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American Cinematographer: Heart and Soul
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Neil Young
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ASC Close-Up
Ellen Kuras, ASC captures Neil Young in concert at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium

Unit photography by Ken Regan
Additional photos by Ellen Kuras
Photos and frame grabs courtesy of Paramount Classics

When friendly locals in the village of Nyack, New York, shoot the breeze, it might lead to a game of cards or a backyard barbecue. But when the locals are Ellen Kuras, ASC and director Jonathan Demme, it can lead to a once-in-a-lifetime collaboration with a legendary recording artist. Such was the genesis of the concert film Neil Young: Heart of Gold, which Kuras filmed in Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium last fall. “Jonathan was kind enough to loan me a room in his editing suite in Nyack for two months, and he and I often talked over coffee,” recalls Kuras. “One day, during one of those chats, I said, ‘I’m such a huge fan of Neil Young. It’d be great to have an opportunity to work with him someday.’ A week later, Jonathan called and asked if I’d like to work with him on a concert film with Neil Young! Jonathan’s the kind of person and director who puts things into action right away.”

Demme, of course, is no stranger to concert films, having created one of the genre’s contemporary classics, Stop Making Sense (1984). Shot by Jordan Cronenweth, ASC, that film famously eschewed audience cutaways and other conventional coverage in favor of a more stylized approach to its subjects, The Talking Heads. Although Heart of Gold marks Kuras’ first foray into rock-concert cinematography, she had recently worked in the live-performance arena for Block Party, Michel Gondry’s quasi-documentary performance portrait of comedian Dave Chappelle, and was able to bring that experience to bear on Demme’s film. Their collaboration turned out to be a “concert film” in name only, fusing grand aesthetic flourishes with disarming intimacy to pay tribute to the famous Ryman Auditorium and the musician Kuras calls “one of the greatest musical, political and spiritual inspirations I’ve ever had.”

The director of photography on such films as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (see AC April ’04), Blow (AC March ’01) and Summer of Sam (AC June ’99), Kuras earned plaudits for her work in digital video on the features Personal Velocity (AC April ’02) and Bamboozled, but she took a determinedly analog approach to Heart of Gold, shooting in Super 16mm. “A lot of the mikes and monitors in the Neil Young world are analog. He uses old instruments that have an distinctive timbre, a roundness to their sound,” she says. “In a way, some of my work has been in the same vein — I still used the old [Eastman EXR 200T] 5293 stock when [Vision 200T] 5274 became available — so I was very excited to keep the feeling of this concert within the analog world.” She didn’t use 5293 this time, but she did choose another Kodak stock, the high-speed Vision2 500T 7218, to wring the maximum range out of low light. “Neil is ultra-sensitive to bright light, so I didn’t want to blind him. Super 16 is so good now that I knew we’d be fine with the digital blowup, yet I knew it would still be a struggle to get a good stop.”

The tough stop was exacerbated by the production’s zoom-heavy lens package; at T3.5, some of the zooms were considerably slower than their corresponding prime lengths. “And I knew I didn’t want to shoot the older 35mm Angenieux zoom lenses wide open,” adds Kuras. “The real sweet spot is closer to a T4, although the Optimas still perform spectacularly at T2.8.” Her 35mm optics, which she chose “not only for their clarity but also for their throw, because there wasn’t enough stop to put extenders on Super 16 lenses,” included three 24-290mm Angenieux Optimas [equivalent to 48-580mm in Super 16] and three 25-250mm [50-500mm in Super 16] Angenieux HRs. “I was lucky to get those Optimas — thanks to Charlie Tammaro at CSC — because we were on a tight budget.

“The Ryman was formerly a tabernacle church, and given that it’s such a small venue, we had ordered a number of moving lights to save space so we wouldn’t have to hang 10 lights for different focus positions or color,” she continues. When it came time to rig the Ryman’s lighting grid, Kuras was compelled to reconsider using gelled tungsten Par cans rather than the electronic moving lights, which comprised 32 dichroic glass wedges. “I was very particular about the difference because color doesn’t feel as deep or round when it’s electronically generated,” says Kuras. “I even asked a person to stand onstage and lit half his face with a gelled Par can and the other half with a moving light, and I found the feeling just wasn’t the same.” Fortunately, John Nadeau, Kuras’ longtime gaffer, came to the rescue. With less than two days left before showtime, Nadeau proposed replacing most of the moving lights with Par cans and Lekos. Kuras admits she was slightly incredulous at first. “I looked at him cross-eyed and said, ‘Can we really afford that kind of time?’ At that point, we had just two more hours till the band would come in to rehearse. But John said, ‘I know how important this film is to you, and you’ll live with it for the rest of your life, so why not do what your intuition says?’ So for the next two hours, the electricians just went crazy. I can’t tell you how relieved I was when I saw the difference it made the next morning.”

By that time, Kuras and Nadeau had just 36 hours to design and light the entire 20-song concert. This task was no small feat, given the layered visual concept Demme had conceived with Kuras, which involved massive, richly hued backdrops sliding in and out behind the musicians “like a series of paintings within a painting.” However, the filmmakers were eager to visually reference the Ryman’s storied musical history, even at the expense of simpler logistics. “When the Ryman used to do old radio concerts, the backdrops were advertisements for whomever was sponsoring the show,” explains Kuras. “Our show wasn’t an advertisement, but [the backdrops] lent so much to the film thanks to Michael Zansky’s paintbrush. They’re like landscapes of memory, which echoes the Canadian prairie/childhood Neil sings about, without being literal. We wanted each song to be like a painting within a painting.”

In further homage to the Ryman’s radio-show tradition, Demme moved the musicians around the stage for every song. In the old days, musicians would shuffle around in a similar fashion while waiting their turns at the mike. “I couldn’t just use the same lights in the same spots for the bass player or background singers,” says Kuras. “In addition to being quite a lighting challenge, the dynamic choreography was an invaluable learning experience about the spatial relationships of sound and how musicians work together.” But the old concerts had at least one element in common that made Kuras’ job slightly easier: they all used stage footlights. “Those were our secret light source; they meant we had consistently perfect eyelight for Neil.”

Kuras and her crew toiled for 20 hours straight the day before the show, grabbed six hours of rest, and then began again at 6 the following morning, continuing “literally until the curtain opened.” Lighting 20 song-scenes in one sustained burst “was about serious intuition,” laughs the cinematographer. Of course, it also helped to have a lighting-board operator, Steve Leiberman, who “was programming all the cues in at lightning speed.” That particular skill, Kuras adds wryly, helped avert a near-catastrophe just before showtime: “When we started shooting, we had the front lights up but forgot the cue to put the lights on behind the curtain! So all of a sudden we were frantically trying to reset that cue so the musicians could see what they were doing behind the curtain before it opened. Steve’s fingers were going like wildfire.”

“I started prep on the film after Ellen had been living with the album for weeks,” recalls Nadeau, “and in our first conversation, we both gravitated to the mood of the song ‘Falling off the Face of the Earth.’ Ellen described the feeling as ‘the very last ray of light before an eclipse.’ What imagery. We ended up with a deep-blue horizon background, which silhouetted the band, and a skid/book light — a Leko going into a reflector through Opal diffusion — for Neil.”


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