Cinematography of "The Invitation" by Autumn Eakin

Cinematography of “The Invitation” – interview with Autumn Eakin

March 18th, 2023
Cinematography of "The Invitation" by Autumn Eakin

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Autumn Eakin. In this interview, she talks about balancing the art and the craft of visual storytelling, the transition of the industry from film to digital, choosing her productions, and skills they don’t teach in film schools. Between all these and more, Autumn dives deep into her work on the recently released “The Invitation”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.

Autumn: My name is Autumn Eakin, and I grew up in a small town in Southwest Missouri with no exposure at all to the film industry. Sometimes if I sit back and take stock, it is a little bit bizarre that I am here. The thing that I will say – and a lot of cinematographers start this way – is that my dad was a hobby photographer. As that tool was affordable and accessible, I started by finding gratification in capturing moments, and it went from there.

By the time I was applying for colleges, I had figured out that I wanted to do something in film, and cinematography specifically made sense because of my affinity for photography. I found a liberal arts school that had a film program which isn’t that easy to find because there’s a lot of media studies in schools. I found this program at Webster University in St. Louis which is known for film and theater mostly. Not only was it offering a film production major, but you could also have emphasis in cinematography – and that’s where I went.

There’s an advantage of being in a smaller film market like St. Louis, which is about having so few batches of crews. By the time I was twenty three, I was firsting on national commercials and features, because there’s just not that many people to do them. You kind of get thrown in, and I had been trained by some good people. I got into the Union when I was twenty four back in 2005, and then I moved to New York in 2006. It was a good time to move because it was super busy at that time, and it was a few years before the writer strike. I came up in the union as a camera assistant, and when I was in St. Louis, I always gravitated towards the camera department. I probably PA’d one or two days, and I knew I didn’t want to continue doing that. I knew I didn’t want to be a producer, and I knew I didn’t want to be an AD [assistant director].

Right after moving to New York, I started day playing on an untitled Tina Fey project pretty early on, which would become “30 Rock”. I worked as a camera assistant for years on that show, and other TV shows and movies, and then started the transition to being a director of photography around 2011. Luckily, I had great mentors and people I could ask advice. And everybody told me to save up money, because I was going to go from making very good money to making no money with a lot more responsibility [laughs]. So, like everybody, you keep plugging away and you hopefully form relationships with directors and other creative people that have vision that you are drawn to. You try to listen to your gut to tell you what projects are worth no money or $100 a day or not – and people have different opinions about this.

I was trying to preserve my love for the whole process and for the storytelling. Some people would take any project and shoot anything. But I tried to do a little bit of in-between, where perhaps I wasn’t as drawn to the story, but I would see an opportunity for some darker moodier lighting. When I started, I worked with such high-caliber people that were not only great at their job, but were also decent people and treated people with respect. And on some smaller indie productions I then would encounter some of these horror stories of being abused and yelled at – things that I had never encountered until well into my career. That was an interesting part of my journey to understand how to navigate a whole new dynamic of, perhaps, young insecure directors who would act out as a way that they thought they were showing their power or authority. Part of being in the industry is definitely navigating all these different personalities on our sets.

Cinematography of “The Invitation” by Autumn Eakin.

Kirill: How thick of a skin should a young person have in order to make it to the place where you are able to choose projects?

Autumn: Having a thick skin in this industry in general is very important, and it’s also key for survival. I try to remind myself that so much of everyone’s personality has nothing to do with me. All I can do is offer and have these conversations before things get stressful and intense. When I’m interacting with my director or actors, I see it as a communicative place of collaboration. My most important job is to make the actors look good or to make the director to facilitate what is in their brain.

I tell them that they don’t have to worry about the technical stuff if they don’t want to. A lot of directors feel that they have to have a deep working knowledge of which lenses and which filters do what, and of course that can always help your visual language. But one of the things that can help you succeed in this whole process is to always make the director feel like you have their back, and to use you as a tool that you are. It’s my job to take these ideas that are in your brain and put them into technical application. The best collaborations that I’ve had do just that, because I am also a storyteller.

There are DPs who pride themselves on being super technical, knowing all the sensor pixelization, CMOS and other attributes. You have to know the tools that you’re using, but ultimately you have to care about the story – and then choose the tool accordingly. A lot of times people are acting out upon their insecurities. If you know that you have nothing to do with that, if you know that your job is to make them feel supported and to execute those words on the page into a feeling, then your job is done, and the other stuff is politics that you have to navigate.

