An Interview with Cinematographer Diana Olifirova
Diana Olifirova is a London-based Ukrainian cinematographer who’s worked on a wide and colorful range of projects, from narrative television to commercials and spontaneous short films inspired during the pandemic. Her work has been featured around the world and has a distinct, playful quality “fascinated by light, people, art, movement and real life.”
Olifirova is the winner of the BSC Emerging Cinematographer Award and has worked with a number of acclaimed directors such as Harry Lighton, Remi, Laudat, and Jacob Migicovsky. She received her MA from the National Film and Television School in the UK.
While her portfolio continues to grow and take on new shapes, one of Olifirova’s most notable credits, and the subject of our interview below, includes the critically acclaimed show We Are Lady Parts. The show focuses on the biochemical engineering Ph.D. student Amina Hussein who becomes the unlikely lead guitarist of “Lady Parts,” an all-female Muslim punk band on a mission to get a proper gig.
In our interview, Diana gives a detailed look at her workflow behind the scenes of We Are Ladyparts, as part of a broader conversation about spontaneity in art, balance, working through creative blocks, and cinematography.
Andrew: How did you get started working in cinema and cinematography?
Diana: I come from the Ukraine and I studied there for five years, for a cinematography BA, and then I followed up with a master’s in the National Film School in the UK, and then I freelanced after graduating. I was always interested in cinematography from school, basically. It was always my idea to go forward in that.
Andrew: You have experience in a range of genres. How do you alter your style or approach depending on what you’re working on? For example, a commercial versus a short film.
Diana: I try to pick up projects that I really care for, that I really feel like I’m connected to, especially in long-form. So, something that catches my mind, something that is on the same wavelengths as my life at this particular moment.
So, I try to really use my intuition by picking those projects and also try to use a variety of genres and see if the director is thinking the same way as I am in a way; or, if their point of view is completely different, there is a little bit of an interesting learning curve for me.
For commercials, I think I always think about if it’s going to have enough for me in terms of budget and opportunity to practice new skills.
Andrew: Do you have a favorite project or a standout project that you’ve worked on recently or in the past?
Diana: I think that We Are Lady Parts is the one, really. That was my first long-form and it really for me is a big one. I felt really close, it was really close to my heart.
Andrew: So going off of that, could you talk a little bit about your work on We Are Lady Parts and what your day-to-day responsibilities looked like as a cinematographer?
Diana: Well, we did a lot of time in prep with director, getting the shot list and thinking about how we’re going to cover each scene and what is it about, really developing the characters and the look.
We were really prepared to start the shooting also because we had the whole summer of COVID in 2020 to prepare, so we went through the script many times.
On the shooting day, we were going off the shot list, but also looking at the rehearsals and thinking about maybe an alternative coverage and new ideas for each scene, because we felt like we want to connect to the actors and see what they come up with, as well.
After rehearsal, I would pick up my phone and take stills on Artemis, the app that helps to frame up the shots. Then, I would take a shot that I think is good for coverage, based on our shot list, and maybe some extra things that I notice during the rehearsal, because I always watch the whole rehearsal and try to see as many of the angles as possible.
Then, from that, we would send all the shots to the whole crew so everybody sees what they’re doing first, second, third and then start preparing, doing lots of interesting lighting and things like that. So we had lots of sets and we did lots of set builds and pre-lights, taking inspiration from real locations, again, because we had to redo a lot of locations in the studio for the sake of COVID safety.
Andrew: What were some of the ways that you conveyed some of the show’s dreamier moments? For example, in the fourth and fifth episode of the first season, transitioning between the character’s daydreams and their waking life?
Diana: The director, Nida Manzoor, and I really liked the idea of interesting transitions, and we think of this as the great use of cinematic language. We tried to come up with as many types of transitions as possible, and most of them just came from imagination.
I think when you read the script, you really process it and sometimes it just comes to you naturally and sometimes it comes with a little bit of thinking, but we always try to push for as many as possible in that sense. And yeah, even if it seems a bit complicated to involve some of the effects, we still push through them and we’re happy we did it, because it makes it smoother to watch.
Andrew: Are those types of things really planned on the day of shooting or can things happen spontaneously?
Diana: Well, the complicated things that involved the effects or transitions are usually planned really well beforehand and scheduled in, but we had lots of spontaneous elements as well.
For example, when we decide to cover the whole scene in one long steady movement in the studio. When they do a parlay and discuss the social media aspect, that came up on the rehearsal as one particular circle movement.
