Rene Ohashi, ASC, CSC - Photo by D. Kirkland
"During my childhood, I loved to draw and paint. My drawings were realistic in expression. That's how I looked at the world. Shooting film for news magazine shows and documentaries sharpened my instincts for thinking on my feet and making quick decisions. It's a different experience shooting dramatic films because I have to consider the script, the emotions to be evoked, and my interactions with the director and everyone else. The execution of this art form can be very complex, and yet the message can be eloquently simple. It's a collaborative process of discovery. One of the things I love about this industry is that I can work on a children's film one year, shoot a dramatic detective series the next, and then move on to something entirely different again. It is important to me that film is maintained as an archival medium. If I put my heart and soul into a project, I like to know it will be there for future audiences and not disappear from the face of the earth."
Rene Ohashi, ASC, CSC has earned an ASC Award along with two nominations, 11 Gemini Awards plus two nominations, as well as 10 CSC Awards and 10 nominations. His credits include Anne of Green Gables, The Arrow, The Crossing, They, Highwaymen, Saint Ralph, Kidnapped (five episodes), and Jesse Stone: Sea Change.
[All these films were shot on Kodak motion picture film.]
A Conversation with Rene Ohashi, ASC, CSC
by Bob Fisher
QUESTION: You live in Toronto. Was that your boyhood home?
OHASHI: I was raised in Toronto, but I also have a Japanese heritage. My background and education as a result are global in nature. I think of film as an international language.
QUESTION: When did you get interested in photography and/or movies?
OHASHI: During my childhood, I loved to draw and paint. My drawings were realistic in expression. I guess that's how I looked at the world. A friend who ran the high school camera club got me interested in still photography. That was kind of a natural extension of drawing and painting for me. My friend now teaches art in high school.
QUESTION: What was the next step for you?
OHASHI: I got a sales job in a photography store while I was still in high school. That gave me opportunities to play with all kinds of still cameras. I had a Canon 35 mm system. Later, I switched to taking pictures with a Hasselblad camera. I became very fluent and comfortable with cameras, and built my own darkroom in my parent's basement. I was basically self-taught and learned through experimenting and reading.
QUESTION: It sounds like that job was actually an extension of your education.
OHASHI: It was a great opportunity. I didn't have a lot of money, but I was able to learn about all the different formats and buy equipment at dealer costs.
QUESTION: What were you photographing - people, nature, architecture or everything?
OHASHI: It wasn't anything profound. It was a hobby that gave me opportunities to learn the craft by experimenting and making mistakes.
QUESTION: Were you a movie fan at that stage of your life?
OHASHI: No. That happened later. I became a film buff when I went to film school.
QUESTION: Why did you go to film school if you weren't interested in movies?
OHASHI: I had a neighbor who shot film for television documentaries. He had his own ARRI 16 mm camera. I knocked on his door one day and asked if he would teach me the ins and outs of filmmaking. I said I would help him for free if I could go with him on jobs and observe him at work. He gave me an ARRI 16 magazine, a changing bag and some short ends and told me to practice loading the film. Later that summer he took me on a job with him. After that, I was his assistant for about four years while I was at film school. It was a fantastic experience that got me more interested in filmmaking than still photography.
QUESTION: Who was that man?
OHASHI: His name is Jack van der May. I've sort of lost touch with him over the years because we went in separate directions. He usually covered stories for news magazine shows and sports programs. Jack had his own 16 mm camera equipment and an editing facility. I got grounded in editing as well as shooting film. That was my basic schooling. After a while, my interest shifted to dramatic films, but I'm totally indebted to him.
QUESTION: Can you put that into a timeframe for us?
OHASHI: It was during the late 1960s and early '70s when television stations were transitioning from black and white to color. I got my basic training in black and white and was still assisting Jack when he switched to shooting color film. We shot a lot of hockey games and other sports for CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation).
QUESTION: What were the next steps on your career path?
OHASHI: I got hooked on filmmaking and enrolled at York University in Toronto in 1970. That was another great experience. I got to see films from countries around the world. I studied global cinema through the films of such notable filmmakers as Bertolluci, Fellini, Godard, Truffaut, Bergman, Buñuel, Herzog, Fassbinder, Eisenstein, Tarkovsky, Kurosawa, Kubrick, Scorsese, and Coppola, who all gave me an extended vocabulary. And because of my professional assisting experience, I got to shoot almost all of the student films while I was at York. I virtually had one of the school's ARRI 16 BL cameras to myself. Where else can you shoot films and learn by making mistakes and not regret it? I also began reading articles in American Cinematographer magazine about cinematographers, including Storaro, Nykvist, Hall, Willis, Chapman, Cronenweth, and Deschanel. Those guys are my original mentors. Today my list of DPs continues to grow with profound images and authorship by Deakins, Lubezki, Khondji, Kaminski, Daviau, and Rousselot. I learned to read between the lines and figured out how they accomplished those memorable images. That's when I realized the cinematographer was such an integral part of the filmmaking process and that they accentuate the film language. That realization is what steered me towards concentrating on cinematography. I knew I wanted to become a cinematographer.
