Inside the cinematographer’s studio
Two films shot by Ellen Kuras, winner of the Santa Fe Film Festival’s Kodak Cinematographer’s Tribute award, are being shown at the festival. Summer of Sam (1999, directed by Spike Lee) screens at 9:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 4, at The Screen, and Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006, directed by Jonathan Demme) screens at 2:15 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 5, at The Screen. Kuras talked about some of the specific challenges and goals of these two films with Pasatiempo. On Summer of Sam: For me, what was challenging about lighting Summer of Sam was that part of the movie took place during the blackout [that affected New York City on the evening of July 13, 1977]. So all of the streetlights were off, and any motivational source of light was off. How do you light the scene in a way that you can see the actors at night without having lights on them? I had to be very resourceful and use lights like flashlights and car headlights. There was the scene where they had that rumble and we ended up shooting it with actual car headlights, and then I would augment the light on the side to give the appearance that it was car headlights— but I was actually using lighting as well.
Spike really wanted it to feel hot, like the hottest summer ever. And I wanted it to not look like Do the Right Thing, because I didn’t want to copy Ernie [cinematographer Ernest Dickerson], and I wanted to design my own look for the film. So I ran a series of tests about how to make it look hot, and that extended into really exploring the film medium in many ways: cross-processing the film, using a special camera lens to film it, flashing the film, reflashing the film, using the lights without the lenses on them. Summer of Sam was one of my most creative films. And that was largely due to Spike, because Spike really encouraged that. On Neil Young: Heart of Gold: For me, Heart of Gold was a really important film to make, because I wanted to make it like a series of paintings. I wanted the visual aspects of each song and the way it was lit and the feel of it to be a metaphor for what Neil was singing about. For example, there’s one song where I imagined Neil standing on a planet, almost like the Little Prince in a way, and looking at another planet. You know, when the sun hits a planet or hits the moon— the light has a certain feeling to it. I wanted to capture that sensation of someone peering down into the cosmos and seeing that light. So that’s what I worked on with my gaffer. And I tried to do that for all of the songs, as much as I could.
I had never really lit a concert before. There are different people for it and it’s a different kind of lighting. But I didn’t want to make it concert lighting. I wanted it to be different. And I wanted it to be analog. Neil is an analog guy. He works in a digital world, but he’s an analog guy. He uses analog microphones and speakers. And I’m an analog type of person too. And I wanted it to keep it very organic, in a way. ... I didn’t want it to be flashy. ... I didn’t want the lights to be moving in the shot. I wanted it so the light was generated by a bulb and not by an electronic source. And the color really makes a big difference. And so we ended up using a lot of the lights that existed in the Ryman Auditorium.
Neil Young: Heart of Gold
Summer of Sam