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.