Sandra Valde-Hansen, ASC, LPS: A Love Of Visual Language

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INTERVIEW By Women In Media Advisory Board member, Birns and Sawyer CEO Mari Acevedo.

Mari: What got you into film/television?

Sandra: I am a Filipino-American who grew up in Miami, Florida, in a very close-knit Filipino community of nurses who immigrated to the US in the late 1970s and started families here. Almost every weekend while growing up, the families would get together so the adults could play mahjong and catch up. The kids would have to find ways to keep them entertained. I was the oldest kid. So, I would get all the kids together and make home movies with my mom’s video camera. I would “direct” and “shoot” while all the kids were the performers in the movie. This would pass the time, and then at the end, before everyone went home, we would screen the film for all the families to watch. This is how I discovered that I loved making movies.

Mari: Tell us an anecdote from when you first started out.

Sandra: My very first job out of film school was when I was hired as the 2nd AC/Loader on an ultra-low budget independent film called ALLIGATOR ALLEY. I was so excited because this would be my first paying job. The film was shot on 35mm. The director of photography was Tony Foresta, who became my first mentor. It was a challenging but exciting job. We shot in some great locations all around Florida. As the film loader, I had to load and download the film in a film tent right by an alligator pit, outside an aquarium where they did a mermaid show, and inside cube trucks under a single light bulb that would attract bugs as big as birds (while my hands and arms were stuck in a film tent).

On one shoot day, we were shooting in a bar, and the scene was one long Steadicam shot that would take an entire 400’ magazine. We didn’t have enough magazines to stay ahead, so I loaded and downloaded as fast as possible. In the chaos, as I was pulling out a film can with exposed film, the can popped out of my hands and opened up. The film was in the film bag, but I was mortified. I immediately went to the 1st AC and told him what happened. We then went to the DP, Tony, who was also the steadicam operator. I was so scared he was going to fire me. But when we told him, he thanked me for telling him and told me to please take my time when loading the film. They can wait. There is no need for me to be in a hurry. After the whole job was done, the DP offered me an internship position at his company because he was impressed that I came to him about my flashing of the film. I was his assistant and operator for 6 years until I moved to Los Angeles to attend grad school.

Mari: Tell us something unusual about yourself.

Sandra: Oh boy, that’s a tough one. I love tomatoes so much that I like to eat them whole like apples.

Mari: Who or what got you into film?

Sandra: There is one film that I watched that changed my life forever. It was Steven Spielberg’s EMPIRE OF THE SUN, shot by the great Allen Daviau, ASC, and there is one scene in particular that is the sole inspiration for wanting to do filmmaking, which would evolve into cinematography. When Jim (played by a young Christian Bale) first arrives at the British internment camp that would become his home for over 3 years, he has to cross over a Japanese airfield. Jim approaches a Japanese fighter plane and caresses it. Japanese pilots approach him. Jim turns to the pilots and salutes them. They salute back. Beautiful, electrifying sparks from a nearby welder light up the scene, and an epic John Williams score plays. There is no dialogue, but I felt so many emotions inside the first time I saw that scene. It was then I fully realized the impact of filmmaking, and I somehow wanted to figure out how I could do that because it was so powerful.

Mari: How did you feel about the CNN Philippines interview?

Sandra: Wow, the CNN Philippines interview was absolutely unexpected. I found out the night before that it was happening. Until I arrived at 5:45am at the CNN Philippines studio, I still wondered why CNN wanted to talk to me, but at the same time, I felt so honored that this was happening, and I had to be at the top of my game.

As soon as I walked into the studio, an entirely green screen with a sofa and Christmas tree, I was excited and nervous. I thought they would only do a medium shot of me, so I did not worry about what my shoes looked like and ended up wearing my on-set sneakers. But when I saw that one of the cameras was getting a wide 2-shot, I had a bit of a freakout. My mind was going a mile a minute, thinking of every possible question they could ask me and filing away answers. I’m generally a shy person, but I think due to my theater and speech training, as soon as I’m expected to be “on,” I can turn it on.

