Interview with director cinematographer Michael Tanji


Born & raised on the island of O’ahu, Cinematographer Michael Tanji has garnered a reputation & unique visual aesthetic through the way he captures shadows, light, and the modern subject. Originally with a background in fashion filmmaking, Michael has recently expanded his capturing of images into the music video, commercial, & narrative filmmaking genres. He currently resides in Los Angeles, CA and hopes to continue collaborating with young talented filmmakers & creating meaningful work.

  • What personality or character traits are necessary to excel in being a cinematographer/DP?

Someone who remains calm in stressful situations, easy going, specific in their needs, & is able to lead a team while inspiring everyone to do their best work.

  • In terms of cinematographers, who do you like?

Darius Khondji, Geoffrey Unsworth, Conrad L. Hall, Roger Deakins, Chayse Irvin.

  • What makes good cinematography?

Work with intention, infused with emotion while still being invisible & servicing the story.

  • What makes a good camera? And what has been your favorite camera to use?

I usually favor picking the camera thatʻs the right tool for the project. Just to name a few; things like the budget, logisitcs, & the creative really affect my camera choice in the decision making process. But, I really enjoy shooting on 16mm & 35mm film!

  • Do you think that cinematographer’s work has changed when movies went from film to digital?

The tools & technology are the only things that have changed since going from film to digital. Our jobs as Cinematographers has for the most park remained the same. Film has been making a comeback though!

  • Now that people watch films on TV, computers and even their phones, do you think about that end experience when you are shooting?

When Iʻm shooting, Iʻm not too concerned about the format in which the general audience is going to be viewing it on. Whether someone chooses to watch it on a TV, computer, or phone is entirely out of my control. Rather, I shoot, expose, & light in the way thatʻs right for the project to make the best possible film. Being conscious or too concerned whether the audience is viewing it on the proper device is too much added stress & anxiety for me, haha! I just let that go and hope that the audience enjoys what they see.

  • Which one is more important: light or shadow?

For me, shadow is the most important. The ability to take away light & shape the image is what really interests me. You donʻt need to see whatʻs under the bed! Haha.

  • What is the cinematographer’s involvement in pre-production, production and post-production

In my own experience being a Cinematographer, my involvement in pre-production involves all the prep that goes into a project. Building my team/crew, logistics (locations, equipment, planning, etc), lots of conversations with the Director discussing the visual language and creative for the project. During production, Iʻll work with the Director, deal with camera placement, lighting with the Gaffer, communicating with my key crew, & operating the camera as much as I can. Lastly, in Post-Production I might be directly involved in the color / Digital Intermediate to make sure that what look we created on set gets communicated through the “Post-Production Pipeline.” Very rarely, but itʻs happened before, the director & editor would ask for my opinion on the sequence of an edit. Itʻs a rare treat to be able to offer my opinion on an edit but itʻs only happened on smaller passion projects. Otherwise, I trust the team to craft something amazing in the edit. As much as I can I prefer to be involved in a project early as possible. “All the best film are made in Pre-Production.”

  • What involvement in the production budget does the cinematographer/DP have?

My involvement in the production budget only extends so far as making sure the needs of film in terms of camera & lighting meet the parameters of the budget. Otherwise when faced with limitations we have to get creative.

  • What is your most valuable advice for being a Cinematographer/DP?

Everyone says this but itʻs true, “Keep shooting.” Take the time to develop your voice and find the things that you like.