Alumnae News & Highlights

The most “transformative” part of her HB education, says New York-based director and cinematographer Kate Phelan, was her senior year Strnad Fellowship in Creativity project, creating and performing four short dance pieces based on TS Eliot poems. “I wasn’t super brainy,” she says, “but working on my Strnad really turned on a light. I realized I can translate and interpret this text into an artistic language I feel fluent in, and make something new and unique.” 

Kate studied dance at the University of Michigan in the hope of becoming a choreographer. Unfortunately, she’d also begun developing anorexia; by her sophomore year, the disease had progressed enough to make dancing a non-viable career option. “As I was recovering,” says Kate, “I watched a lot of movies and started thinking maybe film would be an interesting thing to do.” 

First, she worked as a production assistant in New York, running errands and helping with talent—the traditional entry-level job for women in production. After graduating from Michigan with a history degree, she worked as a grip, carrying and arranging camera and lighting equipment on set (a traditionally male entry-level role). She soon joined the electrical department and became a chief lighting technician, or gaffer, also a role typically held by males. 

“By the time I started gaffing bigger movies,” says Kate, “I ran into a more traditional glass ceiling.” Though the grips looked out for her, other coworkers of both genders questioned her credibility and knowledge; still, she forged ahead and became a director of photography, or cinematographer, in 2005 and a director in 2015 (only 4% of cinematographers, 18% of feature film directors, and 37% of TV directors today are female, notes Kate.) 

In 2016, she wrote and directed her own Kickstarter-funded short film, VISIT 57, about her experience with fertility treatment. It earned her a Best Screenplay Award at the Women’s Indie Film Fest. Last year, a web project she directed had 5.7 million views and her short film 12:58p played at 10 film festivals nationwide. It’s also playing with a traveling festival this summer. 

For a weeklong shoot, Kate’s schedule might include two days scouting locations, one day at meetings preparing for the shoot, and two days of shooting, which can run anywhere from 7 a.m. until midnight daily. Managing childcare for two daughters, she notes, is a balancing act she and her husband, a gaffer, split. 

Even though “there’s still a fair amount of gender bias in technical jobs,” says Kate, her advice to women looking to enter film production as a director or DP is essentially to just do it, mainly because “there’s so much access to equipment now, on computers and even cell phones, for so little money.” Plus, she says, an HB education gives students a huge advantage in traditionally male-dominated industries. “HB normalizes ability,” says Kate. “To excel is kind of expected. That’s really liberating.” 

  • Alumnae Achievement Award