The CNN host was a true professional, and in the 5-10 minutes I was being interviewed, I was in absolute awe of how she could listen to me and her producer in her ear – a true multi-tasker. Overall, I think I did well, but my biggest regret is that I forgot to plug the 3 major sponsors of my 5-day Cinematographyclass – Birns & Sawyer, CMB, and RSVP Films, the first rule of Media 101. I did get to talk about my cultural roots, the strong work ethic instilled by my parents, and my dedication to helping bring the Filipino voice to the international cinema stage. I was also delighted to speak about how preparation and proper working conditions are critical to successful filmmaking.

Mari: How do you handle people who overstep their bounds?

Sandra: I’m a person who does not like confrontation. I’m a true Libra and prefer harmony and balance in all situations. However, being a cinematographer is being a leader, and we always find ourselves in scenarios that make us step out of our comfort zone. We must handle these scenarios with both strength and grace. So when someone oversteps their bounds, I never call them out in front of others. I take that person aside and talk privately, telling them they have overstepped their boundaries. I allow them to talk through the situation before jumping to conclusions. I am a firm believer in “innocent until proven guilty.” In my book, everyone I start to work with is at the top of their game and deserves my utmost respect. However, if that person proves to not be good at their job and, more importantly, does not care to be better or disrespects me or my crew, then a conversation must be had with that person.

Mari: Who are your favorite visual artists and why?

Sandra: I have many favorite visual artists. As a cinematographer, I constantly reference artists and photographers for my projects. I have always gravitated to Nan Goldin’s photography because it is so raw and beautifully naturalistic. No matter what project I do, my lighting philosophy is to enhance what is already there. Nan Goldin has always been an inspiration to this philosophy. I also love the photography of Uta Barth- much of her photography is about the study of light, shadow, and optical illusions. High-end Fashion photography, particularly the work of Steven Klein, Annie Leibovitz, and Ellen von Unwerth, helps spark my creativity to push myself. I’m drawn to other photographers: Philip-Lorca diCorica, Todd Hido, Alex Prager, and Carrie Mae Weems…there are so many more to name.

Mari: Tell us an anecdote from working on THE L WORD: GENERATION Q with Rosalind Chao.

Sandra: I don’t often have fangirl moments on set, but the one that is dear to my heart is when I had the opportunity to work with Rosalind Chao from THE JOY LUCK CLUB. THE JOY LUCK CLUB film has a special place in my heart because it was the first movie I saw where the people I was watching looked like me. Even though this film is about Chinese women and I’m Filipino, the women were experiencing emotions I was feeling. So cut to 25 years later, and I have the opportunity to work with Rosalind Chao on one episode of THE L WORD: GENERATION Q – a dream come true. I waited until the last day to tell her how her work in THE JOY LUCK CLUB inspired me. But before I got that chance, she approached me to tell me how proud she was to work with an Asian woman cinematographer. I immediately gave her a big bear hug, which I think startled her, and I did not want to let go. We took a picture, and I had the biggest smile while bear-hugging Rosalind Chao. What a day!

Mari: What is your artistic/developmental process when preparing for a film or t.v. show?

Sandra: My process always starts with reading the script 3 times: 1st time for enjoyment as an audience member, 2nd time for visual inspiration, ideas, and tricky scenes as a cinematographer, 3rd time for organizational purposes as a manager, and a breakdown of the script into a spreadsheet. After those 3 reads, I will gather all my visual inspiration notes and research imagery and artwork. I will then start putting this research into a visual deck, organized in a way that makes sense to me so I can see the visual trajectory of the project in a visual form. While doing all of this, I plan to have extensive conversations with the director about each scene’s visual intent and perspective. During these conversations, I hope to gain as much information from the director regarding what inspires them and how they see the project because it is always my goal to get inside their heads regarding their aims for the project. Conversations with the production and costume designers also happen during this time.

My artistic/development process is a combination of solo work and collaborative work. Gaining knowledge from my creative peers and sitting with all this information alone allows me to be inspired and organized throughout the process. Organization is absolutely key in my process because keeping organized allows me to process all that needs to be done and keeps me calm, cool, and collected, which is vital to being a good leader.

