Below is the full text of the interview that was conducted with Hiro Narita for Moving Images. It is featured at the end of Chapter 4: “Storytelling with Light.”
What first inspired you to make movies?
I went to art school and at the time I wasn’t thinking of getting into film. For the first ten years I worked as a graphic designer, and then by chance I got involved in helping filmmakers design movie posters and so forth. And then that led to, “Can you take some stills?” And then to, “Are you interested in filmmaking? Maybe you can shoot a documentary for me.” That led to moviemaking.
Now, having said that, when I realized that I was interested in visual storytelling with moving images, I remembered that when I was a kid I went to see these movies from everywhere, from America, from Europe (this is in Japan when I was little) without really knowing what they were, just because there was no other entertainment, you know. As soon as I had a dime or a nickel, I went. And even though this was a short period of my life, maybe just a couple years, that may have had something to do with it too.
But you drifted from graphic design to cinematography very naturally, because filmmakers were asking you to help on their projects?
Right. In fact, I was almost 30 when I made the shift into cinematography. And it was not easy to make a living, just proclaiming yourself a cinematographer. I learned a lot from old master gaffers. They really taught me. I knew what looked beautiful to my eyes, but I didn’t know how to get it. So the old lighting masters would say, “If you use a 5K here and diffuse it, this is the kind of quality you get.” I learned most of my trade on the job.
How did you move on from those initial steps? What were some useful lessons you learned through your early experiences with motion pictures?
I started to do some corporate slide shows, and that led to corporate identity films, and that led to more legitimate documentary films – not selling products, but selling personalities or ideas, telling stories or capturing emotions or whatever with moving images. That really was fascinating to me. I had to catch up with the technology, of course – I was always a few years behind the technology. But if you have the desire to tell visual stories, the equipment is just a tool, and I wasn’t embarrassed that I didn’t know how to load cameras, that I had to ask people to do it for me. I was constantly learning.
When I did documentaries and I was taking decent stills and so forth, young filmmakers would say, “I’m going to make my first film. Are you interested in working on it?” That’s how it started. In the beginning, I did all sorts of films that I don’t want to even mention, like horror films, boxing films. But those experiences really taught me what to do.
I think it’s the human story that I wanted to tell. I wasn’t interested in the corporate story. I didn’t care about this company selling a plastic-piping-whatever. Now, to sell that, I’m sure it takes a talented advertising mind. But I didn’t care about plastic. I was interested in human experiences, emotions. I was asked to film a documentary on children with leukemia. That really fascinated me. Just to see these young kids telling their experiences to the camera – brave souls, you know – just to see those images of people was much more fascinating to me than shooting beautiful shoes or… you know what I mean. Though some people are really great at it.
One of the first things I learned was how to establish relationships with actors. Now, I saw – I mean, even today I see directors treating actors like props. That’s the worst thing you can do. Experienced directors know how to deal with actors, how to deal with their psychology and they know how to turn them around to perform for you, the audience. You have to let the actors feel that they’re making a contribution rather than just being told what to do. Young directors tend to say, “Well, this is my film, and I’m not getting it, I’m not getting it!” It really exhausts actors. Not to disagree with some great actors who have some incredible arguments and discussions before the camera rolls.
You see, as a cinematographer, one of the first things I learned is to respect and appreciate what actors do. Some actors like to be helped by the cinematographer, they like to be told that if they turn this way they will look more interesting or whatever. And other actors don’t want to hear any of it because they know what they’re doing, you just put the camera in the right place and get it. Understanding the different types of actors, and learning how to communicate with actors so that they feel comfortable, is very important.
How do you work with directors and actors to balance lighting and movement?
The cameraman is not the person who decides the actors’ movements. We participate. There are some directors who are more open to suggestions, but surprisingly some directors don’t want to hear any of it. That’s okay. Some directors are very visually oriented and they do express it, they say, “I’d like to see this scene lit only by the table lamp, no other light, very moody.” And if the director has such a strong feeling, then sure, let’s start with that and see what happens. I would try to support that idea. When I first read the script and interpret the scene and form a visual idea, I’m always telling myself, “This is only the beginning. Don’t force that initial idea.” I think it is important when you are a cameraman to discover. Some of the most interesting stuff that I see on the screen, I’m not convinced that the cameraman preconceived that imagery. He or she discovered it as the scene unfolded.