Kirill: Would you say that the debate on digital versus film – whether it’s been settled or not – straddles both the artistic expression but also the technology side of it?

Autumn: It’s very interesting, because there’s a constant lack of balance. In the beginning when the Red One camera was coming out in 2007, everyone was talking that film was dead, that film was going to go away. And now that enough time has passed, what we are shown is that everything comes in a bell curve. Yes, film did go away as a predominant medium mostly because of cost. But film is also gearing back up. Kodak has gone back into production more fully, and they have labs here. And it’s not like the technology of film stock hasn’t also advanced as the technology of digital has advanced.

And there’s just trends. It’s coming back with the younger generation that it’s cool to shoot on film. It’s retro. I don’t think it’ll ever be one or the other. One will be on top, and then it will dip and recede. It’ll ebb and flow. We as humans tend to think of things in extremes, when in reality they tend to undulate.

Model of Great Hall set for “The Invitation”, courtesy of Autumn Eakin.

Kirill: For somebody who wants to get into this field today, do you feel that they should understand the physicality of film as a medium?

Autumn: It will always be beneficial the more you can have exposure to and the more you have experience with. I’m in this middle generation, where when I was coming out of college, we were still shooting on film as the predominant medium. We were still shooting 30-minute TV comedies on 35mm. And even on TV shows, we were still shooting 35 mil on, you know, half hour comedies and stuff like that. I was operating with Maryse Alberti on “Love, Marilyn” in 2011, and we wanted to shoot parts of it in 16mm. And we could not find a camera assistant who knew how to load a mag [laughs]. That was an eye-opening experience. So I told this young guy to take a full day, to go into a dark room, and to load and unload these dummy reels.

It is less necessary now to know how to load mags and how to check gates for film cameras to get into the industry. But I am also someone that that feels like the base knowledge of lighting comes from thinking of it in stops and filmic language, even if what you’re doing is lighting from a monitor. Most of my own lighting now is from a monitor as well, and if I had a project where I was going to shoot film, I would definitely have to go back and do some refreshers in my mind. It has been it has been many years by now.

But in general, the more you can absorb and the more curiosity you have around your own job or your own hopeful position, the better equipped you’re going to be. And you’ll be a better artist if you understand tools that you have at your disposal.

Kirill: Can you be a good cinematographer if you are not a good storyteller?

Autumn: I’ve seen it. I’ve seen people who make very beautiful images, but they’re not necessarily thinking about the story as a whole. My philosophy is that then you’re not a great cinematographer if you’re not able to evoke those emotions and deceive people that are viewing it into thinking this is all real. You’re causing real emotions of a completely fake surrounding and setting, and everyone knows it’s fake. So if you can create real emotion out of that scene, even if it’s not the most beautiful image, that makes a better cinematographer than someone who is very technical and can get those dark and light ratios just exact and have this beautiful image – but nobody is really connecting with it. I think that the former is better than the latter.

Cinematography of “The Invitation” by Autumn Eakin.

Kirill: Can anybody be taught that story part of it, or do you feel that it has to come from within? I don’t want to gatekeep anybody, but do you feel that anybody can achieve this greatness as an artist?

Autumn: We talk about it with some of my DP friends. You get used to it. You’ve done it for so long and it becomes so much of a second nature. And of course, our jobs are not life or death. People can do this. You can be taught how to do this. But then I get reminded that that’s just not true at all.

There are things you can learn about color theory, moving the camera a certain a way, and evoking certain emotions. But I think that there is something that moves certain people in their insides differently than others. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be an artist in order to have those emotions or that connection to storytelling. But if you’re going to be doing this as a career, you have to really care about evoking that feeling from viewers. That has to be something that really moves you.

I did an interview with some seniors that were graduating from SCAD a few years ago. They were doing a documentary on female cinematographers and they were focused on how did I do it, how did I make it. First of all, you never make it. There’s always some other thing. They were so focused on working and making money, and I just really wanted to tell them that they should not be worrying about getting nominated for a student Emmy or things like that. This is such a luxury time in your life. You’re never going to need less than you need right now [laughs], and you really have to be focusing on what moves you, and what stories do you want to be a part of.

