We had the good fortune of connecting with Leah Anova and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Leah, why did you pursue a creative career?
My path to becoming a cinematographer was not linear. There were many events in my life that led me to this career. As a child, I had a habit of inventing wild stories to share with my siblings and schoolmates. These tales were outlandish and ridiculous, but my audience loved it. The look of amazement on their faces was awesome. Their big eyes, wide mouths, and excitable little bodies were my encouragement to tell more. Man, it was fun! Sharing my eccentric adventures continued into middle school. No one believed me at school, but I never stopped trying. This habit suddenly stopped after seeing Indiana Jones and the Lost Temple of Doom. Woah…. That was an experience. I couldn’t believe it! Other people were living out my adventures! As a 13-year-old girl, I was really upset by this. On the flipside, I fell in love with movies. Watching Indiana Jones kicking some serious tail was breathtaking! My larger than life story was real on the big screen. From that moment on, the love affair began.
I come from a family of crazed movie watchers. My brother is an avid movie collector. He has over a thousand films in his library. My younger sister is a big fan of Audrey Hepburn and religiously watches Roman Holiday, yearly. My parents can’t get enough of old Filipino classic films. As for me, I love all films by Wong Kar-wai and Steven Spielberg. In the Mood for Love and Indian Jones and The Temple of Doom are my all-time favorites! My family’s love for cinema translated into weekly Blockbuster visits! Growing up, we never had enough money to frequent the movies, but we had the funds for monthly VHS rentals! We would rent several movies and watch each film back to back. Our VHS players got a serious workout between my two younger siblings and me. Yeah! We were those people! We all had VHS players in our rooms, and we spent many hours alone with our films. Now, we purchase and collect blu-rays and dvds. This all-consuming love continued my push toward becoming a cinematographer.
In my 30’s, I had a midlife crisis. I was working as a Photo Editor in the Washington, DC area. I hated the demands of the publishing industry. One day, I walked into my boss’ office and quit. No two weeks notice. Nothing. Many say I DROPPED THE MIC! As I walked out the front lobby and turned the corner, I ran into a film shoot. The crew was young and eager. And everything about that set was exciting. I was intrigued! I shamelessly approached a guy with a walkie talkie and started asking questions. Before you know it, I was speaking with a producer asking for a job. The producer refused, initially, but with endless pestering, she caved. Ha! I was hired as Production Assistant. Within a week of working on set, I noticed the camera department. (NOTE: I had been shooting with a 35mm still camera for many years. Photography is a passion of mine.) When I wasn’t busy working for the producers, I inserted myself in the camera department. I made friends with the camera assistants and director of photography and was transferred into the camera department as their dedicated production assistant. I discovered how s16mm movie camera translated into storytelling! I was hooked! My passion for storytelling and cinematography was sealed. I worked on film and television sets for about a year in the DC area as a camera production assistant. Within 6 months, I applied to The American Film Institute Conservatory and was accepted. I moved to Los Angeles, completed my Masters of Fine Arts in cinematography and have been a working director of photography ever since. The little girl who loved sharing her crazy stories was now telling stories as a cinematographer.
As a director of photography, I carry my alter ego, childish Leah, onto every film set. We are most excited after reading a script for the first time. Our emotions are high. We are thrilled, inspired, energized and giddy with excitement. After a beat, the adult emerges and begins the hard work of developing the visual language of a film. Once the script is put down, my mind begins to race. The character’s appearance, how they move, how they interact with one another, and the emotional evolution of these individuals begins to form. These concepts inspire my approach toward camera movement, lighting, and framing. The director’s vision will also affect the cinematic approach for the film, as ideas are discussed. My daily life will influence the evolution of these ideas. The journey becomes an all-consuming task as I re-read the script. I’m constantly dreaming about the scenes and beats becoming very intimate with the story and characters of the movie. This evolution of the cinematic language is a magical process and why I love my profession. As a cinematographer, the magic of cinema continues to shape and influence my life. My greatest joy is translating emotions into imagery. I love creating larger than-life visuals to evoke highly charged reactions and organic moments on screen. The storyteller in me thrives in this environment and loves every moment on and off set. Childish Leah often whispers, “we are living our larger-than-life adventures!”
