Shining a light on women who film

Meet three of the women who are blazing a trail for the next generation of female filmmakers.
Director Ashleigh Jadee stands behind her camera, while a group of men watch her work.

Director Ashleigh Jadee specialises in fashion and music shoots. She hopes that other aspiring filmmakers will see her success and be encouraged to break into the industry themselves. © Rackz Media

Studies show women are still hugely underrepresented in the film industry. Just 20% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 100 grossing films in the US in 2019 were female. Clearly, the industry still has a long way to go in terms of welcoming women into its ranks, but progress is being made.

The Women Who Photo & Film campaign was launched by The Photography Show & The Video Show in 2018 to shine a light on the work of female photographers and filmmakers. This year the show was held virtually and included 21 female ambassadors.

Carys Kaiser has worked in nearly every job within the industry, from sound recording all the way up to self-shooting PD. She's worked on TV productions in the UK for over 17 years and in 2015 she branched out into drone photography.

Heather Hughes went deaf at the age of three, but never let it get in the way of her a career as a videographer, producing travel, corporate and social videos, as well as filming weddings.

Director Ashleigh Jadee started out in stills photography before moving into videography, production and direction. She specialises in directing shoots for the music and fashion industry and has filmed for artists including Skepta, Wiley and Wretch 32.

Here, the three pros, all based in the UK, share their experiences of working in the film industry and offer tips for those hoping to follow in their footsteps.

Filmmaker Heather Hughes stands against a rural backdrop, smiling at the camera.

Filmmaker Heather Hughes says it took her a while to find her feet when she was first starting out. "I think you have to make a lot of mistakes – then suddenly the pieces come together and you think, 'Oh yeah, this is what I want to say, and this is how I'm going to say it.'"

How did you get your break in filmmaking?

Carys started out as a makeup artist but quickly realised that she wanted to work with cameras. "I used to watch the camera operators – they were all men – and the directors – they were all men – and I thought, 'I want to do that.'" Meeting a filmmaker through her work on set taught her about the industry and inspired her to take the next step.

Heather was a project manager at a publishing company for 18 years before being made redundant. "I saw a course in narrative filmmaking at the City Lit college in London," she says. "I made a three-minute comedy sketch. I think I was the only one who actually finished, and everybody laughed when they saw it." Heather accompanied a friend as a videographer on a wedding shoot and then started filmmaking professionally.

"When I was about 20, I upgraded my camera to a Canon," says Ashleigh, who used to shoot on a Canon EOS 60D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 90D). "That's when I started to play around with video, because I had video and stills in one camera. I got into video filming my friends freestyling."

Ashleigh shot a documentary about one of her friends making his album, then did a brief stint in production, before picking up a camera again to shoot a music video for a friend – leading to her being picked up by Universal Records for her first role as a director.

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An over-the-shoulder shot of filmmaker Carys Kaiser filming a woman sat at a broadcasting desk.

"Sometimes I feel like I have to pinch myself," says filmmaker Carys Kaiser. "I feel like I'm just really spoiled to have all of these opportunities. But I look back and my friends say, 'You don't give yourself credit. You've worked really hard to get here'."

Where do you find inspiration?

"I look at all sorts of things," says Carys. "If I'm doing a creative film, it might be something I saw on YouTube three or four years ago, or it might be books, magazines or a TV programme."

She has also been inspired by working with the other members of the Women Who Photo & Film panel. "Any woman that is driving her own photography or filmmaking journey is inspiring," she says.

Heather gets ideas from TV and film. "I absolutely adore shows like Firefly," she says, referring to the popular sci-fi drama. "I actually take quite a lot of inspiration from TV theory, looking at how they shoot and what mood they're creating."

Like Heather, Ashleigh also loves watching old films and music videos. "I take a scene or a certain memorable part of it and recreate that in my work," she says. "Sometimes, if it's more about storytelling, I use personal experiences."

Director Ashleigh Jadee walks down a street carrying her camera.

Ashleigh now mentors new starters online to help them make connections in the industry. "It's so rewarding," she says. "It was the same feeling that I had when I came off set for the first time. It made me realise that I have so much knowledge. You just forget how far you've come." © Rackz Media

Director Ashleigh Jadee smiles at the camera while doing the OK hand gesture, her camera in shot.

