How the Cinematographer of 'Transparent' Captures the Female Gaze

Jim Frohna has been a close collaborator of Jill Soloway's for years, tasked with bringing the most painful, powerful moments in her characters' lives to the screen.
September 22, 2017, 7:04pm
Jim Frohna on the set of I Love Dick. Image courtesy Amazon

"We look forward to another season of comedy and drama, love and weirdness, God and sex—in the service of community and in pursuit of peace, joy, freedom and human rights for all," Jill Soloway, creator of the hit Amazon show Transparent, said when announcing their fifth season pick-up last month.

This Friday, a fourth season of the show will premiere. By this point, Transparent has broken so many glass ceilings it feels menial to list them all. And it's through the lens of cinematographer Jim Frohna that Soloway's ethos, perfectly captured above, has come to life.

Frohna has been a close collaborator of Soloway's since her 2013 debut feature Afternoon Delight. He also shot last year's I Love Dick and was nominated for an Emmy this year for his work on Transparent. A white, cis male on Soloway's famously diverse set, Frohna has been capturing the female gaze for four seasons—noteworthy because in Soloway's circles, female and trans crew are generally tantamount to the operation.

But "there isn't one female gaze," Frohna told VICE. On the heels of the Emmys, we discuss the emotional experience of working on Transparent over four seasons, how he manages to capture distinctly feminist, trans-positive stories, and stories from the set of a show that helped redefine identity in America.

VICE: Let's talk about shooting from your "mussy," something Soloway has directed you to do since the beginning of your collaborations together.
Jim Frohna: Jill is always coming up with amazing turns-of-phrase. "Shoot from your mussy" means, more or less, "Tap into the feminine, sensitive part of you." We'd laugh about it, but I also got exactly what she meant.

We often think in our jobs, or life, that we have to get it right or be perfect, that there's a certain thing that you have to know. When you work with Jill, you don't have to walk on set and shoot a scene perfectly. [She knew about] the sensitive part of me from which I can work more intuitively. I've grown up so much as a human being, as an artist, a cinematographer, a father and a husband through that style of working.

On Transparent and I Love Dick, we worked with Joan Scheckel, an incredible storytelling, filmmaking, directing and acting guru. Along with Jill, she's somebody who taught me that it's more than a job, it's more than somebody holding a camera. As the eyes, as the camera operator, she instilled the notion in me that how I'm relating to what's in front of me matters, that the people on the other side of the camera can feel if the person behind the camera is connected or disconnected. This whole idea of being present in the room with what's happening—that it's more than just making a frame or doing nice lighting.

What do you say when people want to discuss the fact that you're a cis male filming a show that is female-gaze-centric?
That's never happened. I would say—and I'm not the only one saying this—that there's not one female gaze. It's not as if anyone can claim—and I'm not claiming it and the show's not claiming it—that this is the female gaze. Transparent explores gender identity. We lose out on the richness humanity has to offer if we're always trying to categorize what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman, or what it means to be straight, gay, bi, the myriad places on that spectrum. I appreciate that no one's asked me about being a male DP on a show that's very feminine. The best way I can put it is that just like the characters on camera, we're exploring people who are living their fullest and truest selves. That's the atmosphere and the way that Jill has inspired me and everyone else on set to bring my full self. Bring all that you are in every way, and all your flaws and all your whatevers. In that way, it's a show about being your fullest, truest self.

What are the conversations like about capturing the female gaze?
In season three, there's a scene at the water park with Shea [Trace Lysette] and Josh [Jay Duplass]. It starts out feeling very fun and free, then turns romantic. Motivations and desires are revealed, including Josh's perception of Shea. He says things where it becomes clear that he doesn't quite grasp Shea's background or what it really means for her to be a sexual and transgender person. He doesn't see her as a full human, and it does not end well; it gets very upsetting and the fun is over.

We're filming down in this dry, waterless water park and after the first take or so, Jill comes up and essentially reminds me to tap back into my sensitivity mode. 'What does it feel like for this character right now to be seen?' she asked me. She's reminding me to look at the difference between the camera and the person holding the camera looking at this person. It made a huge difference and I was able to lose myself and forget that I was making a frame and trying to shoot a TV show. I was no longer looking at the exposure difference between the light on Shea's face versus the bright wall behind us; I just let go of all of that. There are times when I barely have to look through the viewfinder in these moments of total connection, because I'm there fully and I've put my trusty Canon camera in the right place. I'm still doing my job as a DP, but there's something of an un-self-consciousness that happens where I'm just seeing the person looking, if that makes sense. It's interesting, too, what happens to me in this moment. It's almost like the other character, in this case Josh, disappears, because I'm so connected to Shea's experience. That's Jill's reminder to reframe how one is seeing.

Watch Desus and Mero talk to Janet Mock about trans identity:

How would you describe how Soloway's sets are run to an outsider?
That's just it—no one is an outsider on Jill's set. We have this morning ritual called 'The Box.' It used to only happen when we'd shoot big scenes and there'd be a lot of background actors present. Jill would get up and speak to the background, welcome them and talk about how they're raising the stakes—again the whole thing about how you're a living, breathing part of the process. She'd tell them that their being connected to the scene matters to us. I'm on so many sets, and the background are just background, cardboard cutouts or something. These rarer inspirational talks evolved somewhere between season two and three where it became an every morning thing for the crew and the cast.

Everyone gets in a circle, there's a box that's brought out and whoever has something they want to share can get up on the box and share. When they're done and they get off, everyone starts chanting, 'Box, box, box,' until the next person gets up. You don't have to go up. Some mornings it lasts for five minutes, and some mornings it lasts for 20. It's this thing that we really value because it's about connecting us as human beings.

We're gathering in gratitude that we get to do this for our livelihood, that we get to make art. It's in gratitude and respect and connection. Because of all this we move more efficiently throughout the day, because we're connected on this level. I've produced a couple short films and we did 'The Box' on those. People who were working on other small, independent things are using the ritual too. 'The Box' is spreading. We're human beings just trying to do our best.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

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