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Meet Trailblazer Katherine Dudley

Today we’d like to introduce you to Katherine Dudley.

Katherine, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I’m a Cinematographer. I’ve been working in film production since 2013. I’ve shot short films, music videos, features, documentaries, and more.

Funny enough, what got me into the business of making movies was, in fact, books. As a kid, my family didn’t have cable TV, (that was a special treat for whenever we stayed in hotels!), and we watched one movie a week together as a family. Instead, I always had my nose in a book. I was often getting in trouble for staying up past my bedtime with a reading light under the covers, and getting my books confiscated before bedtime. I had a vivid imagination and would imagine every detail of the books I was reading, like mini-movies playing out in my head. I was a nerdy kid. I dreamed up and wrote a lot of crazy stories, and got into photography, (and was constantly reprimanded by my parents for wasting memory on their cameras with ‘artsy’ shots instead of family photos!), and once I got to college and discovered I could study filmmaking, and learn to combine the worlds I was writing about and reading about with the wild pictures in my head, that was it. If anything, you could almost consider this the ultimate teenage rebellion – “Hey Mom and Dad! You didn’t let me watch movies as a kid? Well, guess what, now I’m going to MAKE them, take, THAT!”.

I’ve also always been an avid traveler. My family traveled internationally often growing up, and my mother is originally from Russia, so I grew up with the language, culture, and family abroad. As a result, I was deeply inspired by the beauty of the different places and cultures I experienced. I love film, and Cinematography in particular because of the sheer power of a good visual. A well-crafted image can resonate with anyone, regardless of language or other barriers. One of my long term plans is to be able to work internationally, and eventually start an international film festival, with the goal of breaking down barriers and bringing filmmakers from all over together to tell more diverse stories.

Before I moved to Los Angeles, I had lived in Seattle, Alabama, Italy, and Chicago, and had spent a year being a nomad, bouncing around the country for a few months at a time, booking shoots in different cities. I even had the opportunity to shoot a short film in St. Petersburg, Russia, shortly before moving to Los Angeles. The film took place largely on a train, and the process of getting a permit to shoot on a public metro train was amazingly easy compared to what it is here.

Apparently, the director applied for a permit a week before we shot, and within a few days, for free, was granted official permission to shoot on a public metro car. A few metro officials asked to see the permit, but no one supervised the shoot, and no one really questioned us. At every stop, the actor standing by the doors of our car would politely ask people to enter a different door because we were shooting. I kept the permit as a souvenir, something I look at almost longingly whenever I hear any of my producer friends complaining about how hard or expensive it is to book a location in Los Angeles.

I’ve also done a lot of work in the music video world as well. Growing up, I took music lessons as a kid and then sang in a choir, and then briefly in an acapella group in college. Music has always been a part of my life, and I love being able to work with musicians, to get to know them, who they are, and what their style and brand is, and then take my Cinematography skills, and create stunning, cinematic visuals for them that will tell their story.

Now, in Los Angeles, I continue to work on independent films and music videos, and on the side, I’m a photographer, and I shoot and edit commercials, events, and other videos. I’m currently in the process of starting a production company so that I can bring more creative people together to start telling more diverse stories. I’m also seeking representation as a Cinematographer, and am always taking on new projects, and looking to meet fellow filmmakers to collaborate with.

In the end, storytelling is what it’s all about, be it film, or music video… I’m always searching for the story, and that’s what I love about what I do, and what I bring to every job.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
One of the big things that I don’t hear discussed very often is the side work and financial side of being a filmmaker, particularly when it comes to the film and entertainment industry as a freelancer. For those of us looking for below the line (and sometimes even above) crew work, like as a Cinematographer, Camera Assistant, Assistant Director, etc., it can be difficult, because when you’re starting out, and then even sometimes when you’re a seasoned professional, often independent projects or clients don’t pay well, and/or are not consistent. Also, most film shoots tend to be at odd hours… maybe during the weekend, maybe during the week, maybe daytime, or at night, etc. It’s never the same, and projects can come at the last minute. As a creative chasing their dream, obviously you want to be able to prioritize the work you love, but it makes it difficult to hold down a side job, and almost always, you’ll need a side job, at least to start. Taking time off and having a full-time job is risky because then you run the risk of losing you. Momentum or getting tied down. However, you also need to be able to live.

