Kuras Shoots Super 16 and Uses the DI Process
Ellen Kuras, ASC, the only cinematographer to claim top honors for dramatic cinematography three times at the Sundance Film Festival, recently collaborated with writer-director Rebecca Miller on Rose and the Snake, a film starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Catherine Keener. Kuras and Miller, who’ve collaborated before on Angela in 1995, and produced Sundance favorite Personal Velocity in miniDV, chose to explore a different frontier with Rose and the Snake. They shot the film in Super 16mm and used a digital intermediate process as a gateway to create cinema-quality 35 mm prints.
The film was produced on approximately a $2 million budget in 35 days
on Prince Edward Island on the east coast of Canada. Miller and Kuras
were committed to shooting in real-time continuity, essential because
Day-Lewis lost 35 pounds during production, emulating a much longer
period in his character’s life. That made scheduling much more
critical, since they were subject to the vagaries of unpredictable
weather and related shifts in nature’s light.
The story revolves around Jack ( Daniel Day-Lewis), and his teenage
daughter, Rose ( Camilla Belle). Jack is a widower who organized a
Utopian commune during the late 1960s with the goal of raising Rose in
that idealistic environment. The commune falters and the dynamics of
their relationship change after Jack brings another woman, Kathleen (
Keener), and her two sons into their lives.
Miller, who wrote the script seven years ago, and Kuras, dissected the
visual possibilities for bringing the script to life on the screen
during countless conversations, and by searching for inspiration in
books, still photographs, paintings and elements of movies. They got
ideas from reading passages in books and from noticing the effect of
the way a camera moved in certain situations.
A Sense of Space
"We found a book of very early color photography that inspired us to
rely on a muted color palette where greens and blues were kind of a
subdued teal with a yellowish-orange cast in some highlights, and the
blacks weren’t very dense," Kuras says. " Rebecca and I talked for a
long time about how to treat the house and the landscape around it as
though they were characters in the story. We designed shots so you had
a sense of the space around them and also for their feelings of
Some 90 percent of the story takes place on a commune set, built on a
bluff overlooking the ocean near a fresh water pond that flows into the
"(Production designer) Mark Ricker built an amazing house on the side
of a slope," Kuras says. "You could look out of the windows and see
both the ocean and different areas in the commune. There was a geodesic
dome built on stilts, where we staged certain scenes. Other scenes were
set in a tree house and around Rose’s garden."
Due to the intimate nature of the story, Kuras and Miller wanted to
give the actors as much freedom as possible in scenes. In one scene,
which starts in Jack’s room, he exits and walks down the hall to Rose’s
room. "We started with one camera inside Jack’s room and the other in
Rose’s room," Kuras explains. "The first camera covered the opening
part of the scene. We picked up Jack walking down the hall and into
Rose’s room with the second camera. We basically shot three scenes in
one take with one camera or another rolling continuously for 20
The actors walked through blocking, but never over-rehearsed, because
Miller wanted the spontaneity of them following their instincts. Kuras
admits that it was very tough on the focus pullers and camera
operators, because there were no marks, and they were often shooting
freestyle in small rooms without a lot of light. "They were among the
most difficult sets I’ve had to light," she says. "We were usually
shooting at T-2.8, which was wide open on the zoom lens. I lit
interiors through windows augmented with Chinese lanterns, practicals
and small lamps hidden in niches."
Why Super 16
Kuras explains that she and Miller shot in Super 16 because the more
dreamlike texture of film suited the dramatic story’s tonality, and the
mobile camera format enabled them to shoot handheld, 10-minute takes
Their modest camera package included two Arri SR3s with a set of zooms
and a wide-angle Canon lens. Most of the time, Kuras shot with two
handheld cameras. Exceptions included occasional shots from a rig on a
moving car. There were also a few high-angle shots when Miller wanted
the audience to see the scope of a scene from a more distant
Kuras used the new Kodak Vision2 7218 film, a low-grain 500-speed
stock, which gave her the latitude to shoot in tight spaces at low key
levels with very little fill.
"We had sparse, stylized lighting and situations with extreme
contrast," she says. "I’ve used this film on commercials, so I knew
highlights weren’t going to blossom. There is just a slight halation
that gives the film kind of a rounded feeling. I also liked the way it
reproduces colors, and the combination of speed and low grain, which
was ideal for a digital intermediate process resulting in 35mm blowups."
When necessary, Kuras "pushed" the film a stop without creating grain.
It held details in shadow and highlight areas even in extremely
The negative was shipped daily to Deluxe Labs in Toronto, which also
provided DVD dailies. Kuras will put the final touches on Rose and the
Snake during digital timing at a facility in Los Angeles.
Kuras also lensed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and and a
documentary about an Apache tribe in New Mexico and Oklahoma, this year.
"Documentaries taught me to think on my feet," says Kuras, who shot
documentaries in El Salvador and in Cambodia in 1987 during brutal
civil wars. "You find ways to shoot and cut in your head so the editor
has a range of material. I’ve also shot a lot of commercials. I’m
always trying to learn something new or challenge myself in different
ways. I think each genre influences everything else that you do."