A lot of times, these projects will take up a few years of your life. You have to really care about the story that you were drawn to tell to keep your spirit alive, and figure out what are you even doing in this job. What are you adding to it, and what is it adding to your life?

It’s a hard industry. The hours are long, you’re away from your friends and family. You have to really care to be a part of it long term.

Kirill: Do you see a lot of people burning out because they got into it for the fame and glory?

Autumn: Absolutely. A lot of people will burn out in this industry because they think that it’s glamorous. They think that you’re around celebrities, and that you’re making things that people care about and watch. A part of me doesn’t even think that’s a bad way to go into it. You do have to have some naivete [laughs] going into this industry so that you can be enamored by it. Even if in the end it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, there is still some pretty magical stuff that can happen. But our industry is not made for the week of heart.

There’s a lot of people who do end up leaving and rightfully so. I don’t know if you were following the recent contract negotiations of 2021. The unions are trying to make this industry a bit more sustainable for life and for family. Even getting the hours down to 10 hours a day has been such a battle. And then it was proven during Covid when the hours were capped at 10 for the safety of everyone. We made projects that were done in 10 hours a day, and sure it costs a little bit more because productions had to do Covid protocols, but it can be done.

Hopefully, there’s some sort of change as the labor movement has come about in this country a bit more, because I think our industry isn’t ultimately sustainable. And it hasn’t always been this way. Back in the ’80s and ’90s there were caps on hours, but that’s a whole other subject. So yes, to your question, it’s very easy to burn out in our industry. And I did when I was a camera assistant. I took probably about 10 months off after I was working in TV for a couple years straight. It was a really good show, but those were 70-hour weeks. I needed time to rejuvenate. My job as a camera assistant back then was quite technical and I was drawn to that part of it, but it was not creative at all. I had to reevaluate before that part of my brain and that part of my essence went away, because it is a muscle that you have to exercise.

Kirill: Getting closer to “The Invitation”, what is your pitch for me as a viewer to watch it in a movie theater. Not even for this particular production, but what would your pitch be for maybe the younger crowd that is not so used to the big cinema being the only option?

Autumn: The biggest pitch for me is that it’s a step away from ingesting more and more content. When you’re going to a theater, it’s a bit more of an event. You’re not on your phone. You’re not distracted. You have a calibrated screen, you have the best speakers. And a large part of it is that there are so many people that put their lives on hold essentially [laughs] for months and months at a time to create these projects. When you go to a movie theater, it’s a way to pay respect to that, much the same way as when you’re going to an art gallery where there’s a new exhibit of an artist you really like.

If people can start thinking of directors and cinematographers and production designers specifically in that way, this is our art gallery. The movie theater is our presentation space.

When you’re in your home, and you’re going up and down the stairs, or going to the laundry room and getting your clothes, you are missing things. In my household the rule is, if you need to get up and go do something, that’s fine, but we pause it. There are so many choices that we all spend our time making on set, and all these subtleties that you’re going to miss if you’re watching something in the comfort of your own home.

So for me, it’s about paying respect to the artists, and being engaged in that event without distractions.

Location of the rehearsal dinner at Nádasdy Castle for “The Invitation”, courtesy of Autumn Eakin.

Kirill: There was a period for me, maybe around late 2020 and early 2021 when all the movie theaters were closed, that I thought that the exhibition business might not survive this pandemic. Do you see a world where movie theaters don’t exist at all?

Autumn: I hope not. I don’t see a world where they don’t exist at all, but it will become harder and harder for art house cinemas to sustain themselves. There are places that have been around for a while, like Nitehawk or the Alamo Drafthouse where you can get food and eat, and the seats are very comfortable. Going back to this idea of it being an event, if you see it as a special outing, that might hold the younger generations’ attention.

But along with that, I see how the ticket prices make it less attractive for college students when you decide between paying $20 each to go see this movie, or we buying it a bit later for $8 on Amazon and watching it together. I understand that dilemma. I don’t know what the answer is going to be.

Is it good for artists that there are so many streaming platforms? Ultimately yes. There are more jobs, and there are more ways for indie filmmakers to get their movie out. It used to be very much that if you didn’t get picked up that Sundance and get a theatrical release, people just wouldn’t see your movie. And now that’s just not the case at all.

