Ellen Kuras

Ellen Kuras

Ellen Kuras, the acclaimed cinematographer (see
cover story, MM #35
) on such celebrated films as Swoon and I Shot Andy Warhol, has made a name for herself by breaking
with conventions and making films that matter. She easily moves
back and forth between features and documentaries, and has become
a frequent collaborator with both Spike Lee and Rebecca Miller.

In Personal Velocity, she reteams with Miller
to explore the unrelated but familiar lives of three very different
women: Delia, Greta and Paula. Starring Kyra Sedgwick, Parker Posey
and Fairuza Balk, the film is the latest InDigEnt release, made
on a budge of $150,000 and shot on mini-DV. Here, Kuras discusses
her most recent collaboration with Miller, the challenges of mini-DV
and why gender shouldn’t matter.

Jennifer Wood (MM): How did you first become
involved with
Personal Velocity?

Ellen Kuras (EK): I have a long-term relationship
with Rebecca Miller, which dates back to when we worked on Angela together, a film about two little girls dealing with their mother’s
manic depression. That film ended up going to Sundance and I won
the Cinematography Award with it, I guess in 1996. So Rebecca and
I have known each other for a long time, and have a very symbiotic
working relationship. As she puts it-she starts a sentence and I
finish it. She had been away in Europe and was having a child, so
she’d been writing a lot. She wrote a book of short stories and
she called me up and said "Listen, I finally have some money
that I can make a short film based on three of my short stories.
Would you like to do it?" and I said ‘Sure. I’ll work with
you any time.’ She said the only thing is "We only have $150,000
and we have to shoot it in mini-DV. I said, ‘Okay. Well, why don’t
we shoot it in Super16?’ She said "We can’t, because part of
the money is contingent on us shooting in mini-DV."

MM: Because it’s part of the InDigEnt series?

EK: Right. So I said-gulp-‘Okay. I’ll have
to deal with the mini-DV aspect of it again. I’ll give you five
weeks of my time for free and let’s do it-let’s make the movie.’
I really wanted to work with Rebecca again. The overriding influence
in my decision was the fact that Rebecca was directing it; that
it was one of her original works, and I really liked the script.

MM: You sound like you were a bit reluctant
to work in mini-DV again. What was your previous experience in the

EK: Well, I’d previously worked in mini-DV
on Bamboozled and, interestingly, when Bamboozled first came out and people began saying "Oh DV? Did you shoot
it in HD?" A lot of them didn’t understand that what we did
on Bamboozled was pretty groundbreaking-that we took these
small consumer cameras and shot a feature with it.

I didn’t know anything about mini-DV when Spike first
brought up the subject; I really hadn’t even explored that medium
at all. I had worked in video in my very first early times of working
in documentary many years ago. I’d also worked in Hi8 and that kind
of thing, but I never took it seriously as a medium to make a dramatic
film. I basically had a week to figure everything out I could about
mini digital so we could make our selection of camera, prep and
then shoot the movie. I was very involved in shooting commercials
back then, so I didn’t have any time at all. I ended up going with
the Sony VX1000, which at the time was one of two cameras that you
could possibly use-the other being the Canon XL1. I chose the Sony
over the Canon for different reasons, primarily because of the way
that the zoom lens and the focus operated.

The versatility of the camera is undeniable: you can
pick it up and be right next to an actor without them feeling the
confines of having a huge camera behind them, with a whole crew
and everything. You can also do longer takes. But for me, I’ve spent
a lot of my creative thinking about the technical aspects of it.
The lack of a back focus on the camera meant that you couldn’t zoom
in, focus and zoom out again; you had to focus the shot for what
it was. And the contrast range of the camera was very difficult
to handle. It doesn’t handle highlights very well; it doesn’t handle
deep shadows very well. Although you can shoot in lower light situations,
what I found is that you do have to light for mini-DV. So I was
going against all the conventions that people had conjured up about
all the attributes of mini-DV. All the producers would all say "Well
you don’t need any lights." And I would say ‘Wrong! You do
need lights.’ So a lot of ideas were circulating about mini-DV that
needed to be dispelled in order for people to get the tools necessary
to shoot it well.

MM: Personal Velocity is comprised of three
separate stories about three different women, each of which has
a very distinct look. What sort of conversations did you have ahead
of time with Rebecca as far as how to differentiate these stories,

EK: Well, we definitely discussed the look
of each of the parts because we wanted them to look different in
terms of the color palette, the camera moves and just the general
attitude toward the material. For the "Greta" piece, we
decided that we wanted to do more static tripod work, so that the
camera was very calm and static, like she was. We also decided that
we would give it more of a cool look, just because we thought that
that story lent itself better to more of a cool feeling, being kind
of austere and simple.

With the "Paula" piece, we realized that
Paula was going through a series of realizations that were more
internal realizations, like the other women but of a different kind.
So I said to Rebecca, ‘Why don’t we try doing some extreme close-ups
that would sort of punctuate her realizations? Close-ups of the
kid biting his fingernails, his eyes, the dashboard, the raindrops
on the windshield. [I also] fooled around a little bit with the
color temperature, because I wanted to put more cool, underlying,
almost purple feel into the shadow areas-and to keep the highlights
a certain kind of tone; more yellowish, but not yellow. I switched
the color temperature for the daylight scenes onto tungsten, so
that I would have a filter there. And I basically fooled around
with it on the indoor scenes and the outdoor scenes. Then I color
corrected later in the color transfer, so it would have that particular
feeling to it.

In the "Delia" piece, with Kyra Sedgwick,
I decided that I was going to use a color palette of yellows and
greens. I did some experimentation with a coral filter, and Rebecca
really liked the way that looked, so that’s how we decided to distinguish
each of the different stories-differentiating between the highlights
and shadows, the camera moves and the contrast.

MM: Generally speaking, how do you like
to prepare for a film with the director?

EK: I always, always value the time
of the director before photography, because for me the film really
gets made during those discussions-in my mind and in our minds.
It creates a common language between me and the director to be able
to understand the look and what the "third eye" is, in
a way. What the vision of the film is. That usually entails talking
about the look in general, looking at different tear sheets or pictures
or paintings, and then going through the script blow by blow. Going
at it scene by scene and deciding on what kind of shots we’re going
to design for each particular section; whether they’re car shots,
or how we’re going to help the blocking and how the camera’s going
to interact with the actors.

MM: What is the film you’re most proud of? 

EK: That’s a good question. I’d say that all
the different films have their attributes. I would say out of the
studio pictures, Summer of Sam and Blow [are my favorites].
For me, it was a very creative time making those films. I had a
lot of creative license through the directors. On Blow, I
don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard in my life. We had a fantastic
time. It was a great, great crew-a great energy. Every day I really
enjoyed going to work; I looked forward to it.

Summer of Sam was grueling in a different way:
the hours were really difficult, because there were a lot of nights.
But in that film, I got to experiment a lot with reversal stocks
and different looks. And so it was kind of interesting for me on
a creative level.