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
Please tell us more about your art. We’d love to hear what sets you apart from others, what you are most proud of or excited about.
One of my proudest moments was on the set of the feature film, Vampire Dad. This was one of my hardest shoots. I’ve never been challenged as heavily as I was on this show. Production heads were clashing over the script. We were shooting in a tiny house with 2 cameras. The summer heat was horrible! One of our producers went to the emergency room after cutting his hand on an electric fan. If anything could go wrong, it did. The stress was high and challenged my confidence as a director of photography. I wasn’t happy with my work on the show. The lighting wasn’t where I wanted it to be; communication was difficult between the gaffer and me; and I didn’t think I was moving fast enough. We were behind most of our days – 7 day shooting schedule that later became 9 days. NOTE: Many indie features are shot with a 15 to 17 shooting schedule. Vampire Dad was scheduled for 7 days. To make the show even more difficult, the script was constantly changing.
On one particularly challenging day, my director approached me about adding a scene and shooting outside of the schedule. I was hesitant knowing this would be an unpaid day and that no crew would be joining us. I reluctantly agreed. The night before, I was incredibly anxious, and my self-doubt was very high. As a cinematographer, I rely heavily on my gaffer and have done so since starting my film career. Without one, I felt I lacked the skills to be a successful “lighter.” A cinematographer should appear strong and confident, and exhibiting skills as a leader, technician, and artist is very important. Losing the director’s faith in your abilities as a shooter is devastating and will affect the working relationship. I was not going to let this happen! The day before, I drew up a lighting diagram that was simple and effective! I told myself, I can do this and I will execute this plan well.
Upon arrival, I began to build the camera and went over the lighting set-up in my head. No one knew how scared I was. Once I had finished with the camera, I started building each lighting unit slowly and methodically. Within 15 minutes, our lead actress walked onto set and moved to her mark. The director went to the monitor to check the frame. As I was making a few adjustments to her hair light and rim light, the director turned to me and said, “Real Pro, Leah! Real Pro!” Oh man… The heaviness melted, and I could finally exhale. I smiled at her and said, “Awww… Thanks Love!“ The exhilaration and giddiness I felt were massive. I did it! I lit successfully without a gaffer! About a year later, I had posted the frame grab on Instagram and was amazed by the response. My fellow DPs and associates reacted so positively to the image. One particular DP friend commented on how “rocking’ the lighting was.” Honestly, the reaction on Instagram and my friend’s comments were validation of my abilities. When I feel insecure, I try to remember this moment and remind myself of this success. I can do this job and do it well! Such a beautiful feeling!
What are the lessons you’ve learned along the way? How did you get to where you are today professionally? Was it easy? If not, how did you overcome the challenges?
The life of a cinematographer is very challenging. Frankly, it’s hard. The world of film production is always in motion. Change is constant. Uncontrollable forces affect the life of a show. One moment, production is in full force; the next moment, the show has been pushed or delayed. THIS IS A CRAZY LIFE, BUT I LOVE IT! As a cinematographer, I have had the opportunity to shoot a wide array of projects ranging from documentaries to corporate videos. But… I love shooting independent feature films. The challenge of shooting an indie never ends. It provides a rich environment in which to think creatively and push your limits. The work environment is tough and resources are often miniscule. Production is challenged on every level.
The budgetary challenges are some of the greatest on an independent film production. As a cinematographer, overcoming budgetary obstacles tests your strength of spirit, confidence as a DP, and the grace with which you conduct yourself. Honing these skills is a never-ending process, and I try to improve and build upon them with every show I shoot. When I was starting out, I was full of nerves and anxiety. I had a difficult time managing the schedule, the crew, and the creative demands involved in helping the director to manifest their vision. The experience I’ve gained over the years, coupled with an understanding of the budget I’ve got to work with, enables me to determine how effective or efficient a crew will be on set; how to craft a realistic shooting schedule; and how to meet the demands of my director.
I always say to younger cinematographers: “Shoot everything and anything. This is the time to test your skills and creative eye. Be fearless and SHOOT!” By shooting films in all budget ranges, I have developed a tough skin and exposed myself to challenges as a technician, manager, and artist. With time, I have become a stronger manager of my team and acquired the backbone to work with spirited filmmakers.
