- Friday, Oct. 27, 2000
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Few DPs can trace their current success to a single, defining momentabut Ellen Kuras, who is represented by the United Talent Agency, Beverly Hills, Calif., can. It was when the Tom Kalin-directed Swoon, which she lensed, won the award for best cinematography at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival. And she almost wasnt there to receive it.
"Tom and I had a lot of trouble getting into the awards ceremony," she recalls. "We didnt have tickets, but we wound up getting in there by hook or by crook. We were sitting in the way back [of the place where the awards were being held], sipping vodka tonics, when all of a sudden my name was announced. I was shocked. I had this feeling of a zoom lens, zooming in on the announcer reading my name, and I thought, AOh my God. I have to get up there and say something intelligent. "
After that rather terrifying experience, Kuras says, "My life changed tremendously. All of a sudden, I was being touted with a lot of different scripts, and a lot of agents wanted to represent me. Its scary, because its a transition in your life when youre making a step forward into a world thats really unfamiliar."
Faced with a range of opportunities, Kuras opted to shoot independent features, including Douglas Keeves acclaimed Unzipped, a documentary on fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, and Angela, a film directed by Arthur Millers daughter, Rebecca Miller, which garnered the DP her second Sundance cinematography award, in 95.
It was director Mark Pellington (then of Crossroads Films, bicoastal and Chicago; he has since shifted to bicoastal/international Propaganda Films) who lured Kuras into spotwork in the mid-90s. "Mark had asked me to do his [PBS series] The United States of Poetry, which I was not able to do at the time," she explains. "So he hired me to do my first commercialsaa series of short spots for Chevy, and we had a really great time."
Pellington then asked Kuras to shoot an international Pepsi spot, titled "Blue," via BBDO New York. "When [the agency] wanted to see my reel, Mark said, ANo. Shes my DP, and thats the end of the story. I really have to give Mark credit for supporting me in that way."
Since then, Kuras has lensed such features as Mary Harrons I Shot Andy Warhol, Scott Silvers The Mod Squad and Spike Lees films Summer of Sam and Bamboozled, as well as his documentary Four Little Girls. But between movie projects, Kuras continues to make time for spotwork. "[In features] youre thinking of how a shot may last over a minute or two minutes," she observes. "Ads are much more abbreviated. The shot can only last for five seconds and must tell a large part of the story. Thats why I find that commercials are a real challenge."
The Finlandia spot "Sin"awhich Kuras shot last year for Lee, out of Forty Acres and a Mule Filmworks, Brooklyn, N.Y., via Brand Sellers DDB, Helsinki, Finlandaproved more challenging than most. "We did that three days after shooting Summer of Sam," she recalls. "We had shot so many nights on Summer of Sam, and I had just gotten off shooting The Mod Squad before that, so I had been shooting consecutively for about twenty-two weeks. I felt as if I was in another worldawhich, fortunately, was appropriate for the piece."
The dreamlike "Sin" opens with a shot of a womans legs as she walks through a church to the confession booth. Next is a tight shot of her red lips saying, "Bless me father, for I have sinned." As the woman confesses to a series of benign misdeeds, we see the silhouette of a priest, nodding in the shadows. After she admits to drinking vodka, the priest informs her that drinking the beverage isnt so bad. In fact, he sometimes imbibes himself. The woman asks him what brand of vodka he drinks. When the priest says, "Finlandia," the woman replies, "My child. That is not a sin." Shocked, the priest opens the curtain to the confession booth, only to find it empty.
"We shot it in a real church, and we knew it would be a big shoot," says Kuras. "The spot had to be extremely colorful, so I wanted to shoot it with 5017, which is a reversal stock ... We knew it would look great, but that particular stock is very slow. So lighting it was not easy."
The result, however, looks effortless. "I like doing visually striking spots," Kuras says. "I think commercials are most interesting when they force you to think about the idea of images, of color and light, and how those things impact a viewer."
While Kuras does sometimes suggest ideas for shots, she notes, "that really depends on the director. Spike, in particular, indicates what he wants. He always knows where he wants to put the camera." Over the years, Kuras has developed a close working relationship with Lee, for whom she shot the acclaimed documentary-style ads "Seals," "Education," "Band," "Homecoming" and "Life After Navy," for the United States Navy via BBDO. "A lot of times, Spike will leave it up to me, as to how I want to process the stock, what kind of stock well use," she reports. "Hes also open to my suggestions in terms of location or production design. He trusts me, which I appreciate. We get along really well."
Kuras didnt always want to be a cinematographer. During her early years at Brown University, Providence, R.I., she remembers, "I wanted to be an Egyptologist." But a photography course at the neighboring Rhode Island School of Design changed her mind. After graduating with a double major in anthropology and semiotics, she worked on a small documentary about Laotian immigrants. "As the footage came back, and I saw the dailies, I realized there was something missing in the focus, and the emotional impact of the images. So I decided to start shooting it myself."
The budding DP found work as a camera assistant on documentaries, and then as an electrician. After having acted as cinematographer on a film called Samsara, Kuras was offered the chance to DP Swoon, "in fourteen days and on a shoestring budget."
"Shoestring" may be too generous a description. "I shot Swoon on a regular 16mm camera with two zoom lenses on a doorway dolly," she reveals. "We didnt even have enough money for a regular dolly. The thing was, since we didnt have much to work with, it forced us to be really innovative."
Though her budgets have gotten bigger over the years, Kurass innovative streak lives on. In 99, she directed her first spot, for the Grand Marnier-sponsored New York Film Festival, through Firehouse Films, Mamaroneck, NY. "It was a real collaboration," she says. The ad was shot in black and white and color, and features two hands framing various elements of New York City, as if in preparation for a film. "The hands were the Festivals concept. I took a list of their locations, and we honed them down, and I added some suggestions about certain places that I thought would be interesting to film."
While Kuras says shed love to serve as director/DP on more projects, her schedule is quite full at the moment. She shot Blow, the upcoming Ted Demme feature, and was at press time boarding a plane for Toronto, where she was scheduled to lens Southwestern Bells "Web" via Rapp Collins Worldwide, Irving, Texas, directed by Demme, who is represented for spots by Creative Film Management, New York. She has several other ad projects lined up, including Fidelitys "Parent" and "Bookseller," out of Hill Holliday, Boston. The spots are co-directed by Rudi Schwab of Element Productions, Boston, and Bill Heater, the executive creative director at that agency. "Because Ive been working on so much feature material, I havent had a chance to get involved in commercials," Kuras says. "Now that Ive decided Im not going to do a feature for a while, Ive emerged back into the advertising world again. And Im really enjoying it."l