Ellen Kuras: Filtration & Lighitng for Hot NYC 70's Summer

From American Cinematographer, Psycho Killer by Andrew O. Thompson (June 1999)

Much of The Summer of Sam transpires during the sweltering summer of 1977. As a result, Lee wanted the imagery to indicate the intense heat of a New York city summer—which, as any resident of the Big Apple knows, is marked by a muggy, humidity-filled atmosphere. As a visual guide, Lee asked Kuras to view his 1989 film Do the Right Thing (photographed by Ernest Dickerson, ASC). Kuras also watched Natural Born Killers and two versions of the Jack the Ripper story as a primer on serial-killer films. After conducting several tests on emulsions and exposures, Kuras opted to use antique suede filters in front of the lens during day shooting. This tactic lent the colors a more monochromatic look, as well as a period Seventies feel.

"Spike wanted a ’hot’ look, so I tried to give him as many hard backlight and sidelight edges as possible. Those [highlights] had to hug the edge of the frame. I also advised the grips not to dull down the cars or do wetdowns so that the kicks, highlights and glares would play as much as possible, and so the streets would have a blown-out look. While we were shooting, the weather changed quite a bit from hour to hour—in the morning we would have sunshine, and in the afternoon it would cloud over and sometimes rain. Trying to keep consistency throughout a scene was difficult without a lot of available room to put lights or Condors out of shot. We were often on a dead-end street, and we sometimes were backed up right to its end."

- Ellen Kuras, ASC

To convey the sense of humidity and atmosphere at night, Kuras employed pre-exposure flashing. During preproduction, she experimented with filters and a Lightflex, but found the effect somewhat confining.

"The Lightflex gave a haze to the film that was very similar to New York’s hot, humid nights, during which the blacks aren’t really quite black. However, we would have faced the problem of double reflections from headlights playing off the filters in front of the lens. We often had cars driving straight at camera, so I would have had a lot of double lights going through frame. We sandwiched filters as much as we could, and used a tilting matte box, but we just couldn’t avoid the reflections in certain situations because the camera was moving so much. Flashing was a viable way to achieve the same effect while keeping the image clear of double reflections."

- Ellen Kuras, ASC

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