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by Matthew Hammett Knott
September 6, 2012 10:03 AM
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Heroines of Cinema: Ellen Kuras, Rockstar Among Cinematographers

Ellen Kuras
Ellen Kuras has been described as a rockstar among cinematographers. She has worked with Martin Scorsese, Sam Mendes and Spike Lee, not to mention Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman on one of the most acclaimed and visually exciting films of the past decade, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”. For the first of her Scorsese collaborations, the Bob Dylan documentary “No Direction Home”, she was personally chosen by Dylan to shoot the interview he gave for the film. She is the only cinematographer ever to win three awards at Sundance.

It is clear, then, that Kuras’s gender has been no barrier to success, but the same cannot be said for female cinematographers in general. Famously, no woman has ever been nominated for the Oscar for Best Cinematography, let alone won. (Kuras has in fact been Oscar-nominated, but for directing the documentary “The Betrayal”). Meanwhile, a mere 7% of the Top 250 Grossing Films of 2011 were shot by female Directors of Photography. While it is not a field in which one might ever expect absolute parity in terms of professional numbers, 7% represents a pathetic dividend on the percentage of female cinematographers at entry level. So how on earth did Ellen Kuras succeed in becoming a rockstar?

Cinematographers are too often unsung heroes among the film-going public. The oft-heard phrase “The director’s vision” must rankle particularly, since it is the Director of Photography who allows this vision to become concretely visual. In interviews, Kuras is clear to state her role. Talking to Indiewire back in 2002, she explained how “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”. She also states plainly that it is she who is in charge of the crew, more often than not a male-dominated workforce.

READ MORE: Heroines of Cinema: Muriel Heslop

Kuras can rarely have been more challenged to execute a vision than when working on “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”. There she had not only the wild invention of Charlie Kaufman’s script to contend with, but Michel Gondry’s ideas on how to negotiate the film’s finely balanced blend of the mundane and the surreal. Gondry requested both a very real look, without an over-dependence on lighting, and some very conspicuous camera effects to signal the transitions between reality and memory. As Kuras explains, “That was the enigma of the film to me: we would have these unconventional, trompe l’oeil transitions that were not transparent film language, but the lighting sources had to be naturalistic at the same time”. She recounts her attempts to get around this, at times all but tricking Gondry by rigging natural light sources with unconventional bulbs. She admits “there were moments when the cinematographer in me just cringed”, but by all accounts, the collaboration was a successful one - the film was released to universal acclaim, and the pair teamed up again for Gondry’s next film, “Be Kind Rewind”.

"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"
Ellen Kuras has been asked the gender question with predictable frequency, and has expressed an understandable desire to be recognised as a cinematographer first, and a female one second. Nonetheless, she has been a passionate defender of female opportunity within her field: “I think that women have to face their fears about being competent technicians, because most of the women I've met in the industry have consistently been great technicians. We have to look into ourselves every single time we walk onto a set and reassure ourselves that we're okay and that we know our jobs and that we're as competent as the rest. Be confident and people will see and believe in your confidence. More importantly, don't be afraid to ask questions if you don't know something”.

Another reason that Kuras has been able to enjoy such a successful career is by working mostly in the independent sector. She claims to have felt the gender bias far more keenly on big studio films such as “Analyse That”, where she admits to having felt like a lone woman. On indie film sets, she has suggested that there is not only a better gender balance, but a more convivial sense of mutual assistance and achievement, and it is clear that this is what she prefers.

READ MORE: Heroines of Cinema: Rizzo from 'Grease'

But what about women who do want to shoot big-budget films? I can think of only one woman hired as Director of Photography on a film with a budget of more than $100 million - Mandy Walker on Bazz Luhrmann’s “Australia”. As is so often the case in Hollywood, it would seem that when very large sums of money are involved, women suffer from a lack of faith from the more conservative studio executives.

Yet who could be more nervous about seeing their vision realised than an acclaimed auteur director? They, as it turns out, are more than happy to work with female Directors of Photography. Indeed, here is a list of 10 Oscar-winning or nominated directors who have collaborated with a female DP on a feature film:

Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler, Maryse Alberti)
Lisa Cholodenko (High Art, Tami Reiker)
Michel Gondry (Various, Ellen Kuras)
Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, Maryse Alberti)
Spike Lee (Various, Ellen Kuras)
Richard Linklater (Tape, Maryse Alberti)
Bazz Luhrmann (Australia, Mandy Walker)
Sam Mendes (Away We Go, Ellen Kuras)
Martin Scorsese (No Direction Home, Ellen Kuras)
Gus Van Sant (Paranoid Park, Rain Li)

It is probably not complete coincidence that despite the critical reputation of all the directors listed, many of the films in question were low budget projects that were already risky propositions. Meanwhile, the fact that the list is dominated by two women (Kuras and Maryse Alberti) is further evidence of the Catch-22 situation that women will only be hired for major projects once they have been hired for major projects. Of course, the same could be said for all cinematographers, but evidence suggests the struggle for women is even harder.

Yet surely the above list is ample proof that the gender of a cinematographer should be irrelevant in any hiring decision. It seems that in the case of Ellen Kuras, this is now so, making her an inspiring example for anyone in her field. However, given the status quo, the fact that her achievements have come in such a male-dominated sphere is nothing if not further cause for celebration.

Matthew Hammett Knott is a London-based filmmaker and writer and contributor to Indiewire's Lost Boys blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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2 Comments

  • Jendra Jarnagin | September 7, 2012 9:48 PMReply

    Great article. I am a woman cinematographer. Something interesting that I wanted to point out is the seemingly dismal 7% of women DPs in 2011. That was by all accounts a GREAT year for women DPs. In the history of this annual study that tracks the employment of women in the key film positions (called The Celluloid Ceiling) most years it is 1 or 2%!!! Even one year in the past that it had crept up to 3% (the year of The Wrestler, and The Wackness, shot by Petra Korner) it slipped to 1% the following year again!

  • MHK | September 8, 2012 4:10 AM

    Thanks for that, Jendra -- those are some depressing statistics, though fingers crossed 7% is not a total freak result!