People think cinematography is about adding lights, but you also need to know how to take out lights. There are three schools. The first is that you start with total black and add lights. That’s a very slow way of lighting a set, but some fairly old-fashioned DPs insist on that kind of control. The second school is that you imagine where the natural light source would be. In a room, if there’s some northern light coming through a window, okay, let’s use that as a starting point. Or a night interior? Let’s start with that desk lamp. Then there is a third school: you can completely manufacture the lighting concept. By that I mean the lighting doesn’t need to have any literal logic. You can ignore the window, you can ignore the lamp. But if the lighting makes sense to the viewer, and it helps them respond emotionally, that’s good lighting. And sometimes that lighting has nothing to do with where the desk lamp is or whatever. It’s illogical, but it makes sense to your psyche. Now that’s the lighting that I began to learn much later. It’s been done for many years.
I recommend that people go see The Last Emperor by Vittorio Storaro. He has been doing this almost all of his life. On a cloudy day, he will have sun on some person, only one selected individual. Or in an early evening scene, when the sun has just set, he will have sunlight in only one corner of the screen. You wonder, “What’s going on?” But it looks so beautiful. In his interiors, you begin to see that not every window is lit, only selected windows have sunlight coming through. He said, “We don’t have to follow any rules. This visual world of cinema has its own logic.” I’m fascinated by that.
Regarding one of your films, how would you describe the style of Never Cry Wolf ?
I’m always asked in the beginning of the film, after reading the script, “What sort of visual style do you conceive?” And I say, “I don’t know. Why would I conceive the visual style even before shooting it?” I already question those people in my mind. You don’t tell actors… well, you might say to the actors that, “Your character is this and that,” but that’s only the beginning of the discussion, the beginning of the adventure. In the case of Never Cry Wolf, the only thing that Carroll Ballard showed me was a picture of a painting by the illustrator Maxfield Parrish. He just said, “There’s a magic hour in here, there’s no direct light but there’s a magic hour.” He didn’t say, “I want Never Cry Wolf to look like this.” He said, “Do you get this weird lighting? If we can capture that in our film, I’ll be happy.” But beyond that he didn’t say anything. Even though it was a Disney film, he said, “I’m not making a Disney picture here. I’m not making wolves into cute dogs.” Which Disney wanted in the beginning. I was almost fired because I wasn’t using enough fill light on the wolves
I guess so. More like an animated Disney film, where you see everything. Yeah, because they had never seen their animal pictures with silhouetted… (laughs). When we started to shoot, we both responded to this landscape that was just out of sight – Alaska, Yukon Territory, British Columbia – the most incredible places. I’d never seen anything like it. And Carroll said landscape is a part of the characters in this film. To me, in that particular film, the landscape, the animals, and how people were seen against this incredible landscape created its own visual style. I mean, we weren’t conscious of it. Carroll Ballard is a very visual artist, and when we saw wolves running through the trees, the trees were just as important as the wolves. Now, if the director didn’t see it, just saw wolves running around, I’m sure it would have ended up a lot different film.
You would begin each day of shooting without storyboards, without plans?
Carroll never had storyboards. He would talk about scenes. I’d really like to see more directors think that way. “Here’s a scene in which this scientist is initiated into the wild animal’s world. This is an initiation scene.” That’s all he talked about. He maybe wrote on a napkin or something, but he never drew pictures, he never said, “Okay, here’s a guy and I want to see hundreds of caribou like this.” This is another thing that I really like to talk to young filmmakers about. Storyboarding, to me, is okay because you are preparing something, but you are preparing at the desk. I tell students that those things you draw are something you’ve already seen. You cannot draw something that you haven’t seen yet. Just start out with the storyboards as homework, but when you go to the set, ignore them.