It took like two hours to light and rehearse, but then after that, we kind of covered everything in one and just did little pickups and different lines, so that kind of was, first of all, it took a lot of time to spend planning or in finessing, but actually for actors it was better, in terms of they were freer to make it seem like a theater play, you know?
So yeah, we kind of did both, and depending on how we went on the timing during the day. If we had some time, we would experiment a little bit, as well.
Sometimes, if the director felt like the scene could be covered in what we already shot, we kind of cut down the close-ups and didn’t even shoot them, which was really bold and I really appreciate that, because I like to try to develop the shot from the wide into the mid and cover the scene.
I really feel like the space dictates the emotion quite well, as well as the close-ups. I think there is a lot in the composition, so when the director respects that and says that that’s enough for us to cover the scene, that makes me very happy. Sometimes it was spontaneous in the way that we actually didn’t do the conventional coverage.
“It’s nice to make the rules that you can later also break and just diminish. That’s kind of the aim. Also, the show is about punk band and punk music so I think it’s like punk filmmaking, as well.”
Andrew: Could you describe some of the different looks of the show? I read how you based some of the choices in color and lighting and camera movements for scenes on specific characters.
Diana: On specific characters? Yeah. We had two main characters, Amina and Saira. Amina is the main girl that goes through all this change. With her, we did a lot of steady camera movements and quite natural palettes, slightly innovated, slightly pastel, of her and her girlfriends in the university. So that was really cute and nice, and very different.
Obviously, a lot of it came from the art department and from costume, but also I’ve enhanced it as well. I tried to make it light and slightly softer and slightly less colorful because there’s also a lot of pastel colors in the sets already. We tried to make it more muted… so it was all kinds of layers after layers, trying to make it smooth.
Then, with Saira, we did the opposite. We did much more grunge, much more dark, contrasty, handheld shots, lots of colors, dark colors. Same with makeup, same with the art department — to try to make it rougher and edgier. When these two worlds [of Amina and Saira] collide, you kind of decide on which territory you are in.
If you’re on Saira’s territory and Amina visits her, you could play a bit more to what’s in power and have a different feel, and then if the other way around, it depends on what we see in it and who is in power, and we try to play around with the style in those scenes, which was very interesting, a lot of discussions about each scene and how we change our style for the character if they do meet. Quite like that.
It’s nice to make the rules that you can later also break and just diminish. That’s kind of the aim. Also, the show is about punk band and punk music so I think it’s like punk filmmaking, as well. You can make the rule, break the rule and decide on a day how it feels. That’s why I like it.
Andrew: Would you say that there were… I mean, you’ve kind of already touched on this a little bit, but would you say that there were specific parallels between the show’s aesthetic style and then the message and focus on inclusivity and representation?
Diana: I think so. We had so many diverse people on our team from start to finish, so it was really great and everybody embraced their own authenticity and diversity and different ideas. We had a really great mix of people. I think there’s also a way how we told the story, I think the director’s really free in giving us as a creative head of departments, a lot of freedom in terms of how we’re going to expand our own styles and our own visions.
I was given a lot of freedom and it made me even bolder, and I think that you can really feel that everybody had a lot to put into the show because everybody had fun and really experimented. So that that’s great, I think… people didn’t restrict as much. We kind of always explained our point of view and our style and our vision, and we just kept pushing forward, and that was amazing.
“Whatever looks good is good. And if it feels right for the story, you don’t have to justify why the light is there or whatever else, so I try to really make image stand out and put as much focus as possible on the main point in each image.”
Andrew: Would you say you have a signature style or particular effect you seek to produce in your work? This could be more broadly beyond just this show, too.
Diana: Whatever I do, I always feel like you can tell that this is my image and that this is the piece that I shot, really see that in every frame that I do, actually, apart from something that I try to completely detach myself from. So sometimes you might deliberately try to experiment and try to not think about, “But I can’t.” I feel like it’s so much inhabited in me it’s really hard to detach, but sometimes I try to make that exercise.
But usually, I feel like my composition’s very precise. I really like to make it as a painting and I really take care of the sensor, if it’s digital or if it’s film, about the exposure, I really take care about all the highlights and all the mid-tones and the shadows and the colors.
It’s a little bit freer, and my kind of motto is whatever looks good is good. And if it feels right for the story, you don’t have to justify why the light is there or whatever, so I try to really make image stand out and put as much focus as possible on the main point in each image.
So for me, I can’t let go any of the shots. Each shot is very important to create in the picturesque way. I think that’s one of my things. But I guess a lot of the DoPs like to do that, but I also like to bring a little element of spontaneity in the scene and in the lighting aspects.
