In January 2019, cinematographer Meg White was named the inaugural recipient of the Screen Australia Onbass Fellowship – a full-tuition scholarship that gives emerging Australian filmmakers the chance to attend the American Film Institute Conservatory (AFI). Meg, who will soon enter the AFI program, graduated with a degree in Media Arts and Production from the University of Technology in Sydney. Since graduating, she has worked in Australia and overseas across a diverse range of digital and film projects, including features, shorts, documentaries, TVCs and promotional campaigns.
When it comes to her projects, Meg is passionate about using her visual skills to highlight voices which otherwise may slip through the mainstream agenda. “I really like to collaborate on projects that give voice to narratives that are traditionally repressed or not given the platform they deserve,” Meg says. “I like to be challenged by stories and to learn from them. I’m drawn to stuff that’s about culture, race, the environment – I’m working on a couple of projects at the moment that are dealing exactly with these matters. Then, on the other hand, I’m always keen to work on fun, crazy and collaborative stuff – where it’s just like a visual plethora of cool things.”
Meg has always been passionate about the environment and animals. Her original plan, before pursuing cinematography, was to become a herpetologist (someone who studies reptiles and amphibians). “I’ve always had a scientific naturalistic interest. When I decided to pursue film, I grappled with the ethics of doing something that seemed more selfish than herpetology – choosing film rather than animal conservation or something. So that’s why it’s really important for me that I work on films that deal with important social issues.”
When it comes to her career so far, Meg has some impressive projects on her resume. “As a camera assistant, the best experience I had was working on Ivan Sen’s film Mystery Road. There was just something about that film that I loved so much – there were like 30 people in the team, and it was just such an amazing opportunity for me. As a cinematographer, one of the best experiences was shooting the music video for ‘Remedy’, by Marcia Hines. The clip was directed by Russell Crowe. Usually, I don’t like to bring this up, because people sort of latch on to the whole Russell Crowe thing [laughs]. That was an awesome project to work on though, because of the scale of it. I was really young, and the chance to work as a DP with Russell and Marcia was really exciting. It was also really special because Andrew Lesnie and Jules O’Loughlin camera operated for me. These are all people that I really admire, so that was so surreal.”
Cinematography is a male-dominated area. Although Meg is highly aware of this, she is also thankful to the men who have helped her to get ahead in her career. “I think the numbers have always been in favour of men. But in saying that, men have been some of my biggest champions in this industry, and I’m really thankful to them. I think that anyone who gets ahead in this industry – especially women – have had to work really fucking hard.”
One person that was influential in Meg’s choice to become a filmmaker was her brother. “He’s 12 years older than me, and when we were growing up in Newcastle with my mum – who was a single mum at the time – he would babysit me all the time and show me all these horror films that were definitely inappropriate for my age level [laughs]. We watched heaps of films together, and I became a big fan through him. I did art and photography in high school, and at some point, I discovered cinematography, which I saw as a marriage of art, film and photography – all things I was passionate about. It sounds terrible,” Meg muses, “but if my dad had never left, my brother wouldn’t have babysat me so much, and I’d never have developed this interest in film.”
When it comes to her cinematic style, Meg likes to be flexible, depending on the project. “I’ve been to presentations and read stuff about certain DPs who will only shoot anamorphic, or only shoot on one kind of camera brand,” Meg remarks. “For me, it’s all about responding to the script and the vision of the director. The aspect ratio, the lens, whether I shoot film or digital – I use whatever is most appropriate for the story.”
Although Meg doesn’t have a set shooting style, she does have a style of working that she carries across her projects. “I like to have a really collaborative and communicative relationship with my directors. I like to work off of visual references and words and language, and then I play with those ideas laterally and try to figure out how I can best represent them visually. I’m also a big fan of multidisciplinary approaches to things.”
Meg has experience writing, directing and shooting her own projects. “I think there’s quite a lot of cinematographers who, in their earlier years, like to direct their own projects – because it means they can shoot them however they want. My film Monsters, which I wrote, directed and shot, is very personal to me, because of my interest in wildlife and zoology. It was just a personal story I wanted to tell, from the perspective I had working with wildlife trauma. It’s like with my photographic exhibitions as well – I don’t push myself to come up with an idea, it’s just something in me that I want to get out. My latest exhibition Fractures is a photographic collage of roadkill that I took along the west coast of Australia. Taking those photos was a really instinctive response for me. I like to take something macabre and reflect it in a beautiful way. I think there’s a celebration in the grit.”
Meg also has another upcoming exhibition called ‘LoveSick’, which she describes as a “visual purge of her anxiety.
“For about 2 and a half years I was living in this highly repressed, anxious state – and that culminated in my breakdown. I was just listening to too much around me, rather than actually listening to myself and doing what I needed to do. I’ve always been an anxious person, but it really hit its worst a few years ago. I’m glad that my mid-life crisis happened then, and not in my forties [laughs]. I’m really conscious of losing those years to anxiety – I feel like I’m making up for that lost time.”
What her anxiety breakdown taught her the most was how valuable her energy – and where she puts it – really is. “Knowing when to give a fuck and when not to. When I first started working in the industry, one thing I did to cope with my anxiety was drink. I’d have this pit of dread in my stomach, and I’d need a drink to inoculate it. And that’s not unusual at all in the film industry – it’s known for terrible alcohol and substance abuse. I’m really looking forward to Ben Steel’s documentary [The Show Must Go On] – he’s interviewed people about mental health and the entertainment industry and it’s just so messed up how irregular the work can be. Overall though, I’m much better at managing my mental health these days. I like to stay busy, focus my attention on projects.”
Now that Meg has a grip on her anxiety, she will be able to make the most on the incredible opportunity she has received. “It’s just a crazy good opportunity, just the scale of what I’m being offered is incredible. I have always considered moving to LA, and this has come at an earlier point in my career than I thought it would. So that’s a really nice kick in the butt for me to go over and start pushing myself in a different market. I don’t aspire to make typical, big budget Hollywood films, but I’m really excited to access a larger network of filmmakers and opportunities.”
Something else Meg is really looking forward to is anonymity. “I quite like the idea of no one knowing who I am, and meeting lots of new people. I’m trying to be really open to the whole experience and the relationships that might come from it.”
As for advice that Meg could give to aspiring filmmakers, she suggests finding things that connect with your heart. “Find whatever story, whatever imagery – find something that you can engage with, something that makes you tick. A lot of people say this, there is no right or wrong way to get into this industry. Go to film school, or don’t go to film school. It’s a very delicate balance of listening and not listening to conventional wisdom. I’d say listen to what more experienced people tell you, but also follow your instincts and don’t feel ashamed to completely ignore advice and do what feels right for you.”
Meg’s photography exhibitions:
Fractures – 3-16th April
Shop 4/450 Elizabeth St, Surry Hills
LoveSick – 29th April – 13th May
ARO Gallery – 51 William Street, Darlinghurst
Applications for the second Screen Australia Onbass Fellowship in 2020 are due this October. You can find more information and application requirements here.