Like most freelance artists, cinematographer Kunitaro Ohi doesn’t always get the jobs he hopes to get.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, Ohi and his directing partner Steven Wesley Miller decided they would use the resulting free time to create their ideal project.
“I’m a cinematographer by trade, but lately I’ve started to venture into things that really aren’t my field,” Ohi said. “I was definitely dipping my toes in areas I shouldn’t belong in, so I started writing.”
This writing project became the screenplay for this year’s Always Together, which won Best Narrative Short Film at the Sarasota Film Festival.
“A lot of people might not like it, but at least we’re being honest with ourselves artistically,” said Ohi, who graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in 2007. “Because nobody goes to actually write this project for us. So we ended up having to write it ourselves. Nobody really wanted to help make this film, so we ended up producing it ourselves. Although we had invaluable help from other producers, we were pretty much the ones who lit the fuse and got the machine running.”
“Everything together results in pure poetry”
Born in Tokyo, Ohi moved to the United States in 1991, living in Hawaii and Oregon before his family settled in the Washington, DC area a year later.
He has always been fond of the fine arts and knew he wanted to pursue a career in art. He just didn’t know what it would be.
“I like to draw and was pretty good at it in middle and high school,” he said. When he joined VCUarts in 2003, “I thought for a second I was going to study fine arts. I wanted to be a sculptor.”
But then he took some photography classes and tried his hand at video art. He found photography and film easier and more fulfilling than trying to paint for three months and failing.
“It sounds kind of lazy,” he said, “but I like the satisfaction of taking a picture or shooting some kind of video and then you have something immediately in front of your eyes.”
And Ohi has a natural aptitude for it, said Sonali Gulati, a professor in the VCU Department of Photography + Film.
“I think it’s mainly the culmination of three things,” she said. “First, there is a way, the Kuni [Ohi] sees and imagines light in a setting that just blows you away. Second, he thinks about how to frame the subjects while keeping in mind the emotional weight of the story, e.g. E.g. do we need to see two characters together or alone at a given moment etc. Finally, I love how Kuni thinks about camera movement asking the question: when is camera movement necessary?
“In the end it all comes together as pure poetry.”
Gulati cites a car crash scene that Ohi filmed with classmate Matt West. It looked so realistic that it shocked the class, she said. They all wanted to know how it was done and Ohi explained that they filmed the cars moving apart and edited it by speeding up and reversing the footage so that it ended up looking like the two cars had collided .
“It was one of those moments where you see the power of what students bring to the classroom and peer-to-peer learning experience,” she said.
It’s no surprise that to this day — 15 years after graduating from VCU — Ohi is still collaborating on film projects with former classmates, Gulati said.
Ohi and his VCU Photo + Film alum West have collaborated on more projects than West could count. The professional collaboration is a continuation of their time at VCU, he said. Their collaborations have included independent feature films, short films, music videos and countless commercials.
“Whenever I’m directing, Kuni is always my first choice as a cinematographer,” said West, who owns Mad Box Made, a full-service production company where he primarily works as a director and colorist. “We’ve known each other for so long that we have a kind of shorthand for each other. However, it never feels stale. … We are able to push each other and new ideas and approaches bounce off each other. There are also countless projects that Kuni films and I act as a colorist. It’s also a lot of fun because it’s sort of a reversal where I’m tasked with making his vision a reality.”
Kunitaro Ohi shot Samba Diop’s film The Game primarily in Leesburg, Virginia and Charleston, West Virginia.
Luxury of being selective about one’s career
A Washington, DC native, Ohi liked Richmond’s relatively small-town vibe and laid-back, progressive nature.
“You think it’s the capital of the Confederacy, and that carries a certain stigma,” he said. “It’s amazing considering Richmond would be pretty backward. But once you enter VCU, your world opens up to a whole different world of culture and thought.”
These days, Ohi goes wherever the job takes him. Working freelance as a cinematographer gives him the freedom to work with colleagues old and new on a variety of projects.
At this point in his career, it also allows him to be “a little picky” about what projects he takes on. These projects included films, commercials, branded content and music videos.
“That’s pretty cool about being a freelancer,” he said. “Ultimately, you decide how you want to approach your career.”
Ohi got one of his last freelance gigs by accident, he said.
One of the three finalists in Netflix’s The Great Untold competition was filming around his home last summer.
“I guess they were looking at some cameraman reels in and around DC and stumbled onto my website or reel and randomly bumped into me out of the blue a few weeks before the project started,” Ohi said.
Ohi shot Samba Diop’s The Game primarily in Leesburg, Virginia and Charleston, West Virginia.
“It was a very strange project,” Ohi said. “Even though it was sponsored by Adobe and Netflix, the overall budget was pretty small. It was a pretty scrappy bunch of people trying to do something pretty high end. And it almost felt like a student film.”
However, most student films don’t have multiple executives — in this case from Netflix and Adobe — overseeing the shoot. Ohi likened the experience to a zoo expedition where subjects are stared at. “The stakes were so high but the scale was so intimate that there was a very odd combination of sentence dynamics.”
Working with first-time director Diop — a TikTok content creator — was cool, Ohi said. “This is the first time [Diop] could work with a team. So it was very interesting to see how he worked with his mindset, going from working with one camera – and that’s primarily your iPhone – and then upgrading to a crew of several people looking after lights and cameras. “
While Ohi himself is still most comfortable behind the camera, he and Miller are writing the sequel to Always Together.
“I don’t know why we’re doing this,” Ohi said. “I don’t know why we’re even trying. It didn’t really set the festival world on fire, but we really liked the concept. So let’s just do whatever. We’ll just write it down and see what happens.
“I don’t want to do it, but I feel compelled to do it.”
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