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Union Roundup: ASC Honoree Ellen Kuras’ #1 Rule for Being a Good DP — “Don’t Be an A-Hole”

March 22, 2022 11:55 | By
Ellen Kuras

Image via Lionsgate UK

IATSE issued a statement earlier this week, officially decrying the Academy’s controversial decision to move forward with “non-live” award presentations in eight different categories — Film Editing, Make-up Hairstyling, Production Design, Animated Short, and Sound — with President Matt Loeb saying that “behind the scenes workers get little recognition as is, despite being the backbone of every production. The Academy Awards has been virtually the only venue where the very best on and off the big screen, above and below the line, gather to honor each other’s incredible contributions through their crafts, inspiring millions who tune into the TV broadcast in the process.”

His mention of “millions” may actually hold the key to the whole imbroglio. Earlier this awards season, the Indie Spirits did essentially the same thing, though in their case, it was three categories — editing, cinematography, and Best International Film (won by Joi McMillon for Zola, Edu Grau for Passing, and Drive My Car, respectively), all of which we presented during commercial breaks as the show was broadcast simultaneously on IFC and AMC+.

But perhaps because there weren’t “millions” of viewers for this still niche-show on still-niche networks, and because winners can quite often not be in guilds or unions at the Indie Spirit stage of their careers, it never became the brouhaha that the Academy is dealing with.

A long time ago, in that pre-digital age when people didn’t live within a constant, multi-platform tsunami of entertainment news (or “news,” as the case may be) as we all, in Neil Postman’s predictive phrase, continue “amusing ourselves to death,” the Oscar broadcast was one of the few places where you could see movie stars, let alone renowned crafts folk, and immerse yourself in the language of film outside of an actual theater (or the occasional conversation with Cavett or Carson). Back then, the Oscar broadcast had a kind of Super Bowl-ish presence, at least in terms of eyeballs and ad buys, though the two events have been on separate media trajectories for awhile.

The real solution, of course, is to actually make the Academy Awards more like the Independent Spirit Awards, or the slew of specialized, self-congratulatory gatherings that dot L.A.’s landscape during awards season. Those other ceremonies may feature similar teleprompter-fed banter, but they don’t have dance numbers and they more or less focus on the crafts they’re covering. They don’t feel the need to put on a show, so to speak, and what razzle-dazzle there is was created for the audience in the room, not the one watching at home.

Oscars 2020

Image via AMPAS

Since the audience for the Oscar telecast grows smaller and smaller with each passing year, it may be time to put it out of its misery and simply start streaming it, with no attention paid to its commercial appeal, the Q-score of its presenters, or any dance numbers at all. Make the show, in other words, something that is once again truly unique for film fans, those interested in all the various crafts, how they work, and what all those nominated crew folk actually do behind the scenes.

Otherwise, the Oscar telecast will continue to be remain betwixt and between — not really enough of a variety show to interest casual viewers who may or may not have even watched many (or any) of the nominated films, let alone heard of them, and increasingly irrelevant to movie fans who will continue to get their behind-the-scenes fix elsewhere.

This is one reason the Academy press room is usually more interesting on Oscar night than the front of the house; each winner can continue to comment on their craft and collaborators, and more, so long as questions keep coming, with no fear of being suddenly cut off by the orchestra. And there’ve been far more thoughtful musings back there than up front.

One example of how such a show might look or work could be found in this past weekend’s ASC awards stream, hosted on the Society’s own website. There was interest from a broad geographical range of cinematography fans, at least judging by the Twitter comments that cropped up once the stream sputtered to a temporary halt about midway through — a technological bump that the Oscars may not be able to afford risking.

The moment came during one of the “Postcard” segments the ASC stream now features — short video greetings from DPs working in far flung locations, from Iceland and Africa to Eastern Europe and backlots right down the street. The inference seemed to be that these greetings were sent because they couldn’t be there with their colleagues.

Alice Brooks

Image via ASC

And yet, there was newly-minted ASC member Alice Brooks sending a greeting from her place in NY, where she’s prepping a new feature, and then there she was again, live, at the ASC clubhouse, being interviewed by “color commentators” Lawrence Sher of Joker fame, and Delphine Figueras, producer of ASC’s Clubhouse Conversations.

The ASC did not spring for its usual Hollywood & Highland gathering at the Dolby, once again opting for a small group of invitees at their clubhouse, although this year the ceremony felt much more like an “award show.” Debbie Allen did the hosting inside, where the awards were handed out.

But in any case, there was Brooks, seemingly breaking the timestream by being there, and yet appearing remotely, all at once! Any astute Marvel movie fan will inform you of the dangers of such “casual causality” in the multiverse, and in any case, that’s precisely when the stream stopped working.

It picked up again some minutes later, after a few more presentations had gone by, in time for Rachel Morrison to present a Lifetime Achievement Award to documentarian, director and DP Ellen Kuras, who recalled being the fifth female member of that august group, and now its first female lifetime honoree.

In quite a generous, impassioned speech, replete with video salutations from occasional collaborator Martin Scorsese, Kuras thanked crew folk, rental and post houses, and more — kind of the opposite of the typical approach seen at the Oscars, really, emphasizing that no single person’s success would be possible without that too-infrequently-acknowledged support along the way. She also said that the “number one rule to being a good cinematographer, and director,” was “please don’t be an asshole. Go forth with kindness,” she admonished, while acknowledging the world is, at present, challenged in manifesting that particular commodity.

Greig Fraser Dune

Image via Warner Bros./Legendary

And while the video feed was never quite the same after its first “multiple timeline” break, enough of it streamed to reveal that Greig Fraser, ASC ACS, was unable to accept another accolade for Dune — still poised to have a great night in the crafts categories (televised or not!) come Oscar Sunday — as he is still on the mend from Covid. His Second Unit DP, Katelin Arizmendi, accepted the feature film award on his behalf, reading Fraser’s prepared remarks in which he also thanked crew members and post-houses alike, including FotoKem, to whom he’d return for The Batman. He also thanked Arizmendi herself, saying “Kate pretty much lit and framed every single shot in Dune.

He also gave a shout-out to fellow nominee Ari Wegner, ACS, for her work on The Power of the Dog, recalling when the two of them were working together on earlier Australian projects.

“If anybody in this room gets to work with any of my team, you should be very grateful,” he said, as read by the bemused Arizmendi.

Gratitude was clearly one of the themes of the evening — hopefully, in each of the timelines where it unfolded.


MLWIncrediHeadMark London Williams is a BTL alum who currently covers Hollywood, its contents and discontents, in his recurring “Across the Pond” dispatch for British Cinematographer magazine, contributes to other showbiz and production-minded sites, and musters out the occasional zombie, pandemic-themed, or demon-tinged book and script, causing an increased blurring in terms of what still feels like “fiction.”

Mark London Williams’Union Roundup column will appear every Tuesday. You can reach him to give him tips and feedback at [email protected]. He can also be found on Twitter @TricksterInk.