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Spotlight on Tim Harms, film producer (Assistant Language Teacher in Niigata Prefecture, 1996-98)

By Jessica Tang (Assistant Language Teacher in Saga Prefecture, 2008-09)

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The fifth alumni spotlight interview highlights the career path of producer Tim Harms. From a life-
changing opportunity at the Nagano Olympics to gaining the mentorship of noted filmmaker Neil
LaBute, Harms shares the ins and outs of his time working in independent film.

Harms’ passion for film first found an outlet in the Chicago suburbs with a contest for teenagers
to write about movies. The Chicago Tribune Teen Movie Panel chose Harms as one of only five
teens chosen from 800 applicants to review movies and have those writings published in the
newspaper in 1991. With the chance to have his amateur criticisms in print, Harms got his first
taste of the film industry. “I was exposed to film more as a business and received a look behind-
the-scenes.”

After high school, Harms went on to attend Duke University, double-majoring in Literature and
Philosophy with a Film minor. “The film classes, though, were all very academically based,” said
Harms ”I watched tons of films, but there wasn’t the emphasis on production that you get at USC
or NYU.”

The major turning point of realizing his passion for film was during the 1998 Nagano Winter
Olympics, which occurred in his final year as a JET. “The actual nuts and bolts of making a living
in film were still distant to me in Japan, but during the Nagano Olympics, my friend called and
said they were hiring English-speaking drivers. I took two weeks of unpaid leave and had an eye-
opening experience working for CBS.”

Harms’ duties, similar to that of a production assistant, included driving around athletes, which
included the figure skater Michelle Kwan (though he had the inopportune chance of driving
Kwan on the morning after her loss to Tara Lapinski). After two weeks of working for sports
broadcasting professionals, he saw that there was a possibility of people living their dreams. “I
spent that time driving around all these CBS guys who were making it happen, who were making
a living in the industry.”

Upon moving to Los Angeles after the JET Program, Harms decided to take a chance and
gain as much experience as possible. His first job was as a production assistant on small
sets. “I started out at the bottom interning on student film shoots since I wanted the production
experience.” From there, he segued into camera assisting while taking a side job at a coffee
shop. After a year on sets, Harms took an office-bound assistant job at Kurosawa Enterprises
in their Los Angeles office. “This company (Kurosawa as in Akira Kurosawa) made money by
negotiating contracts for American celebrities to be in ads in Japan, such as Jodie Foster,” Harms
explained.

After one year, however, the company closed and Harms began working for producer Steve Golin
at Anonymous Content, a talent management, film, advertising and video production company.
Golin was Oscar-nominated in 2006 for producing “Babel” and responsible for discovering the
likes of David Fincher and Spike Jonze. From working with Golin, Harms realized that “you really
have to work hard to make this all happen. Every project, every idea doesn’t necessarily have a
blueprint as to how they get accomplished.”

For the past eight years, Harms has worked with acclaimed director, screenwriter, and playwright
Neil LaBute at LaBute’s production company Contemptible Entertainment along with writer/
director Lee Toland Krieger at their company 72nd Street Productions. LaBute, known for his
films “In the Company of Men” and “Lakeview Terrace” and for writing the Tony-nominated
play “reasons to be pretty,” has become a steady mentor for Harms. “Working with Neil has
taught me all aspects of making a film. He has also been gracious in allowing me to work on my
own projects.”

Most recently, Harms collaborated with Krieger on the independent film “The Vicious Kind”
starring Adam Scott, Brittany Snow, and J.K. Simmons. This film was an official selection at the
Sundance Film Festival in 2009 and received two Independent Spirit Award nominations. It has
received praise from media outlets such as the Los Angeles Times, Variety, and the Hollywood
Reporter.

