The Tribeca Film Festival & Cinematography
Cinematographer Ellen Kuras Talks about the Cinematic Arts
I attended the 16th Annual Tribeca Film Festival, which ran from April 19th through April 30th this year. Last year I visited and reported on some of the interactive storytelling exhibits, so this year I decided to attend one of the lectures. The one I chose, was given by Cinematographer and Director Ellen Kuras, who talked about the cinematic arts.
After picking up my press pass at the Tribeca Film Festival hub at Spring Studios, I took the subway uptown to the School of Visual Arts in Chelsea on West 23rd Street. There was a line beginning to form, as the event was free to the public. My press pass didn’t provide me with any advantage vis a vis the general public, so I waited along with many of the early attendees who wanted to be sure not to miss the lecture.
Tribeca Film Festival Lecture: Ellen Kuras - Cinematographer
Once inside the theater filled quickly. Ellen Kuras came out and took a seat on the stage. Kuras has a disarming demeanor and it wouldn’t have been difficult for me to believe that I was sitting there with her alone, with nobody else in the room.
Ellen Kuras is an accomplished Cinematographer and has a bit of her own story to tell … which she did, but which I also researched online after the lecture, because her personal story caught my interest.
Kuras Education & Directorial Debut
Kuras studied Anthropology & Semiotics in college at Brown University. Anthropology is the study of man from a cultural, institutional and normative perspective, while semiotics is the study of communication, specifically focusing on communicating meaning through allegories, symbolism, metaphor, analogies and other methods. After college Ellen went on to study photography at the Rhode Island School of Design and filmmaking in New York.
Kuras started her career working on a film about a Laotian who had immigrated to New York, after fleeing war torn Laos in the 1970’s. It’s a narrative with flashbacks that mix historic footage in with the narrative, providing the film with dramatic realism and moving force. Kuras began the film around 1985, but would not finish it until 2008.
Kuras’ Worked with Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, Christine Vachon, Julian Schnabel & Many Other Top Names in the Film Making Industry
Ellen’s career includes numerous collaborations with Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, Christine Vachon Julian Schnabel and many others. She’s a member of the contemporary film making avant-garde, pushing the envelope to bring real or important artistically told stories about contemporary issues - alive.
Click here to read more about Ellen Kuras at the Tribeca Film Festival talking about the art of cinematography.
The Tribeca Film Festival & Cinematography
Cinematographer Ellen Kuras Talks about the Cinematic Arts
As previously mentioned, I augmented the information given to us by Ellen Kuras about her career with a bit of post event research. Kuras spent most of the time talking about her work: cinematography, but her life story is a part of a bigger picture.
Cinematography: Communicating ‘Meaning’ Using Technology in an Artful Manner
Cinematography and photography share a lot of overlapping common ground. Ellen started by talking about the choices a cinematographer must make when shooting something. In print reporting, virtually no story can be told without some bias or point of view by the narrator. The same is true of visual story telling. There’s a point of view embedded in the cinematography of the film. And this pivotal point of view, given by the narrator, is where Kuras began her discussion. I didn’t come to this realization until later, but Kuras view seems to be reflective of an Anthropologist’s point of view.
Ellen gave an example about a work she did – at the dawn of her career – where someone she’d hired to film something did a technically perfect job. But when she viewed the work, she found it lacked emotion and failed to convey meaning. The cinematography didn’t move her emotionally. The experience might have come out of the film she first started on, her own, The Betrayal or Nerakoon - which is the Laotian linguistic equivalent for ‘the betrayal’.
Tribeca Film Festival: Cinematography Basics – Lighting & Angles
Kuras told us that lighting is an important part of cinematography.
I thought back to how Rembrandt’s success in capturing the light on a canvas, was always an included part of the narrative of art historians describing Rembrandt’s work. In a manner similar to how the acoustical vibes of music sway us; the photonic rays coming off the screen carry an emotion-less or emotionally-moving feeling that either brings the story to life, or kills it.
Kuras used the example of someone sitting at the edge of a dock. She talke about how one could communicate the solitude, the quiet stillness, the holy communing with nature of that moment. Choices must be made on how to capture the light, from what angle to shoot the scene, how far out or how close in to be to capture that feeling. When filming a documentary those choices must be made on the fly, in split seconds, while in structured narratives, one has more control over the many variables.
Tribeca Film Festival: Understanding the Vision of the Film
But how the cinematographer shoots the film – Kuras said, returning to her original narrative - understanding what the Director or Producer is trying to stay is absolutely essential to be able to capture that vision on film. So imperative, she told us, that she generally makes it a requirement that the Director spend four solid, uninterrupted days with her - before they begin shooting the film - so that she can be sure she understands exactly what it is they are trying to communicate. Understanding the vision, so-to-speak.
Kuras talked about the trajectory of a film. She described it as an arc, like an arrow, a story, a tune, has a beginning, a middle and an end. She tries to sculpt the film to reflect where we, the audience, are in the film.
Diving Deeper into the Art of Cinematography with Ellen Kuras
Kuras then took us down into some of the more specific elements of her craft. In one segment she talked about how to cinematically portray memories so that the viewer knows they’re in them. The texture, the lighting and the colors, all play a role in communicating the feeling and meaning of the story.
Kuras talked about still cameras versus moving cameras and the feeling they provide. She appeared to be a fan of playwright and theater director Berthold Brecht, as she talked about how his work made the viewer aware of the ‘artifice’ of the production, meaning he tried to reduce the distance between the audience and the story telling, by verbally speaking to the audience, and he used other techniques too, such as lighting, sound and stage management.
