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Behind One of Asia’s Top Cinematographers: An Interview with Hideho Urata

Veteran cinematographer Hideho Urata shares more about his journey in filmmaking in Asia.

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Whenever we think of movies and the people behind them, we commonly think of the director, the actors, the screenwriter, and occasionally, the producer. However, the craft of filmmaking is as much about the creative vision of the filmmaker as it is about team work, especially with key technical personnels like cinematographer and sound designers.

A quiet figure who is behind many award winning movies and one of Singapore’s most groundbreaking films, A Land Imagined, for which he won the Seminci award at Valladolid International Film Festival for Best Cinematography and Asian Pacific Screen Award for Achievement of Cinematography, cinematographer Hideho Urata is definitely a member of the traditions of excellence in cinema that Japan is famed for. With a retrospective of his own works having shown at JFF Singapore 2019, where he also taught a masterclass, this year is shaping up to be a busy year for the maestro of the lens as he prepares for new exciting projects to come.

Here writer Alfonse Chiu sits down for a quick chat with Mr. Urata and picks his brains for insights into how the audience can look at a film, and his own journeys across the globe and back again.

Why do you make films? How would you describe your filmmaking philosophy?

My answer to this is very simple—to make films is to have the chance to encounter new things, like stories and people. Whenever I work on some new project, I know I will be going face to face with new people, and that is the most fun part for me. I am taking my time to enjoy my work more now, because this work is always about the timing. We can have a good script, but no budget, or no good crew, or timings that just don’t work. But nobody knows what the timing is, so we have to go by hunch sometimes, and work within the limits to deliver a good work.

If we are talking in greater details, I guess my biggest concern could be how the visual language can translate from script to screen. My philosophy is basically that if the location is good, the story is good, the production design is good, the acting and all that is good, then a good camera will make everything cinematic. However, there is always something missing, so I have to improvise. I have to achieve the same effects in a different way, which I tend to prefer not to do, mainly because doing some things differently could turn the story into something different.

What has your journey been like?

I was born in the countryside and during my time there was no internet so information is hard to find. While there were some advertisement for film schools, I wasn’t sure that I really wanted to learn how to make a film. So, I went to law school instead. Then, one day I had a chance to go to Tokyo and a friend introduced me to a cinematographer who told me that what I want to express is more important than what I want to be. I think I was in the fourth year of law school when I understood that I really want to study films, and I did my research on Russian and Polish film schools, because I am more fascinated by their cinema; I actually visited some very famous film schools all over the world, but I realised that because of the language barrier, I couldn’t really do it in Europe.

When I went to the US, I looked at Columbia University, New York University, and the American Film Institute, and all three of them accepted me. Ultimately, I chose NYU because the curriculum there let me learn things beyond my own field. When I started studying there, I was quite surprised to find out that most of my classmates actually want to be a cinematographer, and they already have like an unbelievable amount of experiences. I was the only one who didn’t know anything.

To be honest, I wanted to be a director at the very beginning, but my English then was not good enough to write a script, which is partly why I chose cinematography in the end. I believed that I had an eye for it even if I don’t know the techniques yet. As the semesters went by, I shot everything on film, and eventually while watching all the rushes, people started to tell me that I had a good eye, and started to talk to me about working together, and this is how I started

How was the experience like working on US projects such as NYPD Blue?

That was quite a lucky break for me! What happened is that one of my lecturers at NYU was looking for camera assistants, so I applied and began to intern for him. I was originally the focus puller for the production when one of the camera operators got fired, and the line producer asked me if I am keen to shoot. I was not all that ready at the time, but I thought I’d give it a try, and that’s how I became a camera operator for NYPD Blue. When I was working in the United States, I would work on big budget films all week, and through the weekend I will work on an independent film. While I could definitely see the difference in the production quality between the two kinds, I felt much more independent and fun with indie projects.

When I returned to Japan, I started to work as a Director of Photography, and I had a nice balance of local and international productions with the various people I know.

What is a film you have made that you wish more people know?

Kanji Nakajima’s The Clone Returns Home. It is a very independent film, and I shot it almost 14 years ago.

How would you describe your own style? Were there any films that were major influences in terms of how you see cinema and cinematography?

The people who watch my films do say that I have my own style, but I guess I still don’t know what that style is exactly. What I’m always trying to do is actually just communicating with the director deeply, and then to talk about what the storyboards are about. So far, I have never discussed how we shoot during pre-production time: we always discuss how the film goes, how the film will end, and what the story is, so that our goals are the same.

When I was 23 years old, I watched Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó for the first time, It was eight hours long and in black and white, and I didn’t feel like I watched a film, but had an experience. It was a powerful experience even though I don’t really understand what the story was about at that time. After this time, I started watching his old works, as well as filmmakers like Michael Haneke, Víctor Erice, and Manoel de Oliveira. I liked watching directors whose works were a little strange, and I would watch not just their films but also materials like interviews, because I want to find out why they made what they made.

Compared to the 90s when not everything is connected yet, you can converse with one or two people and call it a day. Now everything is connected, everyone is talking to twenty people or more everyday, and even though we may think we are being productive, we don’t actually have time for deep thinking at all. I realised that if this is how the world is going to be, then my life has to be more subtle—this is what I learnt from Béla Tarr, to make time. I am not talking about which film is the best, I am looking at the time, and I guess time is the cinematography to me; to describe the story is to describe the time—the present, the past, or something else.

What projects are you working on currently?

I just finished a new film by Chen-Hsi Wong, and I am working on something with Nicole Midori Woodford. I also have a Japanese project with the filmmaker Gakuryū Ishii who is already over sixty, and my hero when I was 18.

How do you find the projects you want to work on?

I don’t really know—I am not a producer or director. When I was younger, of course I had to promote myself; I could approach people with my show reel. I think I’m luckier now, since some filmmakers already know my name and then there are the producers who I have worked with before, who know my style and how I work. So, if there is a director who really needs to communicate with their cinematographer, they would say “Oh, Hide is the best because he just loves to talk about cinema.”

Like I say, communication is very important for me because once I start a pre-production, I cannot take another job; my story starts with the script and I don’t want to contaminate it with other information. This is why I don’t really like to shoot different projects at the same time. Some people can switch brains, switch offices for different jobs, but not me. I prefer to concentrate on a single thing each time.

Interviewer・ Editor:Alfonse Chiu