Harms has also worked with fellow JETAASC alumnus Aaron Woolfolk on “The Harimaya Bridge”
as a line producer managing the schedule and budget for the film’s San Francisco shoot. Though
Harms cannot remember the exact event at which he met Woolfolk, he remarked that Woolfolk
was purely a JET connection. He is currently working on producing Woolfolk’s next writing and
directing effort, “Summer Soulstice.”

Though the duties of a producer may cover many arenas, Harms provided a clear analogy
to explain an independent film producer’s responsibilities. “Think of the movie as a start-up
company. The producer is essentially the CEO of the company, like Steve Jobs for example. He
or she has the idea, finds the money, and hires all the people needed to see that idea through.”
A producer will seek out a script, determine it has film potential, hire the director and cast the
actors. “It’s tricky sometimes because once you hire the director and lock the actors, you have to
step back and let them do their work.”

Harms explained that there are different types of producers that are credited for a film. “Executive
producers receive this title if they gave money to support the project, or if they lent their name
to further its development, like Neil LaBute did for ‘The Vicious Kind’.” In addition to executive
producers, there are typically 1-2 “producer” producers on a film. They carry out the main
responsibilities of running the production. Other producing credits include co-producers and
associate producers who usually have advisory positions in one aspect of a film’s production.
Financing a film is one of the most challenging aspects of a producer’s work, particularly in
the independent film industry. One method used in the past to raise funds was through foreign
presales. “Distributors from all over the world would buy movies to be shown in theaters the next
year and would pay in advance before the film was even made. The distributors felt confident
enough that certain stars and genres would bring in a set amount even if it wasn’t very good. This
method was popular from the early 1990s – mid-2000s though has declined in recent years due
to the global economy.

Another way to raise funds for lower-budgeted films is to go to wealthy people and ask for private
investments. “For ‘The Vicious Kind,’ I had to go to rich people’s homes, sit on their couches and
ask for the money. It’s a kind of venture capital, a Wall Street for movies. Banks can also fill in the
gaps.”

Harms remarked that though challenges do arise in becoming a producer, you have to take
chances to make things work. “It’s tough, but not impossible,” he said.

You can keep Tim Harms on your radar by checking out “The Vicious Kind” along with its
Facebook page (cool soundtrack to be release in the near future) and 72nd Street Productions.

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Spotlight on David Waldman, inspired cinematographer (ALT in Kyoto City, ’93-’95)

By Jessica Tang (Assistant Language Teacher in Saga Prefecture, 2008-2009)

In our fourth alumni interview, JETAASC highlights the career of David Waldman, a JET alumnus with over ten years experience as a cinematographer. Waldman is a two-time winner of the International Cinematographers Guild “Emerging Cinematographer Award” and has worked notably on the Jonas Brothers music videos, the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show broadcast, and the Head Case television series on Starz Network.

David Waldman’s cinematography career has been motivated by themes of his life in Japan. From experiences such as observing the famed director Akira Kurosawa in action on Kurosawa’s final film, Waldman has drawn his own inspiration.

 

He initially went to study traditional Japanese dance in Kyoto during college in 1992 and happened to meet Yuri Lowenthal (see Spotlight Series, May 2010) at pre-departure for the JET Program in 1993. Waldman served as an ALT and Prefecture Assistant for two years in Kyoto City and moved to New York in 1995, where he became roommates with Lowenthal. By 1999, Waldman moved to Los Angeles to attend the prestigious American Film Institute Conservatory for his Masters of Fine Arts graduate degree in Cinematography.

 

In his undergraduate studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey, Waldman studied theater as his major. “Kabuki buyoh [form of traditional Japanese dance] is such a neat lens to view Japanese culture through,” he explained. Studying kabuki, where men play both male and female roles, engaged Waldman to explore performance art. “I saw an 80-year old man play a young girl, and when he started to move, all of a sudden he transformed [into this character]. This was the essence of performance, the essence of theater, and I wanted to know the core of that.”

