The American Society of Cinematographers

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Presidents Desk
A Little Chaos
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ASC Close-Up
Star-Crossed Love

Ellen Kuras, ASC, frames the period romance A Little Chaos on film.


Unit photography by Alex Bailey, courtesy of Focus Features. Additional photos courtesy of the filmmakers.

Set in France during the reign of King Louis XIV, A Little Chaos the story blends historical fact and poetic fiction. The true part: Tired of living in Paris, the Sun King (played by Alan Rickman) decides to move his court to the country. He massively expands and remodels his hunting lodge, which becomes the monarchy’s official new seat of power, the Palace of Versailles. To this end, he hires renowned landscape architect André Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts) to design a magnificent, expansive formal garden for the new royal residence. It is here that the movie transitions into the realm of imagination: Le Notre chooses a female gardener, Sabine de Barra (Kate Winslet), to design and build a unique outdoor ballroom and fountain, the Rockwork Grove (which does, in fact, exist at Versailles). The traditionalist Le Notre and the spirited Sabine soon find their professional relationship evolving into something more.

Rickman also directed A Little Chaos, and for the cinematography he turned to Ellen Kuras, ASC. Though the story takes place in France, the film was shot in the United Kingdom, most of it on historical locations, including Hampton Court, one of Henry VIII’s many palaces, and Blenheim Palace, the birthplace and ancestral home of Winston Churchill. AC spoke with Kuras about the pleasures and challenges of working in such ornate surroundings.

American Cinematographer: How did the decision to shoot on film come about?

Ellen Kuras, ASC: Alan Rickman and I were both committed to shooting film. Because the film takes place in the 17th century, we wanted the warmth, depth and roundness that film emulsion offers. We shot 3-perf Super 35mm for a 2.40:1 release, using three Arricam Lites, Cooke S4 primes and three Angenieux Optimo zooms [24-290mm T2.8, 28-76mm T2.6, 15-40mm T2.6], all from Arri Media in London. We used three Kodak stocks, Vision3 500T 5219 and 200T 5213, and Vision2 250D 5205.

The picture was shot over seven weeks in the spring of 2013, and in the U.K. crews are limited to 10-hour days, five days a week. We used two cameras throughout, and they were almost always on dollies, with a 50-foot Technocrane and a GF-10 [from Grip Factory Munich] for a few scenes. Although it’s always a compromise to the lighting, having a second camera enabled us to make our days and gave the actors more freedom. I operated A camera, and Stuart Howell was on the B; we used the second camera as a complement to the A camera, so that we were simultaneously getting both sides of the coverage.

We were able to pre-rig most locations, which also proved essential to making our days. The final week of production was spent at Ealing Studios, where Sabine’s house and backyard were built on a soundstage. We also did some pickup interiors of the carriage, which we shot poor-man’s process. As this was a budget-conscious film, it would have been impossible to [replicate the lavish sites and décor]. Practical locations not only offered fantastic production value, but also a sense of scale that only comes from a real palace.

You have favored Fuji stocks throughout your career. Why did you shoot this on Kodak?

Kuras: Fuji had closed down film operations worldwide, and it wasn’t available. A month into shooting, I learned that a private individual had bought out the remaining Fuji stock in the U.K., but by then it was too late. Kodak could not have been more accommodating. I had to give them advance notice as to what stocks I needed; stocks aren’t as readily available today.

How would you describe the style you and Rickman were after?

Kuras: Our main reference in terms of lighting was the Dutch master Vermeer. When we scouted the real Versailles during preproduction, the light was very much like a Vermeer painting: a very strong sidelight, a strong key light. I didn’t always have the luxury of making it happen, but that’s the spirit we were looking for. As for film references, we watched The Remains of the Day, and I suggested Alan take a look at The Libertine, which has a really strong look and is quite a dark film. He was reticent about going that far, favoring a more balanced, naturalistic look. He definitely didn’t want the look to overwhelm the acting, nor to distract viewers from what's happening in the story. Although everything was authentic to the period — there were no anachronistic elements — Alan didn’t want the film to feel like a rarefied period piece with no relevance to contemporary life. He wanted it to feel like a story that could happen just as easily today as in the 17th century.

I was very happy with the Cooke S4s, and we filtered the Optimo zooms with 1⁄4 and 1⁄8 [Tiffen] Ultra Cons to match them. I always use Ultra Cons; I don’t like filtering with fogs, and I never use Pro-Mist, which affects the appearance of sharpness. I used almost no filtration on the primes other than an 81EF and an occasional 1⁄8 or 1⁄4 Schneider Classic Soft. I opted for the 81EF because I didn’t want the skin tones to have that kind of reddish hue that comes with using full correction. The 81EF is biased toward the cool side.

When shooting period films, cinematographers will often put massive amounts of diffusion in front of the lens to give it that kind of period look and feel. I made a conscious decision not to do that. I did experiment with nets behind the lenses, but in the end I chose not to use any. I felt the lights and lenses supplied the softness we wanted. I shot as wide open as I could throughout the film because I wanted to keep the depth-of-field very short to capture a more painterly feeling. It’s always a challenge for the focus puller, but first AC Iain Struthers did a masterful job.

Did you favor any particular types of lights?

Kuras: I decided not to use tungsten for night scenes because I don’t like how tungsten picks up the red and magenta in people’s faces when you’re shooting film. I wanted the faces to have a more clean, alabaster feel. I ended up using HMIs for night effects, putting correction and coral gels on them. In fact, I ended up using HMIs for almost everything. Because we were shooting on film, and it was important to have enough depth and detail in the shadows, we needed more light than is typical for shooting digital. But because we were shooting at historical landmarks, the amount of light we could bring into a room was severely limited, including light coming through windows — the shutters remain closed in some of these rooms all year ’round. Wherever there were tapestries or textiles, the number of lumens we could have operating in the room was actually measured. The people who control historical sites in England carry their own light meters and were constantly checking the light levels. Tapestries are so sensitive to heat that even when we were using an Octodome, which doesn’t generate a lot of heat, it had to be completely covered. Gaffer Johnny Colley did an exceptional job of finessing the light levels while creating the moods we wanted, all within the confines imposed on us.

There were other restrictions as well. We couldn’t do any rigging for most of the film; everything had to play off the floor. The Octodomes, which can be plugged straight into the wall, served us especially well. And while candles were the primary means of lighting during the 17th century, we weren’t allowed to use any open flames in most of the historical locations because of the fire hazard, and also because of the smoke they emit. Our truly phenomenal production designer, James Merifield, had gotten hold of these unbelievably beautiful, double-wicked beeswax candles, but unfortunately, we couldn’t use them. And fake candles weren’t convincing.


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