Tammy Williams is an award-winning Director of Photography (DP) and Stills Photographer with a penchant for drama and humour. She has an eye for the unusual and an innate empathy that makes her a perfect addition to any crew. Williams has been a DP on short films, music videos, commercial work and documentaries.
With a deep love of storytelling, Williams is a great collaborator. She has a reputation for operating with care and consideration of actors – working to a high level, while allowing for the emotional space needed for them to deliver their best performances.
Williams recently completed a five-week ‘Gender Diversity Placement’ with highly decorated and skilled Director of Photography Aaron Morton, and filmed her first feature film in June 2018.
Director Jessica Sanderson sat down with Tammy to talk about her career and recent double-win at the 2019 New Zealand Cinematography Society (NZCS) Awards. Gold in the ‘Short Film’ category, and the 'Al Guilford Emerging Cinematographer Award' for her work on ‘Ways To See’.
JESSICA: Tammy! Congratulations on your awards! So well deserved. How are you feeling?
TAMMY: I feel really stoked! It’s nice to get acknowledgement from your peers. I’m really thankful too, because I had an amazing team and a strong director’s vision to work towards on Ways To See!
J: This feels like a win for us all. I don’t mean to steal your thunder, but there aren’t too many female cinematographers working in New Zealand. This feels like a great move by the NZCS to acknowledge your work.
T: I am pleased, but keep in mind that the winners of the ‘Emerging Cinematographer Award’ for the last two years have been women too – Maria Ines Manchego and Nina Wells. So perhaps it’s a bit of a trend, ladies are kicking ass.
Tammy at the 2019 NZCS Awards. Photos C/- NZCS
J: Yes! Go the ladies. There’s still a major lack of women in DP roles though eh? There are no other mothers that I can think of, other than your fine self, working as a cinematographer in NZ. What might support look like for other women, who are mothers, to step into the role?
T: To me, that support probably looks very practical. It could be assistance with childcare, or potentially DP’s job-sharing positions.
The key issue is being away from your child for extended periods of time. I had the opportunity to shadow cinematographer Aaron Morton for around 6 weeks – that was great! But to work towards taking any big international jobs would mean being away from home for 6-month stints or more , so it doesn’t feel possible as a mum of a young person. You end up committing to smaller projects.
I’m not full of answers as to the best ways to support young/ish DP parents, but it would be amazing if there were more local opportunities, not just mentorships, but active jobs based in New Zealand that would allow for up-skilling.
J: So what would your perfect job look like at the moment?
T: Working on a production as the DP, or second unit DP with the right support so I can continue building a strong portfolio. 4-6 week jobs are perfect for me, with my five year old boy. You want to do good work, but that doesn’t mean you want to opt out of the rest of your life or parenting.
The way the industry is at the moment presents its challenges. The good thing is, there’s a recognition that opportunities are what bring change, and there are people making efforts to do that – they’re all positive shifts.
J: Do you get jaded by these gender-based conversations?
T: To be honest, it’s a constant source of musing for me. I’m always thinking about it, and recently I talked at a WIFT presentation, hoping to encourage more young women to join the camera/technical departments – as there are very few of them.
I think the whole thing is very interesting and complex. I can’t get my head around why there are so few female DP’s.
J: Perhaps a bit of gender bias?
I recently worked on a doco', where the interviewee kept referring to my male camera assistant as the ‘cameraman’. He couldn’t understand that I was the DP.
I also did a short film a while ago, where we turned up to the recce and the Director, Production Designer and myself were all women. The gaffer (male) was there to meet us, I launched into my plan, and five minutes in he said, “...oh you’re the DP!? I’m sorry I didn't realise.” I was like, “how did you miss that dude?”. He was apologetic and gutted – but we had a good laugh about it.
J: I’ve been mistaken for a runner by male crew members before, when I was directing. Maybe coz I wear sneakers a lot? [laughs] I can recall a few women in our industry who assumed I was in makeup. There’s no issue with being in make-up, they’re pivotal roles in our crew, but maybe gender bias isn't just affecting men's views of roles in our industry.
T: Well people often realise their mistakes with me and feel a bit silly about it. But I’ve had small things too, like unit not be that friendly initially, then they seem to realise I’m the DP and suddenly change their approach towards me.
J: Stink, why be rude to anyone eh?
T: I’m also tiny, or vertically challenged, so people are often surprised I’m the DP.
J: [laughs] Lil’ powerhouse Tammy! I’m never sure whether to have this gender bias chat with
my female peers, it’s annoying for some.
T: At least you’re not asking me, “...what I’m wearing”, “...who I’m wearing today”.
J: [laughs] Promise, I will never. Can you remember what the first job we worked together on was?
T: I dunno [laughs]. Probably 2010 with Benny Tones’s music video for Chrysalis. But I already felt like we knew each other's style then.
J: That feels so long ago! We’ve learnt so much since then. What was your favourite part of working on, Ways To See?
T: Working with you. You could have written anything and I would have worked on it.
J: Blushing, stop it.
T: My second favourite thing – was reaching the stage in our careers where we could get fantastic support to make it happen, from Metro Films, and our crew. We didn’t have to do everything ourselves basically, which is normally the case [laughs].