 

Japanese films have also inspired Waldman to pursue a creative career. At the chance of observing Japanese director Kurosawa filming Mada Da Yo, the last film before Kurosawa’s death, Waldman did not miss a beat. “I met a friend of a friend in Kyoto pre-JET who had been hired to make a ‘behind-the-scenes’ look at the movie and he invited me to the set. I told him to give me one day’s notice and I’d be there and I took the overnight bus from Kyoto to Tokyo.”

 

Another chance meeting gained Waldman a mentor in Iwai Shunji, a director in Japan most notably for the film Love Letter. “In 2001 when I was finishing my thesis film for graduate school, I was in a Hollywood post-production facility and saw on the sign-in sheet two lines above mine were ‘Iwai Shunji’ and ‘Noboru Shinoda’ [Shunji’s cameraman].” Waldman had seen Love Letter while in Japan and became highly motivated by it. “A light bulb went off in my head and I just had to go home and make that.” He took the opportunity at the post-production facility to personally thank Shunji for making the film, and has stayed in touch and collaborated with the director ever since.

 

As a cinematographer (also known as “director of photography”), Waldman defined his responsibilities as being “the director’s right-hand man for visual story-telling.” The cinematographer must design the appropriate lighting and camera movement to best develop the director’s vision and be on the set to help execute it. He or she must also “protect the way the actors look.” In this sense, maintaining a good working relationship with the director is very important for future projects. “The majority of the work I get is by word of mouth and reputation,” Waldman elaborated.

 

“Going to AFI was my most influential decision for learning cinematography,” Waldman recalled of his formal training in the craft. He remarked, “There’s definitely a self-taught approach as well. On JET, I had to communicate with my family through airmail so I bought a still-photo camera and started sending pictures.” Then, the Kobe earthquake transformed his snapshots into a powerful visual message. “I did a photo essay with a friend that got a lot of attention and I realized the power of photography. This became the portfolio that got me accepted into AFI.”

 

Waldman gave inspirational advice to returning JETs. “Funnel your experiences into your life once you get back home. Living abroad gives you a specific view of the world; if you feel the need to communicate your experience to others, in whatever outlet, you have to do it.”

 

Stay tuned to Waldman’s work on a music video for the tenured Japanese rock star Shogo Hamada, and the TED.com broadcasts as the cinematographer. For more information about Waldman’s work, please see www.david-waldman.com.

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Spotlight on Yuri Lowenthal, respected voice-over artist, actor, and author

(Coordinator of International Relations in Shiga Prefecture, 1993-1995)

By Jessica Tang, JETAASC Career/Networking Coordinator (Assistant Language Teacher in Saga Prefecture, 2008-2009)

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In the third interview of our Alumni Spotlight Series, JETAASC was honored to speak with Yuri Lowenthal, an alumnus best known for his leading voice-over roles in the “Naruto” anime, the “Ben-10” cartoon series, and the “Prince of Persia” video games. Lowenthal unveils his post-JET experience and what it is like to be living his dream.

“The most interesting actors are actors who lead interesting lives. Being a JET has been a huge part of me leading an interesting life,” Yuri Lowenthal shared about a driving force to his success in the voice-over industry. Prior to his JET journey in Japan, he attended The College of William & Mary in Virginia. He was destined for a worldly upbringing as his father worked in the Foreign Service. Lowenthal was born in Ohio and grew up in Tennessee, North Virginia, and West and North Africa.

After four years of Japanese in college as an East Asian Studies Major and studying abroad in Osaka his junior year, Lowenthal became a CIR for two years in Shiga Prefecture (famous for Lake Biwa). “Being a CIR and sometimes having to make things up as I went along helped with my confidence,” he remarked. “My Japanese might not have been perfect, but I had to dive right in [my work].”

Lowenthal began acting towards the end of high school when he auditioned for a play and fell in love with the art. He took theater classes in college and continued to do performance-based activities while on the JET Program. “I did sketch comedy, butoh, dance, Suzuki-style theater, and made independent movies with other JETs.” Then came a turning point when Lowenthal committed himself to try acting after returning to the U.S. post-JET. “I didn’t want it to be one of those things I regretted not taking the chance to do.”