Ashleigh believes that campaigns such as Women Who Photo & Film are vital for addressing the industry's gender imbalance. © Rackz Media

What do you think of the Women Who Photo & Film campaign?

"The campaign highlights women's many different experiences," says Carys. "It shows you that women aren't just doing weddings – they're doing everything."

"I've been going to The Photography Show ever since it began," says Heather. "Every year, I found it really quite inspirational, because at the beginning of my career, I didn't really know what sort of photography or video I wanted to do."

Ashleigh says initiatives such as this are really important, because the industry remains heavily male-dominated. "I believe that we always need representation in everything, whether that's race, sex, anything. When you see someone in a position that you want to be in, it can inspire so many people to actually stop doubting themselves and make that first step towards their goals."

A woman stands on a hill overlooking a valley ringed with mountains. She is operating a camera on a tripod

Women in filmmaking: breaking into the business

Leading female filmmakers reveal how they got their big break in the movie business and offer advice for women hoping to follow in their footsteps.

Have you felt the impact of the gender bias in filmmaking?

When Carys first branched out into drone work she wasn't always taken seriously. "Someone said to me, 'It's too complicated. You couldn't do it.' Then it dawned on me that actually all of the professions that I work in are male dominated – photographer, videographer, filmmaker, editor, drone operator.

"But I think the tide is turning. I didn't focus on being a role model for women, it just happened. But if I could inspire anyone to fly a drone, male or female, that's fine."

"The industry is quite male, definitely in broadcast work," says Heather. "I have a broadcast camera which I use, and I got it partly to make sure that I could talk on the same level [as men]. There are men who just start spouting technical stuff and some women feel intimidated by that."

Shot from a drone high above, a woman lies on the floor holding a rainbow-striped umbrella.

Carys is working on a book of drone photos called A Girl From Above. Her interest in drone photography led to her specialising in the craft and she is now one of the country's leading drone pilots. © Carys Kaiser

What's in your kitbag?

Heather uses a Canon XF705 for her filming work. "It's a proper video camera," she says. "When I'm doing interviews with people, that's when I use the Canon XF705. The autofocus is incredible. It's like a studio setup – it's flawless."

Carys has used the Canon EOS C300 Mark III and the Canon EOS C500 Mark II in her TV work. "What they have, as opposed to other TV camera manufacturers, is the colour space," she says. "All skin tones look really good on Canon."

What advice would you give to those new to filmmaking, or those transitioning from stills?

Carys, who has worked across both stills and video, urges people to be confident. "If you can frame shots in stills, then it's very much the same kind of skill in video. Learn what the rules are and then start breaking them to make your own style."

When starting out, many young filmmakers are tempted to work for free to get exposure and make connections in the industry, but Carys urges caution. "Don't undersell yourself. I spent a long time undervaluing myself but then I started to stick up for myself financially. Not only do I feel better about what I do, but people value me more."

Heather urges new starters not to give up. "I didn't realise how many ups and downs there would be – how difficult it was going to be to make those connections. You have to develop a fairly thick skin. But remember to hear your voice and know what you want to do."

Ashleigh's advice for those breaking into the industry is to network, meet people and work on your confidence. "It's about relationships," she says. "I was always really shy, and lacking in confidence, which would stop me from going to things."

She suggests aspiring directors work on their personal development. "You have to understand people and how to manoeuvre on set, because everyone is looking at you. As well as commissioned work, focus on passion projects, because that will help you show what type of director you are."

What has been the highlight of your career so far?

"I'm always excited about every single job I do," says Carys. "I was recently filming with Heather Small, Alexandra Burke and David Grant on Songs of Praise – Gospel Singer of the Year, but today was really exciting because I filmed a man on a hill with an ironing board. I feel like it's just the best job in the world – that for me is the highlight."

"The highlight has been the camaraderie I feel with other filmmakers," says Heather. "I've found a community and it's fun and the people are lovely."

"A definite highlight was directing the digital Out-of-Home pieces for H&M's 2018 Christmas campaign," says Ashleigh. 'It was crazy because it was going in my local Westfield shopping centre and I got to see my work on massive billboards and on Oxford Street. Another highlight would probably be my first video shoot, because that's when I thought 'I want to feel like this every single time I go to work'."

Tamzin Wilks

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