7 Secrets to Successful Cinematography from Master DP Ellen Kuras
Ellen Kuras, DP for Michel Gondry, Spike Lee, Jonathan Demme, and more, offers hard-won shooting and career advice.
Ellen Kuras, ASC has one of the most impressive filmographies among American cinematographers working today. She has shot for major directors like Spike Lee, Harold Ramis, and Sam Mendes, and on some of the most beloved indie films of the century, like Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes. She is the unprecedented three-time winner of the Best Dramatic Cinematography award at Sundance (for Swoon, Angela, and Personal Velocity) and was nominated for an Oscar and won an Emmy for the documentary that she shot and directed, The Betrayal (Nerakhoon).
"Her number one rule for being a successful director and a successful DP? Don't be an asshole."
But it’s not just Kuras' skills and accolades that make her stand out—it’s her attitude and approach to the work. She places a high premium on listening, true collaboration, using every opportunity to further the story visually, and showing appreciation to her entire team.
At a masterclass at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, Kuras shared some of the keys to her success with up-and-coming directors and DPs alike.
1. Visuals must always reflect the film's meaning
Kuras began her workshop with a warning: don’t get so caught up with form and tools that you forget what you’re trying to say.
“There's kind of a different environment now in the world of cinematography,” she said. “You can make a film with your iPhone. So the question becomes: what distinguishes you from another person who's making a film?”
“You can make a film with your iPhone. So the question becomes, what distinguishes you from another person who's making a film?”
Kuras believes that the answer lies in your point of view, which reveals itself in the choices that you make. She learned this lesson early when she hired a cinematographer to shoot a film that she was making for her social anthropology masters thesis in the ‘80s. She explained to him the story she was trying to tell, but when she got the 16mm film back, "it was really beautifully shot, but it was missing something," she said. "I couldn't put my finger on it at the time. I was just like, 'It doesn't move me.'"
It wasn’t until she picked up a camera herself that she began to realize that the missing ingredient was the meaning imbued in it by the cinematographer—the visual metaphor. “It's subjective,” she said. “Every single part of it—because you're making different choices as a filmmaker.”
Thus, she encourages DPs to ask themselves a question with every shoot: “How can I make the form of what I'm doing—how I'm shooting this—impact the meaning? How can we visually understand the film's meaning?"
2. Understand the director's vision
Overall, Kuras feels that one of the DP’s most important duties is to listen to their directors and really hear their vision. “Not all directors know about lenses, and not all directors know about blocking,” she said, “so listen to what they want to say. It's not about creating shots; it's about trying to create the story using the camera and the lighting.”
In order to decide which technical decisions to make, you need to know your story intimately. This may seem obvious, but as Kuras said, “There are so many people I know who shoot and don't even really know what the story is. They don't know what they're shooting.”
Both the director and the shooter need to know how they want to cover a scene, which requires communication. Particularly when shooting a documentary, you may be in situations where you’re without the director, so those conversations need to include as much detail as possible about what you want the future audience to see and feel.
With narrative films, Kuras prefers prep time to be as long as possible. She recalled that in the films she’s done with Rebecca Miller, such as Personal Velocity and Angela, "We would spend two months, four hours a day, to sit and talk about the script."
"The moment you start having discussions with the director on set, you're going to lose time and you're going to lose your own mind's eye."
No matter who she is working with, Kuras ideally requests four uninterrupted days with the director, by herself, to get into the head of that director. She advised, “You need to know what they're seeing, and you really want to do that before you get on set because the moment you start having discussions on set, you're going to lose time and you're going to lose your own mind's eye.”
Ever harkening back to the meaning of the film, Kuras emphasized understanding the director’s vision, “because every single shot has a story to it. Every single time you pan the camera, there's a reason for it. There's a reason why you choose the lenses you do. Why do a dolly move? Because it looks like a cool shot? Maybe. But then, what does it mean? You have to understand that when we see something, we perceive it visually as an audience and it affects us.”
3. Don’t rely on reaction shots
Many of the questions Kuras will ask in those initial director meetings are related to point of view: “Who do you want to tell the story? What's the point of view that you want to tell this story from? Are we over the character's shoulder? Are we in their head? Are we watching the other person from afar? Is it an omniscient point of view? Are we just standing back and seeing the room?”
For Kuras, the least interesting kind of coverage is the traditional setup: a master shot and close-up reaction shots with matching eye-lines. "It's actually more interesting when you shake it up a little bit," she insisted. "When I think back to Eternal Sunshine [of the Spotless Mind], if we covered that film in a traditional way, you'd be all asleep in the movie theater.”
The dynamic feeling of the movie that put Gondry on the map comes from their decision to shoot it handheld. According to Kuras, Gondry “made a decision in his own mind that he wanted everything to be organic. So I realized that the form of the film had to be part of the content. I knew that being handheld and being furtive, it would help to create the sensibility for that film.”
"Allow yourself to be emotional when you're shooting."
Gondry was so insistent on shooting handheld, in fact, that he would sometimes physically push his DP from behind because he felt she was holding the camera too steadily. “He would want it to be really rough,” she recalled, “So I'm like, ‘Okay. There goes my cinematography career.’ But I went with it, and it was important because when you see the whole film as a whole, you realize that you get into the dynamic aspect of it.”