Like many actors first starting out, he tried the two cities he thought would be optimal for acting. “I loved New York, and hated L.A.,” Lowenthal recalled humorously. After six years in New York working with Japanese production companies and Off-Broadway theater, he moved cross-country to Los Angeles and serendipitously got married along the way. “I proposed in Ohio to my girlfriend, we got married in Las Vegas, and ended in L.A.”

In Los Angeles, Lowenthal along with his wife Tara Platt, now also an accomplished voice-over artist, began to explore all of their entertainment career options. “It’s a hard road with no guarantees. We started thinking about voice-over work, though neither of us had really considered it before.” While doing temporary work for a year, Lowenthal and Platt took a voice-over class and made a “demo reel” (an equivalent of a head shot or resume) and luckily came across an opportune chance. “The guy who taught the class got a job directing Japanese anime, asked me to audition, and I got the job. You could say it was my entrée into the industry.” After a year and a half of small anime jobs, Lowenthal built up enough work to leave his day job and started voice-overs full-time.

In building a career in the voice-over industry, Lowenthal advises heavily working on the business end. “The work really is in constant promotion, auditioning, and networking. You can’t survive on one job and none of the jobs last forever.”
He stressed the need for having drive and getting exposure to the public. “Make yourself so readily available that if someone needs you, they can easily check you out online.” In fact, Lowenthal and Platt have fielded so many queries about their industry that they have even written a book about it called “The Voice-Over Voice Actor: What It’s Like Behind the Mic” which was officially released in March 2010.

With roles such as “Ben Tennyson” on the popular “Ben-10” series and “Sasuke Uchiha” on the “Naruto” anime, much of Lowenthal’s fan base is children. His friends have watched the shows with their children and noticed Lowenthal’s name as the main character and requested that he leave a message for their children as a favor. The Make-A-Wish Foundation has even had events where children can go to the studio to watch a show recording. “One of the favorite parts of my job is the ability to make a connection with them,” said Lowenthal. “It energizes me as an actor.”

As for JET influencing his career, Lowenthal recalled he gained many positive experiences. “To go into JET, you have to be open to experiences and have a positive spin on things because it’s not always easy and you have to be patient.” He acknowledged that there is not always an immediate connection to the JET experience and future career paths, though one should “trust that your experiences work for the better and make you a stronger person.”

Lowenthal is currently working on a “mockumentary” called “Con Artists”, a behind the scenes look into the convention circuit. You can also catch him as the voice of the “Crawler Splicer” in the “BioShock 2” video game and in upcoming top-secret video games now in production. For more information about Lowenthal’s work, please visit www.YuriLowenthal.com and check out his book at www.voiceovervoiceactor.com for helpful tips about starting a career in the voice-over industry.

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Spotlight on Jason Porath, effects artist at DreamWorks Animation (ALT in Ibaraki-ken, 2006-2007)

By Jessica Tang, JETAASC Career/Networking Coordinator (ALT in Saga Prefecture, 2008-2009)

JETAASC continues the second interview in an Alumni Spotlight Series highlighting the diverse career paths of JETs after returning to Southern California. Jason Porath, a talented visual effects artist at Dreamworks Animation and also current JETAASC Webmaster, reveals a bit of his experience in visual effects and why everyone should go see “How to Train Your Dragon” in theaters now.

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Before setting sail on the JET Program in 2006 to Ibaraki Prefecture, Jason Porath, originally hailing from Kentucky, attended the University of Southern California majoring in Cinema TV Critical Studies. A self-taught effects artist, Porath was even hired to teach video game texturing and modeling at USC after graduation. He worked in visual effects for a few years before going on the JET Program after a teacher in college had encouraged him to go and gain travel experience and utilize the Japanese he had learned at USC.

