From Physics to the World of Movies
In Yu Yamanaka’s original movies for SIGMA, the restrained tone and sense of calm leaves a deep impression on the viewer: be it the artisans at work in a factory, surrounded by the crisp Aizu air, or perhaps a story of a father, who enjoys taking out-of-focus shots, and that of his son. Yamanaka first became interested in movies while studying physics at university, where movies proved to be a simple joy that was different to other forms of artistic expression for him: “It so happened that I took classes by movie critic Sozo Teruoka in my general studies. He showed us movies one after the other by directors like Takeshi Kitano, Chen Kaige, and Hou Hsiao-hsien who were not the well-known names at the time as they are now. It was something I greatly enjoyed. I was hooked from then on; my world was watching movies and working at a video rental shop every day. I devoured at most 5 movies a day”. After graduation, he began studying at a school of a film company where he then studied movie production while gaining hands-on experience working in “V-Cinema” (Japanese direct-to-video). He subsequently went alone as a movie director at the age of 28. It was while focused on his work in commercials that, suddenly, the idea to “make a documentary” sprang to mind.
‘Based on a True Story’
“I have always held an interest in documentaries. Maybe it was from watching too many movies, but I gradually became tired of fiction, enjoying something that was based on a true story instead. Take gangster movies for example; the rawness between one based on fiction and non-fiction one are different. Just take the gangsters wiping up spilled coffee. Just that makes something more grounded in reality. Even though they are photographers, I like people such as Nobuyoshi Araki and Bon Ishikawa, or Wolfgang Tillmans, those who take these vivid images of everyday scenes.’ Yamanaka’s first documentary was ‘TEMA HIMA: The art of living in Tohoku’ for the Tema hima exhibition held in 2012.” Depicting the craftsmanship of Tohoku through just imagery and music, the film was very well-received, and it was this movie that captured the attention of the CEO of SIGMA, Kazuto Yamaki. ‘SIGMA Global Vision’ had just started then, and Yamaki had a strong desire for a new SIGMA film to show off the brand. The result was ‘SIGMA Aizu, Japan’, filmed on location at the Aizu factory. “I wanted to capture the beautiful Aizu scenery where SIGMA is embedded, with its greenery and water above all things. Also, I wanted that SIGMA-ness of simplicity and honesty. Regardless, I found the people at the factory were stubborn yet patient. Although these kinds of promotional movies are essentially showing the manufacturing process at close quarters, I was impressed by the look of the workers that I had to bring them into the movie”. 3 movies about Aizu were made over 3 years. Afterwards, as well as being asked to film promotional videos for the company’s lenses and so on, a request came to make a movie that would be SIGMA’s corporate identity. What materialized was ‘blur’.
People are Precious
“As I was thinking how to go about this: should I go to Hollywood, should it be a story related to photography; it suddenly came to me over a few drinks one evening. There is a father not living up to his name, his life out-of-focus, the photographs he takes are out-of-focus too……I thought that would make a good story. I thought that may be a bit too subtle for SIGMA (laughs), but since they are a company who make such high-resolution equipment, the out-of-focus photography setting could actually be fun”. The unclear appearance of the father, taking only out-of-focus photographs from an old film camera. In this movie, that special feeling and reverence that a universal image carries is highlighted, it resonated with people all over. “The theme of the movie may have been ‘blur’, but it was how much we can convey feelings without relying on words.
Putting words into the film takes away underlying feelings that cannot be expressed this way, so I believe the visual form is the best way to tell the story. That is why, what matters in creating documentaries, is to always shoot in a way knowing that understanding is possible even without any explanation – that, and to not miss any fleeting moments”. However, this is exactly the difficulty with documentaries. Yamanaka response when asked of times he failed is “where do you start (laughs)”. Even for the subject who is in front of the lens for what may seem like an eternity, they refuse to be filmed at the very end, making the whole project come to nothing. Even with these many hurdles, Yamanaka still finds making documentaries a pleasure: “I perhaps create documentaries to make small discoveries about myself. I want to show others and hear them agree that people can be this weak, or this cute, or this precious …… that may be why”.
Bringing the T2.0 Zoom Lens to Life
‘blur’ was made with SIGMA’s CINE lenses. In fact, in regard to the development of the CINE lens, it was an unintentional request just at the very early stage from Yamanaka for Yamaki that was to be an influence.
“I want to make documentaries like on the big screen, so I often shoot with small cameras and lenses designed for making movies. Besides, I want equipment to be compact as to not interfere with the subject too much and remove myself from the scene. A large zoom lens feels like being faced down by a sniper (laughs). In that regard, a lens that is compact, yet has great performance at a reasonable price is crucial. So I asked Mr. Yamaki, knowing that SIGMA could come up with something”. The CINE lens by SIGMA, the result of this request made by Yamanaka, was to be finished to Hollywood standards, which greatly interested Yamanaka. The Art series by SIGMA is highly rated in America, plus, seems to be popular among movie cameramen. Since ‘Blur’ was made in Hollywood, he was interested in the reaction of the local crew to the new lens. “Everyone came to check it out, with great interest. There is basically no such thing as a T2.0 zoom lens to begin with. On a movie shoot, when time is tight and a scene has to be filmed in 30 minutes, shooting while changing any number of prime lenses is very tough. This is because changing a lens on a movie camera takes quite some time. But in the case of SIGMA’s CINE Lenses, a lot of filming can take place with a single zoom lens, greatly reducing time as a result”.
Just going 30 minutes over on set in Hollywood brings enormous costs. Reducing time is very attractive from a budget standpoint, so if the time saved was put toward performance, the visual quality of the scene would be raised in-turn. “For low-budget movies, small productions, solo filmmakers, and moreover, the mobility and delicacy required for locations like a documentary, I feel these lenses bring something to the table that doesn’t exist elsewhere.”
It is once again a reminder of how product quality and the efficiency of production is directly tied to equipment. Going forward, the next challenge for Yamanaka is to film and tell a story from Japan, and furthermore, a full-length feature film as well. The question is would that be based on a true story.
“After all, there is a limit to our imaginations when it comes to creating stories. Reality takes us to places beyond our imaginations. People are interesting; they have strange quirks and make funny expressions that I could never come up with. If it were a fictional movie, I would end up imagining that ‘this kind of person exists somewhere’. This is why I always want to capture something more real”
Born in Yamanashi Prefecture in 1976. Founded BLUE DOCUMENTARY in 2010. Works include ‘Paper Garment’ for the ‘Miyake Issey Exhibition’, ‘Tema Hima (The Art of Living in Tohoku)’ for the ‘Tema Hima Exhibition’, NHK taiga drama ‘Yae no Sakura’ (Creators Part), Sony Aquarium short film ‘Teori wo Naru Tori’.