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New Visions

22/02/2023

For three decades, Film Independent's Project Involve has fostered filmmakers from underrepresented backgrounds, helping many of them such as Jon M. Chu and Effie T. Brown make the leap to long-lasting careers. The program gathers a diverse group of emerging film professionals for a nine-month program of industry mentoring and creative collaboration. Thirty new fellows were welcomed into the 2022 class, six cinematographers among them. Those cinematographers Michael Tanji, Akina Van de Velde, Phillip Jackson, Lidia Nikonova, Gemma Doll-Grossman, and Garland McLaurin each joined a writer, producer, director, editor, and executive in developing and making a short film.

Five of those projects The Bluest Hour (shot by Nikonova), Expectant (Doll-Grossman), The Words of Cayetano (Tanji), No Vows, No Cows (Jackson) and Sabor (Van de Velde) were live action, while the sixth, Muro (McLaurin), was animated via stop motion. As a principal sponsor of Project Involve, Panavision supplied each of the live-action productions with a camera and lens package. The final projects reveal fresh and eclectic imaginations at work, heralding a new generation of artists into the medium.

Origin Stories

The six cinematographers brought a multitude of personal and professional experiences to their projects, as each came to their craft in a unique way. For Akina Van de Velde, who spent the last 10 years creating video content for clients such as Adidas, Buzzfeed and Cond Nast, photography was her gateway to cinematography. My parents traveled a lot for work when I was growing up, so I had the lucky opportunity to grow up in many different countries, she says. But sometimes it was lonely as a kid trying to learn a foreign language or adapt to a new environment quickly. Pretty early on I recognized my love for photography could transcend cultural or language barriers and that there was a common ground behind all the people I met. Storytelling is an extension of that connection, of building bridges between cultures and people regardless of where we come from or our backgrounds.

Phillip Jackson has documented the Black Lives Matter movement with his camera and shot the comedy feature Three Ways that premiered at the 2022 American Black Film Festival. His childhood passions sent him on the path to become a cinematographer. What inspired me to start my filmmaking journey was the love of watching cartoon TV shows and playing video and board games growing up, he says. Since the fidelity of those old games and cartoons weren't nearly as high quality as feature films, you had to fill in the blanks. Without knowing it, I was always making movies in my head. Getting to help shape those images now is a dream job.

Gemma Doll-Grossman on the set of Expectant.

Gemma Doll-Grossman graduated from Wesleyan University with degrees in biology and film studies and then received an MFA in cinematography from the American Film Institute Conservatory. Fluent in Italian, she worked in Italy for a few years, namely on Jonas Carpignanos Calabrian social-realist film trilogy. Doll-Grossman has lensed three features that are currently in post production, as well as the psychosexual short Scottys Vag, which will premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival. She is committed to capturing untapped perspectives and utilizing experimental techniques.

Garland McLaurin served as the co-director of photography on Wes Moore's Coming Back documentary series and won a Peabody Award for co-producing and co-directing the 2013 PBS series 180 Days: A Year Inside an American High School. What attracted him to cinematography was his fascination with that most integral element of filmmaking: light. I love what light gives you on a creative level, he says. As cinematographers, we are creative engineers or problem solvers, trying to bend the light and supply images that improve a story and satisfy your directors and audience. What keeps me inspired is the ability to grow creatively from project to project and the human connections we develop on set. I love studying light, images, art and good stories to enhance my development.

Michael Tanji at the camera during production of The Words of Cayetano.

Hawaii-born and raised Michael Tanji has a background in fashion filmmaking and recently branched into music video and narrative work, but he originally imagined himself in a profession other than cinematography. When I was younger, I thought I wanted to draw, paint, and become an architect for a living, but I realized I wasn't very good at any of those things, he says. When I took my first high school video class and held a camera in my hands, the process of image-making came easier for me. Shooting video really opened my eyes to this visual medium because there was so much more you could do with the image when it left the page.

Lidia Nikonova hails from Russia and has shot numerous films and commercials across the globe, most recently a documentary set to premiere on HBO Max. It was only after she was well into her career that she found cinematography to be her calling. I tried several lives before converting into film, she says. I was a photojournalist and I also studied film theory, so I was interested in image-making and storytelling through images, though not necessarily by working with actors or writing dialogue. I'm one of those kids who grew up with a camera, so it was kind of natural. I just took a long way to get to the point where I knew, Okay, this is it.'

Visual Approaches

During preproduction, the cinematographers for the five live-action projects came to Panavision Woodland Hills to select and prep their camera and lens packages. I'm beyond honored to have had Panavision's support on the project, Van de Velde reflects. Everyone was incredibly helpful from beginning to end in ensuring
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