This Is Us is a hit Golden Globe and Emmy-winning TV series following a family of triplets, their struggles and their parents. Cinematographer Yasu Tanida has filmed every episode of the critically-acclaimed show and here tells Mandy News how he first became a DP, how he became involved with This Is Us and what aspiring cinematographers can do to succeed in the industry.
How did you first become interested in cameras and how did that take you into the film and TV industry?
I first came to cameras at film school. Before that, I had visited some film sets in the senior year of high school and that’s how I became interested in being a cinematographer. Knowing what my focus was in film school helped because I was constantly learning by shooting other student’s projects. I failed and tested all kinds of different ways to shoot by using 16mm and 35mm film.
By shooting so many different projects, I received the Kodak Best Cinematography award and other recognitions that got me work out of film school. There were a lot of no-budget indie projects, commercials, and music videos scattered through the first several years out of school. Eventually I got my foot in the door shooting television and have been consistently shooting TV and some features since.
How did you get involved with This is Us?
I got involved in This Is Us by shooting a Fox pilot called Pitch during the spring of 2016. It was executive produced by Dan Fogelman who created This Is Us. During the Pitch pilot I got to know Dan and we had a lot in common especially our love for baseball. When the pilot got picked up by the network, Dan was really happy with the final product of how it looked. He sent me an email about another show that he was going into production with in the fall of 2016 that was in need of a DP. That show turned out to be This Is Us.
I watched the pilot episode and thought this family ensemble looked like a cool challenge visually for me with all the different storylines and eras. I interviewed with John Requa and Glenn Ficcara and was lucky enough to be hired to shoot the series.
What is the process of shooting a This Is Us episode like? Prep, shoot time, etc?
Since I am the only DP for the series, I am shooting, prepping, and timing episodes all within the same time frame. Shooting an episode is usually within 8-10 days depending on the scope of the scenes. The ‘Super Bowl Sunday’ episode ended up shooting for around 16 days because of the stunts, fire, and explosions involved in that one. Usually I read a script maybe 2-3 weeks in advance of filming the episode. Most of the time I read them when I have a few seconds on set or at home on weekends.
The main part of processing an episode is thinking over the arc of how I am going to shoot/photograph it. Sometimes, I’d contrast the past/present storylines with a subtle difference in colour temperature. Sometimes I like to keep all the storylines consistent with time and look of day. It all depends on how the story in the episode unfolds and if I can help tell the story visually to accommodate the writing. If there were specific questions of colour of walls, wardrobe colour, character look, etc, of a future scene or episode, I would ask in advance with the department head.
There is usually one day at lunchtime during prep where I will sit and talk with the director to go over any notes or special visuals they have thought of. Sometimes we will go over the entire script so we are both comfortable before heading into production.
During filming, it’s all about keeping the energy up and consistently moving ahead throughout the day. Hopefully, I've thought out what I want to do visually with the feel of the scene to get a head start. On the particular day of shooting, I’m always walking around the set first to see what new angles or visual motifs I can find from being in the environment, especially if it’s a new location we haven't visited.
As far as coverage of a scene goes, sometimes we don’t even shoot a wide establishing shot. If the scene feels like it will play in closeups, then sometimes that’s all we'll shoot. Sometimes it’s the opposite. If the wide shot tells the story, we will spend more time with that particular shot.
Naturally there are times when we have two units shooting on the same day or times when I have to scout an important location. During those instances, James Takata, our A-Cam operator takes over as the DP for the show.
With post, I usually get to see the final network cut either a couple days or a week before I go into colour correct the episode. I will send detailed preliminary notes to my colourist, Tom Forletta, in emails with screen grabs of a particular shot and what I’d like to change visually in it. In the same emails, I send him thoughts on how a particular storyline should look or keep consistent. I will also send screen grabs for re-positioning of framings or if we have to stabilise an image a bit more because it ends up feeling distracting.
When I do go into the DI process, I first see a rough assembly with Tom usually during lunchtime. I’ll head to Technicolor Hollywood which is down the street from our stages at Paramount Studios and give additional notes to Tom. The day after I will go in again to see the final colour correction for the show. It’s a busy workflow as a DP but also very fulfilling because I can watch an episode coming together in realtime within a few months.
Do you have a preferred kit and, what do you think about technological advances in camera, lenses, etc?
I don’t have a preferred kit per se. I think with every new and different project, I’m looking for new and different ways to tell a story. I do like the advances in LED technology but also love the look and feel of a traditional tungsten fixture. In my lighting world, I see both tungsten, HMI, and LED co-existing to tell a story visually. That is how we are approaching This Is Us. With the look of the older '70s storyline I tend to use more traditional fixtures like 20K tungsten lamps and HMI lighting. When I shoot the modern day storyline of 'the Big Three', I find we use more LED fixtures. With season 3 I think it gives it a unique appropriate feel for the different eras we shoot on the show.
The lenses we use on This Is Us are something that I am very proud of. We were the first TV series to use the Panavision Primos with their re-optomizing method of altering the lenses. Re-optomizing is basically frosting the back element of each and every lens with a certain degree of white mist to soften the image. Panavision also have the ability to put a black mist on the back of the lens as well. The image we capture has to go through the white mist before the light hits the sensor of the Arri Mini. What that does is soften the image which replicates an almost ‘vintage’ feel that gives the This Is Us look. When you watch the show, the highlights of lamps or shooting into a light can ‘halo’ the image and give a nice flare that you see in our show. Panavision has degrees of 1 to 5 and I believe we are the only show to be shooting at a 5 level.
When I go into the DI to colour correct the show, we take that soft vintage image and apply a very contrasty LUT (look up table) to the show. The LUT changes the soft image and brings it back to almost normal contrast with the vintage feel embedded in the image too. The end result is the look and feel of This Is Us.
As far as technological advances in lenses, I know there is a market now for full frame 4k sensors that Netflix and Amazon asks for. I think advances are a great thing and, being a DP, I’m always interested in seeing and trying out new developments. The trick is to use that advancement and tweak it to your favour. I look forward to breaking down the new technology to take what benefits me visually. To try new ways of telling a story. I can’t wait to check out the Arri Alexa LF and the different lenses that manufacturers will make for them.
What are you currently working on and what are your plans for the rest of 2018?
I recently finished a TV pilot for ABC called The Grand Hotel that will premiere mid-season 2019. It was shot with an Arri Alexa and Leica Summilux lenses. It’s a completely different style and look from This Is Us so I was excited to be a part of it. I shot the pilot with director Ken Olin, who is our director/producer on This Is Us and our executive producer, Eva Longoria. It was shot more traditionally with the cameras on dollies and an assortment of crane shots. We shot it in the famous Fontainebleu Hotel along Miami Beach.
I’m currently shooting This Is Us. There are a lot of exciting new story lines that I can’t wait for audiences to watch.
What advice do you have for someone wanting to become a part of the camera dept and follow in your footsteps?
I would say take advantage of any people you may know that is in a camera department to hang out on set. I still learn by seeing how other people work and still try to visit sets when I can, to watch how other DPs light and motivate a crew.
I would suggest buying a stills camera to learn about lens sizes, exposure, f-stops, etc. It’s a good tool to learn framing as well.
I would also suggest visiting countries most people don’t go to. Visit the backcountry of Vietnam or Africa or try to get to Papua New Guinea. See the light of different countries and see how little people need to have a good life. It helped me break down and simplify how I approach lighting and equipment in general. Simple is good.
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