Cinematographer Ellie Ann Fenton speaks on her relationship with light.
By Sergio Carvajal-Leoni
There are people whose jobs consist of understanding and shaping light. They study how light enters a room, how it hits a person’s face, what temperature it carries. And they make assessments on what instruments they should use to make light behave the way they want. Though it may sound like a rather niche endeavor, these particular types of artists are directly responsible for the look of every single one of your favorite shows and movies. They are formally known as directors of photography (DPs) or cinematographers; rather misunderstood and underappreciated professionals who have had a profound impact on anyone who enjoys a good film. Which is practically everyone on this planet.
El Paso native Ellie Ann Fenton is one of these folks. “I fell into cinematography at UT Austin,” Fenton says. “I was in the film program and originally thought I wanted to edit; however, the second I had a camera in my hands and began to understand light, I fell in love and never looked back.”
Almost two decades later, Fenton’s relationship with light is stronger than ever. She has shot multiple feature films, comfortably alternating from working with independent filmmakers—such as the award-winning festival hit comedy Zero Charisma—to being part of high-profile projects such as the HBO documentary Running with Beto. “I love watching a big scene come together with hundreds of people involved,” Feneton reveals. “And I appreciate the intimacy that can be achieved when it’s a small crew or just you, a camera and your subject. Above all, I strive to capture human experiences in whatever form they come in with whatever means I’m given.”
Upon finishing the Radio, Television and Film program at UT Austin, Fenton worked the Austin film scene for a few years before joining the prestigious American Film Institute Conservatory in Los Angeles to further polish her skills and enhance her network. “School isn’t necessarily the path for everyone,” she says. “However, it was the right choice for me. A program like AFI is truly global. Filmmakers from all over the planet study there to become the future voices of film, TV and groundbreaking media. Beyond the intense technical training I went through, I enjoyed the program’s focus on the importance of story, which is at the core of everything I make. The friends I made there and the lessons I learned will always be a big part of my life.”
Fenton’s style is heavily influenced by her multicultural upbringing and her family’s passion for storytelling. She was born in Germany and raised surrounded by beautiful landscapes in Switzerland until her parents transferred to the enigmatic city of El Paso, where they started and operated a family-owned community newspaper. This exposure to multiple colors, flavors and stories provided her with a unique life perspective that shapes the way she approaches every project, as well as her vibrant choices for composition, movement and lighting.
Women in Cinematography
Being a woman cinematographer is also one of Fenton’s strengths, especially in a field largely dominated by men. Her skills and sensibilities provide a fresh and much needed breeze to the profession. “Change takes time,” she shares. “If you look at the industry over the last 20 years, I think we’ve seen significant changes in regards to women’s representation, treatment and opportunities in this field. We still have a long way to go. But it is changing as more people become aware of their own inherent biases.”
Becoming a successful cinematographer can be extremely challenging both personally and professionally. “The hardest part is the flux of pay and availability,” Fenon admits. “It’s hard to learn how to live your life when finances and schedules ebb and flow like that. Friends, families and relationships are forced to work around the fact that I’m either super busy or incredibly free.”
Given these complexities, Fenton sees her career as a game of endurance. ”I would say my best career move has been sticking with it,” she says. “Never quitting. Even when I thought it must surely be enough. Longevity and consistency will always be tried and true ways to make strides in anything you put your mind to. Especially in the field of cinematography.”
Fenton also believes that her love for collaborating with others has played a key role in her success. “My career is all about communicating with other human beings,” she says. “I collaborate with the director to help achieve one vision for the project; I also work with the producers on the budget of the production to make sure we can achieve everything we set out to do. Then there’s my crew, with whom I have to have a tight relationship to ensure all the moving parts involving camera and lighting are running smoothly. Needless to mention the actors and the rest of the crew, we’re all in the same boat working together.
“Something magical happens when everyone believes in what we’re making and there’s alignment with the story we’re telling,” Fenton says. “There are always challenges that will push us to our limits. When the team comes together to create something bigger than we ever imagine, that’s when I’m the happiest.”
See more of Ellie’s work at ellieannfenton.com