Both of photographer and cinematographer Thaïs Castralli‘s parents were doctors, but she traded the obvious career in medicine for a trip to film school. Having relocated from Brazil to Los Angeles, Castralli graduated from the American Film Institute with an MFA in cinematography in 2016 and shot a variety of commercials and short films. But her passion project is Muses, an episodic documentary about breast cancer survivors that she hopes will inspire women to overcome whatever obstacles are standing in their way, and serve as a rebuke to anti-breast cancer campaigns that objectify women’s bodies and use fear to increase awareness. Instead of victims, she sees heroes.

Castralli connected with April Stears, the creator and editor of Wildfire magazine, who pointed her toward her first two Muses: Stori Nagel, a body-acceptance advocate whose Haus of Volta collective is based in Riverside, CA, and Dana Dinerman of Hulabelle swimwear in San Diego, CA. Castralli is currently seeking funding to tell more stories that will round out the Muses project. We talked to her about her own brush with cancer, what she’s learned from the project so far, and how she selected Cooke anamorphic SF (special flare) glass to capture a realistic look — with a little something extra.

Still from <i>Muses</i>

Still from Muses
Thaïs Castrale

StudioDaily: When did you know you wanted to be a cinematographer?

Thaïs Castralli: I was born and raised in Brazil. My parents are both immigrants — my mom is from Portugal and my dad is from Italy, and I grew up with my Italian grandmother. She went from Italy to Brazil during the war, and she had this idea that I had to know that there was a war, and what people experienced during it. So she started showing me movies as soon as she could. My dad did, also. So I grew up watching movies. I always loved them, but I was preparing myself to be a doctor, going to medical school. When I actually told my parents, “No, I applied for film school — and I got in, so I have to change this,” they were super-OK with that.

So a love of film showed you what you wanted to do. And now you’re in Los Angeles. 

I am. Since my parents were doctors, I was never the kid who had a Super 8 camera or took photographs every day. I developed my first film in college when I was 18, and I fell in love with it. I was an illustrator at the time, to pay for college, and [making films] felt like everything I used to do with light and shadow for an illustration, but it was going so far beyond that. It’s like illustration, but with magic.

I tried to move toward photography and cinematography but, unfortunately, I had some sexist experiences. Every time I tried to go onto a set and help out, no matter how many times people would recommend me, the DP or someone else would look at me and be like, “Oh, you’re a girl.” So I had to learn more and see if I could get in some other way. I had no experience with photography. but I knocked on the door of the head partners of Leica [in Brazil], where my former boss, Luiz Marinho, was nice enough to take in this girl that knew basically nothing of photography and taught me a lot. I spent years there and became sales and marketing manager. When I said I was applying to AFI, they gave me their blessing. Actually, my family wasn’t here for my graduation from AFI, but my boss and my co-worker were.

Dana Dinerman

Dana Dinerman
Thaïs Castrale

Your current project is about women, specifically women who are survivors of breast cancer, and it’s called Muses. Tell me how that came to be.

I had a history [of breast cancer] in my family, and also very, very close friends of the family. Their stories inspired me, and they saved me. They put up a real battle against breast cancer. Thanks to their journey, mine was just a small detour on the road. But I didn’t understand how these women didn’t see themselves how I saw them — they were my heroines.

I remember seeing campaigns during breast cancer awareness month, and they were just misusing women’s images. There would be a bare torso and “test yourself” or “prepare yourself,” always urging women to action through fear. And I thought, “I would never portray the women who are my heroines in that way.” The people who are doing these campaigns mostly don’t know the stories of these women. When I was back in Brazil, I wanted to interview people and tell their stories, but when I got here I fell completely in love with old Hollywood portraiture. And I felt like, these are my divas, these are my muses. I kept hearing their complaints that many of them had posed for campaigns where they had to appear bare-chested or show scars. We have seen so much of that. Why not see who I think they are? Maybe they can see themselves as muses and divas.

So I started photographing them, inspired by the old Hollywood photographers — George Hurrell, Clarence Sinclair Bull, Don English. I thought I needed to know their stories in order to portray them accordingly. And I wanted to go to women who were working in their communities. Some of them are amazing. One of them runs a pin-up calendar with breast cancer survivors. One of them was a teacher who quit her job to open her own swimsuit line for breast cancer survivors — we’re all women, so whether you have had surgery or not, you can pick the swimsuit that’s most flattering for you, and that’s something I had never heard of. So I wanted to reach those women. And I was combining a photography and a documentary project — I wanted to document the process of bringing all these women together for a photo shoot at the end of the project.

What are the interviews with individual subjects like?

My main idea was to have an episodic documentary, where in each episode you meet one of the women, who is talking about her story and her work. Some of them are taking me to places that are extremely important to them, like where they recovered their femininity, or where they feel empowered, or the moment where they felt at their lowest.

