How to Use Cinematography to Make Your Film Stand Out

Finding your film's unique meaning.

“The question becomes: What distinguishes you from another person who is making a film? So much of that has to do with your point of view.”

As it did last spring, The Tribeca Film Festival kept our team busy here at Lights Film School, bringing with it an embarrassment of riches including screenings around New York City and insightful panels packed with film industry professionals.

One such panel Lights’ Courtney Thérond attended featured cinematographer Ellen Kuras, ASC, frequent collaborator with directors Michel Gondry and Spike Lee. Kuras received an Academy Award nomination for her directorial debut documentary film, The Betrayal – Nerakhoon, and went on to shoot features including Blow and the seminal Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Here, we’ve synthesized, organized, and presented the best of the best insights that Kuras shared in her masterclass, so as to help inspire and guide you in your filmmaking journey!

Kuras kicked off the conversation at The Tribeca Film Festival by differentiating between a film’s form and a film’s meaning. “A lot of people get really involved with form, and they forget about what they’re trying to say,” she observed. With powerful cameras released on a regular basis and the ability to shoot a film with next to no budget on your phone, the question of meaning assumes a sense of urgency.

“The question becomes: What distinguishes you from another person who is making a film? So much of that has to do with your point of view.”

Your point of view is how you – as a unique filmmaker and cinematographer – approach your film. It’s about the unique choices that you make. “The choices become really critical to not only what the film looks like, but also what the meaning of the film is.”

Early on, compelled by her desire to make political films, Kuras started directing a documentary. “I was really excited that with a film you could actually tell a story that’s based on a real situation and have people be moved by it. And I realized that I needed to know what I was talking about,” she said.

Her first documentary covered Laotian refugees she met at a farmer’s market. “I really didn’t know what I was doing. It was so new to me. I just knew that I had a relationship with these people, and I spent a lot of time with them, and I wanted to make a film about their story.” So she hired a cinematographer someone had recommended and sat down with him to explain the kind of story she wanted to tell; the kind of relationship she wanted to put together with the camera.

“When I got the film back, I started looking at the material. And they were really beautifully shot, but it was missing something,” Kuras recalled. “I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time. They didn’t move me. I just wasn’t feeling it.” The experience inspired her to start thinking about a film’s meaning, and more broadly, the search for meaning. So she decided to pick up the camera and begin work as a cinematographer to find out what that was.

“When I took the camera on, I started realizing that I could basically put meaning into place. I was creating visual metaphor. I have to say, to this day, the search for meaning continues.”

Cinematographer Ellen Kuras, ASC.

I. Discover Your Story through Preparation

As a cinematographer, Kuras stressed the importance of sitting down with the director and asking what it is that they want to capture and say. In order to communicate effectively with a Director of Photography (DoP), a director must know what the story means to them personally and how they want to cover scenes to convey that.

“It’s not about just covering the scene. It’s about taking a certain point of view; of being able to hone that point of view to say, ‘Look here. This is the story I want to tell. I want you to follow this character. I want you to feel this emotion.'”

For a narrative feature film, Kuras requires four days with the director to discuss the script and understand how it’s perceived in their mind’s eye. This prevents needless discussions from happening on set, which can waste time and threaten to obfuscate the director’s vision. “You want to be able to be on set, and despite all of the stuff that’s going on, you’re able to be in your own mind’s eye, in your own head; to be able to see and hear what the story is. Because every single shot has a story to it,” Kuras said.

To suss out these stories, Kuras suggests going through the script blow-by-blow with the director. Chart the trajectory of the journey and the kinds of choices that will be made in order to arrive at the point of view of the film. “Who do you want to tell this story? Whose point of view do you want to tell this story from?”

She stressed that there must be a reason for every choice that is made – “Every single thing that you put up on the screen is a choice that you’re making. So you want to know and inform yourself. As a filmmaker, in order to make decisions about what the film should look and feel like, you have to know what it is you’re talking about. You have to know what your story is.”

Cinematographer Ellen Kuras Shooting A Little Chaos.

