Championship diver-turned-camera operator Karina Silva ’12 wasted no time getting into the movie business. Raised in Spain, she attended UCLA on a diving scholarship but majored in cinematography. She worked on her first feature film the summer before her senior year. She now has shot two features and operated the camera on nine, including the billion-dollar blockbuster Beauty and the Beast, Iraq War story Megan Leavey and an upcoming release called Fast Color. Applying the discipline, physical conditioning and fondness for teamwork that she mastered as a Pac-12 competitor, Silva thrives in an industry in which female crew members are still rare.
You got a fast start after your junior year by working as a production assistant on director Peter Berg’s action movie Battleship. How did that happen?
A friend of a friend needed someone to help out for free on a documentary, so I did that for a week, and it turned out the cinematographer on that project was a film loader on Battleship. Later, he asked me if I wanted to work as a production assistant [PA] on this $200-million movie. I was like, “Um, yes.” The moral of the story is, you need to work your butt off and build good relationships with people, because in the end, it pays off. Be polite, do a good job and people will remember you.
How did you go from being a PA to operating a camera?
On the Battleship set, Pete and the cinematographer, Tobias Schliessler, were really supportive, so I started working with them on TV commercials. One day Pete looks at me and goes, “You want to operate?” I said, “Yeah, I’d love to operate.” He says, “Put that camera on your shoulder and if you can give me 20 squats, I’ll let you operate the camera on this commercial.” The camera weighs about 50 pounds. I did 20 squats, no problem, and with good form! Pete’s like, “All right, you’re the operator today.” Thank God I did a great job, because from then on, I started getting hired as an operator.
After you operated the camera on Beauty and the Beast, Berg hired you to work on Deepwater Horizon. Stylistically, was that a big adjustment?
Beauty and the Beast is very elegant with majestic, sweeping crane shots, unlike the kind of thing Pete does, and also a lot of the characters weren’t real. They were a teacup or a clock! The actors had already recorded their dialogue in the studio, so we knew the lines and the timing, but there was no movement when we shot these rough physical references that would later be animated on the computer. It was different from anything I’d done before, but for me that’s the fun of making movies. It’s like a circus: You pick up and pack up and leave and go to the next spot. In sports, too, I loved to feed off the demanding schedule and all the traveling. For me, going into film was an easy transition. On a movie set with your crew, you really are part of a team. Through this division of labor, everyone’s there to tell the same story.
When did you decide you wanted to be behind the camera?
When I was a teenager, The Constant Gardener inspired me to be a cinematographer. It was so powerful, both visually and politically, being about American pharmaceutical companies testing drugs on poor Africans with these two people trying to crack the code. When I saw that film at an English-language movie theater in Spain, I was like, “Wow, that’s what I want to do! I want to tell those kinds of stories.”
How did UCLA advance your skills as a filmmaker?
Bill McDonald’s cinematography class was the most valuable thing I took away from my education at UCLA. To this day, I apply things he taught us — everything from “What’s an F stop?” to etiquette on set. I remember holding an ARRI film camera in my hands for the first time and telling Bill, “I’ve been waiting my whole life for this.” That’s where everything kind of clicked for me.
Megan Leavey marks the first time you worked on a feature film directed by a woman, Gabriela Cowperthwaite. What was that like?
That was the most fun I’ve ever had on a movie — seven weeks in Spain, two weeks in South Carolina. I love to shoot action, with dynamic camera movements. The director of photography, Lorenzo Senatore, operated the A camera on Beauty and the Beast. He wanted to use handheld cameras to make the story feel very subjective. Since I was the same height as [actress] Kate Mara, he thought I’d be perfect to operate the camera, because she’d always be at my eye level. I was so excited to work with Gabriela because she trusted me and gave me a lot of freedom.
Even in 2017, Megan Leavey still seems to be an exception in an industry where crews remain mostly male. What’s it like to be the only woman on set?
I’ve had my fair share of encounters with people who think I’m there only because I’m “cute.” It’s not only about me being female. It’s also about being young, and some people have a real problem with that. Fresh out of school, I had assistants who were twice my age, and I had to tell them what to do. I had to tell grips what to do. I had the art department to constantly communicate with. I didn’t want to come off as mean or spoiled or bratty, because of course if a woman is strong and firm, then she’s a bitch, right? That’s just kind of the way it is. I tried to be super polite, to the point where I let people walk all over me.
So how did you get comfortable with being in authority?
I decided to just be honest and ask the people around me for help: “I’m obviously green, and you’ve done this for 20 years. This is the kind of shot I want to do — how do we execute?” I’ve learned so much from my assistants and the grips and the gaffers who’ve been at it for years. And now, with experience, I’ve seen enough to know what works and what doesn’t. I’ve started to trust my gut.
Do you see change ahead for women in below-the-line movie jobs?
You have to work twice as hard because you have to be better than the boys, which is kind of sad. But with every day that passes, I think it becomes “cooler” to have girls on set. Some states are even offering tax incentives if you have more than a certain percentage of females on your crew. It’s definitely getting easier, but it’s not going to be easy for a long time.