I hope that we always still have movie theaters, even though I personally also don’t go as much as I should [laughs].

Kirill: Talking about “The Invitation” and the process of joining a production, do you feel that you choose a production, that a production chooses you, or some sort of serendipity where you are available and the production is available and you meet in the middle?

Autumn: That is a part of being a DP. You have to attempt to master this Zen sort of attitude around jobs, the ones you get and ones you don’t – and what that means. A lot of it is about not taking things personally, even though it’s harder when you’re pitching something and they don’t choose you.

What I’ve experienced and what I’ve learned throughout my career is if something doesn’t happen, it’s ultimately for a reason that is beyond you in that moment. I did “The Invitation” with Jessica Thompson, who I’ve collaborated with before. She and I did an indie movie for very little money that ultimately won the audience award at South by Southwest in 2017. I had been up for a series and “The Invitation” was going to go and then it didn’t and Covid happened, and then it moved to one country, and then it moved to Hungary, and they were still deciding. So I decided to keep applying for other jobs.

There was a series that I really wanted and I thought I’d be perfect for it. And I didn’t get it, and I was pretty bummed. But then ultimately, if I had done that series, I wouldn’t have been able to do “The Invitation”. I would have been occupied because once things started going, they started going very quickly.

You want to put yourself in front of the people that you want to work with, and to show that enthusiasm, and to unabashedly let them know that you feel connected to a project. Don’t be shy about that. Let them know that want this project. And at the same time, know that you just may not get it – and be ultimately very Zen about it because so much of it is out of your control. I’ve gotten jobs that I know 100% I was not their first choice. It was only because X, Y and Z were busy and the timing didn’t work out with them. I can choose to see it as them settling for me, or I can know that that’s how every person has gotten a job in this industry at some point or another. It’s not personal. It’s just how it’s supposed to play out.

Kirill: When did you join it? How much time did you have in prep? How condensed are the schedules these days?

Autumn: We got pretty lucky with “The Invitation”. I went out there in early August 2021. We were going to have six weeks of prep that turned into seven due to some actor availability stuff. That was tight, but it was doable. And then we shot for 35 or 36 days. That was also a little tight, but again it was manageable.

I’ve been on projects where they don’t give you enough days, and you know going out of the gate that it’s just not going to work. But you still have to do it anyway and let production learn their lesson. And the lesson is that no matter how fast everyone is working, you still need those days. And ultimately, the production ends up paying more money in the back end anyway. That’s one of the frustrating things about productions getting tighter on schedule. They ultimately end up paying more compared to giving the money out of the gate. In a realistic way, it would most of the time be cheaper for them.

Kirill: Is saying “No” without saying “No” a skill that is required for a head of department?

Autumn: They should have a course in college or in our union about the art of the politics of being a DP. That’s something that gets overlooked a lot. There’s so much negotiation around things, and when you can say “No” without saying “No”, and when maybe you can have other people in your department do that. It is a part of my relationship with the director to figure out how to achieve a thing that they want to. My job is to have this person’s creative vision on screen. And if production people come to me to ask why some lighting setups take time, or why we need so many takes, I might tell them to talk to a person in charge of that particular thing.

Sometimes you do it well, and sometimes you don’t at all. Our industry is operating on lack of sleep and stress levels. No one is going to be their best selves all the time. So trying to do that while still keeping politically neutral is a real skill that you have to work on. On every job it’s a different version of it, because it’s all different personalities. Every director is different. Every producer is different. It’s all a big mix of personalities that can make or break the success of the project, whether artistically or the experience of making it.

Cinematography of “The Invitation” by Autumn Eakin.

Kirill: Let’s talk about the house in “The Invitation”. Is it a real house?

Autumn: All the exteriors are of a Nádasdy Castle in Hungary that had just reopened as a place that you could have tours. But some of the bigger interiors were sets that we built. The grand hall with the grand staircase was a set built in a sort of a warehouse on stage because of how busy Budapest is right now. Our production designer Felicity Abbott and her team did such an epic job there.

We did shoot inside that castle for other rooms. The wine cellar and everything that was below the ground level in the movie was shot in that castle. We had access to one hallway that we kept turning and flipping around. That whole chase scene was done in that one hallway [laughs]. We had what we called the music room where Evie hoes to the daytime toast after she wakes up.