Mari: You have worked on so many films that have gone to festivals around the world. What is one of your favorite memories from the festival circuit?

Sandra: One of the most memorable moments in my filmmaking career was when Gregg Araki’s film KABOOM went to the Cannes Film Festival as part of the Midnight Program. KABOOM screened to a sold-out crowd at Cannes’ main theater, Palais des Festivals, which could hold over 2,000 seats. It honestly felt like I was in a movie. We had reserved seats in the middle of the theater, and watching the film with that many audience members was so thrilling. The entire audience went on the crazy ride that was watching KABOOM. At the end of the screening, Gregg and the cast got an over 5-minute standing ovation. I had goosebumps.

I truly felt the impact of cinema at that very moment.

Mari: We recently went to the Philippines together for the 5 DAY Cinematography class. What were the most important points that you wanted to get across to the participants? And what did you learn about your participants

Sandra: The points I wanted to get across to the participants were the following:

  • Cinematography is not about cool shots; it is about taking the story and the emotion of the story and translating it through visual imagery.
  • Preparation is absolutely vital in filmmaking.
  • Communication and collaboration with other departments should be the foundation of success in filmmaking.
  • Creating a visual language and rules of the world that all creative department heads agree on in any project you do will lead to a cohesive and creative working environment on a set.
  • As a cinematographer, testing is your friend. It will help prepare you for a more efficient working set, help you find the right tools to visually tell the story, and make you more technically proficient.

This class was a remarkable experience for me because, for the first time, I found myself in a room filled with fellow Filipinos who shared my passion for filmmaking and cinematography. It was a unique opportunity to connect with like-minded individuals who not only appreciated the art of visual storytelling but also reveled in discussing the intricacies of cameras, lenses, and lighting tools.

During one particular exercise where we broke down a script scene by scene, I expected a one-hour discussion, but it turned into an engaging two-hour conversation. The participants brought invaluable insights into the story and characters, transforming what could have been a technically focused workshop into a rich exploration of visual storytelling. Their enthusiasm and perspectives inspired me, elevating the class beyond my initial expectations.

Mari: What is your preferred gear?

Sandra: I’m pretty agnostic when it comes to preferred equipment. The most important thing when choosing equipment is what is best for the 1) story, 2) budget, 3) crew efficiency.

I do not leave home with my Odyssey, which I use for exposure, and my laptop with DaVinci Resolve, which allows me to analyze my work at the end of the day.

Mari: Any inspiring words to your co DPs?

Sandra: Your success in this career is greatly influenced by your attitude. A positive and friendly demeanor holds more weight than just creating visually stunning images. In an industry built on relationships, people prefer working with those they enjoy being around.

This field values individuals who specialize and commit to a singular role. Avoid spreading yourself thin across various fields; focus on excelling in one area. For instance, if you identify as a cinematographer, dedicate your efforts to cinematography, camera work, grip, and/or electric, refining your expertise.

Being a woman, especially a woman of color, in this industry presents its challenges. It demands extra effort and preparation to showcase your capabilities. However, I don’t perceive this as additional work; instead, I see it as an opportunity to enhance my skills and be more prepared than my peers.

Mari: What is the makeup of your crew?

Sandra: My crew is made up of your standard union crew. Lately, I’ve been doing streaming episodic, so we are always shooting with two cameras. I have two camera operators, one of whom is usually a steadicam operator. I have two 1st ACs and two 2nd ACs. Depending on the production, I have a DIT or a Digital Loader. I always try to fight for a Camera Utility because, with all the monitors, wireless systems, and overall technology, having a good utility is worth its weight in gold. On the lighting side, I have a Chief Lighting Technician (gaffer) and their team. On the grip side, I have a Key Grip, two dolly grips, and the grip team.

Mari: What are your upcoming projects?

Sandra: I can’t say 100% what my next project is because I have not finalized any contracts yet. But I am very excited for 2024 because I will be going on to a show with a fantastic showrunner who I’ve been working with in the last year and I can’t wait!

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