I try to be inspired by the moment and see what’s happening right there and try to play with lights and set and be a little bit more like a child sometimes and discover things while you’re there and throw some random things up and just get excited by trying things and experimenting on a day.
And when something happens and looks good, I keep it there and then I get inspired by a little balance, or I found yesterday a piece of fabric on the back of the set.
It was a shiny thing, and then I was looking around with it and it would give us a lot of little, nice reflections. I tried it in one scene and another scene. Some way it worked, some way it didn’t, but then I thought about it at night and I came up with it the next day and was like, “Maybe we can do this a little bit mirror ball experiment.”
You keep just being playful as well as very structured and very precise, but also have a little element of playfulness that you can add that people wouldn’t come up with if they were too planned. I’m trying to mix two approaches, being very planned and having a very good structure what you’re doing, but also don’t let that destroy the feeling of the moment.
Andrew: Is there an artist or type of art that really inspires you?
Diana: I don’t know. I really like walking around the town and looking at things and meeting people and going to galleries, just going to see some dance, ballet, going to actually dance classes myself and just try different movements and look at things.
I like to view different spaces. So I always get inspiration from walking around, and attending different events and things. If I have a free evening, I love to walk around and go somewhere because I’m in that state of mind where my head is constantly thinking about the image. I really enjoy that time. It really inspires me, real life and whatever happens with me and whoever I meet.
Andrew: Do you do a, I don’t know what it would be called, you just bring a camera around and make things impromptu for yourself or to experiment?
Diana: Yeah. I have a digital Bolex and I do little films sometimes, but my problem is if I don’t organize myself to edit them, I will never do it. I really need to plan if I want to do something like that to have a team to help me to finish it, because I really like shooting, but I don’t like taking care of the whole production.
Often I do my own films. They’re quite often self-portraits and involve me being in front of the camera because it’s just me and my filming. I feel very free and I don’t have any time limit, so I can experiment, play around with lighting, change things and it’s like a meditation process for me as well. I usually would come up with a little idea and then expand it and expand it.
Doing that, I think I’ve made about 10 films so far. Every year, I will do one or two little snippets, like three, five minutes. I like to take close-up pictures every day. For me, that’s also a big source of inspiration.
Andrew: The cinematic world moves very quickly. How do you work through creative blocks? Like writer’s block, but in cinematography.
Diana: When I’ve been doing lots of commercials or similar things, I get a bit sad and bored, but I think when you realize that you don’t like doing something anymore it’s good to step away. I’ll say, “I know how to do this. I’m getting well paid for this, maybe having a good time. But there’s not much challenge here and I think I should move on from this level.”
When you realize you’ve done that and you’re not that interested, you need to not take these jobs anymore. You just really acknowledge it and don’t take the job anymore. Then you get better or different kinds of jobs.
I think that’s what you do, just say no to more things and then progress with other fields and other genres.
Andrew: Besides, then if you have too many things, it starts to feel like a responsibility and not as fun. Then it loses that playful aspect you’re talking about.
Diana: Yeah. I think sometimes it’s important to stop thinking or stop working for a bit and just… If you have too much and you can’t come up with a solution: sometimes you have a short deadline and you have to come up with this idea for a scene and you sit with the director and it doesn’t come up and you’re like, “Ah,” so I would just usually suggest, “You know what? Just leave it. Okay, you need to think about this week, but let’s leave it and come back to it in two days,” because you leave it, you actually go out, you have a walk, I don’t know, go to cinema, go to a party, whatever, or just walk around, and then it will come to your head.
You don’t need to really push it. Sometimes you just need to release. I think pushing something as an idea wouldn’t be helping. You need to just let your brain think about it by itself, that kind of thing.
Andrew: Do you have a dream collaboration or project you’d like to work on?
Diana: I’d love to shoot Mission: Impossible. I would say that. Mainly because of the name, but also I actually quite like the idea of doing high-end films and bringing a lot of heart to it and a lot of taste and interesting ideas and visuals. I think there’s something about the excitement of a lot of people going to see the film, and there’s also a lot of responsibility, as well as a lot of influence that you can make with your image and your taste.
You can introduce a lot of people to something that you’re excited about. It’s the very well-lit things, the spaces that can make you feel. I’m always very excited for people to see my work, so for me, that would be amazing. And also, action is fun.
Andrew: Are there any upcoming releases or projects that you have been working on that you’d like to share?
Diana: There is one more I’m just finishing up at the moment called Heartstopper for Netflix. I don’t know when it’s coming out, but that’s next. I’m shooting another show for HBO at the moment, but I think that’s going to be even later. But yeah, it keeps going now, so after We Are Lady Parts, it’s been a really good year.