Ellen Kuras is perhaps Hollywood’s most successful female cinematographer. Interested in cinema from a young age – her mother was a ‘movie buff’ – she studied various humanities subjects at Brown University, in addition to taking photography at Rhode Island School of Design. Studying at Rhode Island was transformative:
Looking through the viewfinder and really looking at light for the first time, to how light reacts, what happens when it goes through glass, or what happens when it goes through a window shade – I completely fell into another world and fell in love with discovering it.
Working steadily since the 1990s, Kuras remains one of the few female cinematographers to have cracked Hollywood. The imbalance is such that cinematography is still seen as a ‘male’ job. As Kuras recalls, ‘Somebody once asked me, “So, how does it feel having a man’s job?” And I said, “I don’t have a man’s job – I have my own job.”‘
Kuras’ first feature film was a dramatisation of the Leopold and Loeb case, shot in lush black-and white. Polaroids were used for lighting checks: ‘I used them as my guide. I learned how to read the Polaroids for what I would get, and to understand where I was at in terms of the blacks and the highlights.’ Swoon divided critics: whilst many praised Kalin’s stylised treatment of the case, others accused him of inadvertently reinforcing negative gay stereotypes, placing the film in a lineage of ‘queer killer’ movies. Kuras’ cinematography won widespread praise however, winning her a prize at Sundance.
Kuras has a long-standing creative relationship with Spike Lee. ‘Spike Lee always encourages me to push the envelope,’ she says, ‘He once called me a creative muse, and he is definitely one of mine.’ Shot in 35mm, Summer of Sam centres on the long hot summer of 1977, during which New York communities were terrorised by serial killer David Berkowitz, known as ‘Son of Sam.’ For the scenes in Berkowitz’s apartment, Kuras used a variety of film stocks, many over-exposed, visually delineating Berkowitz’s distorted internal world from the rest of the city.
Rebecca Miller is another frequent collaborator of Kuras’: the pair worked together on Angela (1995) and The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2005). Based on Miller’s short stories, Personal Velocity is a series of short stories about three separate women. As in Summer of Sam, Kuras used the cinematography to distinguish individual mindsets, as she explains:
We had three distinct looks for each of the different narratives. The colour palette for Delia’s story was warm toned with more yellows and greens and browns. We tried to keep the skin tones neutral…Greta’s story was cool and austere. The camera moves were on a 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.
When Kuras was first hired for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, director Michel Gondry was determined not to use film lighting, in order to achieve a more naturalistic appearance. Kuras persuaded him that this was completely impractical; instead, she found innovative ways of lighting the set. Bulbs were hidden around the set and the actors were permitted not to have marks (‘which put the camera assistants in a real tough spot,’ Kuras recalls). Slightly washed out, with pops of bright colour provided by Clementine’s ever-changing hair, Kuras’ cinematography was nominated for several awards.
Aaron, M., ”Til Death Do Us Part: Cinema’s Queer Couples Who Kill’, in M. Aaron, ed., The Body’s Perilous Pleasures: Dangerous Desires and Contemporary Culture, Edinburgh, 1999.
Goodridge, M., FilmCraft: Cinematography, UK, 2012.