In the movie industry, each country has its own preferences in terms of shooting. And today we are going to look into the differences that exist between the United States and Japan.
To do so, we invited the American Director of Photography Daniel Lazoff to talk about his experience in both countries.
Interview of Daniel Lazoff, on December 18th 2018, in vivito Inc.’s Tokyo office:
HV (HelloVideo! team): Could you briefly talk about your career in the US and in Japan?
Dan (Daniel Lazoff): Yes. I started working for MTV in 2007 as a production assistant for a TV show. From there, I had a couple of jobs as an assistant director and eventually, I got my way in the camera department for different shows. I was a freelancer so I worked for different companies, then I started shooting a lot more a few years later.
Then in 2013, I got offered a job as a shooter/post-production producer for a popular TV show on MTV, called Catfish for 4 seasons (3 and a half years). After season 5, I moved to Japan.
HV: How did it start in Japan?
Dan: I took a trip about 1 year before moving to Japan, to make some contacts within the film and TV industry. I moved here but I remember it was slow first months. Then I started to get some calls, mostly for corporate works or small web commercials. Now I’ve been in Japan for 2 and a half years. From last year I’ve been involved in bigger projects. Now I have my own list of clients.
HV: Since you came to Japan, how many projects have you been involved in?
Dan: Oh…(counting) Over a hundred projects.
HV: How did your career as a cameraman start and why did you choose this path?
Dan: I went to school to study films when I was nineteen. I think I was someone who wanted to tell stories. I thought: “I wanna be a writer or a director.” But it turned out I don’t like writing and I don’t like directing. (laugh) One day, I shot a little student film for school and a teacher saw it and told me: “You should do this for a living, you should be shooting.”. So I thought that if I was okay doing this, then why not keep shooting!
HV: Why did you choose to work in Japan?
Dan: I’ve been coming to Japan for vacations for years. The first time I came was in 2003 and I really liked Japan. I thought it was a wonderful place to be. And one of my best friends is Japanese, so I came with him a few times. I’ve been living in Los Angeles for years but it never felt like home for me. And during one of my trips with my Japanese friend, I just felt something about Japan and I thought: “I’m going to move here in the next 3 or 4 years.”. So I started planning from then.
HV: What do you like about Japan?
Dan: I think what I like about Japan is the obvious things such as food and in Tokyo, transportation, the nightlife, etc…
But I think as a cameraman, good thing about Japan is that everything is photogenic. If you go out to the countryside it is just gorgeous, one of the most beautiful landscape. Actually, the architecture is just incredible. Tokyo doesn’t have this kind of uniform standard for building, unlike a lot of other big cities, where everything tend to look the same, same colors, same shapes,… whereas in Tokyo, anything goes. When walking in the street, and looking up at the buildings, everything looks good, it is inspiring.
HV: Among your productions, is there one you consider the best production you’ve ever made?
Dan: Not really. The most recent project always appears to be the best. Hopefully. (laugh)
It is supposed to be like the best thing I’ve ever done. But I think it is always a learning process, so I try not to say that. I kind of set that benchmark for myself.
HV: Then, do you have one shooting that will always remain in your mind?
Dan: Some of the worse shoots I’ve ever done are the one I will always remember (laugh). If it is a really bad shoot, when nothing goes well, it will become something I can always look back on and say that it only gets better. I actually appreciate those shoots the most, the difficult ones, because it pushes me to do better. I also keep in mind that wherever I shoot next, it’s gonna be better. (laugh)
HV: What are the main differences between the US and Japan in terms of :
- Shooting techniques
Dan: Things that I’ve noticed in Japan, and not only in Japan, is over-lighting. When you put NHK on TV, you can see it, it is just lit, there is no mood. In the US, you would call that a “sitcom lighting”, where everything is overhead lights. There is no shape to the light, it is coming from all directions, there is no depth. It is not for all Japanese things but mostly for the mainstream. It is pretty used on TV.
