Who is Gillian Holt? Get me Gillian Holt for this film!

Gillian Holt cinematographer interviewed by Power Gems

Gillian Holt

Power Gems talked to Gillian Holt, one of a few female cinematographers. English-born Gillian lives in Berlin and combines working as a cinematographer and lighting technician/gaffer, with an ongoing role as senior repair technician with rental house, LichtHaus Berlin.

LichtHaus Berlin is one of the first recipients of the new Power Gems ballast, the EB57P (see below) which has a very clever socket arrangement that saves on head feeder cables. Is this the kind of gear you like working with?

“The EB57P is a very convenient piece of kit because it covers so many different small lamps. I see a lot of people going out with very small rigs, doing TV reports, student films and little advertising jobs, where they need a very compact hard light, and in spite of advances in LED technology a lot of smaller HMI lamps are still being used, like the Dedos, ARRILUXs, Jokerbugs and of course the Kobold 400W. These lamps are pretty indestructible, but the ballasts do fail, so the EB57P will be great because in one unit it can replace a whole slew of ballasts. I think Power Gems are on to a winner here.”

Power Gems EB57P high speed ballast

You’ve taken an unusual route into the profession – you originally trained as an electrician before successfully running your own manufacturing company, then you gave up a career as an electronics engineer to study for a fine art degree. How did you end up in Berlin?

“I was studying fine art sculpture but actually specialising in video art and performance, and there was the opportunity to take part in an ERASMUS exchange. However, the only options were a small industrial town in Spain; somewhere similar in Holland; and a place in Finland that advertised itself as the Plywood Capital of the World. So, I arranged my own placement, and in 2006, moved from England to Berlin to study video art, performance and experimental film.”

After studying, and with your technical skills, was it easy to find work as a cinematographer?

“Not exactly, I briefly went back to engineering; it was the only way to make money while pursuing film making. I became the Senior Workshop Engineer for ARRI Rental in Berlin as the result of a chance encounter. I had been working on a student film and went along to ARRI with the gaffer to take equipment back. While we were unloading the van, he disappeared and came back with Ute Baron, the Branch Manager of ARRI Rental, who happened to be looking for a workshop technician.”

You work as a cinematographer in Berlin. Do you find yourself primarily working with Directors based in Germany?

“I’ve worked on lots of small advertising jobs, and on documentaries and short films both domestically and internationally. Then in 2013 I was very kindly asked to shoot the first live action film for Sarah Ball, a British Academy Award winning director best known as the co-creator of Chuggington and Bob the Builder. ‘Baggage’ has been doing very well at the festivals for the last three years.”

Why do you work as a cinematographer?

“I enjoy it, enormously, it’s just insanely competitive and extremely difficult to get into. There are so few jobs worldwide, certainly for features; almost single digits. In Germany alone, the film schools churn out many dozens of qualified cinematographers every year. There’s no way in the world that there’s work for even 1% of them. Then you’ve got people coming up through the branch itself and others just fancying a go.

Men are still hired to work on films, particularly behind the camera, far more frequently than women. Of all the films released in 2014, for example, only 8% had a female cinematographer. Why do you believe women aren’t better represented in the business?

“I remember seeing a documentary where Nancy Schreiber, the fourth woman ever to be voted into the American Society of Cinematographers said she spent years loading cameras and slapping slates. It’s hard for everyone.

Cinematographers get work by being called by directors who already know them and have worked with them, these relationships are often formed at film school. Most directors are men and the working relationship is very close. Obviously that is easier with a male cinematographer. That is the system you’re trying to get around as a woman. It’s easier these days because more women are studying directing but the 8% figure has stayed the same for a number of years.

Women who study cinematography tend to go more into television, particularly Children’s TV and documentaries where there is less resistance and more openings. Features are significantly more difficult.”

They say you go through a career curve as a cinematographer – first it’s ‘who the hell is Gillian Holt?’, then it’s ‘get me Gillian Holt’, which is followed by ‘get me somebody like Gillian Holt – but cheaper’, and finally it’s ‘who the hell is Gillian Holt?”

Our thanks to Gillian for sharing her experience as a cinematographer and lighting technician. You can find out more about Gillian on Linkedin

This interview is part of an occasional series. If you enjoyed this, you should read:

Hands-on introduction to lighting at film school: An interview with Joe Lyons of DePaul Cinespace Studios

Stefan and Benjamin Schmidt of STS talk about the theatrical lighting scene in Germany

HMI Lighting: Power Gems interviews Marc Galerne of K5600

Xenon lighting: Power Gems interviews Greg Smith of Arc Light EFX