The library was a set that was repurposed from Evie’s bedroom. The big rehearsal dinner scene was in the castle, but it had been very much augmented with different moldings and other things, and the chandelier was a really special piece that Felicity and her team had made.

Kirill: What about the bath place? That’s quite a European thing, I don’t think there’s many places like that in United States.

Autumn: That was on location in a real bath. We have a few in New York City, but all of them are Russian or Korean. And Budapest is knows for its baths, so we had our pick of baths to go to. On a personal note, it was a bit sad for me because I was being so responsible as a department head, and for the whole period of four months I did not once go into a bath. It was still in the middle of Covid, and they had just opened up everything, and no one was wearing masks and numbers were off the off the charts.

Then the evening reception party was on the grounds of the mansion, all decorated by our art department. Evie’s apartment was a set in Budapest, and that last revenge sequence was in Serbia. There was a part of the script that was in the original draft, and then it got cut when we were over there. But when we got to screenings, people really liked Evie and Grace together, so they put that scene back in and had to go to Serbia. I had my camera operator who had also shot some second unit stuff for us in Hungary, and he was able to at least go to Serbia and shoot that part of it which was months later.

Cinematography of “The Invitation” by Autumn Eakin.

Kirill: Going back to the bedroom, I loved the different lighting that you had through the window. There’s the sun glow when she first gets there, and then the moonlight, and then the morning light. Is it getting easier on the technical level with the variety of controllable lights these days?

Autumn: Absolutely, since it would have taken far more time before. And that’s what we’re always short of on set – time. We had that romantic scene when Evie and Walt sleep together. It was dusky and I wanted there to be a certain rose periwinkle color that happens at sunset. With the old school way, you’d do it with gels and Fresnel fixtures, and you’d do lighting tests. But it takes time. And now you can be in the moment, and say it’s a bit too purple, and drag that slider on your iPad without somebody having to climb up to change the gel.

Some people think it makes DPs lazier. But it’s the same way we now have apps on our phone. You can log in and send a message to your doctor, for example. You still have to have the language for what you’re trying to achieve. But it’s just an easier way to do it, and it takes less time. And whatever is the color space that your lights are in, you can get that exact hue of color that’s based upon the green wallpaper that’s also throwing around different hues of light in real time right there and then.

Cinematography of “The Invitation” by Autumn Eakin.

Kirill: Did you find that it was a little bit more interesting on this movie because there’s so much darkness in it, and you have more space to play with color and light?

Autumn: One of the reasons why I like this horror genre is because it allows for a bit more playfulness and expressiveness. You can step out of reality lighting a little bit more. It allows you to push the boundaries a little bit more. The blue of the Moon is pretty heavy stylized, which on a more straightforward story would seem a little heavy handed. And maybe some people think it’s a little heavy handed in this movie, but it allows for a little bit more playfulness and expressiveness.

Viewers are getting used to and expecting more of a cinematic look even in documentaries and things like that. There’s a little bit more of a comfort level for studios and for producers to also be okay with the DP pushing a look a little bit more in a certain style.

Jessica Thompson the director and I both had never done horror before, which made us jump through a few loops. I love horror as a genre, but I never really ended up doing much of it because a lot of it wouldn’t have budgets, and a lot of it tends to be misogynistic towards women in its storylines. And what we were trying to do with this film was to blend a few of the genres, which I think ultimately did well with appeasing a large audience for a theatrical release, and appeasing studio executives and ourselves feeling satisfied in that.

It’s not just horror or gore or scare. It’s easy for people to forget that in horror you still do have to care about these characters. You have to care what’s happening to them, whether it’s a scary movie or not. Natalie and Thomas did a great job of making their roles believable. They had great chemistry, even as he only came on to the project a week before we were supposed to start shooting. There was a different lead that had been attached to the project for months that ended up falling out, and that speaks more to their professionalism and their natural instinct to be very giving as actors to each other.

Kirill: The set with the bedroom, was it big or did you make it feel big for me as a viewer?

Autumn: It was a pretty large footprint, around 25 by 15 feet. We had the advantage of it being in this opulent mansion, so the rooms would be large in scale. It’s always nice to have room in the place that you’re shooting. There’s so many times when we’re shooting in New York and production designers have to rebuild a location because of space constraints, which can be frustrating. So it was nice to have wild walls [walls that can be moved for camera access], in addition to a very large space already.

