing things. The advantage to narrative projects is that you get much more prep time and you get to work with the same crew for longer so everyone becomes really in sync. Working in that sort of environment allows everyone to get on the same page and to really get invested in the project. I
love the feeling of being part of a team where everyone is really engaging with the material and finding ways to convey those emotions through the images we create.
Do you have a criteria for when you’re composing an image? Or is it just something you have to feel?
I don’t have any specific criteria when composing an image, but I think taking into account the subject matter and reflecting on what you’re trying to communicate with each shot is imperative. Sometimes standard coverage is the best choice for a scene but I try to be as creative with my framing as possible. Composition and having reason behind how you frame each shot is extremely important to me. I never want the camera to draw attention to itself unless that is the purpose of the shot.
What’s the most complicated shot you’ve ever done? What was the prep work involved and how did the final execution turn out?
The most complicated shot I’ve ever done was a one-shot short film with director Mo Mcrae. It has not been released yet so I don’t want to give away the story but it was very important to us that the audience felt everything play out in real time. We wanted them to feel exactly what the characters were feeling as the story developed. The script was 12 pages long so we rehearsed for a few days and let the actors navigate where the camera would be in the house. The film took place at night so on the shoot day we rehearsed with the camera the first half of the day and then began shooting as soon as it got dark. We used the new arri trinity rig helmed by the extremely talented steadicam operator Arri Robinson. My 1st AC Rachel Fox and I were hidden in a room in the house that the camera would not see and she pulled focus while I adjusted the pan/tilt on the wheels. If anyone messed up we had to restart at the top of the script. I think we got through the entire twelve pages six times and only had to reset twice. It was a highly emotional story and to have every single person on set flawlessly doing their part at exactly the right time felt almost miraculous. I’m extremely proud of what we were able to pull off.
What’s one piece of advice you have for upcoming DPs?
Find a camera house that will support you. I feel so lucky to have started working with The Camera Division early on. Having that support has made a huge difference in my career. Any time I wanted to learn a new piece of gear they were always supportive and would let me come into for camera or lens tests and work through any questions I had. Also finding the right crew that will work with you on your passion projects as well as the bigger budget shoots is crucial. There is nothing like having a team of people around you that not only believe in you but are passionate and love what they do.
Any upcoming work you want us to know about?
I just got back two days ago from shooting a project called Cousin John in upstate New York. I can’t begin to describe the project so I will give you the opening line that director Tom CJ Brown sent me when asking me to come on board. When I read it I knew I had to be involved. “Cousin John comes from another dimension, living out his truth as a native from a world where queerness, non-binary, and androgyny rule, that is lead by our world’s queer children, he is our grandchild from the future, when we and our bigotry are dead.” This is one of those passion projects where everyone involved gave it their all and I think we achieved something that is both meaningful and visually stunning.