Now the problem today is that producers want X number of pages shot. They’re looking over your shoulder: “We need to shoot five pages today. Do you guys have storyboards or a shot list?” They want a guarantee. You do have to be disciplined enough to say okay, you can finish this today. Because I’ve worked with directors who are so frightened that they spend all day stuck on the first two pages. So I can see that in order to meet that kind of requirement and pressure, it is great to have homework. For me though, the films with all these elaborate storyboards often end up visually dull. It looks like you’ve seen it, like it’s been done before. Though you can’t say that about Hitchcock.
I was about to say. He’s the famous example, right?
For him, the movie’s made once it has been storyboarded and the rest is a pain in the ass, dealing with actors and all that stuff. Because in his mind the beautiful movie is already there. That’s a whole different thing. I don’t think Hitchcock started out like that.
That was fifty movies later.
Exactly. And then that becomes his style. I don’t think he said, “I have a style,” I don’t think he’s telling that to himself. Anyway, we all start with some idea – we have to – but don’t let that crystallize everything before even a foot of film or tape rolls.
What approaches have you taken on some of your other films?
James and the Giant Peach is a very different film. That had a predetermined idea. The animation part had to be storyboarded, because it takes so long and you can’t have any extra footage. So they already had a pre-cut animated storyboard before they shot. Their concept for the live action part was that it should look like a storybook, but no fancy stuff, and I agreed with them. It was storyboarded, but we had freedom. When a certain angle looked better, Henry [Selick] was open to doing it, rather than just recreating the storyboard. But in the case of that film, I realized the storyboarding was a legitimate process. Henry was very open. He even told me, “I don’t want you to talk to Peter Kosachik,” who was the animation photographer. “Don’t discuss anything. I don’t want you to have any kind of agreement or disagreement. Just go ahead and do your thing.” So, I don’t know. I don’t remember whether I had a visual reference. Sometimes art direction kind of determines visual style.
Like on The Rocketeer. The color of the set, color of the costumes, all had to do with capturing that period without making the film into a comic book. In fact the director said, “I don’t want to make a live action comic.” I tried to find the right color schemes. The production designer, a terrific production designer, already had his idea, but he was smart enough to say, “This is my idea and how could you enhance it?” I had been thinking of a period piece in the mid 1930’s. It was only the beginning of color movies, and most movies were black and white, but the posters were all in really wonderful color. I liked the greenish-bluish shadows. So I kind of took a cue from 1930’s movie posters. That’s how I think the creative process starts on some films.
How about Honey I Shrunk the Kids?
Honey I Shrunk the Kids was another one of those Disney concepts. Here’s a huge grass set, which they built. This is before digital computer animation, so everything for the visual effects had to be shot on eight-perf, bluescreen – very, very complicated. But anyway, my feeling with the grass set was that it should look real. I mean, if you look at actual grass, it’s dark in there, with maybe a slash of light. So that’s how I started. Disney freaked out. “We’re not making a horror film here. Lighten it up. Use a lot more fill light!” And I didn’t quite understand it, but I started to do it, because they complained. I started to add a lot of fill. We were saying, “Well, this is not visually exciting, but Disney’s not saying anything.” Then, halfway through production we got a message from Katzenberg saying, “I think I like the earlier version.” So we went back. In the film, some of the best stuff was shot in the first three weeks.
Why the ‘best’ stuff?
Because we weren’t hearing that comedy should look this way or that way. The director and I felt that part of the film should look really scary and foreboding, you know?
All cameramen have stories like that. I was talking to Vilmos Zsigmond, and he said he was almost fired twice from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, because of the way he was doing interesting stuff – scary, silhouetted figures.
Can you give us an example that illustrates how cinematography affects storytelling?
