Focus on Alice Brooks: In the heights

By Kate Boyle

Cinematography is defined as the art of photography and visual storytelling in a motion picture or television show. It’s how we as viewers see the film, how the camera moves and tells the story. Jon M. Chu’s “In the Heights” (2021) is a visual spectacle, absolutely deserving of praise for its cinematography. The person we have to thank for this is Alice Brooks, one of the few female cinematographers working in Hollywood today. Cinematography remains one of the most male dominated positions in Hollywood; the number of female cinematographers for major motion pictures is only around four percent. In the history of the Academy Awards only one woman has been nominated in that category- Rachel Morrison for “Mudbound” in 2018. I believe this year, Alice Brooks has a chance at becoming the second female nominee.

This lack of female representation in the field of cinematography could be due to “male gaze” being the industry standard. There are people who don’t believe women are capable of shooting an action movie or making those stories visually appealing to mostly male audiences. How could a woman possibly know how to make a movie a man wants to see? This of course is all ridiculous. Why not embrace any cinematographer regardless of gender? Different people have different ways of viewing the world and embracing more than just the stereotypical white male would do nothing but improve the field of cinematography. 

Alice Brooks does not have a huge list of blockbusters or beloved indie films attached to her resume like the male cinematographers we’ve grown to expect on a list of awards nominees. She is best known for her work with director John M. Chu- “Jem and the Holograms” (2015), and the series “The LXD”. “In the Heights” is her first film that will get her global attention. She is also working with Lin-Manuel Miranda on his directorial debut film “Tick, Tick…Boom!” scheduled to come out later this year.

Alice Brooks has a unique style of storytelling, she knows what to do with a camera. Her work on “In the Heights” brought the neighborhood to life, it sucked in viewers and made them feel like a part of the film. A scene that caught my attention right away was one with main character Usnavi, looking out from the window of his bodega while people dancing in the street are seen reflected in the glass. Brooks’ use of color, framing, and long shots in the Paciencia Y Fe sequence is gorgeous and emotional. There are also a handful of huge dance numbers showcasing different groups of characters. The scale of these shots causes the cameras to have to move quickly to keep up with everything going on in the scene. These scenes never felt choppy or like something was missed. There was such a smooth transition around the neighborhood it felt as if you were really there. “In the Heights” was shot on location, I can’t imagine the difficulties suffered and the creativity needed to pull that off and make it look as amazing as it does.

“In the Heights” felt special, like something I hadn’t seen before. I wanted to immediately rewatch it to see if there was anything I’d missed. It’s one of the best stage to screen adaptations in a long time and I think a good portion of that is due to the work of Alice Brooks. I expect her to get an Academy Award nomination soon (hopefully the first woman to win) and look forward to watching any other projects she’s involved with.

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