II. Be Bold with Your Coverage

Turning to more technical concerns, Kuras shared that she’s not so intrigued by the traditional shot – reverse shot progression in films, “where you’re doing just the master and then you go in and do your closeups and you do your reaction shots and the eyeline always has to be close… It’s actually more interesting when you shake it up a little bit.” She referenced her work on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – if it had been shot in a traditional way, the audience would have fallen asleep in the movie theatre. The film has such a unique and dynamic feeling to it because Kuras and director Michel Gondry made strong creative choices prior to shooting.

“Look at the intention of your director and how it affects you. Michel, when he started to do Eternal Sunshine, he made a decision in his own mind that he wanted everything to be organic,” Kuras said. Gondry chose to make the film very clearly handheld, in order to cover it in long takes so that the actors could move from place to place. He didn’t want it to feel “filmic.” Therefore, as the cinematographer, Kuras adapted her approach to the director’s vision.

“When you think about [Eternal Sunshine] and the film being about memory,” Kuras recalled, “To me, all bets are off. When you’re in your memory, anything can happen. Because you’re in that person’s brain. So I realized that the form of the film had to be part of the content.”

In other words, indie film friends, form follows meaning.

Blow | New Line Cinema, 2001

III. Do Your Research Before You Shoot

Kuras also discussed the challenges of shooting Ted Demme’s Blow, which covered five different time periods. How could they make a film comprising five different periods that didn’t look like five different movies? To this end, Kuras consulted references from each time period in order to determine the kind of lights, colors, and lenses that were used back then. She created lookbooks for Demme in which she broke down how to create each period-specific feeling without it overwhelming the film.

Never underestimate the power of research, filmmakers! The more you know and prepare for, the better positioned you’ll be on set.

IV. Determine Each Scene’s Blocking

Kuras hopes filmmakers will seriously consider how much blocking means to a film. You can shape a scene’s meaning by choosing how the actors move within the space, where they are in relation to each other, and what they’re doing from moment to moment.

“It’s really important that you talk to the actors about where they’re going to go,” Kuras said. “Everybody thinks just let the actors go where they’re going to go. But you as a director are in charge of the meaning of the scene. Even though it’s written in a certain way, you’re shaping the meaning of the scene. You have flexibility in terms of where you’re going to put the actors.”

Not only is a scene’s blocking the director’s prerogative – it is also their creative responsibility.

V. Plan Your Lighting

When preparing to light a scene, Kuras asks herself what she wants to accomplish with it. “What is the quality of the light? What is a feeling of it? What’s the color of it? What does it do? Does it move? Does it move with the character? Is it fixed? Do you want the light to be transparent? Or do you want us to feel the light? Do we need to know what the source is?”

Lighting impacts the meaning of the film and the way that the audience feels. To illustrate, Kuras described the “memory light” in Eternal Sunshine; how it recreated the way you see into the recesses of your mind. “When you’re in the recesses of your mind, you see a little bit. You see glimpses of detail. But it’s almost sometimes like that tunnel vision, where you focus on one thing, especially when you’re in your dreams. So we decided to create what was called the ‘memory light’. We had to find the shape and the texture.”

She and Gondry started looking at different movies to find references, until one day Gondry showed her a shot from an old French film involving an old car driving along a country road and the moment in which its headlights turn across an embankment. That one shot inspired the look of Eternal Sunshine – they determined to keep the “memory light” almost on-axis to the camera so that it comes from the point of view of the character.

“Those are the questions that you really have to ask yourself,” Kuras encouraged. “[Lighting decisions] are not just random.”

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind | Focus Features, 2004

VI. Embrace Your Role as Problem-Solver

Every film set is bound by different constraints. For Kuras, if we think of ourselves as filmmakers who are also problem-solvers, then we don’t need to stomp our feet and complain about the limitations we face.

“There are certain things I’m thinking to myself as a cinematographer: How am I going to light? How am I going to now figure out how I’m going to make this meaningful? I’m thinking: How am I going to use it to my advantage?” Every problem represents a creative opportunity.

When scouting a location, it’s important to consider how the location will affect the choices that can be made. Where can the camera be? What is the quality of the light, and how can it be manipulated? When you choose a location, you are in a sense choosing the sort of problems that you want to solve as a filmmaker.

If you don’t know how to solve a problem, then swallow your pride and ask. Your humility is in service of making the work better, which at the end of the day is everyone’s goal. “It’s been a really big change in terms of my career of being able to move forward and being able to create and people giving me options and choices,” Kuras shared.