The last picture I did is called La Mission. This is a film where the story is uniquely San Francisco, uniquely about the Mission district. And the temptation is to show the story through city landscape. But the director [Peter Bratt] and I talked about it and he said, “I’m not selling San Francisco. I’ve seen so many movies that have to have that shot of the Golden Gate Bridge or whatever. How can we show San Francisco without emphasizing it.” And he had some ideas. One was that we should show that tower, Sutro Tower, from different angles, not show it but it’s there, and we did, whenever we could, it’s in the frame for whatever reason. That’s the extent of “San Francisco.” The rest – the story takes place in the Mission, so we were very conscious of color, but we didn’t want to change anything. Capture it, but don’t change it. In the end, I think we succeeded. The color of the Mission District is there without us saying, “Take a look at this.” So the only thing that I would have done differently is that in some scenes I would have used light a little more differently to create a stronger mood. This project was shot in 27 days. I don’t think I used more than four lights a day because we didn’t have time to do it.
We would look for – Okay, let’s use this corner because there is sun here. Or if we put a small HMI from the window, that’s it. All filmmakers deal with the balance between aesthetics and economy, or the conflict between art and finance. If we all became artists and all did things we want to see, it would take 200 days to make a movie, whereas you have to do it in 25 days. So that’s the nature of the beast.
You have photographed both big Hollywood studio productions and low-budget independent films. From a cinematographer’s point of view, is there much difference?
No. My attitude is the same. In any given situation or project, I’m asking myself what is the best solution for this particular scene? In The Rocketeer, there was a two-story nightclub set. And when I saw it, I said, “I need hundreds of lights.” As I mentioned earlier, I’m not a technician, and I don’t know how to figure out how many 10Ks we need to hang there. So I go to a gaffer and I say, “I need to have at least a 2.5 exposure here, and I need to see this beautiful nightclub – but not overlit – and I think we ought to put some light in that pool.” So I initiate a conversation like that. That’s how I solve my problems.
But you can’t quite solve your problems that way if it’s a movie being made for $10.
Exactly. And if that nightclub scene is in La Mission, I tell them, “Okay, are you ready to spend $50,000 on lighting? If not, take the scene out of the script” (laughs). Or, you have a dark nightclub with a couple shafts of light. There is actually a nightclub in La Mission, and we used whatever light they had and added a few of our lights, so it worked out. You have to know how to make the best use of what’s there.
In the movie, there’s a kitchen scene, I think it is described as “Morning – Kitchen”, where the son reveals to his father, “I’m gay, this is how I was born. There’s nothing I can do.” And the father [played by Benjamin Bratt] says, “What do you mean nothing you can do? God created men and women.” It takes place in the kitchen. Nobody stands up – maybe the son stands up once – they are all sitting. And I wanted to keep it very moody. Actually I had one light, a small HMI out the window, and the rest was florescent bounce. The director didn’t want to lose too much time setting up the shot, because he wanted more time with the actors. And I was thinking, okay, we didn’t know exactly what they were going to do, but I didn’t want lit actors going into darkness, so I kind of lit it flat, except the window.
Now, when I was shooting I wasn’t paying attention that behind the father there is a stove, which is white. If we had the money, we wouldn’t use that white stove in there, we would replace it, because white picks up light and gives a lot of unfortunate reflections. But we didn’t have money or time to replace it, so we left it. But because I used a little more even light, when I see the scene now these things really bother me – they are interfering with the performance. I wish I had cleaner light on the actors. I don’t think we even needed to see the kitchen wall, because we’ve seen it already, in the viewer’s mind it’s there. I overestimated what should be seen. I should have been gutsy.
The audience has an incredible capacity to imagine and connect the dots, so the filmmaker has the freedom to make a kind of a leap without disrupting the flow. Same thing with lighting. If you’re watching dailies, you might say, “It’s kind of dark in the background,” but when the film is put together, all those worries are unnecessary.
But there must also be some sort of pleasure in working quickly like that?
You’ve brought up a very interesting point. When you are under pressure, your perceptions excel. It’s been proven. In the creative process, when you are under pressure – I’m not encouraging this – things happen. When the producer tells you, “You guys have to shoot this scene in an hour and a half. I know you have 20 shots – what can you eliminate?” then you start thinking really fast. I do think everyone needs to experience that heightened moment. I don’t know how it happens, I have no idea. I don’t want to exaggerate these experiences.
