Digital Portraits


“Everybody thinks I am the reigning queen authority of shooting mini-DV,” says DP Ellen Kuras, who shot Rebecca Miller's feature film Personal Velocity in the format. “But [the 2000 Spike Lee film] Bamboozled was the first and only DV film I did before this.” In fact, Kuras is not what you'd call a convert. “I had to talk to Rebecca about the limitations of the medium,” she says. “Having worked on Bamboozled, I knew what we could and couldn't get away with. On the wide-angle part of the lens, the image just falls apart, especially when you go to a 35mm blowup, so I told her that we really wanted to shoot on the longer part of the lens. You can't verify the focus on the cameras; what's on the viewfinder is not 1-to-1 with what you're getting on the chip. The contrast is hard to deal with. And when you shoot at a certain shutter speed, you get this kind of stepping of the lines in the image.”

So why choose mini-DV? More or less the same reasons so many independent filmmakers do these days: time and money. Personal Velocity had a 17-day shooting schedule and a $150,000 budget, and digital cinema is quick and cheap. Also, the film is an InDigEnt production — an IFC Productions division devoted entirely to digital projects. Kuras, who shot Miller's 1995 film Angela, says, “The first and foremost thing was working with Rebecca; it really doesn't matter what medium we work in.”

Given the digital parameters, Kuras chose three-chip Sony DSR-PD150P cameras for the shoot, which took place on locations in New York City and upstate. Personal Velocity, which is also written by Miller, is composed of three parts, or “portraits” — “Delia,” starring Kyra Sedgwick; “Greta,” starring Parker Posey; and “Paula,” starring Fairuza Balk. Given the format and the structure, Kuras says she approached the film as a group of short stories, or perhaps poems: “As with a poem, anything goes. You can leave out the periods and the commas.”

Or you can occasionally let the image blow out, as DV is wont to do. “The latitude is always a concern,” says Kuras. “One situation where we were in a kitchen with Kyra, the sunlight was coming in the window and hitting her hair. I didn't have the time nor did I have the manpower or gel power to gel down the windows. In post, you can bring it down somewhat.” In a scene like this, the cinematographer may decide to use the look, “but most of the time it's something to be reckoned with. There are also other ways around the contrast issues, like smoke in the interiors or filtration on the cameras.” On exteriors, the DP says, “The biggest fear I had was that the sun would come out. That's when it becomes uncontrollable, because we didn't have much in the way of silks. Fortunately, we had many days that were overcast.”

Mini-DV cameras are sensitive in low-light situations, but that can be a problem if dark is what you want. “The camera wants to see darkness as daylight, it wants to open it up and see into the shadow area,” says Kuras. “It wants to make the background equal to the foreground.” In a hotel room scene with Balk, “I wanted it to look like film darkness, where there's just enough detail to see into the shadows. But video doesn't see it that way, so I was constantly trying to trick the camera. I would use the ND function, but it cuts down your depth of field, and focus becomes very critical.”

Kuras points out that “contrary to producers' opinions, you do have to light” for video, but her approach is somewhat different than lighting for film. “I would try to augment existing daylight then add whatever I could to make it stylized,” she says. “I shot to make it directional but soft. I think the mini-DV did give me more opportunities to use natural light; people tend to overlight for film.” Since two cameras were generally always running on a scene, gaffer John Nadeau says he was generally “lighting the space” rather than the shot. The small equipment package “was all plug-ins, because we didn't have a generator,” he says. “I had a couple 1200s, a couple 575s, a few PAR cans, and a small Kino Flo package: some 4×4s [4' 4Banks] and an Image 80.”

Nadeau says that many scenes are lit with a single Kino Flo source, and that sometimes he and Kuras would intentionally “dirty things up” by mixing colors or not correcting for daylight. “She's always fostered an adventurous spirit,” he says of the DP. The resulting film is one of the best arguments for digital cinema yet: the images feel free and alive, and despite the restraints she was working under, Kuras manages to vary the color palette and camera style among the three stories, shoot flashback scenes in cooler tones, and achieve a visual texture and depth one isn't accustomed to seeing in video. She acknowledges that actors seem to be liberated by the unobtrusive process, but she adds, “I still think I could have shot the film in Super 16 and been just as discreet.”

Personal Velocity will be released by United Artists this month.