QUESTION: What did you do after you graduated?
OHASHI: After graduation, I bought an Aaton 16mm camera. I met a producer-director who was working for an educational network. She hired me to do second unit camera work. I got a really big break when she hired me as a cinematographer for a 26-part, half-hour educational series about aging. It was a fantastic experience. I got to travel and shoot film throughout the United States and Canada.
QUESTION: Looking back, what do you think you learned from those experiences?
OHASHI: Shooting film for news magazine shows and documentaries sharpened my instincts for thinking on my feet and making very quick decisions. I learned to trust my instincts. That's important for the work that I'm doing today. Many times, you arrive at a location, look around, assess the situation and trust your instincts about lighting and shooting depending on the story. Of course, it's a different experience shooting dramatic films because you have to consider the script, your interactions with the cast and other people, and the emotions you want to evoke.
QUESTION: How did you get your first opportunity to work on dramatic films?
OHASHI: You've got to understand that there was no independent dramatic film industry in Canada during the mid-1970s. I shot my earliest television dramatic films with fellow filmmakers from film school. I worked on a couple of children's films that won awards. That led to opportunities to shoot dramatic films for television. After that happened, one film would lead to another film, because a director or producer liked what they saw.
QUESTION: You got your first nomination for a Canadian Society of Cinematographers (CSC) Award for a 1985 television movie called Anne of Green Gables. That program also won a prime time Emmy award in the United States. How about sharing a memory?
OHASHI: We all felt a lot of weight on our shoulders while we were shooting that film. What I remember most is that I got to work with a fantastic cast, including Colleen Dewhurst, Richard Farnsworth and Megan Follows. I also had a wonderful experience collaborating with Carol Spier, who is an incredible production designer.
QUESTION: Why did you feel a lot of weight on your shoulders?
OHASHI: It is such a well-known children's story that everyone wanted to do justice to the movie version that was going to be seen by so many kids as well as older people.
QUESTION: You earned another CSC nomination and a Gemini nomination from your peers the following year for a totally different type of project, an episode of the Philip Marlowe, Private Eye television series, which aired on HBO in Canada and the U.S.
OHASHI: That's one of the things I love about this industry. You can work on a children's film one year and do a dramatic detective series the next and then move on to something entirely different again. You are constantly learning and facing new challenges by shooting all types of films.
QUESTION: We noticed that you have worked at various places around the globe.
OHASHI: That is another long list, especially on documentaries. In 1982, I was with a Canadian mountain climbing expedition that went to the Southern Himalayas for around two months. I was doing handheld camerawork following a Canadian expedition all the way to the border between China and Tibet. Another time I went to Japan to film a National Geographic documentary about the Kodo drummers. That was the first time I was actually in Japan. I was basically working with a Japanese crew and needed an interpreter. That was a pretty strange feeling since my heritage is Japanese.
QUESTION: You mentioned something earlier about film being an international language. Was that your experience while shooting in foreign countries?
OHASHI: Absolutely. Regardless of language barriers everyone understood what we wanted to do, because people around the world make films in a similar fashion. At the same time, you get to trade ideas about how to do different things.
QUESTION: Do you approach shooting cinema movies differently than television?
OHASHI: I think one of the big differences is that you generally have more time and resources to prepare and to shoot films for the cinema. Either way, it's all about collaborating with the director and everyone else about how you are going to tell a story, and figuring out how you're going to accomplish making the film in a set number of days. It's a process of discovery. Whether it's a movie for television or the cinema, part of my responsibility as a cinematographer is understanding the director's vision and helping him or her to get it on the screen with the resources and time available.
QUESTION: You used that word collaboration again.
OHASHI: For me, cinematography is a way of seeing. It's an interpretive visual art form and language; a presentation of images and ideas that come from the written word; a dramatic film script. We're not just telling stories. We are trying to evoke emotional responses from the audience. The execution of this art form can be very complex, and yet the message can be eloquently simple. The role of the cinematographer, working in collaboration with the director, is to bind all facets of production together and make them into a unified and unique story. The collaborative process is a lot more than a cinematographer and a director working together. Someone wrote the script, a producer believed in it, and there's a cast, costume and production designers, your crew, etc.
QUESTION: There is a lot of talk today about how advances in technology affect the art.
OHASHI: Filmmaking is a constantly evolving art form which continually redefines itself. Every aspect of filmmaking is constantly in a state of flux. As cinematographers we are constantly discovering inventive ways of expression through images. Look back at the history of cinematography; who could have dreamed we would be making films the way that we are today? We have a different palette and new ways of expressing ourselves.
QUESTION: It sounds like you never stopped going to school.