It happened a couple times on La Mission. The director said, “You know, Hiro, the sun is going down and we need to shoot this scene today on location, we can’t come back here. What can we do?” I looked at the shot list and asked him, “What is it that you’re trying to do?” He says, “I want to create this sensation, this and that.” And I said, “Well, to do that, for me, I don’t think you need all these shots. Go from there to there.” That’s how we solved the problem. I think we cut the shot list to at least half. There was no other reason to shoot all this stuff. Then, as Peter edited the film he realized, “Oh gosh, why do we need this stuff?”
Tell us about the relationship between the director and the cinematographer. You’ve worked with many of the biggest American directors of our time – Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese. Do each of those people interact with the cinematographer in a different way?
In the case of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, I did just a small segment, reshooting a scene with Harrsion Ford. Now Spielberg I think makes movies in the editing because he shoots a lot of different angles. We were shooting this one scene in the cave where Harrison Ford’s character wakes up and finds that he is surrounded by thousands of candles, and I think we shot like twenty different setups. And Spielberg thinks fast. In those days, between setups he would go play videogames. Then he would come back and say, “Okay, let’s go. Shoot.” Now, George Lucas was watching, and said to Steven, “If I were you I would do this in one shot,” and Steven looked at George and said, “But I’m not you.” In the end I think he must have used only three shots for that scene. But that’s how he approached moviemaking, I think, and he would make the decision in the editing room, he could afford to do it. Other directors make the decision on set. I took a much larger role in a film called Always, did visual effects photography, but in that case I didn’t have direct contact with Spielberg because there was a second unit director.
Give me an example of another director working in a completely different way than Spielberg.
Then there are other directors like Lynn Hershman. She always says, “This is a scene about this or that. Where do you want to put the camera?” And then I would say, “Okay what about this? This angle is interesting. What do you think?” And she would say, “Oh yeah, let’s shoot it.” Then she says, “Okay that’s enough, let’s go do another scene.” And I would say, “What if this scene is too long, where would you cut it?” “Oh, I don’t know.” And I would say, “I think we should shoot another angle, just in case.” This is how she and I work. She doesn’t care about the master shots and the close ups. She says, “That language to me is uninteresting,” and I agree with her. So Lynn is another kind of director, and I came to enjoy that way of working because I like to find out what unfolds.
And what is she focused on?
She’s focused on a kind of perception, how the mind works. As you know she’s an artist, and she too is trying to find out, “How am I going to capture that experience that I cannot explain with words.” So that proposes an interesting challenge, a very different kind of challenge.
She leaves almost all the visual camera decisions to you? You guys did Conceiving Ada and Teknolust together?
And a couple documentaries. And of course very low budget. Like in Teknolust where [Tilda] Swinton plays four different characters, Lynn was adamant about not using any fancy visual effects. Instead we used split screen and photo doubles. That’s the challenge that I think was interesting.
But it is just as pleasurable for you to work this way?
I enjoy in fact working on a project that’s not over-storyboarded. A shot list is one thing, but storyboards are another. Then there is another kind of director who is more into listening to dialogue, saying, “Oh this is going to work. Alright, all I need is a close up.” But if that’s the case, every scene throughout the film is a close up scene of talking heads. And he knows that that’s not a movie, so he knows we have to open it up and… you know. Every film is different.
You brought up with Teknolust this idea of fancy special effects. How do you think the advent of digital technology has changed cinematography?
It has made it technically a lot easier for us. I mean, I can make a lot of mistakes. Sometimes I can see a light stand or a c-stand in the finished shot, and rather than reshooting it, it’s cheaper to remove it digitally. If someone’s microphone comes into frame, I don’t worry about it. I’ll take it out.
Sometimes, in the final color timing of the film, I say, “Okay, this scene could be a little lighter, a little darker, more blue.” But your perception changes every day. Sometimes I show up the next day at the timing session and preview the previous day’s work, and I say to myself, “Holy mackerel, I must have been out of my mind yesterday.” And because of the technology now you can keep changing it, it’s so easy. If the contrast doesn’t look right, you can even change the contrast on the face. You’re painting a scene and it’s endless. With a film, the film color timer would say, “Okay this is it, I can only change the exposure, I can’t change the contrast.” If the director can’t make up his mind this color timing can go on and on.
