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Jan. 24, 2024

DP Cristina Dunlap’s journey from music videos to “American Fiction”

Cinematographer Cristina Dunlap opted for the dynamic range of ARRI’s ALEXA Mini LF on the award-winning and impactful feature film “American Fiction.”

Jan. 24, 2024

Cristina Dunlap, the talent behind the lens of Amazon MGM Studios’ “American Fiction,” sat down with ARRI to talk about her journey from a 16-year-old photography enthusiast to the director of photography for the critically acclaimed film. Just recently, "American Fiction" was nominated for the Oscar in five categories, including Best Picture. Dunlap’s creative vision was also recognized at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, where “American Fiction” earned the People’s Choice Award, underscoring the film’s impactful narrative and visual storytelling. The film also received two nominations at the Golden Globes and five nominations at the 29th Critics Choice Awards, including Best Picture.

Dunlap’s career trajectory is the stuff of a Hollywood script. Her entry into the industry occurred in “a weird way,” starting with a chance meeting. “I met a director at Venice Beach through some friends. He said he was shooting a music video, and I said I was a photographer. From that conversation, he invited me to the video’s set to come take pictures, and to my surprise, it ended up being a real music video for Death Cab for Cutie, who was big at the time.”

It was there on Dunlap’s first professional film set that she discovered the role of a DP and decided to pursue it as a career. Dunlap split her time between two days of community college classes a week and working as a production assistant on as many productions as possible.

Her passion for the art of cinematography was fueled by her hands-on experience on various sets, learning about lighting and equipment from gaffers and grips, and keeping a detailed diary of the lighting setups she witnessed. Dunlap’s attention to detail eventually paid off, resulting in promotions to coordinator and shortly thereafter, production manager. From those promotions and elevated responsibility on set, Dunlap gained invaluable insights into gear, equipment, and best practices on set.

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DP Dunlap and “American Fiction” director Cord Jefferson connected on vision almost immediately

After two years of splitting her time between community college classes and working, Dunlap transferred to USC’s film school, continuing to work while finishing her education. The years following her graduation from USC’s film school saw her work diligently on a variety of sets, continuing to build a robust resume of work as an operator while maintaining and developing connections along the way. She credits producer Melissa Larsen with nurturing her aspirations, providing opportunities to operate cameras, and encouraging her to build her body of work through music videos and commercials that eventually became her showreel.

Dunlap’s break into “American Fiction” came somewhat serendipitously through a connection she developed on a music video set. Despite not having much correspondence with this connection, Dunlap was one of a few cinematographers shortlisted to meet with the film’s first-time director, Cord Jefferson. Dunlap was the first cinematographer that Jefferson met with, and her passion for the project was evident from the start, as the script immediately inspired her with vivid images. She compiled a lookbook that perfectly aligned with Jefferson’s vision, securing her role as the DP.

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I love ARRI and shooting on an ARRI camera is always my first choice just because of the way that it renders skin tones. It’s a camera I’m familiar with. We knew the film was going to need to be 4K ultimately, so we went with the ALEXA Mini LF and shot raw.

Cristina Dunlap

Cinematographer

When discussing technical choices, Dunlap expressed her preference for the ALEXA camera for its skin tone rendering and reliability: “I love ARRI and shooting on an ARRI camera is always my first choice just because of the way that it renders skin tones. It’s a camera I’m familiar with. We knew the film was going to need to be 4K ultimately, so we went with the ALEXA Mini LF and shot raw. Additionally, because I knew we were going to be shooting a lot of different ranges of skin tones and often outside where I didn’t have that much control, it was important to have a versatile dynamic range that I knew. On any shoot, dependability is important.”

Collaborating with Phil Beckner at PhotoKem, Dunlap created a LUT that aligned with her visual concept, which was then fine-tuned on set with her DIT, Mattie Hamer. She recalls the challenges of deciding on the film’s aspect ratio, ultimately choosing 2:35 to balance the comedic and emotional elements of the story while highlighting Jeffrey Wright’s nuanced performance as the protagonist, Monk.

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One of Dunlap’s most rewarding shots included a resourceful dolly zoom to capture the emotional nuance of actor Jeffrey Wright’s performance

“Since all of our locations were practical, I realized that I was often seeing the ceilings if I was as wide as I wanted to be in order to highlight Monk’s isolation or distance from his family members. While the film is a comedy it’s also at its core a heartfelt family story and there’s a lot of emotion going on in Jeffrey’s face. Every twitch of an eyebrow has meaning, and you feel that. So, I wanted to be close to him while having that space which worked best in the 2:35 aspect ratio.”

The film’s lighting included the Cine Reflect Lighting System (CRLS) from Lightbridge paired with ARRI’s Daylight Fresnels which allowed for versatile setups in various locations. Dunlap expressed pride in scenes that demanded creativity, like the dolly zoom shot with Jeffrey Wright’s character and the meticulous lighting at the beach house, which viewers mistakenly thought was achieved with natural light. She recalls, “It wasn’t scripted that we watch Monk walk in,but I knew that Jeffrey was going to to something interesting to physically embody his character as Stagg R Leigh and I wanted to give him that space to do that so we gave him a long dolly zoom runway to the table and it’s a moment in the movie that turned out to be one of my favorites. At this particular location we didn’t own the street, so we couldn’t have lights blocking the sidewalk, and we couldn’t get a condor on location out to get that hard afternoon light into the building, so we ended up doing a combination wall of CRLS and the ARRI lights coming in, and I think it works nicely, there’s a dramatic edge to it.”

Dunlap gave insight into another one of the film’s pivotal locations—a family beach house, integral to the story, but not quite as easy to light: “Everyone fell in love with this beach house except for me because it had a very dark wood interior and I knew we wanted to see the ocean through the windows. Thematically I knew it was right for the story because there had been a lot of tragedy that occurred in this house. It was not a bright and airy beach house. It wasn’t updated and a little run-down but it was a place where they had good memories. So, I knew we wanted to see the ocean through the windows and despite budget constraints, my grip and electric team, helmed by Alec Roy and Tony Ventura, got creative. To get the light I wanted inside the beach house, we often had to use every single light we had on the truck, and every mirror to get the exposure right while still holding the view out the windows. So that’s another location that I’m quite proud of how it came together.”

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Dunlap credits her team with helping her evaluate and achieve some of the more emotional shots on “American Fiction”

Dunlap also reflected on the intense production schedule of “American Fiction” and the memorable scenes that allowed for creative freedom: “We had a very difficult schedule on this film. We shot in 26 days and there were a ton of locations and scenes with many cast members that would usually require extensive coverage so we had to get creative. I worked very closely with our Steadicam artist Xavier Thompson to orchestrate flowing camera moves that highlight different characters during specific moments of the scene.” 

Dunlap’s dedication and skillful cinematography have undoubtedly contributed to the success of “American Fiction” and will continue to shape her burgeoning career in the film industry. As for the future, Dunlap is open to new opportunities in the feature and commercial world.