You were inspired by glamour photography. How did that affect your approach? 

I thought of doing the entire documentary like that — just shooting everything in black and white, high contrast, very glamorous, 4×3. And then I thought about the whole idea of bringing these women together later for the photo shoot. I want to document them receiving hair, makeup and wardrobe, and seeing themselves and each other in that way. That’s the climax I want. So I decided to shoot in a more realistic way. But at the same time, I wanted equipment that would not allow me to make it as a run-and-gun documentary. I wanted equipment that would make me consider, ahead of the shoot, the locations. I asked the participants to send me photos of the place they wanted to take me too so I could think about my framing. In the end, I wanted the women’s stories to be aligned with beautiful imagery. I didn’t want them to tell stories that can be extremely sad paired with thoughtless imagery.

Still from Muses
Thaïs Castrale

I understand you’re using interesting lenses — the Cooke Anamorphic /i SF lenses.

I wanted the Cooke SF lenses, and I wanted to pair them with an ARRI Alexa. Looking for rental houses where I could get discounts or some other kind of help, since I was paying out of pocket, I found Bianca Halpern, who had just opened BeCine, her rental house in Culver City. She didn’t even have a website. But she had an Instagram page, and I contacted her. From the way she talked and some terms she used, when I replied to her I asked, “Are you from Brazil?” And she was! And she loves those lenses. I had never shot with Cookes, but I thought this specific project would go well with them. So she offered me a full Alexa Mini package and the lenses I was looking for.

“I had tested the Cooke anamorphics before and I loved how they were so controlled in flaring and veiling glare, with great contrast and amazing color saturation, without any crazy aberrations. For this project, I wanted something that would be true to reality. From my tests I felt that the Cooke anamorphics were extremely gentle on skin tone. I loved that skin tone rendition. I wanted to be closer to reality, but I wanted an extra spark. Yeah, we’re doing a documentary, but it’s not the usual breast cancer campaign documentary. When I read about the special flares, I thought, “These might be the lenses,:

Stori Nagel

Stori Nagel
Thaïs Castrale

How did that desire — for reality, with an extra spark — affect your lighting?

I had really wanted to use a bunch of lighting to do beauty lighting, but I thought that might rob a little from the photo shoot. My biggest partner in the process is my boyfriend, Craig Boydston, who is also an AFI graduate — a great cinematographer and an exquisite gaffer — and I think he wanted to light more than I wanted. But in the end we decided to go for mirrors everywhere. We lit some shots, and we put mirrors everywhere, and one of the set-ups we did was actually the participant in front of a vanity, and we chose the mirror to go on her vanity in order to have something bigger, and then we surrounded her on the vanity with other tiny mirrors. I had a reference from Atonement that was Keira Knightley’s character at the vanity, a very voyeuristic shot with reflections and lights.

How much does your approach vary from place to place? 

A lot. I didn’t expect this, but all of the people I talked to when I started the project told me a little bit about their stories. They were all different, of course, but one thing that was common to many of them was they felt that the process robbed them of their femininity. And so I thought, this is my tagline. I’m here to try my best to help them find the femininity they think they lost. That’s the one thing I tried to keep consistent. I had a set of questions that I was going to use with all of them, and I wanted to hear them say different things. But by the first one, I realized that I couldn’t make the story of the people that I know feed into their stories. That was a surprise, but it made it more natural. And for the next ones, I’m considering maybe even appearing with them in the shot. The last person I interviewed, I was tearing up behind the camera and I felt so disconnected. And as I was tearing up, the participant stood up and came to hug me. And I thought that it was so genuine. It was something that I want to experience. If you’re hiding behind the camera, you’re sort of pretending you don’t have a personal stake in this process. So maybe next time I’ll be on camera.

Who do you have in mind as your audience, and what are you trying to show them?

In the beginning I had this idea that I wanted to reach out to as many women as I can. That’s why I’ve been focusing on participants who are not only survivors but have done amazing work for the community. One of them battled anorexia for the longest time, and now she is a bodybuilder. In the end it doesn’t matter what type of survivor she is or what she had to overcome — it’s an inspiring story. I wanted women to feel inspired and to know that it doesn’t matter what is somehow holding you back, whether it’s your health or your work environment or your ideas being shut down. Sometimes in life it gets to that point where either you do it or your time is going to run out. You don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow. So if you have the option, do it now. Back at home, when people would tell me, “Oh, you’re a girl. I need a guy to do that.” I wish I could have been like, “No, let me show you what I can do, and then you can choose me based on my skills.” If I don’t do a good job, then yes, find someone else. But please, don’t pass me up because I’m a girl. Not because I’m wearing makeup.