Putting aside post-production for a moment, do you feel that digital technology has changed the art of cinematography itself, that people approach the craft now from a different point of view?
There is a danger, from the cinematographer’s point of view, because in post things can change, I mean drastically. A color scene can be desaturated or saturated or made black & white. Sometimes I have no control. Like if the producer decides that, “I’m going to do the color timing in Seattle or New York, and I can’t bring you up there, can’t put you up in a hotel.” That means I’m letting someone else play with it.
That used to be a time-honored part of the cinematographer’s job.
Absolutely. It’s in the contract. I’ve seen a couple of my films that I don’t even recognize after the color timing, and it is sad to see them.
Do you have the sense that the safety net of digital technology makes cinematographers sloppier when they’re working?
I think so. And yet I love new technology. I’m not exaggerating that ten years ago I absolutely believed that high definition was going to take over. They were saying, “No way, it’s not art.” Just imagine, first of all, black and white photography. There was no black and white painting in the Renaissance or any other time. Black and white technology was all that they could come up with. So photographers began to experiment and they saw that if they used a red filter the sky would go dark. Ansel Adams photography is beautiful, but it is so far away from reality. It’s not a realistic photograph. It’s manufactured. Then black & white photography became color, and people were in shock – “This is so anti-art! So gaudy!” Then we went into reversal film, and negative, and digital. Twenty years ago, people like Antonioni were saying that this is the medium of cinema artists. He was completely married to it.
He was saying that about what – about digital?
In those days it was not quite digital. Videography.
Antonioni thought video was the future?
What did you do on Zabriskie Point?
I supplied a lot of riot footage, from the Chicago convention, San Francisco State. I shot one of the screen tests in San Francisco for this ACT actor, and he liked my photography. Antonioni asked the producer, “Can he work as one of the cameramen?” He had brought the Italian DP and camera operator with him, but he needed multiple cameras. And the producer found that I was not in the union and said, “No way that we can do this.” So Antonioni gave me a project to do: that if any kind of riots broke out, I was supposed to go there and shoot them as reference material.
So when the ‘68 riots broke out you flew to Chicago to shoot them for Antonioni?
I was there! Chicago, Watts, San Francisco State – that was the longest, three weeks, I went there every day
You’ve been a cinematographer for thirty years and you’ve seen prevailing styles change. Do you have any gut feeling about where cinematography will go, stylistically, in the future? Has everything already been done?
I think everything has been done. If you go back and see 30’s German Expressionism, they tried everything. Even here in the United States, in the 1930s films the lighting and compositions are magnificent. Because at the time, German Expression came out of not being able to afford enough lights, right? And so they thought, “Let’s create mood with shadows or whatever. And that came back to the United States with film noir, with, “The sets look terrible? Well, let’s not see it.” And that’s been repeated in everything from Scorsese’s films to Batman Returns.
I don’t think that in the human mind the desire to tell stories or the desire to hear stories has changed in a couple thousand years. Technology has changed. Now, whatever you think can be realized visually, which is just mindboggling. You can create King Kong in 1930’s New York more believably than if you had a camera there.
Our taste might actually go back to simpler film, I think. It’s all visual style that changes, from fresco to oil to watercolor, but story hasn’t changed that much. It may go through a few more changes. I think the problem now is that the younger generation is losing the ability to watch an hour and a half or two. They think everything is 30 sec to 3 minutes. And unfortunately the industry is going to take advantage of it and create a whole bunch of three-minute films. They’ll think that’s the thing. That will be a shame. But storytelling is not going to change.
Also, another thing for young filmmakers is to not separate the craft of editing, acting, cinematography and all those things for the time being. The more I work in the business, I see that they are all connected. As much as I admire “Academy Award winning cinematography,” you can’t take over the story. You can’t have fantastic editing or great music but terrible acting. When the marriage between everything works out, then it’s a success.