When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
While I was growing up in post-war Japan, a flood of movies from abroad poured into local theaters. Next to baseball, movies were the main source of entertainment. I’m not sure why, but I was particularly fond of French thrillers, especially those featuring Jean Gabin.
Which cinematographers, past and present, do you most admire?
I must admit that before I became a cinematographer, I was not an analytical filmgoer. I went to films for the story and didn’t pay special attention to the cinematography. Later, I began to appreciate how a visual style is an active element that contributes to the telling of a story and enriches the emotional content of what unfolds onscreen. Artists like [ASC members] Arthur C. Miller, Vittorio Storaro and Vilmos Zsigmond are a few who have inspired me. There are too many to list them all.
What sparked your interest in photography?
Though trained as an illustrator, I quickly felt confined and limited by static images, and that led me to explore images over time, choreographed images — motion pictures. It may not be simple coincidence that I so loved movies as a child; I certainly feel it played a role in my choice of profession.
Where did you train and/or study?
I went to San Francisco Art Institute to study graphic art and story illustration. I also took some still-photography classes there.
Who were your early teachers or mentors?
When I got out of the U.S. Army, John Korty, the Bay Area director of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, took me under his wing. I apprenticed with him for more than three years as an assistant cameraman, gaffer, projectionist, film-poster designer, etc. I even took on an animation project, doing all the artwork and filming it.
What are some of your key artistic influences?
Painter Richard Diebenkorn of the figurative school; photographer Andre Kertesz; and the late Gordon Parks, who worked in many media. I also owe a great debt to writer Samuel Beckett, whose work somehow opened my psyche so that I began to truly understand English! One teacher jokingly told me he had not heard me speak audibly in my first three years at the Art Institute.
How did you get your first break in the business?
After I did some additional photography on Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, John Korty gave me my first substantial film, a 1976 TV movie called Farewell to Manzanar.
What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
Seeing a final print of a movie I worked on and being able to say, ‘Wow, how did I achieve that?’ as if it were someone else’s work. When an image takes on a life and integrity of its own, that’s when I feel it’s successful.
Have you made any memorable blunders?
On my first hi-def shoot, I was not prepared for the camera to be so susceptible to temperature changes. Until we made a habit of checking the back-focus periodically, there were a few shots that were not sharp enough, a problem that went undetected by the tech engineer and me.
What’s the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
I was invited to join the cinematographers shooting The Last Waltz, for which director Martin Scorsese prepared an elaborate shooting script for each camera position and every performer. David Myers, an accomplished and wise cameraman of much greater experience than I at the time, took me aside and whispered, ‘Go with your instincts.’ His advice stays with me even today.
What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
I recently attended a comprehensive museum exhibit of Art Deco, creative work ranging from utensils to skyscrapers, jewelry to dresses. I was astonished by the delicacy and audacity, the scale and rhythm of designs created in the 1920s. They are very photogenic.
Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
Fortunately, I have worked on a variety of genres — films based on comic books, on nature, or on science fiction. Story is more important to me than genre. If a story fascinates me, its genre and period are secondary. I also like the immediacy of documentary films.
If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
Woodworking or cabinetmaking.
Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Haskell Wexler, Stephen H. Burum and Richard Glouner.
How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
I really look forward to mixing with my peers. As there is usually only one director of photography on a set, we don’t see each other that much. The ASC provides that contact. Also, I appreciate that the Society’s central focus is more on the art and craft of cinematography rather than the biz. When I give talks at schools or festivals, I find that many film students are avid readers of American Cinematographer, and they regard me as a part of that reservoir of experience and knowledge. It makes me feel I’m part of our great film tradition; it’s both humbling and a great responsibility.