FEmpowered Documentary: Women’s Bodies and Self-Empowerment

For the past 3 months, I’ve been cast into a project that has challenged me to think critically and push past my own limits as an editor and cinematographer.

At the heart of it, (F)Empowered is a documentary created to help young women understand their own place within the larger Feminist Movement that continues to grow stronger each day. Our subject is Lindsy Bystroff, a student at the University at Albany, who has grappled back and forth with the ideas of self-empowerment, especially in relation to feminism today. Throughout her journey, she meets with three groups of women in the upstate New York Community, all empowering themselves through movement and action.


The four dancers graciously dedicated time out of their day to hold a class, showing Lindsy that it is okay to let your body flow freely through dance. Anika Hunter makes a very valid point in saying that dance is just as political as anything else and can be an effective tool in making a statement. Monica Steffy also provided a very hope-filled message to our generation of younger women, saying that it is up to them to provide that much needed atmosphere of self-confidence and female empowerment to the generation to come.

Fast forwarding to the Self-defense training and Kickboxing, we made sure to include these sections to show women that it’s not just men who are supposed to be “physically active.” Many women, especially in the past decade, have found empowerment through confidence in keeping themselves safe and secure from predators and attackers. This view of women being weak and needing men to protect them is no longer the norm, as more and more women are taking their own safety into their own hands. I think Amelia Waters, the self-defense instructor, put it perfectly in saying that as the glass ceiling is breaking, more violence can be directed towards women as a result. But what is also happening as a result is that more women are developing the confidence to stand up for themselves and fend off these people who don’t want them to succeed.

Finally, Lindsy took a trip to learn kickboxing, which is continuing to grow as a pass-time sport for many people throughout the country. The benefits of this physical activity is feeling stronger, more active, and very much empowered. Lydia Nightingale also gave another great gem of advice for the current generation of younger women; you need to stick together. Throughout history, there has already been enough oppression and barriers for women to overcome. There is no need for other women to be one of those barriers. Instead, work to empower each other, and despite differences, come to the same conclusion that you are all fighting for the same goal. That goal being to have a better place in society with more rights, less social stigmas, and the ability to feel empowered and confident in what has almost always been a patriarchal society.

In terms of my involvement in this film, I was the Director of Photography (a.k.a I held the camera the most) as well as the Lead Editor. I’ll tell you, there is something amazing about working in a team to produce a film from scratch. While this was a class project for a documentary film making course, from day one, I knew this project was going to be my biggest achievement yet! Dustin and Lindsy pitched the idea in class and Lydia and I tagged on to help make it a reality. The team dynamic on set and in the editing, room was synchronized, and it was as if we all had the same visions at times. Of course, the script, story, and narrative changed many times during production and we even had some disagreements (like me wanting to name the project FEmpowered Bodies instead but FEmpowered was just as good if not better.)

Now let’s get more technical for those of you interested specifically in my role and thought process while making a documentary.

For starters, I just want to say that I am not a professional by any means. In fact, I am an amateur filmmaker in all senses of the word. I’ve worked on many small abstract art projects and filmed different events throughout my college career, however nothing was as big as this. This project was a true test of my skills both as a cinematographer and editor, and I am very fortunate to have had this opportunity before graduation.

Cinematography was something that I always loved and my experience as a photographer prior to switching to video has given me a huge boost in learning the basics and developing my craft. Filming for this project was very interesting to say the least. The interviews took much more set up than I have ever done before for an actual project. For Lindsy’s first interview and Chelly’s interview, I used a three-point lighting set up in a studio provided by the university. One was a white florescent light while the other two were more tungsten in warmer in tone. This was all I had available at the time and if I had my absolute choice I would have used all florescent. The dis-advantage of having conflicting colors in lighting is that it is harder to get accurate white balance. However, I played with this “dis-advantage” by amplifying the effect through color grading. Choosing to enhance the blue on Lindsy’s face where the florescent light is and adding dark blue to the shadows. Because my key light was the warmer tungsten lights, I color graded all highlights in the image to be more orange.

Ninety-five percent of the entire film was recorded using a 50mm f1.8 prime lens, only switching lenses to a 135mm f2.8 prime lens for capturing close-ups of the dancers. All the interviews were shot on a tripod situated directly next to the person asking the questions. I did my best to level the camera slightly lower than eye level to give a very subtle “looking up” effect. The reason for this is because I want the viewer to feel like someone younger listening to these women with powerful messages. All of the women in our documentary have a reason for being looked up to for several different reasons, and I wanted the camera to reflect that best I could. I also enjoy having a shallow depth of field in my shots (personal preference) so I took a lot of advantage of the wide-open aperture. Most of the film was shot between f1.8 and f3.5.

Also, no I do not have a lot of money to invest in a bunch of expensive lenses! Instead I am using an off brand 50mm lens made for canon EOS cameras which you can purchase for about $55: https://www.amazon.com/Yongnuo-EF-YN-50mm-1-8/dp/B00QGHSGPW/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1525930703&sr=8-2&keywords=yongnuo+50mm

The 135mm f2.8 lens is a vintage lens for old Pentax film cameras. The lens itself cost about $15 on Ebay and the adapter to use it for Canon cameras cost about $30 and can be used on other Pentax lenses that I found for cheap as well. The huge focusing ring allows for me to get the slow focusing effect that you see through out the film.