Cinematography of “The Invitation” by Autumn Eakin.

Kirill: What was the lighting setup for that evening reception?

Autumn: The art department was building wire makeshift gazebos on the lawn. And that lawn goes far back, and ends in a wall of dark trees. So in lieu of us having to get a second and third condor for that side to wash those with light so it didn’t just fall off into darkness, we draped those surfaces with string lights. It was an effective, cheap, and easy way to break that up, and add a little bit of softness and romance without having to pull out some more big guns. The moonlight was from two 360s up in the condor, we had some fill coming from the other back edge, and hundreds of those twinkle strands.

They had brought them to one of the sets to put them in front of the camera to check for flickering, and then you get there on the day and it was freezing. It was so cold those couple nights we shot that there was one or two strands that were phasing. And they were trying to find which ones to unplug them. There’s always some little snafu that gives you a little jolt of panic.

It was freezing that night because we had pushed a little bit because of the actor falling out, so it was colder than we had planned. So all of those scenes where Nathalie, Alana Bowden and Stephanie Corneliussen are in these beautiful but skimpy dresses, they were champions because I don’t think you can tell at all.

Cinematography of “The Invitation” by Autumn Eakin.

Kirill: I feel that most people in the States underestimate how cold most of Europe is.

Autumn: It’s true [laughs]. We were shooting in October, as we couldn’t put it earlier in the schedule because of actor availability. But that works for Nathalie’s character. She’s uncomfortable there, and her tightness actually works. But the instant they called “Cut”, all of them would rush over with the jackets.

Kirill: There’s a lot of darkness in general in the horror genre. On “The Invitation” you have the wine cellar, the library, the hallways, and even that grand hall – all wrapped in a shroud of gloom. Do you find that the current crop of digital cameras and sensors is good enough to capture the details in such low light environments, to capture those textures without mushing it all into one blob of grey?

Autumn: I do. It’s astounding what you can push these the ISOs to and still have that richness. A big part of it too is that DPs forget to utilize a really good production designer with your sensor that can be pushed to 1600 or 3200.

There are things that an experienced production designer can really help out with. For example, Felicity knew that it’s a horror film, so we were going to be shooting it dark. So a lot of the fabrics that she would use would have sheen to it. Even if it’s just a curtain that’s back in the corner, there’s still a highlight of light back there. It’s not just dark curtains that are matte, which would require me to need to light that or to add a little accent light. Instead, if I have lights that are soft and coming in lighting the scene, that sheen curtain is going to pick up a little bit of that light. It saves me time, it saves me from having to just pinpoint little parts. And it saves my camera from running the risk of having just one dark blob back there or having to put another lamp.

That’s the quick and easy fix. If there’s a dark hole, you put a lamp there. And what you end up with when you watch some TV shows, you see five lamps on in a room. Having an experienced production designer in combination with these sensors allows you to keep pushing in with clean images.

Kirill: Was there a real fire during that wedding ceremony or is it all visual effects.

Autumn: There was real fire that was augmented by visual effects. And a fire is always a battle. I don’t know if a lot of people realize that it’s one of the hardest elements to add well in VFX. So starting with having real fire is the main component. It helps the actors on set, and it also gives better guidance for the VFX team.

The fire that you see Evie sweep across the candle and then it goes on to the priest and onto the drapes – all of that is real, and then it’s embellished upon. Then the fire goes into the grand hall, where we had a real fire on our stuntman that was lubed up with whatever that anti-flammable goo is. And then a lot more was augmented in that set.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as your favorite color of light for this movie?

Autumn: The predominant color is that peacock-ish blue moonlight. But I really liked, and it’s these things that other people aren’t going to really notice, that purplish periwinkle rose color that we talked about that came through the curtains and the window in Evie’s bedroom. That one was a moment where I saw exactly what I was picturing in my mind, which doesn’t always happen. That was a nice little moment for myself.

Cinematography of “The Invitation” by Autumn Eakin.

Kirill: Do you want the viewer to stop, get out of the story and look at the light? Is that a struggle for you? As you said, you go away for months at a time and then it’s condensed into this 100 minute story, but it is about that story. It’s not about any particular individual that contributed to it.