OHASHI: Exactly. There are no limits to what we can learn and imagine. Earlier in my career I traveled across Canada for a series of programs about artists. It was an incredible experience meeting those artists in their own studios. They were mainly painters and sculptors. Every one of them was unique in how they expressed themselves as artists. I believe the same thing is true for cinematographers. The movies that I have shot all have looks that reflects my instincts, experience and how I see the world.
QUESTION: You were recently nominated for an American Society of Cinematographers Outstanding Achievement Award for the television movie Jesse Stone: Sea Change.
OHASHI: I've actually shot three of five television movies all directed by a great director Robert Harmon, and based on the fictional Jesse Stone character created by Rob Parker. Jesse Stone is a small town chief of police, who has left his former police job in Los Angeles because of a drinking problem. The first film was Stone Cold. Jesse Stone: Sea Change was the fourth film. The third film that I shot in the series is called Jesse Stone: Thin Ice.
QUESTION: Where were these films produced?
OHASHI: They were shot in Halifax and Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. These are fairly low-budget projects shot in Super 16 format. The last one was produced in 21 days.
QUESTION: What do you say when a producer asks if you could save money by producing projects like that one with the latest digital cameras?
OHASHI: I tell them that those cameras don't have the same dynamic range that film offers, and the technology isn't as flexible. When I am shooting a movie in 20 or 21 days, coming in and out of cars, traveling from one location to another, I don't want to be dragging around recorders and all the gear needed with digital cameras. From an aesthetic perspective, we need the range of exposure that film provides because we are frequently shooting in places where we have extreme differences between the brightest and darkest elements of shots. I recently shot five episodes of a new TV series in New York City. Michael Dinner produced and directed the pilot and first episode of the suspense series that is called Kidnapped. We were shooting scenes on city streets that were half in bright sunlight and half in dark shadows cast by buildings. Film gave us the dynamic range needed to see things on film the same way the human eye sees them. Motion picture film is also an archival medium. If you put your heart and soul into a project, you want to know it is going to be there for future audiences and not disappear from the face of the earth.
QUESTION: When you were shooting the Jesse Stone movie in Super 16 format, did you use the same crew with assistant cameramen and operators that you use on 35 mm films?
OHASHI: The film crew plays the same role whether you are working in Super 16, 35 mm or some digital format. Filmmaking is a collaborative form of storytelling. There are several camera operators whom I consistently choose to work on my crews, because they understand how I think and see things. I value their input and encourage them to trust their instincts. It is crucial for us to feel comfortable with each other. There was a time earlier in my career when I sometimes chose to operate a camera myself. I don't think that's a good idea today with so many films being shot with multiple cameras. I don't think you can do a good job of lighting for multiple cameras with today's production schedules. I think that some of the art is lost because there is no time to think ahead about lighting. I should emphasize that I don't just collaborate with my camera operators. I tell everyone, including the assistants, key grip, dolly pusher and gaffer that I want their input, because we are all investing our time and efforts in making a movie. If we all collaborate, the chances are good that we are going to make a much better film.
QUESTION: Do you typically work with multiple cameras?
OHASHI: Every film is different, but we are tending to use multiple cameras more often because of time pressures. We used two cameras almost all the time on Jesse Stone: Thin Ice to get more coverage from different angles. That gives the editor different angles.
QUESTION: How did you light for two angles?
OHASHI: You have to choose the right camera angles relative to the sources of light. For example, I lit a daylight interior scene through a window that provided cross light for the master shot from a frontal direction. I put the other camera at almost at a 90-degree angle, so it was backlit. In that situation, each camera was shooting at a different stop. We quickly setup another take with the cameras still at almost a 90-degree angle from each other, but maybe tighter. That way, we were giving the editor four angles that will intercut smoothly. This is a good example of why collaboration with an understanding director and talented crew is important.
QUESTION: We are curious about what cameras, lenses and films were used.
OHASHI: We were using a couple of ARRI SR3s with ARRI variable prime lenses and Zeiss Ultra prime lenses. These are actually 35 mm lenses that will fit PL mount Super 16 cameras. The advantage is that we are using the sweetest part of the lens. I noticed the difference especially on wider angle shots, where I saw better resolution and contrast and therefore more apparent sharpness. We shot predominately on (KODAK VISION2 Expression 500T) 7229 film. It's a lower-contrast stock that records smooth flesh tones and details in the shadows. Film as a medium is a moving target. It continually achieves higher standards and gives you more choices every year.
QUESTION: Do students and entry-level cinematographers ask you for advice?
OHASHI: All the time.
QUESTION: What do you tell them?
OHASHI: I tell them it's a different landscape than the one that was there when I was starting out. There was no real independent dramatic film industry when I got out of school. There was also no real hierarchy and therefore I was able to jump right into shooting. Today, there is a big industry and a cinematography union for camera crews and cinematographers. Generally, today new people go through the system of progressing from trainee to first assistant, camera operator and finally cinematographer. I tell young people that I'm a big fan of film schools as a means to get basic training and an understanding of filmmaking. They will have a distinct advantage in getting a start in the film business over someone that does not have any formal training.