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American Cinematographer Magazine
Forget Me Not    

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, shot by Ellen Kuras, ASC, explores a man's fight to retain his romantic memories.

by John Pavlus

Unit photography by David Lee

The plots of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's bizarre movies (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) have always defied easy description. Thus, it might be surprising to some that his latest tale, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, follows the universally familiar romantic pattern of "boy meets girl, boy loses girl" - that is, until the point in the story where "boy arranges to have all memory of girl erased."

Eternal Sunshine tells the tragicomic story of Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet), a loving yet hopelessly mismatched couple who, after breaking up, decide to have their painful memories of each other permanently removed. Providing this dubious treatment is Lacuna Inc., whose funky young technicians identify and delete their clients' troublesome recollections. But when Joel accidentally becomes lucid during the procedure and begins to surreally re-experience all of his vivid moments with Clementine, he realizes he has made a grievous mistake, and struggles to mentally preserve the remaining details of his bittersweet love affair.

The film's director of photography, Ellen Kuras, ASC, notes that director Michel Gondry, whose acclaimed music videos "often deal with the morphing of time and space," was ideally suited to visualize a story whose primary setting is the boundless realm of its protagonist's memory. However, Gondry was eager to depart from the hermetic, studio-bound experience he'd had on a previous Kaufman project, Human Nature. With its slippery shifts between reality and distorted memories, Eternal Sunshine required a look that could blend location-shoot authenticity with unpredictable flashes of whimsy. Kuras, whose own work often strikes a balance between raw and stylized imagery (notably on Summer of Sam; see AC June '99) proved a perfect match.

The cinematographer soon discovered just how challenging it would be to marry the two halves of Gondry's vision. "Starting off, he wanted to shoot the entire movie in practical locations, and he would have preferred me to shoot everything in available light," says Kuras. "He felt that the more real the film looked, the more you would believe it when the memories melted into reality. It was important for him not to get overburdened by the lighting, which I agree with in theory. But in practice, you have to be able to light so the camera assistants have a stop to work with to get the movie in focus! I said, 'Michel, even on a documentary, I wouldn't shoot exclusively with available light.'"

But running parallel to the director's desire for naturalism were his decidedly "unnatural" ideas for the film's transitions between reality and memory. "Much of the syntax of the dramatic action leads you to believe that you're in a memory, or a memory of a memory, but the reality of where you are in time and space is not exactly clear," Kuras explains. "One of the ways Michel wanted to suggest this visually was by calling back to early cinema, where magicians were using live-action practical effects in order to change time and space. He didn't want them to feel or look completely seamless. In one of the scenes, he wanted me to shake the camera so we could see it was a handheld effect in camera, as opposed to a locked-off superimposition effect or double exposure. That was the enigma of the film to me: we would have these unconventional, trompe l'oeil transitions that were not transparent film language, but the lighting sources had to be naturalistic at the same time."

Kuras and Gondry used most of their six-week prep to determine the feasibility of these ideas, as well as scout locations in and around New York City for the wintertime shoot - "one of the coldest winters on record," Kuras recalls. Although most of the picture was filmed in practical locations, the filmmakers knew that some studio work was unavoidable. "We always had two cameras running, so it was impossible to do some of these effects [in a practical location] because there wasn't enough room," says Kuras. Production designer Dan Leigh recreated key locations - including Joel's Yonkers apartment and an oversized, 1950s-style kitchen from Joel's childhood memories - at a former U.S. Navy base in New Jersey.

Eternal Sunshine was Kuras and Gondry's first collaboration, and the cinematographer says that the first three weeks of production were devoted to developing a lighting strategy that would combine an extensive use of practicals with a handful of movie lights. "On the first day of shooting, I wasn't allowed to use any real movie lights because Michel wanted me to light to eye," she says. "For a night exterior, for example, I had to clip some sodium vapors onto telephone poles to augment the existing sodium vapors. On stage, Michel wanted to recreate the conditions we had encountered on location. After they'd built Joel's apartment set, Dan [Leigh] pulled me aside and said, 'All of the ceilings have been nailed down, so you won't be able to light from above.' That made me laugh  - the last nail in my coffin!"

Complicating matters further was the fact that two handheld cameras were filming near-360-degree coverage most of the time. "There were no marks and very few rehearsals, so we didn't have any kind of gauge for where the actors would be," recalls Kuras. "Ultimately, that meant we were lighting the room, not the actors. Sometimes they were in the key light, and sometimes not. If I knew where the actors were going to be, I'd try to put something in, but it wasn't as though we had electricians hanging around with Chimeras for beauty lights. Although I understood the kind of movie Michel wanted to make and tried to give him what he wanted, there were moments when the cinematographer in me just cringed, especially when the actors danced in each other's key light. In one scene, when Clementine brings Joel to her apartment for the first time, we had two cameras covering the scene from start to finish, and because we were seeing the entire room, I had to use the practical lamps as the only source of key light; I couldn't get any other kind of ancillary light low enough to look natural. We ended up cutting holes in the lampshades and hiding light bulbs around the set to illuminate the scene. Unfortunately, what happens in this situation - and what happened in this scene - is that one actor ends up shadowing the other."

Throughout the shoot, Kuras and her longtime gaffer, John Nadeau, strove to jerry-rig units that would provide ample illumination but would also fly under Gondry's definition of a "film light." Kuras explains, "We had different assortments of lightbulbs - refrigerator bulbs, or small bulbs on hand dimmers - that we'd hide behind furniture or lampshades in order to give ourselves some stop. In Joel's apartment, we fabricated a light we jokingly called the 'Mini-Musco,' which was essentially a C-stand with four clip lights and blackwrap on it. We ended up lighting all the interiors with either available practicals or those clip lights, which had 150-, 250- or 500-watt bulbs. It was a game of hide-and-seek, determining how and where we could hide our little kit of light bulbs.

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© 2004 American Cinematographer.