To achieve the organic effect, Gondry also wanted Kuras to cover Eternal Sunshine with long takes so that the actors could move from place to place. She had to find a way around getting traditional reaction shots, ultimately serving the vision of the film.
4. In-camera effects can be more emotional
To say that Gondry wanted to go back to basics with Eternal Sunshine would be an understatement. “He's almost like a seven-year-old," Kuras said, "Where he's like, 'Okay. I need some construction paper. Where is it?'" The beauty of this, and the fact that much of the film takes place somewhere between memory and reality, is that there was room—and perhaps even a necessity—to play with in-camera effects.
The main location itself also necessitated this back-to-basics approach, as the team wasn’t allowed to set lights or put tape anywhere in the house. Kuras relished the opportunity, having been a longtime fan of the experimental films that put such techniques to use.
She and Gondry “put lights on dimmers, shot through glass, used reflection, and [asked], 'How do we use all of these kinds of rudimentary elements that we forget about now because we have so much digital post at our fingertips?'"
“Every shot that you do is a circle. It has a beginning, middle, and end.”
Using tangible, in-camera effects has a much more important benefit than the “happy mistakes” that occur in the analog world: it encourages feeling. "Allow yourself to feel something," Kuras said. "Allow it to be rough and ready. Allow yourself to be emotional when you're shooting. You can make pretty pictures, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it's an emotive piece of work."
5. You don’t have to use prime lenses
Kuras fell in love with zoom lenses when she shot her first feature, Tom Kalin’s Swoon, in 1992. Swoon was shot in 14 days for $25,000, in black and white on Kuras’ own 16mm camera. “We didn't even have a dolly,” she recalled. “We had a doorway dolly.”
Because of the budget constraints, they shot the whole film on two zoom lenses, but Kuras found that she enjoyed it. “What I loved about the zoom,” she said, “was that I could just zoom a tiny bit at the end of the shot. What always happens when the director calls cut is that there's that moment afterward when the actors are still in their character and they release...and it's almost like every shot that you do is a circle. It has a beginning, middle, and end. It has its own story. So with the zoom at the end of that story, I could finish it off. I could do the little push in.”
Later, she was brought on to replace well-known DP Sven Nykvist (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) on Rebecca Miller’s Angela. She met with him to get some advice and was daunted: “Oh my god. I loved his work, I loved how spare it was, I loved how he looked at the light, but I loved more than anything about his work was resonant. Your own emotive self comes into his work.”
"You don't have to be an asshole to be good."
Kuras remembers saying to Nykvist, "Everybody says that in order to be a real cinematographer when you're doing real film, you have to use prime lenses because they are better quality." Nykvist laughed it off and told her that he used zoom lenses all the time.
The advice he followed with clearly stuck with Kuras throughout her career: "You should use whatever you feel. Follow your intuition.That's part of your point of view."
6. Creative problem-solving is your best tool
In addition to following your intuition, Kuras said that the best piece of advice she can give is "if you don't know something, then it's really important to ask. I found that that's been much more helpful than it's been an obstacle to me in terms of being a successful person and being a problem-solver."
And problem-solving is the name of the game in filmmaking. Kuras has had to use that muscle in every job, but particularly her own documentary The Betrayal (Nerakhoon). She began this film in grad school, where she learned she wanted to be a DP, and eventually completed it 25 years later. There were so many barriers to completion, one being her own burgeoning career—she shot 35 other films in between its start and end of production. But mostly, there were logistical hurdles that required all her years of asking questions, honing skills, and creative problem-solving to overcome.
"Your creative challenges should become part of your creative arsenal."
The film portrays one family’s story of their experiences in the secret war waged in Laos by the U.S. government during the Vietnam War. One of the hurdles was that Laos was a closed country and she couldn’t even get in for many years. So she started filming with a Laotian immigrant in Brooklyn. She learned the Lao language. And when she couldn’t include direct clips of classified archival material, she projected it onto a wall with a 16mm projector and rephotographed it to appear in the film.
She recounted all of these examples as illustrations of problem-solving in a different way, “Your creative challenges should become part of your creative arsenal rather than seeing them as something that keeps you back,” she said.
7. Don’t be an asshole
When asked by an audience member about her the biggest takeaway from the director-DP relationship, Kuras placed an emphasis on trust. She said, “It was so important for me to be trusted by my directors, and that they know that I'm watching out for them and I'm trying to get into their heads and to tell their story, and to enhance their story.”
Kuras also believes it’s important to pay attention to everyone involved in the collaborative process. "My crew is so important to me," she said, "and everybody who knows me knows that I'm a huge advocate for the crew in terms of hours, in terms of protecting them. A lot of the time, the DPs think that they're the top of the hierarchy and that they get to treat everybody like shit."
Her number one rule for being a successful director and a successful DP? "Don't be an asshole."
"You don't have to be an asshole to be good," she insists, "and I think my career has proved it. The way I treat people with parity, and I respect everybody on set—whatever they're doing, they're just as important to the process.”