A look at how cinematographer Ellen Kuras entered the industry with her innovative techniques and then transformed it with her storytelling.
There's a scene in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that still strikes me as one of the best-filmed sequences of all time. It is towards the end of the film that Joel and Clementine's last memories of each other collapse in the form of an abandoned beach house destroyed in the rain. It's foggy, dark and the entire sequence is lit by a flashlight attached to the camera that moves itself with the POV of a home video observer.
While writer Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry will always be the big creative names in the film, I would argue that it is indeed Ellen Kuras' cinematography that truly makes it memorable – with her innovative techniques and nuanced approach to emotions .
With Eternal Sunshine, Ellen Kuras has made several experimental films by Gondry, as well as many others with the likes of Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Rebecca Miller and Martin Scorsese. And from her earliest documentary and music video days to her award-winning films, her cinematography was perhaps one of the most famous and influential of its generation.
Empathy and shooting with your heart
What makes you empathize with something? I shoot with my heart, so to speak. I always try to understand what the emotions are and how best to tell this story.
With a double degree in anthropology and semiotics from Brown University, Kuras' cinematography has always been informed and focused on how emotions should be conveyed and understood. Her earliest projects were documentaries that took her around the globe and deep into the Cambodian jungles to truly explore other people's experiences and bring those real emotions to life.
In the conversation above, Kuras shares how these early projects helped her develop her own approach to filmmaking and cinematography. Her shooting styles would become empathetic, which later in her career helped her portray those emotions in narrative traits and in her actors' performances.
Record handheld and hug zooms
As you can see in the interview with ARRIChannel, Kuras, along with her passion for filming, has developed her own approach to recording functions, which includes handhelds and zooms. The use of zooms in particular (even in the '90s) wasn't considered purely cinematic, but the style went well with Kuras as it would be combined with their handheld approach and would usher in a whole new generation of DIY filmmakers that I would accept the choice.
Kura's hand camera work is seen heavily in Eternal Sunshine as well as many other projects with Gondry and Lee. And while Kuras would be quick to admit that she would use forms of stabilizers and mounts if needed, the jerky, uneven appearance of the hand in many of her early films gave her a sense of style that she would expertly apply in the rest of her career.
Huge contrasts between light and dark
Another important hallmark of Kuras & # 39; cinematography – and a feature you can find in the filmography of all known cameramen – is the great contrasts between light and dark in their projects. Even from scene to scene and sometimes from shot to shot, Kuras is a master at creating images that attract you with challenging and dark details, only to explode from the screen into the next with over-inflated lights and bright whites.
You can see many examples of these contrasts in her compositions in films like Away We Go (see above), Blow, Be Kind Rewind, Bamboozled, and the "Renee" sequence from Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes. All of this excellently shows off Kuras' film palette and shows how light and dark different elements can be in each scene and how well they work together.
Innovation and economic success
In addition to her career as a cameraman for dozens of feature films with notable directors, Kuras has also had success in big budget television commercials. Speaking to Sarah Patterson above, you begin with a sample roll of some of her notable commercial work. Kuras discusses how she could shift her work and career in cinematography more in this direction, using many of the same styles and approaches that served her as a DP.
Since her breakthrough with her 2008 documentary The Betrayal, Kuras has become one of the top television directors (streaming more specifically) for some of the biggest shows on Netflix and Amazon – like Ozark, Legion, and The Umbrella Academy.
Creating opportunities for a new generation
While Kuras made the breakthrough early in her career with her cinematic skills and unique styles and techniques, she has become one of the leading women in film with her years of experience, projects and awards. It's great to hear her talk about her own journey as she participates with other filmmakers and cameramen at the round table above.
As one of the older statesmen in conversation, Kuras, along with her contemporary Mandy Walker, can share insights and lessons from the set with new, aspiring filmmakers like Kira Kelly and Rina Yang. Overall, Kuras' decades of work – from its first documentary roots to its innovative and emotional features to its big budget direction – have helped shape the industry and create new opportunities for the next generation.
For more cinematography profiles and resources, see the articles below.
Cover photo via Kay Nietfeld / EPA / Shutterstock.