Autumn: Right. There are times when you want to have a striking moment that doesn’t necessarily take the viewer out of it, but there’s a breath. You want the viewer to take something in visually. There’s an argument for that being a purposeful lighting moment to create an impact.

But in general, even on “The Invitation” that is pretty stylized in its lighting, after a while, you want people to accept that that is the norm. You don’t want that look to distract, but rather to add to the mood and to the atmosphere of the story. That’s the hope in general – whatever style of lighting you choose, you’re adding to the atmosphere of the whole story.

Kirill: Did you ever think which one of the three brides you would be if that happened to you?

Autumn: We would talk about it on set between Jessica and I. Both of us are fairly independent and outspoken people, so we both identified most with Evie. But also, there’s very much the question of is this such a bad deal? Her character is in her early 30s or something. She’s young and healthy, and you get to stay like that for a while. And sure, did she get to choose that? No, but her life wasn’t so grand back home. He’s offering her a whole other life and different existence. And it’s funny because you look online, a lot of the fans are saying that they would stay [laughs].

Kirill: Looking back at it, do you have your favorite moment, your favorite scene, your favorite set?

Autumn: It’s hard. While there’s always stress, and never enough time, and never enough money and all that, the experience overall was really positive. So that also then has an impact on how you feel about the film and how you feel about the memories of it.

The main hall set with the staircase was so big and beautiful and well done. Evie’s bedroom has a lot of my favorite looks because we were in there quite a bit. When she thinks she’s having the nightmare of the person on top of her bed canopy, and when she escapes, falls out of bed and crawls under that, I like that scene for our camera movement, and for that moment before she gets jerked back.

Cinematography of “The Invitation” by Autumn Eakin.

Kirill: You had some pretty good angles, from the low angles when Evie meets Oliver for the first time, to the high angles at the rehearsal dinner party when she realizes that she’s the vampire bride.

Autumn: Jessica and I have similar sensibilities in wanting to try different compositions. This genre allows you a bit more to play with different angles. There’s a scene with Walt and Victoria at the evening exterior party, where the conversation is just them looking straight at each other. So much of your time as a DP is spent shooting two people in a conversation, and trying to not take away from the their acting or from the scene, but also trying to make it seem interesting. So that’s one scene I really liked where we had a trick where instead of flipping the camera and everyone, we just flipped them around. It’s a small, subtle thing.

In that rehearsal party, we wanted to be able to feel the difference in the shift in her world, and that dinner is that moment. Prior to it we are using wider, longer lenses with a softer feeling of being enveloped in this luxury world. And when the maid has the knife to her throat, the pressure is down on Evie, and she’s being suffocated by this grandness and weight.

Cinematography of “The Invitation” by Autumn Eakin.

Kirill: Stepping away from the particular movie, you talked about keeping your producers happy, keeping the audiences entertained, and deriving a personal satisfaction. Do you have a definition of what is a successful production for you?

Autumn: A successful production can really vary depending upon what you’re looking for going into it. This movie had a lot of things tied into it. It felt like a beautiful full-circle moment with Jessica because we had done this indie movie, and that had done well, and we’ve both gone and done bigger things and had made steps in our careers – and then this was the first real project that we had done together since then.

So part of the success coming out of that production that I wanted was to further embed that collaboration and that relationship, which we both feel very good about. And even though she and I can butt heads sometimes, we both have a real respect for each other. So success for this project had a lot to do with that.

And then technically and professionally, I wanted to be able to show that I have this artistic side to me that isn’t just making things look nice and pretty for a friendship rom-com TV show. “Modern Love” was an anthology TV show with different looks for each episode, but this was my first studio film where I wanted to be able to exercise my skills. Sometimes because you’re tied to story, you can’t always do that to the degree that you want. So success for me in this project was exercising that muscle. And I luckily had producers who were supportive of the color choices and the things that we made and how we wanted to do it.

To me, the most success you can have is to have producers who are really there to support you as the artist. When you have an idea of what you want to do, and you get pushback left and right with everything, because studio executives and producers are scared to do anything bold, it is quite limiting. On “The Invitation” I felt supported in that, which was a very nice feeling.

Cinematography of “The Invitation” by Autumn Eakin.