J: What do you think is unique about the way we work together? I think we have a bit of shorthand in the way we speak. Often speaking without words or very few of them.
T: Yeah, we have a good understanding of what we want the outcome to be when it comes to the visual style and we both love doing heaps of preparation, and that part of the process is actually enjoyable. I think that amount of care is what pushes us to make the film as strong as it can be.
It also allows me to take the weight of all the visual baggage off you, so you can just focus on working with the actors. This film is probably the first time you’ve been able to do that.
*Images by Jennifer Raoult. Tammy and picks-ups 1st AD Tarita Bacquie. Ant Davis (1st AD) on-set of 'Ways To See'.
J: We have a lot of fun and thank you – I knew you had things under control for sure. On the shorthand note, that was brought up by our 1st AD Ant [Davies]. He’d call us out, “...I can see you’re talking about something in your eyes. You have to share it with me.” [laughs]
T: It was funny, yes. But I think it comes from doing a lot of stuff when it’s just us, and we’d done so much prep we already knew if something was working or not and how to change it. Sometimes things that aren’t working aren’t always things that you can voice out loud. And also it just happens without us realising, I think
J: Speaking of prep, what’s some advice for filmmakers who may be on their first projects?
T: Find your locations as soon as you can, and make sure they’re awesome! The choreography, lighting – everything can’t really happen until you have those locations sorted.
J: Especially with limited budgets, you can’t do a set build.
T: Yeah, even with this film, there was a mirror in the lounge of our location, and we realised we could do a beautiful shot with it. But that came from sitting in the location and finding things, moments. You can think of it beforehand. But part of the beauty is seeing some of those moments arise.
J: Yes! Gold, thanks for spotting that Tammy. So, prep, but allow for those magical moments to just come up.
T: And I always do a lighting plan! Even if you’re not going to stick to it. A wonderful
gaffer Craig Muilhead once told me to buy some soft silk or something you can soften your light with, couple meters long– do that. We had some huge windows and that came in handy for a cheap soft fix.
J: Especially because of the light in Aotearoa eh?
T: Yeah, we all want the luxury of shooting at the right time of day, but that’s not always going to happen.
J: This is a relatively sad film, but we did have fun and laughs on set.
T: There must have been times we nearly pissed ourselves laughing. I remember when Matt Hunt and I got stuck in the lift, just going up and down and up and down – we couldn’t get out! We were cracking up! So embarrassing! The fun comes from having great people to work with, even when things go really wrong it can be quite funny.
J: Like a cyclone [laughs] postponing our shoot.
T: [laughing] yes, that happened.
J: What’s your favourite scene in this film?
T: I have two; the bathroom and the mother’s bedroom scene, with Amaia.
The bathroom scene – it’s visually so beautiful, and it’s also a moment when the whole film changes and you’re not quite sure what you’re watching anymore. It was an opportunity to experiment and play. We didn't have to be too straight, we could have those fantastical elements.
The bedroom too, because it’s just really beautiful.
J: We were quite lucky with locations and what an amazing Art Department we had.
T: Yeah, we didn’t have to shoot in a room with white walls! That’s one of the nicest things that can happen for you as a Director of Photography. That, and having a magical art department - yes you Rosie Guthrie!
J: Can we talk about your team that you had on this film?
T: We had a good balance of men and women. The wonderful Fraser McKay (Gaffer) - we’ve worked together for a long time now. His offsider Matt Kofoed, they work so hard. We had Nani Conforte, who come on board as lighting assist, also Matt Hunt as focus puller and Ainsley Calderwood as our delightful second AC.
J: I was pretty blown away by you and your team.
T: Yeah, they were awesome. Work like demons and so skilled, and able to have a laugh. They want it to be the best it can be and we couldn't get anywhere without those guys.
J: Where do you get your inspiration from?
T: All over the show. Photographers – I’m constantly finding new ones. Just got some new books for my birthday; Larry Sultan and Allessandra Sanguinetti are my favourites at the moment. Actually I’m finding Instagram can be good too, depending on who you follow; Magnum Photographers and ICP are great.
J: I feel like we should acknowledge those favours – we had a few legends just help us out.
T: Metro films and Ariel Drones were absolutely amazing and generous. The rooftop scene couldn’t have happened without Oli Harris and Mark Harris (unrelated btw, just happen to have the same last name).
J: Oli pretty much built a tower on a skyscraper for us for that scene – We needed a lot to shoot it – quite stressful really.
T: It was make or break. We had the cyclone, which meant we had to reschedule. Because of that we lost our first AD, our gaffer, our camera assistant and we only had Jodie Hillock (actress) for one afternoon. And we had a pregnant actress (Awhina-Rose Ashby), we had to make sure everyone was gonna be ok – and shoot drone.
J: Yes, intense, what an awesome crew to pull that off! And thank you Tammy. To wrap this up, any hopes for this wee film? It’s the first one we’ve made together and I'm sure it won't be the last.
T: I hope it gets into other festivals, and gets some recognition, it would be great if it goes overseas. I think it’s an interesting piece, I’m really proud of it and I’m looking forward to showing it to people.
You can view more of Tammy’s work here: https://tammy.co.nz
Tammy is currently represented by Dusty Road, for enquiries please visit: https://dustyroad.co.nz/