I’m round my mum’s house and tell her that I’m about to interview a brilliant DOP. She stares at me blankly. ‘What’s a DOP?’, she asks. ‘I’ve never heard of that’. Perhaps if I said cinematographer, she’d have been more clued up. (Mum?) But the work of a Director of Photography is one of the most important roles behind the camera. Because it’s just that – quite literally behind the camera. And it’s here that the wonderful work of Yasu Tanida shines bright.
Yasu has worked on everything from independent films to the internationally renowned television series, This Is Us. The show that has stolen the hearts of millions of viewers across the globe. But while lots of you might know about the famous faces in the cast; from the wonderful Mandy Moore to the great Sterling K. Brown, I was interested to know more about Yasu’s interesting role in the industry. Let’s not forget that for every shot in front of the camera, there are plenty of people working tirelessly behind it.
When I called Yasu from my rainy London living room, I could sense his relaxed (or ‘chill’, as he liked to call it) and friendly Californian demeanour in an instant. He was settling in for Christmas at the time and after his busy year of filming, I reckon that was just the ticket.
How did you get into cinematography?
I went to school at Chapman University and got a Bachelors degree in film and television production. I graduated in 2001 and during my time there, I learned that I wanted to be a cinematographer. I shot a lot of short films. I interned on some movies as an electrician and I won a couple of awards from the school and also from Kodak that got me some work on the outside.
When you left did you find yourself working a lot already?
No, it was whatever I could get! I had student loans, I had rent – I had to make a living out of it and it was very difficult because I was freelance. But I loved it (looking back I can say I loved it!). I was doing what I really enjoyed and the money thing didn’t really concern me as long as I had a roof over my head. Then in 2007 I had a film that won an award at the Spirit Awards and that film really got me some attention. That was a film called August Evening which got me on to Variety’s ‘ten cinematographers to watch’ list – a very cool list to be on! Back then they picked one guy on the list who was the nobody – I was the lone independent filmmaker. I was the only one of ten DPs who didn’t have an agent. It was a turning point because it got me some attention.
How did you end up working on This Is Us?
I shot the pilot for Pitch which was directed by Paris Barclay but Dan Fogelman created the TV show with another writer called Rick Singer. I was hired on to shoot the pilot – it was about the first female baseball player in the Major League. I had a great time filming it. So that’s where I met Dan, the creator of This is Us. Dan’s very chill and very laid back and that’s just kind of how I am. I think our temperaments get along! And he asked me if I wanted to do another series – Dan had two pilots that were being picked up to series in 2016 and he said ‘do you want to see this show?’. If I was interested, he said I could interview for the job and I said ‘sure!” and I saw This Is Us and was blown away by how interesting and creative it was. I then interviewed with John and Glen who were the directors for the pilot and I was lucky enough to be hired.
What do you think makes the show so successful?
Dan Fogelman mentioned something like – during the time when we have a president who’s a little negative at points – to know that the TV show was positive and had characters that people could relate to – I think that’s why it’s popular. It’s not the most exciting action show but people can relate to things like not seeing a relative for so long or being separated from someone. If a production can show how one moment can impacts generations – I think it’s very interesting.
Do you have much of a dialogue with the actors before shooting a scene?
I know the character arcs of each script that comes up and it is a hyper-emotional show so I do whatever I can as a cinematographer to make the set as comfortable as possible. Whether that means not being too loud or making an environment where the actors can be extremely comfortable saying anything to me or the rest of the cast or the crew. Because I’ve known them for so long, you’d be surprised how laid back we all are on the set! We just talk about last night’s basketball game or we talk about what people are eating for dinner that night. Or how someone’s kids are doing with their homework. It’s cliché to say, but it’s like a family. So we do have a dialogue, but when those scenes come up, I try to let them work on their lines or whatever they have to do.
Do the actors ever take an interest in what goes on behind the scenes?
They do. Milo (Ventimiglia), for example, loves camera. He has a collection of all these different cameras. He probably takes more photos than anybody on the set, besides the stills photographer. We always talk about cameras and he shows me what he’s got. So he’s always interested in what I’m doing. Sterling (K. Brown) is interested because I think he might want to do something behind the camera in some capacity – there was a time when he would ask me what lens I’m using. But I don’t keep that stuff secret from them. When I say I want to change a lens, the actors can hear it. It’s not ‘Us vs them’. It’s a collaborative thing. If I go ‘Hey, lets change it to a 35mm’ they get an idea of what that is.
What was the most challenging scene for you to shoot on the series?
The house burning scene. People always want to know what’s happening on the show beforehand so we had to hide and make the setting in a really far out location. We recreated the upstairs set of the Pearson’s house out in Newhall which is an hour away from Paramount Studios where we shoot the show – because you also can’t have fire on the set in the stage! The challenge was in seamlessly matching the stage with the set we built in Newhall and the actual house. We shot that in December 2017 so it was also really cold for all the actors. I was lucky that I had shot fire scenes before so you can kind of prepare how to shoot it and look at the best way to make it real. With the right lens and the right distance, you can make a fire that is actually 6 feet away, feel like it’s right in front of you. The challenge was creating the illusion that they were in real danger.
