FORTITUDE: Sarah Whelden | We all have our own little superpowers.

How cinematographer Sarah Whelden sees light at the end of the tunnel.
| By David Poulshock

For this season’s last installment of Fortitude, 1 I’m going to step precariously out to the edge of a cliff for a bit of mental base jumping. So hang on and enjoy the ride.

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“Hey Man” w/ Kai Choyce; Director: Kai Tillman; Director of Photography: Sarah Whelden

I want to explore the theory of emergence with you.

You can thank Sarah Whelden for that. Sarah is a cinematographer based in Oregon (more about her remarkable talents later). She and I met for the first time a few days ago for this interview, and I quickly found myself wishing we had met long before. I knew immediately that I would appreciate her perspective as a DP should we find an opportunity to work together. Our careers seemed to follow similar paths. Our minds seemed to surf similar wavelengths. And right off the bat, we got to talking about stuff that was both personal and heady. Stuff that reminded me of the theory of emergence, which has been a big theme in my own work lately.

In philosophy, science, systems theory and art, “emergence” is the idea that properties of the whole only emerge when its smaller parts interact. If you’re thinking, “Ak! I didn’t sign up for a lecture in philosophy,” don’t worry, this won’t be a deep dive, just a little toe-dip in the water (which is about as deep as I’ve ever managed). And if you still feel that you need a life-raft, just cling to the idea that, sink or swim, we’re all in this boat together … and keep reading.

On a most basic level, the theory of emergence is the idea that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” — which is actually a misquote of a construct in Aristotle’s treatise Physica. Yeah, it’s been almost three thousand years since the idea was born. But flash forward to present day, and emergent theory is big in all kinds of disciplines, from mathematics to sociology, medicine, psychology and even art.

What in H does this have to do with making movies? Stay with me.

In a nutshell the theory means: small things often get together and “self-organize” to form bigger things that have different properties than the small things themselves. A snowflake is the sum of a bunch of frozen water molecules, but doesn’t look like water at all! A thousand starlings fly in unison, creating wondrous patterns in the sky that have nothing to do with the birds themselves. And the film you just worked on is the sum of all the actions that you and your team performed, but the end result — the finished film — doesn’t look like you in any way (unless maybe you’re the lead actor).

Anyway, those are some ways of looking at the theory of emergence. Simple things combine to create complex things. Complexity arrives from simplicity. And small steps change the world.

Yep, I’m making that leap — twisting the theory of emergence back on itself to the idea of how small, individual actions can change the world. (I told you I was going to do a little mental base jumping!)

Why this leap? Because the small steps that Sarah takes every day always seem to turn into leaps and bounds — whether it’s in her creative work as a cinematographer, in her activist work on OMPA’s DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) Committee, or in her personal life as a married queer trans woman. Let’s start with her work:

Sarah is all about story and I truly appreciate that in a DP. Both of us love a stunning visual, but we know in our hearts that ultimately, it’s not about eye candy, it’s about how each shot drives the story. And Sarah takes that to a microscopic level, even checking to see how a film plays without sound:

“I always put the story first. If somebody is watching without sound, will they know what’s happening? What you see on the screen is within my department, working with the other departments, to make sure that each frame is representative of what’s happening in the story.”
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“Bury Your Fish” w/ Arkira Chanty: Director: Emma Josephson; Director of Photography: Sarah Whelden

Don’t tell that to your Sound Mixer (ha-ha). But “each frame?” Talk about small steps! You know a frame is just 1/24th-of-a-second step toward the whole picture — which, if I’ve done the math correctly, is 1-in-129,600 frames all lined up in order to emerge into a 90-minute feature. Sarah’s focus on the frame is right up my own perfectionist alley. But her focus doesn’t end there. Not at all:

“More and more, I’m trying to use my voice as a cinematographer, as a collaborator, to tell stories that lift people up. The medium has the power to change minds and shine a light on things, and it’s important to tell stories that create a relatable experience for audiences who don’t necessarily feel represented.”

Sarah never felt that kind of representation growing up trans. In fact, she didn’t come out until halfway through her film career. Her experience, like countless others in under-represented communities, was one of loneliness. Now she has a platform to help fix that:

“We all have our own little superpowers. I like to think that mine is making movies. And I can use that to tell stories that are true, films that honor our real experience and help all of us feel less alone.”

It’s no surprise that Sarah is a passionate advocate for equity in our industry. She’s strenuously active on OMPA’s DEI incentives subcommittee, which played a key role in convincing the Oregon legislature to pass HB3010 just this month. The bill requires that incentivized projects have a DEI policy, make a good-faith effort to hire according to that policy, provide data around their hiring, and establish a process for addressing discrimination and harassment. Sarah pushed especially hard for the data-tracking part of the bill:

“It was a win, but didn’t go as far as we wanted. There’s still work to be done, but now we have an accountability structure that will give us data to support the next steps in creating more inclusive productions.”

When we got to the end of the interview, I asked Sarah if she had any words of encouragement to share with her fellow OMPA members. She went straight to advocacy:

“We all have a part to play in this. I think the biggest thing is finding ways to contribute. Find somebody who’s doing the equity work and let them know your skill sets and offer yourself up. It shouldn’t rest on the shoulders of the BIPOC community. It should rest on the shoulders of all of us.”

And after this horrific year lost to the COVID time-warp, does she see light at the end of the tunnel?

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“The Altruist” w/ Elizabeth Jackson: Director: Matt Smith; Director of Photography: Sarah Whelden

“Closer to that light, sure, but also privileged because so many people don’t have access to the vaccine that was prioritized for wealthy countries. It’s heartbreaking. I do want to enjoy this return to normalcy, but I also want to hold space for the challenges ahead. I try to hold space for hope.”

I think if we all use our “own little superpowers” like Sarah does — taking small steps that turn into leaps and bounds — our films, our work, our relationships and our world will emerge into a “whole that is greater (and safer and more joyful) than the sum of its parts.”

Make a note: if you turn to Webster instead of Aristotle, the word “emergence” is defined as “the process of coming into view or becoming exposed after being concealed,” and “the process of coming into being, or of becoming important or prominent.”

Never stop emerging, Sarah. And have a great summer, y’all!

Sarah is a graduate of Hampshire College (students and alumni call themselves Hampsters), where she studied film, photography and music. It’s not ironic for this story that Hampshire’s motto is “disrupting higher education for 50 years.” Sarah is married to another Hampster and film professional — Art Director, HMU Artist, & Wardrobe Stylist Kelly Wilcox. You can see Sarah’s and Kelly’s work here and here.

1 We’re taking a summer break until the fall. Stay tuned!

FORTITUDE is OMPA’s column about the trials, tribulations, successes and victories of our members during these strange times — stories of true grit, creativity and resilience, written by David Poulshock and contributing guest writers.

The Loveridge Family | Picture This Production Services

Annie Tonsiengsom | Actual Industries EP & Founder, OMPA DEI Committee Co-Chair

Kenji Sugahara | A-Cam Aerials Drone Pilot, Attorney

Rebecca Hynes | Indie Producer

Jared Hobbs | Deep Sky Executive Director

Christian Henry | Indie Filmmaker, Writer/Producer at KGW

Devin Fei-Fan Tau | Indie Director & Producer

Eric Stolberg | Founder & Sound Mixer at Digital One

Sarah Whelden | We all have our own little superpowers.

Jason Chau | Talk the walk. Walk the talk. And do it on a tightrope.

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About the Author

David Poulshock is a writer/director based in the Northwest whose preferred genre is magical realism.

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