Cinematographer Yasu Tanida Reflects On "This Is Us"
Yasu Tanida
DP connects with series creator Dan Fogelman, evokes empathy for stories, characters
  • --

Just some three months ago, Dan Fogelman, creator and executive producer of This Is Us (NBC), received the Television Showman of the Year honor at the 55th Annual International Cinematographers Guild (ICG) Publicists Awards.

In his acceptance remarks, Fogelman observed that in this “dark, weird time,” he finds it gratifying that This Is Us, a show which “wears its heart on its sleeve,” reflects that we all have much in common with one another and can all universally relate to loss, joy, the responsibilities of parenthood, being brothers, sisters and friends. Fogelman affirmed that we “may not be as divided as we think.”

That This Is Us case for what unites us is all the more compelling and artistic, said Fogelman at the awards ceremony, thanks to the contributions of cinematographer Yasu Tanida. Fogelman cited Tanida’s talent for supporting story and emotional moments through his thoughtful cinematography which never calls attention to itself.

Bonding over baseball
Tanida related to SHOOT that he and Fogelman first connected on the pilot for Pitch, shot in the fall of 2015. Pitch told the fictional story of the first female Major League Baseball player, a pitcher for the San Diego Padres. Tanida, a die-hard Dodgers fan, noted that Fogelman is a big New York Mets fan. For Pitch, these two baseball aficionados spent five weeks at Petco Park in San Diego--two-and-a-half weeks of prep and two-and-a-half weeks of shooting. “Dan and I bonded during that time,” said Tanida. “The pilot then got picked up by the Fox network.”

The following summer, Tanida received an email from Fogelman. “Dan had a second pilot that went to series. We had such a great experience working on Pitch together that he asked me to look at it, to tell him what I thought.”

Fogelman had sent Tanida the pilot for This Is Us. “I was blown away by the pilot as everyone else was,” recalled Tanida. “Creatively I saw a show I could visually tell at all these different timelines in an interesting way--not only having to differentiate each timeline but make them similar at the same time so they could all flow seamlessly. I then interviewed with John Requa and Glenn Ficarra--directors of the pilot--who hired me.”

The pilot was shot by Brett Pawlak who deployed the ARRI Alexa Mini. Tanida opted for the standard ARRI Alexa for the balance of season one, and then the ARRI Amira for season two. 

“All these cameras have the same depth and sensor. The look is pretty much the same,” related Tanida. The major difference was the lenses. Pawlak had used varied vintage lenses on the pilot. “They were all different sizes, diameters and circumferences, which work in the framework of a pilot,” shared Tanida. “But at the pace of episodic television, it’s really difficult to do that. To change different sized lenses takes a little more time. What we did was switch to Panavision Primo lenses--the benefit being they have the same width and circumferences, making it easier to switch from one to the next. The terminology is called ‘re-optimizing’ a lens--that’s what Panavision calls it. We were the first TV show to re-optimize our lenses. We would also frost the lens with a certain degree of white mist to soften the image. The image has to go through that before lights hits the camera sensor. This softening of the image replicates the vintage look of the pilot. You soften the image, take the digital edge off of modern cinematography.

“Then in DI, the digital intermediate in post,” continued Tanida, “we put over that soft image a very contrasty LUT (Look Up Table). The LUT contrasts the soft image and brings it back to normal, the end result being an organic feel for a digital camera.”

Emotional mettle
But even more essential than an organic feel are the organic feelings elicited by This Is Us. “To this day,” said Tanida, “everybody on the crew is excited to open the script. You don’t see that on every show. You see crew members crying and reading the script. The show has impacted all of us.”

That impact presents its share of challenges as the series inherently contains a host of emotional scenes. “Sometimes you only have one take on these scenes. To capture those moments in maybe one or two takes is one of the most challenging aspects of shooting this show,” related Tanida. “Some of the best stuff on screen, though, has come out of those first takes. For the camera crew, being there and capturing those moments can be hard but it’s also quite exciting.”

That excitement, said Tanida, is deeply rooted in story. “Nothing trumps a really good story. The story, performances and the dialogue are the most important things. As a cinematographer, my job is to support those three things in the best way possible--and to just enjoy the ride. We’re all enjoying the ride on this special show.”

This is the third installment in a 15-part series that explores the field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, cinematography, producing, editing, music, production design and visual effects. The series will then be followed up by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmys ceremonies on September 8 and 9, and the primetime Emmy Awards live telecast on September 17.

MySHOOT Company Profiles