 

Currently, Porath’s position at DreamWorks Animation, ranked number six on Forbes’ Top 100 List of businesses to work for, was achieved after an intense interview period and years of preparation in the industry. “It took five years of experience before I felt up to par even applying to DreamWorks Animation. In all, it was a nine month process to get in; there were marathon rounds of interviews.” Porath was persistent in keeping in touch with DreamWorks Animation contacts that he knew and after the application process ended, he celebrated his newly gained position by taking a trip to Europe and Japan.

 

In the computer graphics field, Porath explained that the top two specialties are visual effects and animation. “For visual effects, be very careful – the field is volatile and going through intense changes” as he noted that there are many major companies going out of business at the moment. As a visual effects artist, Porath works on anything that is difficult to animate such as natural phenomena (smoke, water, dust). For animation training, Porath recommended programs at Texas A & M, Vancouver Film School, Ringling, Full Sail, and a trade school in Los Angeles called Gnomon.

 

As for tips in getting involved in the visual effects career path, Porath recommended participating in the industry’s online community. “Get a lot of feedback on your work. There are many specialized online communities such as CGtalk.com where there are some good people in the industry who can help.” Porath also recommended using specialized forums for software skill building. Getting knowledge of the industry is also an important step. An interesting event that Porath attended called the “Visual Effects Bake-Off” occurs around Oscar time when nominees pitch why they should receive the Visual Effects Oscar for their work. “It’s a good time to watch big hitters in visual effects and mingle with others in the industry.”

 

Porath’s career has also had noteworthy experiences involving his Japan experience. When working on a movie with a Japanese director, Porath served as a covert interpreter for his supervisors who thought that the director was holding out on them with minimal English instructions while speaking a plethora of Japanese with the producer. Porath’s involvement with Mindshare LA, where he serves as a content advisor and has spoken about Hollywood’s use of visual effects for body censorship, brought him to the set of OK Go’s music video for “This Too Shall Pass.” Porath worked on various sections of the Rube Goldberg contraption that encompasses the entire video (and also appears in the ending group shot).

 

Finally, Porath encourages those wanting to pursue a visual effects career to keep their spirits up. “Don’t get discouraged; get self-motivated. Most people in the industry are self-taught. I know high school dropouts, college dropouts, literature majors, and even ex-NASA rocket scientists in visual effects. Keep at it!”

 

Keep an eye out for Porath’s handiwork on the next Kung Fu Panda movie and in “How to Train Your Dragon” as it is, in his opinion, “the best movie DreamWorks has EVER done.”

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JETAASC Spotlight on Aaron Woolfolk, award-winning filmmaker (ALT in Kochi Prefecture, 1992-1993)

By Jessica Tang, JETAASC Career/Networking Coordinator (ALT in Saga Prefecture, 2008-2009)

 

JETAASC had the privilege of interviewing Aaron Woolfolk, writer and director of “The Harimaya Bridge” debuting in Los Angeles on March 26th at the Laemmle Music Hall 3. A former JET ALT in Kochi Prefecture and current JETAASC alumnus, Woolfolk shared some insight into the makings of his film and also of his career.

 

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1. WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO RETURNING JETS WHO WANT TO PURSUE A FILM CAREER? HOW CAN THEY APPLY THEIR JET EXPERIENCE TO ACHIEVING THAT GOAL?

In regards to storytelling as writers and/or directors, people in the film business are always looking for fresh compelling stories. Even though much of what we see in theaters today are sequels, remakes, and comic book and video game adaptations, when someone comes along with a good story that hasn’t been done before, people flip for it. The JET experience provides such a wealth of good and interesting fresh stories, even after all these years of the program’s existence. A few books have been written by JETs, I’ve made THE HARIMAYA BRIDGE…but still, JETs have barely even scraped the tip of the iceberg in terms of getting our stories out there. There are a lot of novels and memoirs and screenplays yet to be written, I think.