Author’s note: “Sitcom lighting” refers to the kind of lighting used in American sitcoms, that is to say placing lights above the set, down on the floor, and under the cameras, to keep permanent lighting on the whole scene and characters. The reason why they use this lighting is that sitcoms are usually shot on
When it comes to framing, I think Japan tends to frame a little on the wide side. So you see more of what is in the scene, which can be a good thing. Sometimes it could make sense but I just see a lot of these kinds of static wider shots where I think it should be a little closer, a little more personal. I especially see it a lot on TV.
c. Scene shooting
Another difference between the US and Japan is how things are shot on set. In Japan, they shoot line by line. But in the US it is more like a master shot, we shoot the whole scene, and then we do a close-up shot of one of the characters. In Japan, the directors will do an edit in their mind, and say: “We only need this part of the shot.”, “We’ll only shoot that instead of shooting the whole scene.”. Which means that for editing it doesn’t quite work out because you are stuck with the few shots you have.
For example in the US for one scene, we will have 5 shots. And each one of these shots is the entire scene. For example, even if the characters are not talking, we are still shooting their face.
I think some of the younger Japanese directors are starting to adapt more, especially if they studied overseas, like in Australia, the US or the UK.
Author’s note: It is true that Japanese directors shoot only the parts of the scene they need. The reason why is that compared to the USA, film budgets are lower in Japan, and consequently so does the time for shooting.
2. Plan and preparation of a shooting
Dan: In my experience, it is pretty similar, which means never enough planning. In the US, there is never enough pre-production, and it is the same in Japan. Everything is sort of last minute and that is not unique to Japan. That is how this industry works a lot of times. Especially for low and midrange projects, or project-projects.
3. Relationship between the different agents involved in movie production? (director, photography director, producers, actors, etc..)
Dan: I don’t know how producers and directors interact, but for me, my relationship with directors in Japan is similar to my relationship with directors in the US. But I think that a lot of Japanese directors when they hire a DP (Director of P
For me, it depends on the project, especially big projects, but I like to be involved. Not in the writing, not in the blocking, nor how the actors are playing, but in the framing. I want to have the power to say “I want to try this shot instead of this
In the USA it is about the same but the system is different. The DP is not necessarily equal to the director but has a word to say.
From my experience in Japan, it has been okay most of the time.
4. Are there areas in movie making where Japan is late compared to the USA?
Dan: Yes, I think on TV especially. Because it is my area of interest and I like good TV. I think that Japanese TV shows’ visual aspects are sort of stuck in this whole way of making things. If you watch something from HBO for example, TV shows are like little movies, episodic movies. Whereas in Japan, it looks a little cheap. I think there are a lot of great stories to tell in Japan but they need to improve the visual aspects. There could be potential for international appeal.
5. What are the current trends in the USA? In Japan?
Dan: The big trends in the US have mostly to do with distribution. Streaming is sort of killing off everything. And I think it has not come the same way in Japan. I mean I think it is also popular here but the numbers (of people using streaming websites) are nothing compared to the United States. When people in the US talk about movies or TV, it is always in a context of watching it on Netflix, or HBO Go, Hulu, etc… Whereas in Japan I think that it hasn’t cut on quite yet.
Author’s note: Indeed streaming success is quite important in the USA (with nearly 53% of the American population using Netflix, against 16,5% in Japan), but Japanese people use streaming quite a lot as well, with 56,9% of the population using the platform Amazon Prime, against 29% in the USA.
6. Are there any difference of working style, culture?
Dan: Yes I noticed huge differences. (laugh)
In Japan for the most part everyone is more polite. Which makes working here easier.
In Los Angeles, when I was coming up, some of the producers or executives were kind of tiring. You have people who scream at you, mass fire employees just because they feel like it, and you don’t see that often in Japan. I have never experienced it since I’ve been here. So that’s one of the big differences.
Other big difference, I got to shoot a commercial project in the US and the producers are standing at the top.
Whereas in Japan, there are a lot more voices, which can slow things down sometimes, because there is not just one person deciding. At least for big projects. For smaller projects, there’s only one person deciding. I think for bigger commercials, at least in projects that I’ve done, there are many people with ideas so they will do a meeting to talk about it. It is a little slower pace because there are more people involved and they have the
Whereas in the United States it is different. The producer or the director decides. Well… depending on who the director is.
7. Recognition of creators’ work, treatment:
Dan: I think that it is a little more even in Japan. At least it feels like each person has more importance. In the US it is more the top/down kind of relation.
But for directors of photography, my position, I don’t see a big difference.
HV: In your opinion, how could Japan improve its film industry?
Dan: If Japan could follow western countries in terms of TV creation, like good episodic creation, such as on Netflix or Hulu, there would be a huge potential for success there.
