Michelle Crenshaw: Fearless Behind the Lens and In Life

WiM member Tara Jenkins chats with cinematographer Michelle Crenshaw about life and cinematography.

Tara is a freelance cinematographer and Local 600 AC with her MFA from USC in Film Production. She is a writer and content creator at American Cinematographer and the ASC.

Michelle Crenshaw has honed her craft for several decades, mastering all facets of the camera department. She cut her teeth in Chicago as a camera assistant on many films, including John Hughes’ Uncle Buck and Home Alone 1 and 2. Her work as a camera operator can be seen on shows such as The Ranch, Bob Hearts Abishola, Grey’s Anatomy, and The Thundermans Return. As a cinematographer, she has lensed films such as As Evil Does and The Watermelon Woman, which was added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 2021.

Crenshaw is a proud member of IATSE and staunch union supporter. She is a national executive board member for ICG Local 600. Crenshaw has prioritized giving back to her community. She was honored at the 5th Annual Women in Media Holiday Toast for her prolific career, and was an integral part of the Women In Media New Tech Initiative.

Why did you choose to pursue a career in the camera department?

The immediacy of picking up my first stills camera at sixteen years old was pivotal. Especially as an African American woman, having our voices heard or seen was just non-existent at the time. Being able to capture an image in just a fraction of a second meant something to me.

When I was in my late teens, living in Detroit, I worked for about 6 months for Photo Corporation of America. Our job was to drive around to discount stores and set up a photo booth for family photographs. That was fun because it got me to travel and integrate with other employees who were doing the same thing at nearby department stores. That short yet formative experience motivated me to go back to school. I thought I should at least have a bachelor’s degree and have something more sustainable. That job had introduced me to the world outside of my thirty mile radius, and I wanted to experience more of life.

You went back to school. Is that when you moved from stills into film work?

I was a little older when I went to film school. I knew I wanted to be able to express myself in some way artistically, but I also knew the realities of coming from a working class environment. When I graduated high school at seventeen, I was working and taking general classes at community college. It was ingrained in me to care for myself and have a living wage.

Even as a teen, I was reading photography trade magazines. I saw an ad for this school that doesn’t exist anymore, Ray Vogue School of Design in Chicago. By the time I was 21, I was able to save enough money to move to Chicago to go to Ray Vogue. They focused on a lot of technical arts. I got excited thinking about large format photography, 4 by 5, and later 8 by 10. You would set up still lifes and shoot them. It was a two year certificate program, and once completed they placed you with work, which was appealing

I was always really engaged in the technical as well as the creative aspects of image making. I wanted to link the two together. In the mid-eighties, everything was analog. I loved working with the equipment to the point that I was pulling cameras apart and putting them back together.

After my formative experiences at Ray Vogue, I knew that I wanted something more. At the dorm where I was staying, one of the tenants mentioned Columbia College, also in Chicago. To this day, it continues to have a huge photo department and a film department. When she said film, I was like, ‘Oh, wow’!

I ended up transferring to Columbia College and getting my BA in film. I immersed myself in the film community at the college and the greater Chicago area. I worked in the film cage supplying gear to other students. I shot a lot of projects there and was a TA as well.

The aspect of taking a still frame to build on and tell a story attracted me initially. The transition to the moving image came once I did my first film project, working with a Bolex camera, turning the turret from wide to medium to telephoto, and doing a series of composed shots to show emotion or thought. I was hooked on cinematography. Even though in hindsight I was very naive about my place in the world, I found my passion.

While I was at Columbia college, I supported myself by being a projectionist for Facets Multimedia, which was an arthouse cinema. I got to see different non-American films to learn my aesthetic outside of the American gaze. I saw more European films, films from South Africa, France, Italy. I really started to develop another aesthetic as far as the visual composition of storytelling.

How did you get your start after film school?

When I graduated, Chicago was getting busy. I was in the generation right after The Blues Brothers film, which blew up production. Before I got out of school I was doing a lot of little no budget independent projects with the community. I would really have to hustle to get paid on non-union projects. One of my instructors said that I should consider joining the union. Coming from a labor town like Detroit, and having two parents who were involved in the labor movement, I was very aware of the protections that you had as a collective bargaining group to get paid. The thought of being able to join a union was just part of my DNA. Like my mom says, luck is when preparation and opportunity meet.

With the setiquette and other great lessons that I learned on union sets, I became a rising star very quickly. The work was coming in, and I was steadily employed between John Hughes’ Home Alone 1 and 2 and Oprah’s made for television productions. John recognized that I was one of the few black women who was engaged in the process and doing the work. It was a blessing. I was able to work on six films with him, starting with Uncle Buck. I worked my way up from film loader to a second assistant to a camera technician on his films.

What prompted you to make the move from Chicago to LA?

like being out of my comfort zone with people I otherwise might not get to meet. I also like being exposed to environments different from my own. I felt that I had outgrown Chicago, as I was working on my last John Hughes film, Dennis the Menace. In 1993, I got a call from Michelle Parkerson to DP her AFI Directing Workshop for Women Project, Odds and Ends in LA. I jumped at the chance. I’m glad that I took that leap of faith in myself, because it’s now in the Criterion Collection.

