The inaugural recipient of the Screen Australia Onbass scholarship, cinematographer and photographer Meg White will take up her postgraduate studies in film at the American Film Institute later this year. Already, Meg has worked with some of Australia’s most celebrated screen talent such as Rachel Perkins and Russell Crowe. Here we chat with her about getting the chance to work in Hollywood and working between still and moving images.
BYO: What do you hope to achieve from this opportunity?
Meg: I've worked [in Australia] for ten years already as an assistant and a cinematographer so exposure to a greater marketplace. There's always been that sense that you can move to LA. I'm hoping to build relationships, networks over there. I'm mostly interested in long form drama so [I hope to have] access to more feature film environments.
BYO: What's been your experience of working in Australia?
Meg: I love the films we make here [but] we're based on government funding. I've heard other narratives coming up about less risk aversion [in the United States] or younger people getting breaks earlier than maybe would happen here. I think there's a bigger marketplace for other characters, like people of colour getting opportunities that wouldn't happen here. I also think we're still a very white-tailored audience.
In recent years, it's become that you have to be pragmatic as well as artistic; I know what I want to do, but I suppose it is putting myself in circumstances where I'm able to achieve that.
BYO: You've spoken about engaging voices that may otherwise slip through the mainstream agenda, what does that mean to you?
Meg: I want to rephrase that! It makes me sound like I'm telling stories that would otherwise get lost but I'm drawn to projects that aren't the mainstream voice. I'm working on what you would call more diverse projects, so I did Black and Beautiful which was with a Sierra Leone director, Hawanatu Bangura and that was about the effects of colourism on black women and how that's affected perceptions of beauty. I suppose they're not as commercially viable all the time.
BYO: What was it like putting this focus into practice in the Arrernte Women's Project with Rachel Perkins?
Meg: I like to see myself as a visual midwife and I don't want to be ever telling someone else's story but [instead] being there to help it come to life. I wasn't directorial in that sense, I was there to be present and record it. You were documenting stuff that could be lost if it had've been a few years later. It wasn't trying to shape any story, rather record their stories for their own use. I was there to be present and film and the photos that I took were just the women who participated.
BYO: From a craft or technical perspective, how do you give voice to other perspectives and resist the temptation to be more directorial?
Meg: The perfect role between the cinematographer and the director is that complete collaborative conversation and I should be realising what they want, even if I'm suggesting something that's different from what they may have wanted or suggested. Whenever I work with a director I try to make sure we're using the same visual language, and for some directors I work with it is literally going down and having a class about lenses and the differences between spherical and anamorphic.
BYO: With so much being done in post-production now, how do you develop that visual language at the beginning of a project?
Meg: Sometimes we share references, like tone, palette, and then it can come down to discussing a shot list. I normally set the framework and then we flesh it out. I also like to weave in my stills work; I want to tell this story but do it in one frame as opposed to multiple. Sometimes a director and I might discuss something and if they can't really describe it visually they use a word, they [may] talk about weight, so its heavy or dense [and] I can translate [that] to a visual emotion.
BYO: How do you vary between telling a story in one image of photography versus across multiple images in a film?
Meg: The notion of stacking is how I think about it. I did my first series of photos like I was dreaming, so distinct narratives in [individual] frames. Because they were portraits I had to stack elements in the frame, but I also find that's a very cinematic tool as well. I don't think they're that distinct; I suppose it's bending the scenarios where a story can unfold.
I'm going to go to a material reason; you can physically hold a photograph, whereas you can never actually hold a film, you can hold a reel or tape or disc but you can never actually hold [the image]. The finite sense of the physical photograph is always there so I love the impact of looking at a photograph, and sometimes I look at a photograph more than I watch a film. The impact of that is really important.