I think the Japanese Government is now pushing very hard to Western countries regarding tourism to Japan. And it has worked pretty well. For example, everyone in the US knows something about Japan. And I think if Japan can make good TV contents, with international visibility, that could be successful.
HV: What is the most important thing for you while filming a movie?
Dan: To remain calm, and polite and that is something I am constantly improving. I wasn’t always like that. Some of my old colleagues can attest. (laugh)
I think that’s one thing I am trying to improve. Like, how can I be a good DP, an aggressive DP but still a pleasant person to be around. And that’s very important for me. I think that’s something I’ve really improved on. Because the people around me are usually very polite and easy to work with.
HV: To what is owed your success? Do you have any tips or secrets?
Dan: I think the key thing is to not give up when it gets tough. It is kind of cliché but it is true. There was a time when I was living in a crappy apartment in Los Angeles, I was sort of hopeless and thinking that maybe I would just stop doing this and get a job not even related to this industry. I hold out for a little bit, and a week later I would get a call for a job. So my personal advice is: “just hang in there, and keep working hard.”
HV: Do you have any preferences when choosing a lens?
Dan: I would definitely choose fast lenses. Anything so I can isolate my subject from the background. Some cheaper lens have a lower maximum aperture, which results in everything being in focus, especially when you’re on a wide shot.
So 99% of the time I shoot wide open, to isolate my subject from the background and really focus on the person or the subject, rather than what’s around them.
HV: Does it
Dan: The director could say something about my choice, they could also make that choice, but I never happened. Well, maybe once. (laugh)
HV: What kind of scene do you like to shoot and why? (for example: see list)
Dan: It doesn’t really matter to me, as long as it is something personal, that tells a good story. I usually like to shoot narrative stuff. I like to get close to the person, have something a little bit intimate. It doesn’t matter if it’s a romantic or sad scene, as long as I feel something while shooting it.
HV: What are you doing to improve your skills? Do you have any habits?
Dan: Yes. After every shoot, usually I come home and I think about what I could have done better. And I look at the footage that I shot and analyze it to see what I can improve. And that has been very effective as I can say I have improved my work. What I actually do is, I take mental notes to remember not to do the same mistake.
Then, I think the other thing to improve is to work with people who are better than you at what they do. So I work with DPs who have a lot more experience than I have and that’s been great to improve my ability as a cinema photographer.
HV: Have you ever shot a movie discarding the shooting rules?
Dan: Oh yeah all the time (laugh), if it makes sense for the story. I think the important thing is to understand why those rules exist, and when to break them. It is a guideline and it is there because we are converting what you see in 3D, into 2D.
But if you want to create something that is disorienting, for example for a disorienting scene in a horror film, you might choose to break that (shooting rules) on purpose.
HV: What genre do you dislike and why?
Dan: Anything that Gus Van Sant* has done in the past 15 years (laugh).
Aside from this, I think there are not a lot of things that I dislike. I try to watch everything and take the good aspects of it. I can watch a very bad movie and admit that they did it very well. I am not very snappy when it comes to movies and TV. And I don’t care for reality TV. And by the
HV: In your opinion, how does movie shooting evolve with time and new technologies such as smartphones?
Dan: That’s an interesting question. I think that as a camera guy, the one thing I’ve noticed since I started is that the cameras are getting smaller. That’s the big thing. When I started, I learned on these big cameras, and they are just getting smaller and smaller. Now I shoot on a red camera, those little boxes, but it makes an incredible image.
I think more people are shooting movies on DSLR or mirrorless cameras.
People are even trying to shoot movies on their phones which is interesting. I just got an iPhone and I’ve been talking about how amazing the camera is on it. 5 years ago if I have had this phone, you can be sure I would have shot movies with it.
HV: Would you like to try new challenges, new things, that doesn’t exist?
Dan: I think I wanna try bigger and bigger projects, bigger CM, bigger movies. I would like to DP a new TV show in Japan. That would be my dream.
HV: Thank you so much for this interview, we sincerely hope you will keep doing such amazing photography works for a long time!
If you want to know more about Daniel Lazoff’s shooting techniques, you should have a look at the Vol.2.
You can also find Daniel Lazoff’s work on his website:
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*Gus Van Sant is an American film director, screenwriter, painter, photographer, musician, and author. From 2003 he returned to arthouse cinema.