What were those early days in the entertainment industry like for you?

When I started my journey, just getting in the room was my first battle. Once I was able to get into the space and make a consistent living, regardless of where I was in the camera department, I was very happy to contribute what I could to the process of storytelling.

Even though I wanted to be a cinematographer, it was quite clear that the social issues that we are still dealing with today, sexism and racism, were there. I enjoyed being part of the process of telling stories, and I was building skill and language, however it was still a long road to becoming a Cinematographer. Some people just have a hard time seeing women being department heads and making cinematic creative decisions. Despite this, I have moved forward and carved a space for myself.

What are some of your favorite projects from the length of your career?

One of my first big features in Chicago was The Untouchables. I came in as a day player and ended up working for a month. That was a big deal to me. Sean Connery and Kevin Costner starred in it, Brian Da Palma was the director, and Stephen Burum, ASC was the DP. I felt like I made it! I got to fly over to Montana on a private jet with the crew to do the bootlegging scenes. Being with the crew, managing film as the Loader was a huge experience for me that I’ll never forget.

Even the independent films I worked on once I moved from Chicago to LA taught me a lot. My first feature in LA was this non-union film where I met Johnny Simmons, ASC called Out-of-Sync. He was the camera operator and I was the first assistant. I got to meet a whole new group of artists. Debbie Allen was the Director, Isidore Mankofsky, ASC was the DP.

For the series Attila the Hun, I was the key camera technician. Along with my second assistant we managed cameras, lenses, and built out the camera truck. I was in Lithuania for three months managing six cameras, working around horses, with a DP I had never collaborated with before. I was working under Steven Fierberg, ASC in a country where I didn’t speak the language. I accepted the challenge of learning the metric system to pull focus. It gave me another perspective on how people live.

How have things changed since you started out?

My style didn’t change, despite the change in technology. The photographic medium changed based on reflective light values. Language changed when we moved from analog (film) to digital (sensor size). Lighting instruments changed as well. Incandescent lights were quite bulky compared to LED lights. Being able to change color without gels has been a cost effective and time efficient way to be more creative.

You’ve worked your way up in the camera department. How has that informed your work as a DP?

As you become more experienced on set, you learn other department’s processes. It helps you plan better. You know how much time things take, and you can collaborate better with other departments. You get efficient balancing time management, production needs, and director’s vision.

What is your advice for women, especially people of color pursuing cinematography?

Trust your instincts. If you are passionate about something, just keep working at it. There is a community out there that will embrace you. We are all providing a service. The more you actually do the work, the more you can present yourself to others.

Tell me about how you met director Cheryl Dunye and your involvement on the classic film, The Watermelon Woman.

I met Cheryl Dunye because of my relationship with audience building in Chicago. I was very involved in an organization called Women in the Director’s Chair. Cheryl came to our festivals, with her autobiographical films. She heard about me, and we connected over the black queer experience. We knew that we wanted to work together, it was just a question of when and where. By the time I had the opportunity to shoot The Watermelon Woman, it was several years later. I was starting to build a reputation in LA. By the mid 90’s I had worked my first season on NYPD Blue as a focus puller. That summer, she got her first-in money from an NEA grant. I went to Philly to lens The Watermelon Woman.

There was a script, but there was also a John Cassavetes type of improvisation with family and friends that made the film unique. It did well outside of the country at the time. It didn’t do well in the US until it got renewed interest as the first African American Lesbian film. It was so controversial that the NEA wanted to take the grant away because of the queer content. I’m honored to be part of an historic film.

It was a short turn around. I was there for about three weeks, even including prep. We were able to create a visual language by embracing the financial constraints. We shot on 16 millimeter for the bulk of the story and VHS for the documentary interviews. I learned alot about lighting and being flexible on that shoot. We could only shoot the video store after closing, and made it feel like daytime. Because we had prepped the location, we were able to match it to real daylight. When we did the martini shot of Cheryl walking into the video store at the end of our shoot night, it matched perfectly.

Is there anything else about your career, your ethos as a DP, that you want to share with the WIM community?

You need to have a certain amount of tenacity and forthrightness. You really need to know who you are as a person. At this point in my career, I’m at a stage where I’m looking to give back and share my experience. There has been a huge influx of women in the industry over the last ten years, largely due to digital filmmaking and unscripted t.v. shows. The digital domain has democratized the ability for more people to tell their stories. Folks just starting out need to be involved in various film and entertainment communities like Women In Media or Film Independent and many others. That’s where they can grow, evolve, and network.

I’m grateful for WIM. We need to have someone like founder and executive director Tema Staig to champion us as women, no matter the department, and help us find the tools to grow. WiM is the connective tissue between the crafts. In all departments, there are so many ways for women to make a very good living on your way up to becoming a department head, if that is what you want. Whether you become a director or a producer, you need to understand production and what the crew does on set, in prep, through to post production. The same goes for all department heads.

You have to evolve constantly and stay humble enough to know that you don’t know everything. Even after decades of working, you have to keep up to date. When you’re waiting around for the phone to ring, you need to keep learning and moving forward. Because of life’s struggles and frustration, it’s easy to consider giving up. That’s when the phone call happens.

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