ONFILM Interview: Hiroshi Machida

Published on website: December 31, 2012
Categories: ONFILM
Hiroshi Machida. Photography © Photo.Kunst-Atelier ARIGA

“As a director of photography, I am in the very fortunate position of seeing the entire production, actors in particular, and what the images are supposed to look like through my viewfinder. My job is to design the visuals that best deliver the actors’ emotions, and orchestrate the art, lighting, composition, and other elements to bring the director’s vision to the screen. Today, there are so many gadgets, but cinematographers are still tasked with achieving the best images for the story in features or making products look beautiful in commercials. No matter how many new tools there are, cinematographers must not forget the core role we play in the art and craft of image making.”

Hiroshi Machida began his career as a camera assistant on commercials for the Tohokushinsha Film Corporation (TFC) after graduating from Tama College of Art. After a decade, he became a director of photography and has shot spots for such advertisers as Toyota, P&G and Panasonic. His commercial work has earned two Grand Prix Awards at the ACC CM Festival. His feature credits include My Darling of the Mountains, What the Snow Brings, Kaza-Hana, Party 7, and Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl.

A Conversation with Hiroshi Machida

What do you love about what you do?
In feature films, as a DP, I am in a very fortunate position to see the entire production, actors in particular, from an ideal viewpoint of how the movie is supposed to look on screen. Great actors deliver such a powerful energy with true emotion, and I often feel touched by the emotion through the viewfinder. I can’t think of any happier moment as a film maker.

How did you become interested in filmmaking?
I am originally from Fukuoka, the capital city of Fukuoka Prefecture situated on the northern shore of the big island of Kyushu in Japan. After I graduated from high school, I was not accepted by the university where I wanted to go. So, I started watching lots of movies in my spare time. I loved directors like Nagisa Oshima and Masahiro Shinoda, who are known as Japanese New Wave filmmakers. I also loved Italian filmmakers like Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni. Those films made me want to go to a film school. My parents were quite conservative and against my new idea, but I entered Tama School of Art the year next.

What experiences from those early days still influence your work today?
I loved movies, and just wanted get involved with filmmaking, whatever the role. Cinematography seemed feasible to me. Although I wasn’t particularly into photography! At the film school, I learned about 16mm film cameras, but it was after I joined Tohokushinsha Film Corp. (TFC) that I learned how to operate 35mm cameras. TFC is a major media production corporation producing commercials, TV dramas, feature films, etc. Filmmakers, including directors, cinematographers and assistants, work under the company and for projects brought to TFC by ad agencies. When I started working for TFC in 1977 as a camera assistant, I simply enjoyed seeing famous actors and singers in commercial shots, or going abroad for shooting. Then I became an assistant to DP Satoshi Kawasaki, a talented cinematographer who shot major spots including Coca Cola. He is a brilliant cinematographer and especially great with shots with bokeh. I learned a lot about how to use zoom and wide lenses from him too.

Are there other cinematographers whose work you admire and why?
I love Kazuo Miyagawa’s camerawork. Toichiro Narushima is great with the way he uses colors. Fujiro Morita is a legendary cinematographer whom I also admire. Once, I read an article where Fujiro-san said ‘Human eyes have the equivalent angle of a 40mm lens, and if a cameraman can shoot an entire feature with a single 40mm lens, that would be quite something.’ I was impressed with what he said, and actually tried to use a single 40mm lens for an entire project, but it did not work out at all!

How did you make the transition to professional work?
My first feature film was Edogawa Rampo gekijo: Oshie to tabisuru otoko with director Toru Kawashima. The director was from commercials, and Kawasaki was his designated DP. But one time, Kawasaki-san was not available, and the director asked me to shoot. Kawashima liked me and offered me a position in his feature film later.

What are your feelings about the relationship between cinematographers and directors?
My career cannot be told without two very talented directors: Shinji Somai and Katsuhito Ishii. I worked with both directors on features, but met them both on commercial projects. Somai-san and I met first on a Nissan commercial in 1994. Both of us are shy with new people, but when the shooting ended, the director asked me to have a drink, and we became good friends. Somai-san used to say ‘Audiences come to movies to watch actors, not the director, not the DP. The director must withdraw good acts from actors, and what’s important for the DP is how you capture these acts.’ He left shooting design, including framing, to me, but when he was dissatisfied with something I did, he asked me ‘Machida, are you really sure with that?’ instead of pointing out what he did not like. Then I had to come up with something different very quickly, which was not easy. Ishii joined TFC in 1991 and quickly became a popular spot director. I worked with him on his very first commercial project, and since then we have worked together on many commercial and feature projects. As Ishii-san is known for Kill Bill: Vol. 1’s animation part character designer, he has tremendous talent in animation, and he draws detailed storyboard. Unlike common film production that is strictly based on a script, his projects are more focused on his storyboards, and our challenge is how to make his unique animation/manga images look real.

When you are designing the look of a project, what are the important questions you ask yourself?
In commercial production, product always comes first. Clients, ad agencies, directors and producers are focused on what can be done in order to sell the product well. So, product shots are very important and a DP must be able to make products look great. In feature films, the filmmakers’ goal is to produce a good movie, and the director leads the team in achieving that goal. And the DP’s primary focus is to capture people, and to capture the drama well.

How have advancements in technology – for example, film stocks, lenses, camera mounts, digital post production, etc. – changed the way you shoot a project?
In the past, film speed was not as good as today. Many of my past projects were shot on 100-speed film considering granularity, saturation and such, and there were lots of assistants working in every department sweating by the heat the lights generated. Today, even 400 or 500 speed films do not show much grain, and I am impressed at how little lighting is required. But in the end, it is the cinematographer’s skills that determine how new technologies can be fully utilized.

If a non-filmmaker were to ask you what a cinematographer does, how do you explain it?
In feature films, I design images to deliver the actors’ emotions. The DP’s job is to orchestrate art, lighting, and all other elements to create such images.

What advice do you have filmmakers just entering the field today?
Today, there are so many equipment choices, and thus so many things to study, but our basic role is to achieve the images that a director wants. No matter how many new tools come out, cinematographers must not forget the original intention of what shooting is, and what is demanded from our work. And, if possible, I would advise new filmmakers to work on a feature project. Features throw you a variety of difficult tasks, and in my opinion, one feature gives you an experience equivalent to 100 television commercial projects.