Ellen Kuras: Filmmaker, Cinematographer, Trailblazer

The Betrayal - Ellen KurasWhile Ellen Kuras has been drawn to art since she was a child, she didn't always have her sights fixed on becoming a filmmaker, much less on becoming the renowned cinematographer that she is today. Kuras attended Brown University, where she explored her interests in other cultures through a major in anthropology. But when she took a photography class, she began to see light as an artistic medium and was intrigued by the way that it can be used to create a narrative. A year at the University of Paris studying film and semiotics helped her frame a new outlook on the power of images through her newfound interest in propaganda and color psychology. She began to understand the manipulative hand that art can hold over its audience.

As a cinematographer, Kuras says that she tries to avoid standard uses of light, color and framing, searching instead for imagery that can enhance story and character. She explains that she tries to find "alternative ways of seeing the world" as a way of shaping the audience's perception of the story and a means to make her images more artistic. Kuras also notes in a recent interview that when she was young, she dreamed of becoming a sculptor -- she found it satisfying to create something tangible and physical. This interest in form influenced the way that she views light -- in the same interview, she says that that in her work as a cinematographer, she approaches light in a physical way, molding and shaping it, and experimenting with the interplay between shadow, color and contrast.

After graduating from Brown, Kuras remained in Providence, R.I., and worked at a museum where she put together exhibitions. In her spare time, she began to take photographs of the Southeast Asian immigrants who were moving into her neighborhood in South Providence. As a result, she became interested in documentary as an artistic form as well as a storytelling device, and began to see that making documentaries would draw upon both her interest in anthropology and her talent for capturing images. After taking a short class in filmmaking in New York City, Kuras began to shoot her own films. She eventually began to work on The Betrayal (Nerakhoon). Little did she know then that work on the film would continue for the next 23 years and eventually bring her an Academy Award nomination.

Ellen Kuras shooting the Betrayal in Laos, 1995
Ellen Kuras shooting The Betrayal in Laos, 1995

Kuras got her start in filmmaking as a production assistant and electrician on various sets where she watched directors of photography work with light and subject, and gained experience working with a crew. It wasn't until the early 1990s that she landed her first major job, working as a director of photography on Tom Kalin's Swoon. Shot on black and white film, Swoon garnered five major awards at the Sundance Film Festival in 1992, including one for Best Dramatic Cinematography. In recalling the experience, Kuras says, "I did not expect it at all. In fact, I wasn't able to get a ticket to go to the awards ceremony, yet we managed to sneak in. I was sitting in the back with Tom and the rest of the Swoon gang when they called my name. Later, at the awards party, agents deluged me. My first encounter with agents. Everyone wanted to represent me, yet I didn't really understand how to navigate in that world at all."

With her Sundance award launching her onto the scene, Kuras quickly learned to navigate the film world. She soon became Spike Lee's go-to cinematographer, working with Lee on He Got Game, Summer of Sam, Bamboozled and The 25th Hour. She also shot Lee's acclaimed documentary 4 Little Girls.

Besides her work with Spike Lee, Kuras has also shot many other Hollywood films, including Blow, starring Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz, and Analyze That, which starred Robert De Niro. More recently, she has been noted for her work with French director Michel Gondry on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Be Kind Rewind. She has also worked with Martin Scorsese on his documentary No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, and with Sam Mendes on his recently released film Away We Go.

Kuras has been able to rise to the top of her field in a male-dominated arena, paving a path for other female cinematographers. After winning the Sundance cinematography award for Swoon, she went on to win the same award in 1995 and 2002 -- an unprecedented feat. She has also received the Kodak Vision Award from Women in Film, and she has been nominated twice for an Emmy Award, three times for the Film Independent Spirit Award for Best Cinematography and once for a Sundance Grand Jury Prize for Documentary. The Betrayal also garnered her an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary. When asked what advice she would give to female filmmakers about succeeding in the industry, she says, "I think that women have to face their fears about being competent technicians, because most of the women I've met in the industry have consistently been great technicians. We have to look into ourselves every single time we walk onto a set and reassure ourselves that we're okay and that we know our jobs and that we're as competent as the rest. Be confident and people will see and believe in your confidence. More importantly, don't be afraid to ask questions if you don't know something."


» Transcript of Live Chat with Ellen Kuras, ASC, The International Cinematographers Guild.
» A Conversation with Ellen Kuras, ASC, International Cinematographers Guild.
» "Shooting At Will," The Reeler. (Jan. 9, 2008)
» "The Silent Witness," Brown Alumni Magazine. (May/June 2009)