Creative personalities are spicy individuals who ask a great deal of a cinematographer. Managing the world of set politics is an on-going challenge. The word, “no,” is often not part of a director’s vocabulary. Your ability to handle difficult conversations requires grace and openness to what’s being said and heard. Having a mentor guiding me through these tricky challenges has been a great blessing. Michael Goi, ASC, taught me how to react and interact in tough situations. One of the many important things I learned was that allowing a problem to play out often results in the problem magically resolving itself. He also taught me that knowing when to “hold out” and when to be involved are just as important. Thank you, Michael!
Having a mentor, plus real world experience of my own, has carried me through many shows. Being graceful, skilled, and creative are all-important skills you need to master as a director of photography.
What do you want the world to know about you or your brand and story?
If there’s anything I want people to know about me is that if I’m with you, I’M WITH YOU A 1000%. “I got you,” is my favorite saying. Once I’ve signed the deal memo, I make every effort to support my team. I will protect you and set you up to succeed. I won’t let anyone burn. My approach extends from the DIT to the director. Your success is my success. Enough said.
Because of the success of these collaborations, I have had the good fortune to re-team with many directors. I’m incredibly grateful! These productions have translated into successful festival runs. Lady Boss: Jackie Collins Story has its world premiere at Tribeca Film Festival, June 2021. The documentary was directed by Laura Fairrie. I had the opportunity to shoot the Los Angeles unit. Another project, 21st and Colonial, is premiering at the Carmarthen Bay Film Festival/BAFTA Cymru Qualifying Film Festival in Wales. Our production received incredible production support from Kimberly Snyder, President and CEO of Panavision and Laurence Nunn, National Camera Product Manager at Production Resource Group. We wouldn’t have been able to successfully complete this production without their backing. And, because the short has been so well received, we are moving forward with the feature. Angelo Reyes, the director, did an incredible job with the performances. The actors, Omar Bragon, Dominique Madison, Sue Prada, and Angelo killed their scenes. And, audiences have been so moved by the story of a young black man’s life destroyed by his socio-economic situation. The story is timely! Because of this, Angelo has secured funding for the feature film, which will be shot in Suffolk, VA in the summer of 2021. Reyes Productions will produce the 21st and Colonial feature film. We have secured several high-profile actors. The names will be announced late soon! Another feature film, Two, is going into production in the fall. The film is directed by Greg Anderson, and produced by Anderson and Don Laikowski of Palm Desert Productions. The film is set in the desert Southwest and is part psychological thriller, part classic tragedy, part urban fantasy, part sci-fi, and part modern-day myth. I like to describe the film as Blade Runner meets Unforgiven. We plan to shoot in Las Vegas as well as Tonopah, Nevada, which is a historic mining town from the 1900s. The architecture of that period is very much intact and is perfect for the production of Two.
Shooting feature films is my LOVE. The storylines vary from show to show. If the script is well written with layered characters and full of depth, I’m in. I’m really excited about these two features. The stories are very different from what I have shot lately. Comedies, high-key lighting and quirky story lines have been my wheelhouse for a few years. I’m moving into darker, more nuanced territory, and I REALLY LOVE IT!
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
If COVID never happened, my week of breaking bread, throwing back cocktails and galavanting around Los Angeles would involve the following adventures:
Friday Night: EightyTwo arcade for several hours of playing old school PacMan and Asteroids while throwing back a few cocktails
Dinner at Wurstküche for duck/beef hotdogs in their Ravelike setting.
Dinner at Spoon & Pork for Modern Filipino. Pork Belly Musubi is delicious and a great starter. Lechon Kawali for the main course with Lychee drink. YUM!
Brookdale Ballroom @ Clifton’s for some swing dancing to burn off the calories.
Cocktails at Pacific Seas @ Clifton’s on 3rd floor.
BRUNCH – Kusina Filipina Los Angeles, old school Filipino style breakfast
Hike at Chantry Flats, right after to burn off the carbs!
Late Lunch/Early Dinner Take out from Lughnasa Dim Sum House. The crispy shrimp roll is amazing. You gotta try it! Crunchy and weblike exterior. Amazing!
