Cinematographer Ellen Kuras accomplished the near impossible on Rebecca Miller’s Personal Velocity: She made digital video look good. Not since Thomas Vinterberg’s Celebration has a movie been so championed for showing the possibilities of the mini-DV format: With its mix of intimate portraiture and handheld abandon, Velocity won Best Film and Best Cinematography at Sundance 2002. (It was Kuras’s unprecedented third win after Tom Kalin’s black-and-white debut, Swoon, in 1992 and Miller’s Angela in 1995.) But Kuras isn’t jumping on what she calls the “DV bandwagon.” “There are still a lot of misconceptions: that it’s cheap, that you don’t need lighting, that you don’t need a crew, that film is dead,” she says. “I don’t believe any of that.”
Kuras developed an aversion to the digital format after working on Spike Lee’s Bamboozled. “I had a crash course,” explains Kuras, who discovered that the resolution of wider-angle shots falls apart in the digital format. “The first day, I said to Rebecca, ‘We’re not doing any wide shots.’
“I don’t consider myself a hugely technical DP,” says Kuras, who studied anthropology and structural linguistics at Brown. “I usually approach cinematography from an emotional standpoint.” Her initial plan for Personal Velocity was to use Super 16mm film, nearly as freewheeling as DV, but sharper when blown up to 35mm. But production company InDigEnt demanded DV, Kuras recalls, “So I said, ‘OK, I’m going to approach this like three poems.’ ”
Kuras and Miller then precisely mapped out the visual scheme: from a hazy yellow palette for Kyra Sedgwick’s abused mother to static frames and cool colors for Parker Posey’s publishing yuppie to handheld shots punctuated by what Kuras calls “macro-epiphanies” (extreme-close-up inserts) for Fairuza Balk’s bohemian on the run.
During filming, much of it handheld, Kuras stayed attuned to what Miller calls the “emotional detail” of the scenes. For her most recent production, Analyze That, the De Niro-Crystal comedy opening December 6 (next up: Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Kuras says, “I would have loved to give the actors in Analyze That the fluidity and flexibility we had on Personal Velocity. But it’s a bigger machine to move around.”
Still, obstacles rarely deter her. “While making Angela I found a perfect shot in a forest, but a tree was in the way,” recalls Miller. “I figured we would have to move the camera when Ellen just put her hand out and pushed the tree over. Then we had our shot.”
Laura Sinagra’s review of Personal Velocity