Written by Hiro Narita, ASC
Some students explore possible careers in the film industry, while others are simply fascinated by filmmaking. Cinema is a synthesis of art and technology, and I believe there is no short cut to success in the field. I find that students – and professionals – who excel in filmmaking take a broad perspective on art and intertwine that understanding with their own unique life experiences.
In my youth, reading and writing were not my favorite undertakings. That might have led me to think in images, and eventually, I took the path of image making as a graphic designer, then eventually, as a cinematographer. This reasoning, I began to realize, was a tenuous one because both words and pictures are symbols and tools of how we perceive our world and shape ourselves, and they are intrinsic to communicate among ourselves. There was much learning waiting for me on the road.
A turning point in my life came when I saw Knife in the Water, Roman Polanski’s first film. I noticed that the camera always seemed to be in the right place giving the viewer – me – a personal perspective of the scenes unfolding, and what I did not see evolved in my mind’s eye. That, I realized, was the power of a movie; the sequence of images in measured tempo alluring the viewer to engage in the emotional interaction. Images imbue words, and vice versa. I noticed it, but I wasn’t mindful of them. Words and pictures dancing around and shape-shifting is a unique art form in filmmaking. And what is outside of the frame, what is implied, is also a part of the viewing experience. This film was shot in black and white, yet they resonated in hues unseen but experienced. Decades later, I saw The Postman / Il Postino (in color) by Michael Redford. A beautiful exploration of romance, politics, and delicious potency of words, is a different example of a film whose words and pictures weave and create a tapestry of a vivid and impressionistic experience.
Successful films, I believe, embody realism but transcend it. They let us recognize, connect with the stories and characters unlike our own, and expand our horizon.
Often, I told my film students, carry a notebook or sketch book, jot down any thoughts that come to your mind or inspiring images you see – even if they are imaginary – and eavesdrop on conversations and make note of how people often talk in metaphors. They may not make any sense or even seem like jumbled nonsense at the time, but later they may connect, integrate and reveal a life of their own. A student of storytelling must constantly be on the lookout for inspiration, agitation, and innovation.
Cinematography – creating emotional rhythm, mood, composition and visual scale – is like a symphony: no one instrument can create a vast array of tone or chord. Similarly, lighting is not independent of creating images that communicate emotions veiled beneath them. You might argue that light is both an explicit and implicit aspect of an image. I want to emphasize here that although lighting is technically required to expose film or tape, the so called “painting with light” is a very personal art. It sometimes involves cutting the light off. “The beauty of things you don’t see,” the phrase I often use shows us the importance of the viewer’s imagination, to fill in the blank space on a canvas, so to speak. In masterful examples of cinematography, you find out that the lighting in itself seems to lack, even violate, logic; light produces emotions and sensations which the observer transforms into personal experience, even if antithetic to realism. I believe discovering what light does, what people see in it and feel from it is the key.
In my experience with students, I often find them anxious to emulate “Hollywood” movies. By no means, does this lack merit. Many Hollywood movies are inspiring and professionals draw their inspiration from other filmmakers, and that is evident throughout the history of cinema.
If students of cinema begin to realize why they want to tell a story with moving images, whether narrative or non-narrative, the techniques to achieve them should follow their instincts first rather than formulas. Curiosity and discovery are essential ingredients in that endeavor.
And the question of whether or not to study filmmaking in specialized film schools comes up often. I am sure some schools are better equipped with facilities than others, or perhaps some provide inspiring instructors. AFI, for instance, has a strong tie with the industry and the exposure to active professionals is great. Yet, I meet many accomplished and interesting filmmakers coming out of leftfields of study such as architecture, economics, literature, fine art, etc., and, more significantly, they happened to be in a school or in an institution with a group of aspiring students who nurtured each other’s creative spirit. Their common desire is to tell stories, some with moving images. A specialized film school may give a student a jump-start by providing him or her with plenty of ingredients, a wealth of techniques, tools, and recipes, but he or she still has to harness inspirations and manage their own talent to cook up a delectable plate of movies.
For a decade, I have had opportunities to see many students’ films from around the globe, and I am very impressed by some of their original, creative results reflecting their cultures. Storytelling is universal and sees no boundaries. I hope it will permeate further and encourage the sharing of our diverse thoughts and ideas.
I took a meandering route myself. I was a practicing designer for several years during which “one thing led to another” before I settled into cinematography. What fascinated me was that a movie, though two-dimensional in form, transpires three-dimensional awareness: time, space, and psyche. Not only cinematography but filmmaking in general taught me about people and their cultures and also opened up a deep layer of consciousness waiting to be explored.
In recent years, I have been devoting my time in cabinet making, which I find a strong connection, surprisingly, to filmmaking: Everything is connected, creatively.