Light is the Fabric of Film
She told us that light is the fabric of the film and she then proceeded to give us several examples. One example is watching the headlights of a car move along the surface of a guard rail as it navigates a curve … the suspense of ‘being there’ – and like the driver – not knowing what’s around the curve. In another example she told us how one of the Directors she worked with, Michel, told her to make the camera unsteady, to give the video element the feeling of realness, like it was being shot by an amateur. Kuras confessed she found this hard to do, as it went against her desire to perfectly capture the scene, so much so, that the Director came up behind her and started physically moving Kuras’ arms in order to help her know what he wanted. She said having a sense of humor and being flexible is also an important part of the trade.
Being Flexible & Solving Problems to Help Make Directors’ Visions Come to Life
She talked about working on locations where the location owners set limits on what could be done. In one instance she talked about filming a project in what she believed was once an old Rockefeller mansion out on Montauk, where they didn’t want the shooting crew to make any changes in the house and they were forbidden to use artificial lighting on the beach.
So Kuras had to improvise. Ellen told us that she approached situations like this as challenges, and in this case she had to find ways to use the natural lighting to her advantage – rather than seeing the location owner requirements as a limitation. She noted that sometimes the mistakes turn out to be serendipitous [chance luck], and told us to allow ourselves to feel something intuitive when shooting, to help make the film better.
Ellen Kuras had the opportunity to meet Sven Nykvist, who was Igmar Bergman’s cinematographer. He told her to allow her emotional self to come into the film and that if anyone asked what she was doing - she should tell them that “Sven Nykvist told me to do this.”
Diving Deeper into the Art of Cinematography: Technological Limits
Kuras had a project, which involved putting some things in focus, while ensuring that some other things were out of focus. Someone she’d met along the way, early in her career had put a bellows on a camera to create such an effect. Ellen cited another case where she overcame one of the site owner limitations with respect to altering the interior lighting by using a gurney to create the proper effect.
Kuras said that every shot is a circle, with a beginning, middle and end. She talked about keeping the cameras turned on while the actors were coming out of and going into their roles, as sometimes this provided some insights and unique shots. And she noted that to create feeling you have to zoom for closeups.
Blow, is one of the films that contributed to Ellen Kuras’ fame. Here she talked about some of the challenges of making the cinematography support the storytelling of five decades of a life, from the 1950’s through the 1990’s. She talked about how she used certain lighting filters to create the effect. Colors that are associated with each of the decades and they also used some of the technology of the times to give a real effect.
Kuras said preparation is key to staying within budget. If someone is changing a lot of variables while shooting, stopping the shoot costs the entire production crew’s time. If you’re well prepared the changes can be minimized, although I reckon never eliminated. She said a cinematographer’s life is full of devices, transitions and characters.
Ellen Kuras Film - The Betrayal / Nerakoon
Kuras then treated us to some morsels of films she had shot. One of them was the beach scene shot at the mansion in Montauk, which I think was from the film, Blow.
As the lecture was winding down, Kuras started talking about not just shooting Nerakoon, but creating it. She wanted a narrative documentary because that format provided more flexibility, enabling her to tell a more moving story. When she first started the film in the mid 1980’s she couldn’t access much information about Laos as most of it was still classified, given the war had ended about a decade earlier.
In 2006, after spending two decades working on numerous films by others, she returned to her maiden film, to finish it. She again had to improvise, this time by projecting historical films on a wall as background, to provide the in-context feel of memories.
Kuras gave us some parting shots. Follow your intuition, be a fluid head not a gear head, and use blocking as a tool. She described blocking as choreographing the cinematic portion of the film, meaning where and how the camera person shoots people in the room, as they make entrances and exits and move around the room. And don’t hesitate to use things, like furniture, as metaphors. She cited a table as an example of a metaphor for the separation between two people during a conversation.
Tribeca Film Festival Lectures: Q&A
We went to the Q&A portion of the lecture. She told us that trust is key for the success of a film. You have to trust the Director’s vision, and they have to trust you to make it come alive on film / video.
Everyone has to manage their own egos, as a movie making crew likely has a number of big ones. Many Directors and Producers treat the production crew like second class citizens. She tries to respect them, by trying to enable them to leave on schedule as much as possible.
And then, speaking of schedules, she told us that her time for this lecture was up.
On my way out of the SVA Theater, a Chelsea crowd had gathered in front of the Tribeca Film Festival step and repeat banner. Photographers and videographers were shooting away, as Matt LeBlanc, one of the stars of the sitcom Friends, was talking to reporters. There he was, happy-go-lucky Joey, looking a few years older, but no worse for the wear. I took a few of my own shots before heading back to the subway.
South Street Seaport Neighborhood NYC - Manhattan Related Info
Click this link for promotions, discounts and coupons in Manhattan.
Manhattan NYC Related Links
Click for Manhattan Restaurants
Click for Manhattan Neighborhoods
Click for Manhattan Things To Do
Click for Gramercy Park Restaurants
Click for Manhattan Hotels
Click for New Years Parties & Restaurants
Click for Manhattan Furniture Stores
Click for Manhattan Street Fairs
Click for Manhattan Professional Services
Click for Manhattan Farmers Markets
Click for Manhattan Real Estate
Archives - TBD
Site Search Tips. 1) For best results, when typing in more than one word, use quotation marks - eg "Astoria Park". 2) Also try either singular or plural words when searching for a specific item such as "gym" or "gyms".
Click this link to search for something in our Manhattan Business Directory.
Click the log in link below to create an ID and post an opinion.
Or send this story to a friend by filling in the appropriate box below.