Rina Yang

Japanese born Cinematographer Rina Yang's unstoppable rise in Cinematography sees her work appearing in every corner of the industry. I chat to her about this relentless journey in developing her craft, how her cultural background has shaped her lens on the world, and her philosophical approach to creating compelling imagery.

When did you realise that Cinematography was your passion? Was it a gradual interest or did you always know it was something you wanted to do from a young age?

I moved to London to study English, and to stay here longer, I had to study something to get a visa...(ha) I saw an ad for film school on the bus one day, and I applied for it, got in, and somehow ended up where I am now. I fell into it, and I love it..

What role do you feel you have with a director in realising their vision? How does this process typically work for you?

It depends on the director you're working with. You need to know how much communication is right for that particular director. Some directors want to talk about everything, and some want to have very little interaction. I want to respect their personal and creative space; often times a lot of the people are telling the director they should do this and that...it can be hard and confusing. I like to listen first, rather than overwhelming them with my ideas and loads of questions. 

Do you feel that your cultural background influences your work in any way; aesthetically or in your process?

It does. Because I think how we perceive and visualise the story is based on our life experience and who we are. For example, my general knowledge in Western history and culture are different from that of someone who was born here. I grew up watching Ghibli, didn't want to do 'what girls do', and always felt like I'm such a weirdo who couldn't fit into the social pressure and expectations of where I'm from.

...my general knowledge in Western history and culture are different from that of someone who was born here. I grew up watching Ghibli, didn’t want to do ‘what girls do...

Building a career as a cinematographer seems to require a lot of momentum and a relentless work ethic. Did you have have goals or projects you set out to accomplish or has it been something that's grown organically?

It is a full-on, 24/7 task to build your career as a DoP. You need to be good at a lot of things; management, communication, research, and to educate yourself artistically and technically, and try not to get trapped in a small comfortable bubble. To say the least, I'm ambitious, but being the 80s child in Japan and witnessing the burst of economic bubble first hand, I've learnt to be pragmatic and strategic in order to achieve my goals, and sustain what i've gained in my career. 

No one told us ‘Can you light it brighter..’ or ‘It can’t just be one shot for the whole scene, we need more coverage’ and that was liberating.

When I didn't know anyone in the industry, I used to spend hours browsing Vimeo and Promonews everyday, find the films or videos I like, and write to the directors. Nobody's going to find you if you're sat on the couch twiddling your thumbs. 

You recently worked on a project with FKA twigs. How did that collaboration come about and what was it like working with her as a director?

I've done a couple of projects with her so far. The first one came along thanks to the producers at Academy+. They put me forward and Twigs liked my work. She's bold in making the creative decisions, and has unique visions that I really like. It doesn't feel like she's trying to conform to other people's expectations or 'what sells'. I like working with talented people who're bright and genuine, so I hope we continue to make more cool things with that same team! 

Which projects have been the most enjoyable to work on and for what reasons have they really stood out?

I shot a short film in Tokyo called 'Lost Youth' with director Taichi Kimura in 2016. That has been the most enjoyable so far because we had a complete creative freedom. No one told us 'can you light it brighter?' or 'It can't just be one shot for the whole scene, we need more coverage' and that was liberating. It's the DP's dream when the director trusts you wholeheartedly, and we get to shoot the film in a way we both feel is the best to realise the story. It was also the first time I shot in Japan. I left there almost 10 years ago so it was interesting to realise that I've changed, and I saw things differently in Japan. Lost Youth also helped me progress in my career, it's a great feeling when something you worked super hard for gets recognised. 

Your style is very human-centric, compositionally and in tone, would you agree with that?

I didn't realise that because I don't consciously make those choices, but it's true that I am interested in ordinary rather than extraordinary, and in people rather than say - a beautiful landscape. 

There's an incredible dusty, velvety look to a lot of your work, how did that texture come about and do you consider it a conscious part of your style?

To me texture is a big part of creating the look for a project; I'm not into super clean, pristine look that has zero feelings or mood. I'm drawn to images where you can feel the atmosphere and texture.

Colour plays a huge part in your films, what processes do you go through in figuring that out?

When I started out, most of my work looked very 'natural', because we couldn't afford to light everything. As I progressed I started to use more colour. I think it creates depths and mood, and if you look around, real life is full of colours. It's not just clean tungsten and daylight. Nowadays I keep getting asked to do colourful or neon look. I like it but I prefer to be a bit more subtle now..

Have you encountered any happy accidents that turned out great?

It feels like most of the work that I'm proud of come from happy accidents...but I create an environment or use technique that'll allow us to make those accidents happen.

...if you look around, real life is full of colours. It’s not just clean tungsten and daylight...

How do you feel budgets affect your decision making process? Do you enjoy certain restrictions on time and space or is it inhibiting in other ways?

Restrictions can be your best friend. It lets you focus and be more creative. Whenever we have too much money and time to shoot a shot, especially on commercials, to me it becomes sterile and boring. I like to work fast, only do few takes and move on..

You take stills photos too. Do you feel this is a defined skill for you to capture isolated moments or just an extension of your video work?

I don't take stills professionally, it's a little hobby and for research material. Telling a story in one shot as a photographer and over a certain period of time as a director of photography requires different skills and experience. 

You are beginning to do a lot of work internationally. Can you talk a bit about how you deal with those cultural and language barriers?

I have a selection of photos (i.e the lighting rig I like to use) that I can show to the local crew. It's hit and miss with a foreign crew, and I miss my crew when I shoot abroad. Having a regular crew who you can trust enables you to be more bold and do interesting work.

Who or what is inspiring you right now?

My dog Scruffy. He's a rescue dog from Connecticut, lived in NY, he's 14 now and gone blind but happy as a bunny. Getting old and becoming less able scares me, but he teaches me how you could live happily when you're older. 

What advice would you give a younger Rina?

Stop worrying about everything.