INTERVIEW: Cinematography As Poetry: Ellen Kuras Talks About The DV Challenges of "Personal Velocity"
by Erin Torneo/indieWIRE
(indieWIRE: 11.25.02) — I like to use the phrase “rock star” when I talk about Ellen Kuras. Not only has the veteran cinematographer lensed such films as “Bamboozled,” “Summer of Sam,” and “I Shot Andy Warhol,” but she also impressively negotiates the Boys Club with studio fare like “Blow,” “The Mod Squad,” and “Analyze That.” And currently, she is in pre-production on the Michel Gondry/Charlie Kaufman project “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” starring Jim Carrey and Kirsten Dunst.
Last year, Kuras returned to her indie roots and collaborated for a second time with writer-director Rebecca Miller on “Personal Velocity,” which premiered at Sundance this past January. The triptych drama stars Kyra Sedgwick (“Delia”), Parker Posey (“Greta”), and Fairuza Balk (“Paula”) as three very different women struggling toward a turning point in their lives, and it is based on Miller’s short story collection of the same name.
Not only did the film take home Sundance’s grand jury prize, but it also won a cinematography prize, making Kuras the only director of photography to receive the award twice (she won previously for her first project with Miller). It might not sound surprising when you consider Kuras’ filmography, but consider this: “Personal Velocity” was shot in 16 days on digital video under the mandate of NYC filmmaking initiative InDigEnt. With its innovative use of stills, close ups, and delicate palette, “Personal Velocity” is one of the few DV works that actually uses the medium in service of the story. IndieWIRE’s Erin Torneo visited Kuras far from the trenches of Park City (she was on the set of a Radio Shack commercial), where the award-winning director of photography spoke about working with DV on “Personal Velocity.” United Artists released the film on Friday.
indieWIRE: Cinematographers are the unsung heroes in filmmaking for the movie-going public. Can you give us a rundown of what a cinematographer does?
Ellen Kuras: As director of photography, I am in charge of whatever goes in to the making of the image so I am head of the camera, grip, and electric departments. I’m number two to the director so one of the most exciting parts of my job is conceptualizing the visual language that goes into the image. During prep, I sit down with the director and talk about what their visual and narrative influences are. I try to get into the director’s mind’s eye in order to be able to enhance and execute that vision. It becomes, for me, a collaborative vision.
Another important aspect of my job is my relationship with the crew. I’m the head of the crew. For me, it’s very important to have trust and a kind of intimacy with my crewmembers so that we can all be collaborative and work creatively together. I work very closely with the gaffer John Nadeau who I’ve worked with for more than 10 years. We’ve done many independent and studio movies together. We have a great time and we also laugh a lot on set. I think that’s also a really important part of making a film. You have to be able to laugh. People take themselves way too seriously; it just kills the experience of being on set and making a film.
iW: What attracted you to work on a project like “Personal Velocity”?
Kuras: I was very interested in working on the film because it was a whole different format; almost like three short stories. Rebecca Miller [the writer/director] and I worked together on “Angela” and she is such a pleasure to work with. We have a very interesting symbiotic relationship because we are able to see into each other’s heads and speak and work on different planes that are not so literal. Also, a lot of the same crew from “Angela” were interested in working on “Personal Velocity” and we were really excited about getting the gang back together.
iW: How did you technically differentiate the narrative of three different stories?
Kuras: We had three distinct looks for each of the different narratives. The color palette for Delia’s story was warm-toned with more yellows and greens and browns. We tried to keep the skin tones neutral. They were almost peachy but not red, because red indicated more of that video-look. I was wary of putting any red into it. I also think that red does not duplicate well in video and I instructed the production designers not to use any red unless it was absolutely part of the story. Red was the big no-no. Greta’s story’s look was cool and austere. The camera moves were on tripod and were much more mannered. Paula’s story was much more frenetic so for the color palette, I wanted to put this kind of blue purple to the shadow areas, and to have to some cream colored highlights and then have the flashback sequences be a different color which would be in contrast to what the main color palette was.
iW: What were the technical limitations of shooting a film on mini-DV?
Kuras: Working on mini-DV, I knew I would be very preoccupied with technical details such as focus, which is fundamental especially if you want to go to 35 blow-up. Focus has to be really sharp and it’s very hard to verify the focus. If it’s not dead-on, then you can see every little thing when it goes up on screen. And that’s one thing that would drive me crazy. Also, the contrast is very hard to control using DV unless you have an overcast lighting situation or you’re inside. John and I basically used the natural light and augmented it, giving it a style unto itself. Most people have the misconception that you don’t have to light mini-DV, but to make it look like anything interesting, you need to light the film.
iW: This is a heavily female film in both cast and crew. Can you give a female perspective on what that was like?
Kuras: I’m much more aware of the imbalance of male to female when I’m working on big studio movies. I just finished a big studio movie [“Analyze That”] and I was very aware that I was the only woman amongst many men. “Personal Velocity” did have a lot more women on-set but the crew was also a real mix of men and women who were interested in filmmaking and who really wanted to be there. In the independent world, there’s a lot more diversity which makes for a more balanced crew. A lot of times you find that on independent films, the crew are filmmakers themselves. They have mini-DV cameras and want to learn about making mini-DV films.
iW: I interviewed Rebecca previously and she mentioned something about using smoke to create an atmosphere.
Kuras: One of the ways that we reduce contrast on bigger movies is to use a smoke machine to create atmosphere. Smoke is not usually used on mini-DV movies. It helps when used judiciously but you really have to watch out about how much you use and to keep it even. We also did some contrasting, to give it a more filmic feel. I played around with filters, the color temperature of the camera, the white balance, and the shutter speed. I tried to make the look in camera as much as possible and later, we color corrected the film in post-production.
iW: What kind of crew did you have for this project?
Kuras: We had four and four. That means a gaffer and three electricians and a grip and three electricians. Mini-DV is a lot more work than people think because even though you are not pulling focus, you are constantly moving the cameras, carting around monitors, and dragging cable. We ended up having a first and second AC for each of the cameras and we really needed every ounce of their ability as well as a PA’s help. We used two complimentary Sony 150 cameras that Martina Radwan, the co-operator, and I ran all the time. With mini-DV cameras, you can roll forever through long takes so it really gave the actors the freedom to be in their mindspace more continually. But it’s important for directors to know what they want so they aren’t rolling forever.
iW: The film seems to hold the unique voice of the short story format. How did you approach coming up with the visual language to match a very definitive narrative?
Kuras: Rebecca and I talked about visual metaphors and “macro-epiphanies” where a series of close-ups are visuals to a state of mind, particularly with Greta and Paula. I was wrestling with the fact that I was going to have to shoot on mini-DV so one thing I decided was to try and make the film a visual poem. In poems, you can do anything, you can leave out your punctuation, but when you put in your punctuation it means something. So I decided that I would leave all the doors open and try to make it an expressive piece in service of the narrative. I usually shoot a lot of bits and pieces and sometimes they don’t make it into the film and sometimes they do. The great thing about Rebecca as an editor/director, thank God, is that she recognized those moments in the footage and then put them in the film. The movie is really about the movement toward these realizations, toward these poetic moments.