For most of the b-roll shots in the film, I used a shoulder stabilizer that my camera could attach too and allow me to walk around while reducing shake. You can also purchase the one I use on Amazon for cheap here: https://www.amazon.com/Ultimaxx-Shoulder-Stabilizer-Universal-Camcorder/dp/B07956BSBX/ref=sr_1_2_sspa?s=electronics&ie=UTF8&qid=1525931043&sr=1-2-spons&keywords=shoulder+mount+camera+stabilizer&psc=1

Filming the b-roll also had me very conscious of many things I’ve studied in my own Film Studies courses at the university. The biggest concept that I tried to be aware of is the male gaze. As a man being given the task to film women’s bodies, it is easy for the male gaze to creep in. For those not aware or knowledgeable in the topic, the male gaze is the concept that male cinematographers, editors, and/or directors can tend to represent women in films as sexualized, secondary, or unrealistic creatures. This is because the way a heterosexual man sees in a woman is different than how a heterosexual woman sees another woman. These nuances can be slight or very dramatic and really make or break your film among the female community of viewers.

Taking that into consideration, I did my best to actively film the parts of the female body that I think are underrepresented in film. Focusing on things like the dancers’ feet, shoulders and arms, face, or legs, I wanted to show their bodies as being human bodies and not something to be looked at in a sexualized way. There is already enough of that in society and popular culture, and it has no place in a film about female empowerment. I commend the women who go out and do things like the “Slut Walk” and fight for women’s rights over their own bodies. My role as cinematographer on a project like this is my homage to them.

The rest of the cinematographic elements are simple things that I am mastering more and more every time I pick up my camera. Things like proper head room, the rule of thirds, tracking shots using the shoulder mount, rack focusing, and selectively choosing what elements of the action I want close-ups on are all things that are in the back of my head while shooting…but are definitely in my head.

And of course, like I stated earlier, I am still an amateur to all of this. As proud as I am of what I was able to accomplish, I made many mistakes and learned from those mistakes. Lindsy’s first interview didn’t have enough headroom. Some of the compositions were off and centered the person a bit too much for my own liking. While filming one thing, I missed get actions that I wanted to capture instead. Chelly’s interview was filmed in 720p 60 fps because I forgot to change my camera settings back after returning from PAX East (which was a hell of a time I might add!) The dancers’ footage was recorded in 1080p 30 fps because I forgot to change my settings to 720p 60 fps knowing that I wanted to do slow motion. My IPod touch, which I used as a voice recorder to capture the sound for the interviews, opened the music app in Chelly’s pocket and stopped recording her interview towards the end. And the list goes on and gets more embarrassing!

I don’t list these mistakes to shoot myself down. Quite the contrary, actually! I list them to give myself, as well as other upcoming filmmakers, more confidence to know that it’s okay to mess things up. The real goal is to bounce back from them and learn from them so that you know why you made them and can be aware enough not to make them again when the stakes are higher. One of my biggest fears I had about entering the professional film making world was making a mistake that costs me the entire production. But making them now made me realize that some of them are not as huge as I might think. The average viewer is not paying that much attention to the headroom in an opening interview mostly covered by b-roll. Nobody will really tell the difference between the shots filmed in 720p versus 1080p unless they are actively looking for that.

The other thing to note is that the old saying holds strong, even in 2018; “practice makes perfect.” If you don’t film, if you don’t practice holding a camera and capturing what you want, and if you don’t have the experience to back up your knowledge of cinematic techniques, then you will make way more mistakes when you decide to work on a larger project. But because I have done this before in smaller art projects and event filming, I was confident in my ability to successfully execute this film. The mistakes I made are there, but they are significantly less than the ones from my previous project, and the project before that, and so on. I’m confident that my next big filming will be opportunity will have less mistakes because I know I will actively be checking to make sure that I don’t commit the same ones twice.

Finally, the editing of this film took a very long time and was the longest that I’ve ever edited. In total, we had 6 hours’ worth of footage and the running joke in the editing room was that we could make three different documentaries with the content that we recorded. (Now I would even argue that we could make 4, because the 5 days of editing could have been its own documentary about making a documentary.) If there are any lessons I’ve learned from editing this project, they are to plan out a significant amount of time for yourself to edit and make sure that you are well nourished and comfortable before sitting down for 9hrs in a library basement.

The other lesson that applies to every editor is that the story and vibe of the film really do come together in the editing room. We had loads of ideas and cool shots that we wanted to include in our film. But once filming is over and the editing process really begins, you are left with what you got. The job of the editor is to make a cohesive story out of the footage that was captured. This includes putting interviews in conversation with each other, picking and choosing which b-roll you’ll place where and saving some of the good shots for later, and throwing out some shots in favor of others that best help the narrative and visual style you are aiming for. Six hours of footage condensed to 14 minutes to meet a 15-minute max assignment.

As an editor and cinematographer, you need to always have in mind that not every clip will make it into the final cut. Coverage is important and getting as many shots as possible is great because it gives the editor more options to choose from, but at the end of the day, one a select few will have the privilege of making it to the audience’s screens. Last side note is to start the editing process as early as possible. After each day of filming, I began organizing the clips in Adobe Premiere, color correcting them, and putting together draft sequences based on the footage I had in my arsenal. The final 3 days were left for putting the story together cohesively. (And if your director calls you Donatello from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles because you’re good at cutting out pauses and the word “um” from people’s interviews, take that as a compliment that you’re doing a good job!)

All in all, this project was a blast to work on. I had a fun and engaging team of people actively wanting the film to turn out great. I had the chance to meet new people and learn so much more about female empowerment and the history of feminism while working behind the scenes. I was able to put the theories I’ve learned as a Film Studies minor into action by being responsible for recording and editing. And most importantly, I have gained more confidence in my craft through immersing myself in a project that took a total of 3 months to produce. If you enjoyed the film and this behind the scenes look of amateur filmmaker making a big project, please share this article and video with those who are interested in female empowerment, self-confidence, and film making!

Thank you for reading this and more videos to come.

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