Last month, I had the opportunity to work with award winning cinematographer, Keiko Nakahara on the psychological thriller, “Coffin”, which stars Kevin Sorbo and Bruce Davison. Born and raised in Japan, at the age of 22, she moved to the US and studied cinematography at San Diego State University. During this time, she received an honor for Outstanding Cinematography for the short film, “Mira Marst” and for documentary “Blue Fish.” Since then, Keiko has shot award winning features, short films, and documentaries. Her work has been shown at film festivals internationally such as the Santa Barbara Film Festival, Sydney Science Fiction & Fantasy Film Festival, and Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival. In 2010, she was honored as one of the outstanding up-and-coming cinematographers by the president of The American Society of Cinematographers, Michael Goi. Her feature film projects include “Samurai Avenger: The Blind Wolf,” “Broken Kingdoms,” “Annabel Lee,” and “Coffin.”
I spoke with Keiko about her career, film and what it is like being a female cinematographer:
ASIANCE: You were born and raised in Japan. What made you decide to become a cinematographer and move all the way to Hollywood to begin your career?
Keiko: My escape when I was younger, was to watch movies. I was amused at how powerful they are; how much they could influence people’s lives. Ever since I was little, my dream was to be a film-maker, but I kept it secret because I knew my parents would not allow me to study film-making. Therefore, when I was in Japan, I couldn’t study film-making or cinematography.
When I was 22, I came to the US, by myself, with one suitcase and a big dream to become a film-maker. I went to San Diego State University and majored in film production. Then, I started to shoot with a black & white 16mm film camera. I was so inspired by the art of cinematography and my passion became to learn as much as I could.
After graduation I moved to Los Angeles. I didn’t know anybody here and I didn’t have money either. I started to work at a bar at night to make a living, but during the daytime and weekends, I started to work on set for free as a camera assistant and electrician. Also, I had to build my demo reel as a cinematographer. I knew that I had to have a good reel in order to convince people what I could do. I had been busy shooting many different projects. It’s been 5 years since I moved to Los Angeles. I have shot 8 feature films and more than 20 short films as Director of Photography.
ASIANCE: Were you bilingual at the time? And did you find coming from a foreign country a hindrance in pursuing your dream in the United States?
Keiko: I was not bilingual at all, although I did study English in Japan. When I was in the US for the first year, it was a disaster. I didn’t understand English, so I could not communicate. Also, I was very shy to speak because I was embarrassed about my bad English. My other struggle was that it took a long time for me to read a script; I always needed an English dictionary. I read the script many times to understand the story. It was painful process to learn another language in every way, but that’s why my English improved quickly.
Yes, it’s difficult to pursue my dream in a foreign county because culture and language are different. But, I love being in Hollywood. And I hoped that people would accept me as a cinematographer. As long as I do a great job, they don’t care about my gender, ethnicity, and accent.
ASIANCE: How did you become involved with the film, “Coffin”?
Keiko: When Kipp Tribble, the director, was looking for a DP, my dear friend, Randy Sausedo, recommended me. He saw my demo reel online. I got a phone call and the rest is history 🙂
Raw footage scene from “Coffin”
ASIANCE: Can you tell us a little about the plot without giving it away? Also, have you worked with co-directors Kipp Tribble and Derek Wingo before?
Keiko: It’s a psychological thriller. One night, tragedy strikes Jack, his wife is kidnapped with her lover.
I met Kipp for another project last year, but the project didn’t happen. So, this was my first time to work with Kipp Tribble and Derick Wingo, the co-director. I really enjoyed working with them.
ASIANCE: Who is your favorite cinematographer and why? Also, was there anyone in your life who influenced you to pursue this type of career?
Keiko: There are so many favorite cinematographers whom I admire. One of my favorite cinematographers is Roger Deakins. I love his naturalistic lighting, camera movement and framing, and also the way he tells a story visually.
No one influenced me to pursue the film business. I think my childhood made me so. My childhood was a bit strange, as my family often moved to different cities all over Japan, so I don’t really have a home town in Japan. In my youth, when I felt lonely being in a new city, I watched movies; movies made me forget about my sorrow and moreover made me smile.
ASIANCE: Being a woman cinematographer puts you in the minority; is it more difficult for women to work as a director of picture in Hollywood?
Keiko: Yes, it is difficult, as you don’t see many women cinematographers. For instance, if I don’t say anything, no one would think that I’m a cinematographer on set. I’m a young Asian female. Who thinks that I’m the Director of Photography on the set? Rather than pity this fact, I make fun of it. The first day on set, some PAs asked me what my role was on set. I said, “I’m craft service.” They told me to move a cooler, so I did move the heavy cooler for them.
