An interview with Emmy nominated cinematographer Arlene Nelson

Mandy News talks to Cinematographer Arlene Nelson, whose camera work has led to collaborations with iconic directors and an Emmy Nomination for Outstanding Cinematography for her work on Academy Award winner Morgan Neville’s Troubadours.

18th March 2019
/ By James Collins

Arlene Nelson @a.full.nelson

How did you get involved with the camera?

I had been shooting with the ARRI Mini since it first came out.  I fell in love with the form factor.  Then a DP friend of mine, Tom Curran, who shoots a lot of verite, was touting the Amira for doc work.  Once I gave it a try, it became my go to camera for handheld, verite scene work.  

Tell us about 'This Giant Beast' and how you got involved with the project.

I had been traveling around the globe on and off for 7 months and was at the tail end of a Docu Series with Zachary Quinto searching for Atlantis in the middle of an ancient island in Italy called Sardinia when my agent Bill Dispoto called saying Amazon had a DocuSeries that Academy Award winning Adam McKay created. Oh, and I would get to travel the globe (again!) When I found out there was a narrative component to the series, I was in.  

You work with many different styles and mediums, Features, Documentaries and TV series,  Do you have a preference and what are the different challenges you face?

I have been fortunate that I have had the ability to be fluid in the kinds of projects I choose.  Lately, I am loving the longer format DocuSeries work I’ve been doing with Amazon and Netflix.  The projects I gravitate towards in the Docusphere will always have a stylised component to it.  For instance I shot ‘The Case of Jon Benet Ramsey’ for CBS and I shot all the recreations.  We built a 3000 square foot replica of JBR’s house and hung over 200 lights that were both tungsten and daylight on a grid we bolted into the ceiling of a warehouse.  We had the ability to make it day or night at the flick of a dimmer board. 

On ‘This Giant Beast’, I was also the DP on the narrative explainers.  Getting to work with talented artists like Zach Galifinakis, Thomas Middleditch, Patton Oswald, Mary Steen Burgis and so many others was a treat.  Documentaries today have this unique ability to be very creative in how you’re going to tell your story.  There is no cut and dry path anymore.  

Arlene Nelson on the sets of This Giant Beast ARRI
Arlene Nelson on the sets of This Giant Beast

Do you have a preferred camera/kit? 

I always determine the camera by the type of shooting the project requires.  For This Giant Beast, I was fortunate to have 2 ARRI Amira’s and 2 ARRI Minis.  I chose those cameras because the Amira’s are great for handheld work.  They are very well balanced and the operator can monitor sound, giving them an intimate understanding of the tone of the scene and where the subjects are leading them.  The Mini allows for great flexibility, allowing the operator to go from sticks, to a Movi, Ronin, or Steadicam without a lot of downtime which is always desirable.

What is coming up next for you? 

I am Director/DP on a very exciting Netflix DocuSeries—stay tuned.

What advice do you have for up-and-coming DOP’s? 

Always study the light around you.  What is the mood, the tone, why does it make you feel a certain way?   When someone says you can’t and you know in your gut you can, figure out a way to communicate what you desire and why.  It’s a team sport—learn how to work well with others. Your team is everything.  Especially when you travel- a great team can make or break you.  On This Giant Beast, I had the greatest camera team; Operators Bryant Swanstrom, Jon Stevenson,  ACs Kyle Gilbert and Jordan Claus.  Create an instagram account that shows off your abilities.  Mine is @a.full.nelson :) 

Oh and go to museums—look at art.  Study the classics.  Learn the rules.  Break the rules. 


Tania Whatley


Hi my son is a 15yr old cinematographer and works already. Would you be so kind as to watch one of his films on youtube and give us any advice to get work experience. His name is Luke Whatley-Bigg He has already won a film festival in Under 18 documentary.
Thank you