Quiet evening at home w Netflix
LACMA, Film Screening and Conversation
Cocktails at Apotheke
Dinner at Majordomo – Asian fusion, Baby! The Pan Roasted Dry Aged Flannery Ribeye is a dream. The beef is amazingly tender, order the with the Cosmo. You will SMILE!
HUNTINGTON ROSÉ TEA SERVICE at Huntington Library
Walk off the rosé with a stroll in the gardens.
Dinner & Cocktails at The Raymond 1886
HIKE & Explore at Eaton Canyon
Take out from Pie & Burger for their delicious burgers and crispy fries.
Movie night at home
Mexican fusion dinner from The Spanglish
Burlesque show and cocktails at The Edison
Pack sandwich and Hike up to the Hollywood Sign.
Dinner at Yamashiro. I love their Teriyaki Lamb Yakitori.
Movie night at Hollywood Cemetery through Cinespia
Live music & cocktails at the Bardot and hopefully run into Ryan Gosling as he DJ’s for the crowd. I’ve never seen him there but he’s rumored to DJ at this spot. Ryan, let’s throw back a few beers!
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there a person, group, organization, book, etc that you want to dedicate your shoutout to? Who else deserves a little credit and recognition in your story?
No one can do it alone in this industry. Without the thoughtful, insightful, and reliable assistance of the following individuals, I would not be the cinematographer nor the person that I am today. To each, I’ll be forever grateful.
• Robert G. Endara II
• Michael Goi, ASC
• Alan Caso, ASC
• Mark Doering-Powell, ASC
• David Mullen, ASC
• The American Society of Cinematographers
• Kimberly Snyder, President and Chief Executive Officer, Panavision
• Mike Carter, Marketing Executive, Panavision
• Laurence Nunn, National Camera Product Manager at Production Resource Group, Panasonic
• Suzanne Lezotte, Consultant for Sony
• Forrest Emery, Senior Rental Agent, Camera Division
• Michael Bravin, Canon Fellow, Director of Canon Burbank
• David Doko, Technical Specialist & Market Professional
• Randy Coonfield, Senior Digital Colorist, Blueline Finishing
• Elijah Eastlund, DI Producer at Picture Shop Post
• Laura Borowsky, Director, Business Development at Light Iron, A Panavision Company
• Robert Myrtle, The American Film Institute
• Kevin Bui, Screenwriter, AFI Alumni
• James West, Cinematographer, AFI Alumni
Lastly, writing this article would not have been possible without the talent and skill of the following individuals:
• Robert G. Endara II
• Nancy Hendrickson
• Kevin Bui
• Kevin Barney
• Cheyann Montiel Regan
102518_Team_Marilyn_BTS-46.jpg – Charlie Murphy, set photographer | Team Marilyn 102518_Team_Marilyn_BTS-71.jpg – Charlie Murphy, set photographer | Team Marilyn 7_T4.00_12_07_15.Still005.jpg – Still from Vampire Dad, Frankie Ingrassia | DIRECTOR BAD+WOLF+v4+ONLINE+RESIZED+2.jpg – Still from Bad Wolf, Kalman Apple | DIRECTOR BAD+WOLF+v4+ONLINE+RESIZED+6.jpg – Still from Bad Wolf, Kalman Apple | DIRECTOR D-Volution+Singafest.00_03_24_00.Still021.jpg – Still from D-Volution, Walter Bolhost | DIRECTOR D-Volution+Singafest.00_04_02_06.Still023.jpg – Still from D-Volution, Walter Bolhost | DIRECTOR GOLDSTARFINALCCFINALUHD_23.jpg – Still from GoldStar, Karla Legaspy | DIRECTOR GOLDSTARFINALCCFINALUHD_32.jpg – Still from GoldStar, Karla Legaspy | DIRECTOR Mirror.jpg – Still from You & Me, Alex Baack | DIRECTOR TEAMMARILYN1_1.1.1.jpg – Still from Team Marilyn, LaToya Morgan | DIRECTOR TEAMMARILYN5_1.1.6.jpg – Still from Team Marilyn, LaToya Morgan | DIRECTOR 21C_screencap_23.jpg – Still from 21st & Colonial, Angelo Reyes | DIRECTOR 2015-08-02+17.49.01.jpg – Still from You & Me, Mischa Marcus | DIRECTOR