MASANOBU TAKAYANAGI WEATHERS THE STORM ON "THE GREY"

Masanobu (Masa) Takayanagi grew up in Tomioka City, Gunma Prefecture, in Japan. He relocated to Los Angeles to attend Cal State Long Beach, and after completing film school, he applied and was accepted into AFI. During his time at AFI, he shot several short films, and developed relationships that morphed into friendships. The greatest benefit of attending AFI was “the fact that they teach you to focus on the storytelling, rather than just making pretty images. It helped me understand how to tell the story with my cinematography,” he explained.

An early short film he shot, “Shui Hen,” directed by Max Jezo-Parovsky, garnered him an award for Best Student Cinematography at the prestigious Palm Springs International Short Fest in 2003. The following year, he would receive the Student Heritage Award from the American Society of Cinematographers at their annual awards. His credits include almost a dozen short films. After meeting cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, he was hired to shoot 2nd unit work for him on “Babel” and “State of Play.” He went on to shoot 2nd unit photography for several high-profile films such as “Eat, Pray, Love,” “The Eagle” and “Monte Carlo.” In 2009, Masa shot his first major feature “Warrior,” directed by Gavin O’Connor. He also shot the recently released “The Grey,” directed by Joe Carnahan, and teamed up with director David O. Russell for “The Silver Linings Playbook,” which will be released later this year. Panavision spoke to Masa about his recently released projects.

Q: When and where were you when you were first introduced to Panavision?
MT: I was a camera intern on a low-budget horror movie in Los Angeles.

Q: What was your first project you used Panavision on?
MT: It must have been one of the AFI projects I shot. I think it was a Panavision GII.

Q: What was it that influenced your decision to become a cinematographer?
MT: I came across a book called “Masters of Light” (translated in Japanese), when I was a student at a university in Japan. I had no idea what cinematographers did but I felt tremendous passion from the cinematographers who talked about their art and craft in the book.

Q: You shot quite a bit of 2nd unit work before you became a DP. As your career has blossomed from shooting 2nd unit, to feature work, how has that transition been?
MT: I had been shooting small independent features, commercials and music videos. Then, my friend introduced me to Rodrigo Prieto who was shooting “Babel” in 2005. I shot 2nd unit for him on “Babel” and “State of Play.” Working with Rodrigo has been a great inspiration and experience for me. He has helped my career in many ways. Then, the chance to shoot “Warrior” came to me. “Warrior” is my first studio movie as a main unit cinematographer. The director Gavin O’Connor gambled on me and fought for me to shoot “Warrior.”

Q: How long have you been using the same crew in terms of gaffer, key grip, operator and assistant?
MT: Although I try to work with same crew as much as possible, as they are my best friends and great humans, it is difficult to keep the same crew when you are shooting in different parts of the U.S. or the world. But, I am also grateful to be able to meet new people and work with great crew around the world.

Q: What is your decision-making process between shooting spherical or anamorphic?
MT: It all depends on the story.

Q: How much of that decision is related to your artistic take on the script vs. that of the director?
MT: I think it’s both. I always discuss it with the director, and we both need to be on the same page, in my opinion.

Q: Do you have a different approach in how you shoot anamorphic vs. spherical?
MT: I am not sure if I consciously have a different approach in how I shoot either anamorphic or spherical. But in the process of deciding the format, I do choose consciously either anamorphic or spherical according to the script.

Q: The film you shot, “Warrior,” was Super 35.  Was the decision to shoot in that format made between you and the director or were there other influences?
MT: Gavin and I talked about it, and decided on Super 35 because we thought the texture and grains would be appropriate to the story. Also, we liked the intimacy that spherical can give us by being physically so close to the characters.

Q: When shooting “Warrior,” what can you tell us about how you designed your lighting to photograph key actors?
MT: “Warrior” was shot 100% on locations. The process of choosing locations with Gavin and the production designer Dan Leigh was very important to reflect the characters of the story. Once the locations were chosen, my lighting approach was not to impose too much on what was already there at the location. We tried to take advantage of what already existed as much as possible.

Q: You also shot the film “The Grey.” It must have been a tremendously difficult film to shoot with those remote locations. Where did you shoot?
MT: We shot in British Columbia, Vancouver, and some of the scenes were in Northern British Columbia in a town called Smithers. We also shot in Whistler.

Q: How did you work with the natural elements?

MT: We tried to cope with it. There was such a strong Mother Nature element with the wind, the temperature and the snow. Director Joe Carnahan and I were saying, “Well, what we get is what we get. If it snows, it snows; if it rains, it rains.” One day while we were shooting in Vancouver, it was raining too much, and we were forced out of the forest because of it.

Q: There is an extreme airplane crash in a remote location in the film. Talk about that scene.
MT: For the interior plane scenes, we shot everything on stage on a gimbal, because we wanted to tell the story from the point of view of our hero. The crash site scene was shot in Smithers. We had a couple of shots with cranes, and even though it was so cold and too windy, we got what we needed. For cameras, we used mainly Panavision XLs with a Platinum when we went up the mountain. We also had a Panavised 235. But mostly we used the XL. For lenses, I used mainly the Z series, ultra speed and super speed; it has a really good contrast and I love the color of the flares.

Q: How did you film the scenes with the survivors sliding down the side of a snowy mountain?
MT: Some of the footage was done up in the mountains in Smithers, and when they are sliding down the hill, toward the end of them running, it was in Vancouver. Sometimes I was on a handmade sled, shooting along with them as they went down the mountain. For the day scenes, we didn’t do much lighting; it wasn’t too shiny, and I got really nice bounce from the snow. I did more lighting on the night sequences, and production had a hard time getting all the cables and equipment up there. All departments did a great job getting up to those remote locations.

Q: What was the hardest scene to shoot?
MT: I think overall my challenge was to light the night exteriors in the snow, because the snow bounces light so much. If I light too much it looks like a day scene, so the challenge was all about the snow. I had to judge the amount of light that could hit the snow; if you put too much it feels like day.

Q: Do you have any favorite Panavision lenses? If so, why?
MT: I like the Z series lenses, the ones with green lines around. They are very sharp and have good contrast. Also, the colors of flares are really wonderful to me. “Warrior” was shot with those primes and Primo zooms as well.

Q: What cinematographers have influenced your work?
MT: A lot of cinematographers have influenced me, but if I were to name a few, it would be Rodrigo Prieto, Emmanuel Lubezki, Conrad Hall, Gordon Willis and Robert Richardson.