The single biggest piece of advice I would impart to other women, and really ANYONE who is embarking on a career in this industry is to early on start thinking about and finding the kind of side work that you can do flexibly. If you want to be successful, you need to pursue your goals full steam, and completely prioritize them. You might not think that it’s a big deal if you have to turn down gigs or can’t accept them because you have a commitment to a day job, but firsthand, I’ve seen where my work and creative career has gone farther compared to some of the people I went to school with or have worked with since, who had less flexibility with their day job and did less creative work.

When I was starting out, I naively hoped that I could pursue my dream, and freelance both as a Cinematographer and as a side job. I ended up struggling financially and ending up in a few unpleasant situations as a result. I know between student debt, living expenses, and more, you absolutely have to be practical, and can’t just throw caution to the wind and chase your dream, BUT, you do need to be able to throw yourself into it wholeheartedly. You’re not going to be successful if you have to turn down work or can’t work as much because of a day job that’s doing nothing for your dreams. That’s why I encourage people to start thinking as soon as possible about what they can do and how they can work to create that flexibility for themselves. Some people do rideshare, some people have other freelance side jobs, some people work remotely, etc. Anything that’s entirely on your schedule.

Also, TAXES! I cannot stress this enough! If you have multiple gigs and jobs, getting a good accountant is key. You could be saving a lot of money on expenses you didn’t know you could write off, and if you do work as an independent contractor, keeping track of everything is difficult. The cost of a good accountant is well worth it with what you could end up saving and writing off, and could really save you if you were to get audited.

What do you do, what do you specialize in, what are you known for, etc. What are you most proud of? What sets you apart from others?
My main focus and specialty is narrative and music video cinematography. I consider myself first and foremost a storyteller. I love being able to dive into a new project and build the world of it visually. I pay lots of attention to detail and draw a lot of inspiration from my travels.

For me, as a child, watching a movie was a special treat. I loved diving into the worlds of the films and getting lost in them as a viewer, and for me, stylistically, I’ve always loved projects where there’s a complex story and characters, and where I can really use the visuals to enhance the story. I love pushing the rules and boundaries visually and experimenting with new ways to visually convey the emotions and complexities of whatever story I’m telling. I love what I do, and I think the strongest things I bring to any project are my drive and creativity.

Which women have inspired you in your life?
A long time ago, I got a valuable piece of advice from someone regarding success. Their advice was to be your own role model. I didn’t get it at first. I hadn’t achieved anything yet. How could I be that for myself? Then, I realized what it really meant. Your biggest inspiration needs to be the person that you want to become. Instead of looking for other people who were like what I wanted to be I began to build that person from scratch in my head, of everything I wanted and knew I could become.

Now, that’s what keeps me going. Even though I had a dream to start out with, it was vague. Taking the time to really imagine who I want to become helped make my vision concrete, and, even on the bad days, when I might be feeling down, or hopeless, wondering if it’s really all worth it, it keeps me going. I think of who I want to become, and visualizing myself in those shoes empowers me to know I can make it happen, and to not stop, no matter what.
That being said, the key to success also lies in learning from those who have gone before you. Believing in yourself isn’t everything, but of course, neither is talent. They work together. Some of my favorite female cinematographers and filmmakers, who are doing truly amazing work are Rachel Morrison, Reed Morano, Sara Deane, and Katelin Arizmendi. Rachel Morrison was the first woman nominated for a Cinematography Oscar, and after was in talks to direct a project. Reed Morano also is a Director, who started out as a DP and currently does both. I have so much admiration for how they managed to not only achieve success as Cinematographers but also continue to climb higher and continue to push boundaries creatively. Every time I see a movie, if I liked the cinematography, I’ll go and look up the Cinematographer’s work and follow them on Instagram!

Also- mentors and influences can come where you least expect it! They don’t necessarily need to be older or smarter about everything. I made the mistake early on of thinking a mentor had to be someone like a professor, or a leader, and while people like that can make great mentors, I realized that if you pay attention, you’re surrounded by mentors. I have had a few great, “big” mentors in my life, but I’m constantly mentored by my friends and those around me, when I watch the things I admire about them, the things that make me like and respect them. Professionally, I think I’ve learned from every shoot, every set I’ve been on, every person I’ve worked with. And not always necessarily in the way you might expect – I have a few people and shoots that I look back on specifically as examples of how not to treat people, or what to avoid

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Image Credit:
Andrew Ochwat, Chris Nuce, Shawna Khorasani

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