What I want to say is that, it’s tough being a women cinematographer, but it’s not impossible to become one. I am doing it. Of course, I meet people who don’t take me seriously because I’m a minority. But there are people who believe in my talent; they have encouraged me to pursue my dream and I really appreciate them. Kipp is one of them, as he says, “She is a future Oscar winner.”
As I said earlier, one of the great things about working in Hollywood is that people here don’t judge by who you are; they judge you by how talented you are. Therefore, I enjoy working here. If I were in Japan, it would be a different story. I will have a hard time working as a woman cinematographer because it’s a male dominated film business.
ASIANCE: Is there anything you would like to say to young, female filmmakers who are reading your interview?
Keiko: Being female, young, and Asian in filmmaking can be a huge obstacle. But, I cannot change these facts. I take advantage of being so different from other filmmakers. Be proud of you are, then pursue what you want to be. My mentor told me, “follow your dream, never give it up.” Of course, I have moments when I want to quit. But, I kept telling myself, “never give up.”
ASIANCE: How can people find more information about your career and future projects?
Keiko: I don’t have my Facebook! Please, go on my website, www.keikonakahara.com.
ASIANCE: What upcoming projects are you currently working on?
Keiko: I’m currently working on a feature length documentary. I’ll be busy shooting it till the end of this year, traveling to Japan and Colombia. I need to learn Spanish now.
ASIANCE: Without giving away too much of the scene, you had to work in water. Is that more difficult to prepare for and shoot than a regular scene?
Keiko: Yes, it was more difficult shooting in water for sure. Controlling lighting was not easy in water and it’s more technical and complicated to work with underwater housing equipment. Underwater-housing cameras are heavy and bulky to hand-held inside of water pressure. My 2nd camera assistant, Sean Dahlen, was helping me to hold down my body, so that I was not floating. Our special effects man, Bernie Eicholtz, is a genius; he built a prop that made it easier to shoot in water. It must be uncomfortable to act in the water for the actors, Kevin Sorbo and Sunny Doench, but they were amazing. They nailed the scenes within a few takes. After all, it was worth putting forth our efforts because the underwater footage gave great tension and thrill to the story. I was the person who enjoyed shooing underwater the most. All my crew and the cast knew this by the end of the shoot.
ASIANCE: The film was shot almost completely hand-held. Is that a style you prefer or was that more the directors’ choice?
Keiko: From the beginning, I knew that the directors wanted to shoot in hand-held and I totally agreed with it. We wanted to have the look of a documentary style in order to add to the tension and rhythm of the story.
During pre-production, we spent time talking about the style of the film. I showed them one of my favorite films by the French director, Jacques Audiard. I love how the hand-held camera moves around the actors to capture their emotions. Kipp and Derik were also on the same page and allowed me to shoot that style.
Before the shoot, some people were worried if I could hold a Red camera so long, as it’s a pretty heavy camera to hand-hold. Now they knew that I have strong arms 🙂
ASIANCE: The film was shot in 10 days and all the scenes were completed. How were you able to shoot an entire film so quickly?
Keiko: Shooting hand-held and having dedicated a cast and crew was the key! We had several long scenes to shoot in a day. The only solution was to shoot in long format following takes with a different frame size. Shooting this way, it was more complicated to light the set. We had to light the large space with limited equipment for multiple angles. My gaffer, Felipe Solaris, and his team did a fantastic job. Also, shooting hand-held will give them freedom where they would be. I didn’t want to give the actors any limitation so they could move in the space. In fact, we seldom gave actors marks where they had to be. It was very difficult for my 1st camera assistant, James Wykoff, he is a master of pulling focus. And lastly, the directors had 100% trust in me. It was a great environment and I could concentrate on my work. I was so thankful to work with an experienced cast and crew and they were so fun to work with.
ASIANCE: Why did you choose to shoot the movie with the Red camera?
Keiko: I have been shooting several projects with the Red camera for a few years and I was confident that I could give the look that the directors wanted. With the new sensor-chip “Mysterium X“, it was a perfect camera for shooting at night and low light
An actor and women’s safety advocate, Candace Kita is the author of “The Hottie Handbook: A Girl’s Guide to Safety.” As a safety specialist, Candace has been interviewed by People, Good Morning America, the Jay Leno Show, Inside Edition, the Los Angeles Times, 48 Hours, the LOGO Network and WHO Australia.