VII. Don’t Always “Fix It In Post”

Kuras enjoyed doing as many effects as possible in-camera on Eternal Sunshine. A longtime fan of experimental films, she was eager to explore old school techniques we tend to overlook in the digital age.

When Kuras began her career, the only option was film. She remembers when digital came around, and people started to “just do that in post”. Sometimes, especially today, you need to deny this instinct.

“I want to do it in-camera because there were a lot of times where there was, as everybody would say, ‘a happy mistake’, where you’re doing something and the refraction of the light in the lens is such that it ends up being this breathtakingly beautiful flare that comes through the lens and you get that kind of texture. And it’s really hard to create later on. It’s really difficult to get that in post.”

VIII. Use the Tools that the Story Calls For

“Everyone told me that in order to be a real cinematographer, when you’re doing a real film, you have to use prime lenses because prime lenses are better quality. But what I love about the zoom is that at the end of the shot…, I could just zoom in a tiny bit. When the director calls cut, there’s always that moment afterwards when the actors are still in their character… [Every shot] has its own story.” In other words, the lenses you should use to shoot your film are the lenses that the story calls for, whether they’re prime or zoom lenses.

Style serves story. This is what “real cinematographers” understand.

Of course, you must have control over the emotional aspect of the film as its cinematographer. For Kuras, looking through the lens allows the DoP to feel the moment in a way that isn’t possible with the monitors. So much of shooting is following your intuition and feeling the moment – that’s part of your point of view.

Kuras said it all comes back to understanding the story you’re trying to tell and what the underlying meaning is: “I like to be able to find the emotional connection with what I’m shooting. And part of that is knowing what it means. It’s so important to listen to the dialogue, and if you’re in a dramatic film, to understand what they’re saying. Or if you’re in a documentary, to know what you’re looking for… You’re able to use the camera to tell the story in so many ways. You have so much possibility. Use what you have.”

More generally, Kuras encourages filmmakers across departments to allow themselves to feel something. “Allow it to be rough and ready. Allow yourself to be emotional when you’re shooting, because you can make pretty pictures, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s an emotive piece of work.” Open yourself up to the potential of what you’re creating.

IX. Collaborate!

Simply put, “The most important thing between a director and DoP is trust.”

It has always been important for Kuras to be trusted by her director; that they know that she’s watching out for them, that she was trying to get in their heads and tell their story. It’s important to distinguish between bringing ego to a project, and bringing personal learning experience and one’s mind’s eye.

“If you ever say, ‘Well I’m not working that way.’ Well then go do your own movie.”

Meanwhile, the director should listen to their cinematographer and consider their ideas. After all, not all directors are versed in the ways of lenses, blocking, and other venues of cinematography. “[Cinematography] is not about creating shots. It’s about trying to create the story and using the camera and the lighting. When you remember that, it becomes less of an ego thing and becomes more of, ‘What are we trying to say with this? How do we come together to say it?'”

Kuras emphasized the collaborative nature of filmmaking; that the idea is to create the film together.

No one works in a vacuum. The crew is essential, and it’s important for there to be parity and respect on set. Everyone present is important to the process, so “always thank your crew.” She observed that many DoPs imagine themselves to be at the top of the hierarchy, which they believe entitles them to treat others poorly. “My number one rule for being a successful director and a successful DoP,” Kuras said, “Is don’t be an asshole. You don’t have to be an asshole to be good.”

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind | Focus Features, 2004

X. Find, Create, and Share Your Meaning

Kuras wrapped up her masterclass by returning to her thoughts on form versus meaning:

“I urge all of you – whether you’re directors, cinematographers, filmmakers, production designers, whoever you are – to think about how you create meaning, because we create meaning when we make a film.”

Ultimately, “You’re creating a story that you want people to look at and believe in.”

What is your movie’s meaning, filmmakers?

 Michael Koehler, with


Discover your movie’s meaning with our in-depth online filmmaking course, designed to keep with your vision and schedule from concept through final cut – more guided than a blog, more interactive than a textbook, more flexible than traditional film school.

MORE FROM US:

Pin It on Pinterest