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How to Become a Television DP – Interview with Alicia Robbins

How to Become a Television DP - Interview with Alicia Robbins

This interview is part of our CineD series celebrating women in the film and television industry. Read our last piece, where we caught up with writer, director, and DP Emily Skye here. Today, we talk to DP Alicia Robbins about her work on Grey’s Anatomy, her experiences at AFI, and much more.

Can one day’s work truly change the course of your entire cinematography career? DP Alicia Robbins is the ultimate proof that it absolutely can.

Back in 2018, she was the recipient of a prestigious Cinematographer’s Guild award for her work on Internet Gangsters: a short she’d lensed in just one evening.

Now, she’s been the lead DP for seasons 16 and 17 of ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, has served as the Additional DP for another Shonda Rhimes show, For the People, and has also captured several feature films including Babysplitters and The Wedding Invitation.

She’s also been the lead DP for Driving Plates, a company that specializes in 360-degree content for driving scenes in television and movies.

Read on below to learn how Robbins adapted going from indie to network television projects, built her career after AFI, and more.

How did you land your role as full-time lead television DP for Grey’s Anatomy?

A.R.: I worked on a short film called Internet Gangsters, which was shot over just one evening and lit mostly with LED units. It was a collaboration with a colleague, Sam Friedlander, from my undergraduate college, Vanderbilt University. Internet Gangsters landed me an ECA, Emerging Cinematographer Award, from the International Cinematographers Guild in 2018.

Television DP Alicia Robbins
Robbins on set.

This award opens many doors. For me, one of these doors was when For The People, an ABC show, reached out to Steven Poster at the union looking for a new up-and-coming DP who may want the additional cinematographer position on the show. He recommended me.

Christian Sebaldt, who was the main DP on the show, had previously worked with me (just one day!) on a Disney show and remembered that he was very pleased with the work I did. So, a perfect storm of events, I was hired to work on For The People, a Shondaland show. After that season ended, I was referred to Grey’s Anatomy.

It’s amazing how a string of events can determine your pathway to success. It is just a reminder to do the absolute best you can on ANY project. No matter the job, or the budget.

What’s it like being a DP on network television shows?

A.R.: Coming from lower budget work, it was a huge change going onto network TV. There is just more of everything. And bigger. But the concepts of storytelling are the same. Even the concepts of camera movement and lighting are the same, you just have more crew and more equipment to pull it off.

In independent work, you get used to having to let go of a lot of ideas, because it either isn’t achievable in the time or it’s too expensive. In bigger TV, you still have to let things go for the same reasons, but it’s bigger stuff you are letting go of.

So for example, on a small budget, you may have to forego that M18 HMI light because of the budget. On TV projects, you might be foregoing your 2nd condor with the 18K. The challenges are still the same, but bigger. It’s really great because you can be so much more creative in the visual style.

On set on Grey’s Anatomy Episode 1716. Credits: ABC/Richard Cartwright.

What current kit do you use?

A.R.: I know people have heard me say that I’m “camera agnostic.” That usually gets a laugh. But it is very true. I believe in the camera system that best serves the job. I find myself switching camera systems and lenses all the time depending on what the project is. So, it’s hard for me to say that I “prefer” a system over another.

But, I’ll let you know that the camera I run around with on a daily basis is my Panasonic S1H with the Lumix line of zoom lenses. I do love this camera because not only do I use it for personal photography and filming, but it is a great B-roll camera that can actually work alongside bigger studio cameras like Arri Alexa and Varicam.

What’s your favorite light equipment and why?

A.R.: I use so many kinds of lighting. I am a big fan of LED technology though. It has really made things much easier and quicker on set for me. Being able to change color temperature and intensity on the fly through DMX control is pretty amazing.

With Covid, LEDs really became a must on Grey’s Anatomy because it was not feasible to have a crew member go in with a ladder to drop a scrim or put gel on a light AFTER the actors were on set. So, with LED we could adjust at a moment’s notice. A lot of the sources I used this year were Rotolights, Arris, Cineo, Velvets, and Asteras. But there are so many more! And the quality just keeps getting better and better.

"It’s amazing how a string of events can determine your pathway to success," says Robbins.
“It’s amazing how a string of events can determine your pathway to success,” says Robbins.

Do you use drones or gimbals?

(A.R.): I use both drones and gimbals. They are two very different tools though. Drones I generally use when I need big sweeping moves that would be beyond what a crane can get me. Or in the case of Grey’s Anatomy, the drone could go places on the beach that we couldn’t get equipment to. So sometimes we’d use a drone as a “mobile camera platform” to get the angles in places (like over the water looking back at the beach) that physically we couldn’t get another way.

I generally find myself working with gimbals if there is a handoff of the camera. Otherwise, I am generally using Steadicam or stabilized heads on a crane. When I am referring to a hand-off, I mean that the camera has to go from one scenario to another that a human can’t pass through. Like an operator needing to pass the camera through an open window and then continuing the move. Gimbals, like the Ronin, are also really helpful if you need an unmanned camera. Being able to place the Ronin on a tripod head and then remotely operate it for stunts or even car sequences is also a great way to use a gimbal.

On set on Grey’s Anatomy Episode 1716. Credits: ABC/Richard Cartwright.

Does this change when working on a more limited budget?

A.R.: On a smaller scale film, it’s really about trying to find angles that provide depth and interesting composition. Also, trying to schedule your day so you aren’t shooting in harsh sunlight.

For both Babysplitters and The Wedding Invitation, I approached these movies as being lean and mean. In other words, I preferred to have a crew of three to four people to handle both camera and lighting. I found that it was better to hire a few experienced people at a decent rate than to get many beginner crew members at a lower rate. And as long as everyone hustled, we really pulled off a lot.

We shot both movies out of a Chevy cargo van! This is very different from network TV, where you have a 10 ton for each department! I also tried not to compromise on the camera movement. Even though a full-sized dolly was not feasible with this crew size, I still managed to have movement either through a Dana dolly, Ronin gimbal, or handheld. Just because you have a limited crew and budget doesn’t mean that you can’t try to get the movement of bigger budget work.

On set on Grey’s Anatomy Episode 1716. Credits: ABC/Richard Cartwright.

Can you tell us more about your work on Driving Plates?

A.R.: Driving Plates is a company that specializes in 360-degree content for driving scenes for television and movies. It’s a pretty cool rig that shoots the plates. It’s a nine-camera array currently using Panasonic GH5S cameras that can be traveled with and rigged to any rental car or production vehicle.

These plates are then dropped into either the green screen comps for the driving scenes or LED walls that are live on the car process stage day. I really loved the work that I did with Driving Plates because it got me on some pretty cool projects (Creed II, Irishman, The Post) and it helped me dive even more into understanding VFX work. A solid understanding of how these plates were going to work in the final scene was crucial. Knowing this aspect of filmmaking has helped me tremendously as I continue to move up in my cinematography career.

Learn more about Alicia Robbins’s work by clicking here.

Full disclosure: This interview has been financially supported and promoted by Panasonic. CineD however retained full editorial control on the content of the interview.

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