“Like every other kid that was born in the late eighties, early nineties, I was watching a ton of television music videos… MTV, BET…” Ashley rattles off.
Ashley Battle is a director and director of photography who’s one of the few Chicago African-American women in the International Cinematography Guild Local 600. She’s worked on productions such as “Chicago Med”, “Work in Progress”, “Candyman”, and many more.
Yet, she actually started her journey in music.
“I went to school for audio engineering and music production in Minneapolis, Minnesota,” Ashley relates. In school, she knew plenty of musicians who needed filmed content. So, Ashley began shooting music videos - an interest that ultimately led her to the filmmaking world.
“When I listen to music, I visualize concepts or stories and I play out scenarios in my head,” Ashley shares. “That’s how I wanted to express myself as a creative - in getting out what I envisioned.”
Eventually, Ashley moved back to Chicago after school, wanting to pursue film.
She was green. In fact, as she admitted with a short laugh, she didn’t even know what a director or a director of photography was. But, she knew that she wanted to continue production. She wanted to be making films. So, she started as a production assistant.
“I was a PA for about three, three-and-a-half years?” she calculates. In that time, she learned more about production. But, she always knew that she didn’t want to be a production assistant forever.
Two years into her production experience, she became an intern at Schumacher, a former Chicago film equipment rentals house. Through her experience, she had hands-on experience with professional cinema cameras. “I was PA-ing on union commercials and Schumacher dealt with a lot of union productions,” Ashley remembers, “and I was working around a lot of union ACs.”
At the same time, several shows began filming in Chicago. Commercial ACs who were typically available were also day-playing or working on TV full-time. As a result, productions began hiring Ashley.
“People brought me out as a PA and then eventually a [Camera] Utility,” Ashley relates. “I actually joined [the International Cinematography Guild Local 600] because I had enough hours.”
Even though she joined the union, she still struggled. For one thing, that initial jobs boom had subsided, leaving Ashley to navigate the fewer number of jobs. For another, she was a Black woman in a work environment filled with mostly cishet white men.
“It was tough to get people to trust me and respect me and my work,” she candidly reflects.
On top of that, the role of digital utility wasn’t meshing with her. Although it may seem like an easy job running inputs and outputs, Ashley clarifies that it was a high-stakes role. She had to set up the monitors for above-the-line roles like the directors and the directors of photography. Additionally, the amount of troubleshooting she had to do while on the fly was stressful.
“For me, getting into the camera department was a way to stay in production,” Ashley relates. “I didn’t want to be someone who’s working a regular job and trying to do this [film] on the side.”
Yet, when she knew that she wasn’t getting hired as a utility, she recognized that she had to transition - after all, she wasn’t doing the job just for the money.
“I think you have to know yourself, and don’t do anything for money or so other people think you’re cool,” she says. “The most important part of knowing when to pivot is if you’re becoming jaded.”
“So, then I started doing a lot of indie stuff and second ACing in the independent world,” Ashley continues. She especially attributes a lot of her earlier successes to one of her mentors Chris Rejano, who would hire her as a camera assistant on the independent films he was DPing on.
While she was struggling with utility, she ended up finding more success working as a camera assistant. From there, she kept climbing - a progression that was solidified by Work in Progress.
“I worked as a second [AC] on Work in Progress and the goal [of that show] was to move everybody up,” Ashley explains. “They knew I wanted to DP, so they asked if I wanted to first [AC].”
Ashley works on projects, but now as a director and cinematographer. She especially loves music videos. She’s learned to cherish the liberating creativity that comes innately with the form.
“It’s about freedom of expression, breaking the rules…” Ashley carefully considers when asked about what experimentation in her music videos looks like.
“A fear of mine, coming from the audio world, is having all these peers who went to school for film and production and have received a [formal] education,” Ashley confides. “I broke a lot of rules and I still break a lot of rules, but I’m okay with that because you can’t tell me what I don’t think looks cool.”
Ashley finds creative flexibility with a lack of formal training in her past. For example, she started out as a handheld shooter, but the more she grew into her career, her experiences began shaping her voice and aesthetic. While she acknowledges that there’s a time and place for static shots, she finds her voice best expressed through camera motion.
“Sometimes, sticks just feel too subtle,” Ashley notes. “Coming from an untraditional background carried over into my work.”
Still from Alonzo Jackson-Fashion Film (directed by Ashley Battle and DP'd by Taylor Russ) | Sony FS7 and Schneider Xenon Cinema Primes | Ashley C Battle
“When I was a PA, I was in a very commercial white misogynistic environment,” relates Ashley. “But, I was lucky enough to have a lot of mentors and people in my life who kept me on sets that were inclusive, diverse, and intentional.”
One of those productions was Work in Progress, which emphasized growth for the crew and focused on promoting their collaborators. On that set, everyone had a voice and was heard.
“I love the mastermind theory that two heads are better than one,” says Ashley. “Production is a community of folks coming together to create something that one person really can't do by themselves.”
Maybe that’s why she loves music videos so much. Ashley feels that, with the newer generation having the internet and new places to post content, a lot of expectations are being uprooted. People can just whip out their phones and film music videos without the prohibitive costs of past technologies.
“Cause when you look at the history of the film and television industry, it’s very militaristic,” she observes. “Even though it started off as something creative, a little of that [military history] carries over.”
“Until you have those people who are like, ‘no, I'm going to break the rules. I’m going to do what I want to do’.”
Headshot for Ashley Battle | Voyage Chicago
ASHLEY C. BATTLE is a Director and DP from Chicago, Illinois. Ashley’s love of music and storytelling led her to study audio engineering at The Institute of Production and Recording in Minneapolis, Minnesota. While creating music in school, she began filming music videos which incited her creative work in cinematography and directing. Ashley’s incredible talent as Director and DP has made her a go-to-person for filmmaking in her hometown of Chicago.