What lens do you use and what is the intended effect?
I use Panavision Primo lenses on This Is Us. It’s basically a fixed lens – so it’s a 35 or a 40. Once you’ve changed the focal you have to take off the lens. Panavision sprays the lenses (we use white – you can also use black) on the third piece of glass at the back so if you can picture a camera lens and you know the back of the lens that goes into the camera – the third piece of glass – they usually frost that lens. For our show, we do the very back piece of glass – that’s the one I like to frost because it’s the closest to the sensor of the camera. It’s the last thing it hits before the sensor. Sometimes you can see the flares of the show and they’re often blue and white and they have soft highlights. It helps with the skin tones – Mandy has to do older aged make up and there’s a lot of prosthetics so that helps to soften the make-up effect or hair effect to hide the blemishes or imperfections. Even though the make-up and hair department do really great jobs.
Is it very different working as a cinematographer on location versus working on a set?
It is different because with location work you’re in a real space, like a real café, living room or school and it already feels lived in. With our show, we try to make the stage work feel lived in just like the real locations we film at. That’s always a challenge for a cinematographer. Like the paint on the walls at the Pearsons’ house or Randall’s house – we try to have texture on the wall. Or, on every set that we build, I ask Gary Frutkoff, the production designer, to make it feel like more like a house. Because in reality a house would probably be painted not just once, but every ten years! This gives it texture and when the light hits it, you can feel that. The great thing about the show is that mix of stage and location work. Sometimes, a crew can get tired of shooting on location, so we look forward to the days on stage and then when we’re on stage too long, we look forward to the times when we get to go out.
What would you say is the most exciting part of your job?
I like shooting the super emotional scenes. When I’m on the set at video village watching it with Ken Olin or whichever director is there, it makes you appreciate working on a show like this because the dialogue is so good. That’s one of my favourite parts of being a DP; I like watching it come together. Usually, I’m at Technicolor when I watch the show – after the colour correction. When you see an episode come together, it’s worth all the effort that everybody put in.
Is your job a good blend between the technical and the artistic?
Yeah I guess so! With this show, I would say they let me be more artistic than normal. Sometimes, as a cinematographer, you’re forced into whatever the show is. My taste is that I like flares and I like imperfections. And on some shows, those things are considered bad. But with this show, artistically it’s very close with how I would want to shoot all of my projects.
Television and film. Are the two very different when it comes to your job?
The thing I love about TV is that it’s almost instant results. For example, I shoot a scene in September and then the next day I can see a rough cut of the scene and three weeks later I see the whole episode. Another two weeks after that I colour the show. And two months from when I shot the scene, it’s on television! As a cinematographer, television is great because I learn so much. When you don’t do a scene correctly you can say ‘Oh OK, I’ll do that a bit differently the next time I go into that living room’. Whereas in a movie, you prep and then shoot the movie and then maybe, sixteen months later, it comes out. I used to like that. But now, if I go back to movies, I’ll feel like – what is taking so long?! I would still love to do movies though.
How much of your job is affected by the subject matter itself?
That’s always something I think about before I take a job. And yeah, for sure, because the The Long Road Home (a big action show) was about 30 days of night shoots. We were shooting from 5pm to 5am and usually when I read a script that has that many nights, unless it’s an amazing script (like The Long Road Home), I try to say no. That’s tough on a crew and the actors when you have to go to bed at 7am and wake up at noon and go to work at 5pm. At 3am, the last thing you want to do is light a big explosion and blow up a bridge but that’s what we were doing.
What would be your advice for people wanting to get into cinematography?
I think film school is good for certain people. It was good for me because I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. And when I was at film school back in ‘97 it was a different industry. Now however, you can learn a lot from being online and from magazines and tutorials. I think it’s more important to travel (as cheaply as you can) – to be in different environments and interact with different people. On our show, we got to go to Washington DC, Vegas, Philadelphia and we got to go to Vietnam earlier this year. Some houses are built differently in different parts of the world so you have to physically visualise how to shoot a space. That helps you as a cinematographer. The light changes too. When you’re in Africa, for example, the light’s different than in America and in Europe. I like working outside of LA because your eyes open up.
Watch this space for Season 3 of This Is Us coming later in the year. Get your family together. Get out the tissues. And be prepared for some wonderful stories. This show has made me laugh and feel less alone in one wonderful bundle – I honestly can’t recommend it enough and I take my hat off to people like Yasu and others working on the show, for bringing it to our screens.
In the meantime, you can follow Yasu on Instagram at @yasutanida. What a talented (and downright nice) guy.