On the business side of things, Hollywood is becoming much more international. Hollywood studios are now making local films for local audiences, including Japanese films for Japanese audiences. And of course, they continue to mine foreign films — especially Japanese films — for remake material. (That’s something I don’t particularly like, but it’s happening.) So I think there is opportunity there for former JETs who want to get into the business side of the entertainment industry.

 

2. DID YOU UTILIZE YOUR JET EXPERIENCE WHEN APPLYING TO FILM SCHOOL?

Yes, because I’d been told that graduate schools — especially creative arts programs — look for people who don’t only have good undergraduate grades and test scores, but who also have interesting life experiences. I figured that living and working in rural Japan certainly applied to that, so I definitely emphasized it in my applications.

 

3. WHAT ARE A FEW GOOD RESOURCES THAT HAVE BEEN HELPFUL TO DEVELOPING YOUR CAREER?

I really relied on my Japan connection to get my career established. So the JET experience was a good resource. I have an article that appears in the most recent JET Journal about maintaining ties with one’s connections in Japan even after leaving JET and returning to one’s home country, and how that can serve a person. That certainly helped me in getting my film school thesis films made, and then in getting THE HARIMAYA BRIDGE made. I never would have accomplished those things without that.

I received a Disney/ABC Talent Development Grant to do early work on THE HARIMAYA BRIDGE, and later I was a Walt Disney Studios/ABC Entertainment Writing Fellow. Those things really helped a lot. Unfortunately, the grant no longer exists, and the writing fellowship is still there but smaller in scope. We’re in a period of retrenchment in the entertainment industry now in which a lot of programs have been cut back or outright eliminated. But there are still resources in Hollywood that help folks get started in their careers.

I got a Challenge Grant from the Aurora Foundation, which is awarded to U.S. citizens residing in California who have a Japan-related project they want to do.

 

4. WHAT ASPECTS OF KOCHI PREFECTURE DID YOU HIGHLIGHT IN THE FILM? DID YOU GO BACK TO THE SCHOOL(S) THAT YOU TAUGHT AT?

I really wanted to capture what it is like to be in the inaka. So many films we see here in the U.S. about Japan are usually set in Tokyo or some other big city. So I wanted to show the rural life, the beauty of the rural landscape and the warmth of rural people. I also emphasized cultural things specific to Kochi that are known throughout Japan, like Yosakoi dancing, Sakamoto Ryoma, and of course the Harimaya Bridge.

We didn’t film in any of the schools I taught in, but we used students from one of the schools I taught in. Logistically it worked best to shoot in a school in a different county from where I was an ALT…though, actually, it was the same school I made one of my short films in years before. However, the students of that school were doing a sports activity that day so they couldn’t be extras for the film. One of the schools we had been considering was a school I had taught in. And the principal of that school was a board of education member who worked with me in the kyoiku jimusho I was based in as a JET. So we ended up using the students from that school in the school we filmed in.

 

5. I READ ON IMDB THAT YOUR TWO SHORT FILMS PRIOR TO “HARIMAYA” ARE MINI-PREQUELS TO THE FEATURE FILM. CAN WE SEE THESE SHORT FILMS ONLINE SOMEWHERE?

Yes, I made the short films EKI (The Station) and KUROI HITSUJI (Black Sheep) as my film school thesis project. They serve as a kind of prologue to THE HARIMAYA BRIDGE, as three of the prominent characters in the feature film are featured in the short films. It is not at all necessary to see the short films before THE HARIMAYA BRIDGE since they are all self-contained stories. But it’s a little fun to see early versions of the characters and the lives they were leading prior to the events of the feature film.

The short films used to be online, but they are not anymore because I took back the rights when my deal with the folks who ran the internet site expired. They will actually be publicly screened by Japan Film Society on March 21st (five days before THE HARIMAYA BRIDGE opens) at the Royal/T Café in Culver City.

For more information about “The Harimaya Bridge” and Los Angeles showtimes, please visit www.theharimayabridge.com/

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