"I like light that looks like it comes from real places," says Dyanna Taylor, the Emmy Award-winning cinematographer whose projects range from the Oscar-winning documentary Common Threads to Life After Life, a feature documentary she recently shot for HBO. Coming from what she calls "a deep documentary background," Taylor leans toward a sense of formal realism in her work.
"It's a style that is not MTV," she confirms in a telephone interview from her home in Santa Fe, NM, where she spends part of the year (when not out west, she lives in a loft in New York City). "I used to shoot a lot of rock and roll videos," Taylor admits. "I do appreciate the high key, colorful, unmotivated, radical lighting. The effect is great and it really cranks up the adrenaline."
Spare, gritty, and cinema verite are more appropriate words to describe Taylor's current film vocabulary. "I do realistic work about real people in real life," she says. "If my work has a gritty feel to it sometimes, it's because it's the real grit of true human stories."
Taylor places herself as a descendant of the 1970s school of documentary films made by Frederick Wiseman and the Maysles Brothers, known for their on-the-shoulder style of shooting. She was also exposed to still photography at an early age with her grandmother, Dorothea Lange, as a muse (a master of 20th-century social realism, Lange's dust bowl images are hauntingly unforgettable). "I would hang out with her in the darkroom and learn by osmosis. I had a camera by the time I was 14, but I stopped photographing by the time I was 20. It was hard to avoid comparison to Lange and her contemporaries. I met Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, and the Westons," she says, explaining her intentional move to cinematography.
Taylor attended the University of California at Santa Cruz, but once she made her first film, her career superceded her formal education. "One film led to another then another," she says. "I am pretty much self-taught."
One of her earliest adventures took her to the heights of Annapurna as she accompanied the first women's climbing expedition in the Himalayas to shoot a one-hour special for ABC Sports. "It was incredibly rigorous," says Taylor, who took along a variety of 16mm cameras including two ACL Eclairs, a Bolex, and a Bell and Howell gun camera.
Using mostly natural light, she also experimented with how to use expedition lanterns in tents at night, and how to use flashlights and headlights in interesting ways. "This was a life-changing experience. Two women were killed during the second summit attempt," reflects Taylor. "You have to ask yourself 'What does a film like this mean, anyway?' when lives are at risk or lost."
In this film, as in the others she has shot, Taylor opts for the project with a strong story to tell. "I have been in and out of the fiction world, but I made a choice not to live in Los Angeles. In the end what I am drawn to is good storytelling whether documentary or fiction."
Last summer Taylor shot a short fiction film entitled Patriotic. Based on a story by Janet Kauffman, and directed by Judy Dennis, this film is about an unlikely trio of characters whose friendship forms in the course of a day's hay harvest. "I decided to dance along with them on the back of the hay wagon so that the camera is really with them," she explains. "You can feel the sweat and smell the bales of hay." Patriotic allowed Taylor to use naturalistic lighting to create "the look of a working farmhouse. It had to be unassuming," she says. A range of HMI sources, provided in part by Production Arts, gave Taylor a daylight source that actually stood in for the sun on rainy days. Another technique Taylor favors is the use of white bobbinet to soften the contrast on the actors in strong daylight. "We were shooting in the field at the height of the day. The white net cuts the light of the real sun so you can really feel the heat without the directness. You can see the contours on their faces. This is a great tool for matching closeups and long shots."
For Life After Life, Taylor's work was more impressionistic and abstract than usual. "It is a very mysterious film, and I couldn't be very literal about life after death," she admits. To shoot stylized interviews of people who have had encounters with dead loved ones, Taylor wanted to set these "witnesses" apart from a dark background as they told their stories directly to the camera.
"I wanted them to almost be in limbo," says Taylor, who used a large HMI key light as well as smaller tungsten sources as backlight and as three-quarter backlight from the floor. This almost futuristic effect contrasts with work she recently did in South Africa, where she was shooting the skeletal remains of prehistoric creatures that lived 250 million years ago. Here she used Arri Pocket PARs and Dedos as well as HMI sun guns and flashlights with reflectors for field work when shooting at dusk.
"For me, good film lighting is subtle," says Taylor. "It's about knowing where the source should come from yet making this knowledge almost invisible on the screen. The emotion of the story is somehow enhanced, yet has to remain honest. Really good lighting can unselfconsciously dramatize the story."
Taylor often looks at light in her own life and asks herself how she might create what she sees. "There are a million ways to approach it," she says. "Lighting is the most exciting thing about shooting. I love trying to replicate the magic of how light works in our lives."