“There is a technical aspect to what cinematographers do, and it is important. But the most important thing is capturing the emotional state of the characters from the actors. Risk-taking is also really important. I think it’s a magical thing. If you take a chance, it might turn out even better than you imagined. If you’re getting too comfortable with what you’re doing, you’re probably going to lose a chance to explore. There are many factors in the choice of format. But to me, the primary thing is the gut feeling. So far, for all the movies that I’ve done, I felt that film was the right choice.”
Masanobu Takayanagi took prizes at the Palm Springs International Short Fest and ASC Awards as a student at AFI, and went on to shoot second unit for Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC on Babel and State of Play. His credits as a director of photography include more than a dozen shorts, as well as the features Warrior, The Grey, Silver Linings Playbook, Out of the Furnace, and the forthcoming True Story.
A Conversation with Masanobu Takayanagi
Q: What first piqued your interest in photography?
Takayanagi: When I was about 12 years old, growing up in Tomioka, Japan, my dad, who was a middle school teacher, had a manual focus, manual exposure camera that he used to take photos of stars and comets, longer exposure things. I borrowed his camera and went to a pop concert and shot several rolls of film. They all turned out blurry and out of focus. I still remember the mistakes. But I was intrigued. Eventually, I bought my own camera and started teaching myself. I started watching movies, and spending time in theaters. I enjoyed movies – I don’t think I knew that I was into photography yet.
Q: When did the thought occur to you that cinematography could be a career?
Takayanagi: In my junior year of university in Japan, I began doing job research. You meet people on job interviews, and those interviews did not excite me. I started going to the bookstore to try and see what kinds of things were out there in the world, and in the film section, I came across a book of interviews called “Masters of Light – Conversations with Contemporary Cinematographers.” That was the first time I realized that there were people who called themselves cinematographers. I had no idea what they were talking about, but I felt like these people liked what they were doing. I wasn’t attracted to photography as much as I was attracted to the passion these people had for what they do.
Q: So you decided to come to California?
Takayanagi: Looking back, I think it was a very light-hearted decision. I thought, “I guess it’s movies, so I have to move to Los Angeles.” It wasn’t logical. I had no idea about filmmaking and I know nobody. But I arranged everything. I had a friend who had lived in Long Beach. He introduced me to his friends and family, and he helped me transfer my credits to Cal State-Long Beach. I couldn’t afford UCLA or USC. Long Beach has a good film program. I didn’t speak English, and at first, I had no idea what people were talking about. I took ESL and general education classes, and this was a great introduction for me to the culture and the language. Later, I shot lots of Super 8 film, many short films. It was also a great opportunity to study film history. The library had all the old American Cinematographer Magazines, and I learned about Gregg Toland and other eras. I really got into Italian films. It was a great experience.
Q: You earned a Bachelor’s degree in film production, and went on to the American Film Institute, where you won the John F. Seitz Heritage Award from the American Society of Cinematographers. What did you learn at AFI?
Takayanagi: What I learned there is to focus on the story. They train you to shoot for the story. Your job is never making pretty pictures. It’s to tell the story with the maximum impact. I think that this emphasis on story is the biggest advantage for me. It makes sense now. At the time, it felt like a kind of mind control (laughs).
Q: How did you make the leap to professional work?
Takayanagi: Larry Parker from Mole Richardson was extremely helpful to us, and he always urged us to give it five years. That was good advice. I crewed on small, low budget projects, anything that came in front of me. Eventually I was lucky, and I was asked to shoot a second unit in Tokyo for Rodrigo Prieto on Babel. That was in 2005. I didn’t know Rodrigo, but I came to find out that he is one of the best human beings.
Q: What did you learn from Rodrigo?
Takayanagi: He’s very precise in terms of photography and storytelling. But then, like in Babel, he doesn’t make it look precise. It’s very natural and very spontaneous. Underneath that, it’s very precise. Also, I learned how to behave on a set -- how you communicate with people, how you deal with other people, how you respect people. He has everything.
Q: Your work on Babel was on film, and almost all the work you’ve done since has been on film. Is that important to you?
Takayanagi: I’m not against digital at all. It’s a great tool. But film, to me, still feels like it has a sense of risk. Shooting on film pushes me one step forward. I still love that feeling. It’s the fact that with film, you never know until you see the dailies. Even though we may be confident in their exposure, in what we’re getting, it’s a bit of gamble. I think risk-taking is really important. How dark should one frame be? If you take a chance, it might turn out even better than you imagined when you see the finished film. I think it’s a magical thing. If you’re getting too comfortable with what you’re doing, I think you’re probably going to lose a chance to explore.
Q: How did that play out on, for example, Silver Linings Playbook, which is a movie that my wife likes?
Takayanagi: That movie was only possible because it was on film. It would not have been possible with digital. David O. Russell loves to give actors 360 degrees. It’s spontaneous. When we’re going to roll camera, we’re going to roll the camera and shoot it. We were shooting 35 mm 2-perf, so a 1000-foot magazine gave us 22-minute takes. With digital, there’s no way I could go to the monitor and balance it. With film, I knew there’d be an image. The window might be blown out, but there might some detail there. It may be too dark, but I know there’s going to be something on the film. I could say to David, “Let’s do it. Let’s go for that.” There is that sense of chance. Film pushed me to do it that way, instead of being so precise, so correct. I couldn’t wait for the window to be X number of stops. It didn’t work that way in that movie.
Q: How do you know which format is right for a certain story?
Takayanagi: You have to choose what you feel is right. So far, all the films that I’ve done, I felt that film was the right choice. As much as cinematography is technical, I think it’s more about emotion -- what I felt from the story. In each case, I thought film would capture that emotion. There’s something that I don’t think we can describe. Technically, there are many factors. How many cables are coming out of the camera? What is the workflow? How much time do we have on the set? But to me, the primary thing is the gut feeling. It’s a very subjective choice you make. There is a technical aspect to what cinematographers do, and it is important. But the most important thing is capturing the emotion from the actors, the emotional state of the characters throughout the story.
Q: What have you been working on?
Takayanagi: Since Silver Linings Playbook, I’ve done several commercials and I shot a couple of feature films. One is called Out of the Furnace with director Scott Cooper. That comes out later in 2013. The other is called True Story, directed by Rupert Goold, and that will come out in 2014. Out of the Furnace was anamorphic 35 mm, and for True Story we shot Super 35 1.85:1, and a little bit of 65 mm. The 65 mm portion is a flashback sequence. This particular moment is the happiest for the character. It could be a dream, or it could be a memory of reality. As the audience, we never know. We thought about Super 8 or Super 16 – that might have been the easiest choice. We thought, “Why not explore a really high quality image?” That’s how we chose the 65 mm format. We had a lot of fun shooting it.
Q: Any words of wisdom to share?
Takayanagi: A couple of years ago, I was emailing with the great Robert Richardson, ASC. I was asking him some questions, and he told me something I’ll always remember. He said, “Film is great. Digital is great. The weakness is in the mind of the user.” To me, he meant that both formats are great – it’s up to us how we use them.