Kirill: You talked about Covid restrictions, and the strike that aimed to bring, perhaps, more sanity to the working conditions. Do you see the industry now going back to almost what it was before, or do you feel that there will be significant changes going forward?

Autumn: I would have liked to see more changes, but I’m a bit of a realist. I would like to say that I thought that the more livable hours and other things would have stuck around longer, but I knew that as soon as they could, they would go back to the old 12-hour days being the standard. I had hoped that it would have stuck around a little bit longer as a sustainable culture. That’s all it is. It’s a culture of accepting that a 12-hour day is just how it is. Well, no. Nothing is how it is, until you accept that it’s that way.

Ultimately, Covid showed that it can be done. There’s a labor movement that will help with getting things, hopefully, to a more manageable place. And a lot of younger members in our union are getting more involved – the same way younger people are getting more involved in politics in general – and realizing they can have an impact. Our younger members are getting involved in our union. And that’s the way things will change, because they’re the future of the union. Maybe we can have leadership that will push some boundaries. And I think we’ve made some strides in this latest contract negotiation.

I personally think we should have gone on strike, and that would have impacted a lot of people – but that’s the point, to show that we have the numbers to impact productions. Ultimately it’s a much bigger philosophical change that has to happen in order for the culture to change.

Cinematography of “The Invitation” by Autumn Eakin.

Kirill: There’s this saying in Russian where you say that you feel like a squeezed out lemon, where you’re out of every last ounce of energy that you have had in the beginning – and you referenced this feeling a couple times in this interview. Having said that, what keeps you staying in the industry?

Autumn: I don’t have any other skill [laughs]. But on a more serious note, what keeps me in the industry even though it can be tough and the hours are long – is ultimately that I really love movies. I love good stories. I love the idea of being moved by actors and by story.

I remember the first time I was on set with real actors. I just graduated from college, and everyone in the room changed how they were acting and what level they were speaking at after this performance. We all know this is not real, but because the acting was so good, we all inherently changed how we were acting as humans in the room. There’s just something that I really love and respect about that. It’s small moments like that that you have to keep looking for, especially as you get bigger projects and you’re dealing with studio executives and people who are putting creative limitations on your projects that are not creative people at all.

It’s easy to get jaded in this industry, so you have to focus on staying positive and also finding your creative outlet somewhere else in addition to your job to stay interested, and to stay malleable in a way that’s just not hardened to all the tougher aspects of the industry. And honestly, if you’re fortunate enough to be able to make choices about projects and say “Yes” or say “No” – knock on wood for the time being [laughs] – then you have the option of not working for two months at a time if financially your world allows you to do that. There aren’t many jobs that you can do that with. Sure, it’s really intense for four months, but then you can not work three months.

It’s important to take the time, whether it’s two weeks or a weekend or whatever it is. I did a feature this summer, the new “Insidious” movie, and I had a couple of Acs that would rotate and have day players come in and cover them. They would check with me beforehand to see if it wasn’t a super-important day and to give themselves a break. And that’s great. As long as I have someone capable on that day, I don’t mind people taking a break. I know you’re going to be better for me the next week with that one extra day of whatever it is you needed to do. Taking downtime is also a way to stay in this.

Kirill: Have you ever thought about what you could or would be doing if you were born 500 years ago? And I know that around 95% of the people back then worked the land, but let’s say you don’t need to work the land and you don’t need to feed the pigs.

Autumn: If I hadn’t gone to school to do this, I wanted to go into medicine and surgery. So my instinct was that I would have been maybe in medicinal apothecary.

Kirill: That’s a witch back then, no?

Autumn: Yes, I would be a very powerful witch [laughs]. I don’t know if 500 years ago I would have wanted to be a surgeon exactly, because it seems like that’d be pretty gnarly.

Maybe also a painter or something around visual and tactile. I used to do embroidery on ties. Paint by numbers is like a cheat, but there’s something that is rhythmic and tactile about it that I like. So I would probably be doing something along those lines, something creative, but also something practical. I feel like that’s why cinematography is perfect for me. It’s very practical application, but it’s also very creative.

Cinematography of “The Invitation” by Autumn Eakin.

And here I’d like to thank Autumn Eakin for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of cinematography, and for sharing the supporting materials. You can find Autumn online on Instagram, Twitter and Vimeo. “The Invitation” is available on a variety of digital platforms. Finally, if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.