DoP Mari Yamamura on Film Forward and mentoring support

Mari, a Japanese cinematographer based in the UK, is one of the candidates selected for ScreenSkills new initiative, Film Forward, designed to create change in the UK film industry by supporting experienced Black, Asian or minority ethnic professionals to advance into more senior roles by matching them with suitable film productions. 

“I’m very excited to have an opportunity to shadow a DoP to observe and soak up how it all works on a bigger-scale feature film production,” Mari says. 

Mari started as a camera trainee and worked her way up in the camera department but along the way, “ScreenSkills has supported me in various ways at key stages in my career to progress in the path,” she says.

After graduating from Film and Photographic Arts – Film Pathway at University of Westminster, she got a role as a continuity on a short film shoot, where she met Peter Thornton, the DoP on the short film.  She asked him if she could come along to his next project - an episode of a TV drama, Mind to Kill - and he agreed. 

With only a DoP and a focus puller in the camera department on the production and tricky conditions, another pair of hands proved useful.She worked for a week, cabling, setting up monitors and carrying everything by hand as there was no flat floors in a muddy rainy forest in Wales, before they offered her a job as a camera trainee on the series.

And when the focus puller was promoted to be a camera operator, he trained her to be his focus puller for the rest of the year-long shoot.  “It was an ideal form of training because the production was aware that I was new so they gave me space and time to train as a focus puller,” Mari says. Kevin Rudge, who trained her, was her first mentor and became a friend to this day. 

Following on from Mind to Kill, Mari went on to focus pull for other TV dramas.  Most TV dramas at that time were filmed on video cameras but some were shot on super 16mm film and commercials were often filmed on super 35mm film.  Mari started loading on film as a 2nd AC (assistant camera), while carrying on focus pulling as a 1st AC on video projects.  After four or five years, she stopped loading altogether and concentrated on focus pulling on both video and film.  During this time, Mari was awarded a bursary by ScreenSkills, then known a Creative Skillset, to take a 35mm film familiarisation course to give her confidence in working on bigger film projects. 

Mari continued to focus pull for 13 years, mainly on TV dramas and commercials, Doctor Who, Torchwood, Dracula, Nike, IKEA, Chemical Brothers to name a few - yet she never intended to be a career focus puller and always had an aspiration to light. Between jobs, she would take up lighting courses organised by bodies such as ARRI Lighting Academy and the National Film and Television School to learn lighting more methodically. Again, a ScreenSkills bursary made this possible. 

By this time, digital cinema cameras started to emerge.  She recalls: “I wanted to understand more about how the digital sensor worked, Codec, Log, monitoring, bit depth and so on, but you ask the same question to key industry people, you would get different answers. It was new to everyone and it seemed that not everybody understood everything about it. I felt I really needed to get to the bottom of it myself in order to work better with this new medium.” She decided to take time off to study this new technology and turned down focus pulling jobs in order to give herself time to start lighting. 

During her research, she realised that, when shooting digital, capture is only half the story, and how important it is for a DoP to know what happens to the rushes in post.  This led her to training through ScreenSkills on the colour grading software, DaVinci Resolve, and ACES (The Academy of Color Encoding System) - the industry standard created for colour management.  Mari continues to learn more about the grading process as technology advances, taking every opportunity to attend grading sessions.

After shooting corporate videos, music videos and short films for a few years, Mari shot her first feature Kësulat (now its new cut version distributed as Fields of War) in Kosovo for her long-term collaborator, Alan M Trow BSC, on his directorial debut, and started getting blocks on continuing dramas such as Doctors and River City as a DoP.  She also joined HETV Link – ScreenSkills’ networking and training scheme for regional heads of department in high-end TV dramas which eventually led her to get an agent. 

During the lockdown, Mari applied for the new ScreenSkills mentoring scheme for cinematographers in association with the British Society of Cinematographers and the Association of Camera Operators – the brainchild of James Friend BSC, who appreciated the value of mentoring in his journey and wanted to give back to the industry.  Mari says the scheme raised her spirits during what was an uncertain time. 

“I was thrilled to be accepted.  BSC mentoring has given me a new insight as a DoP in a way that I didn’t expect.  It has been very inspiring to hear the story of - and to receive advice and suggestions from - someone who has done the journey before in much more detail than any network event or a masterclass would be able to.  My mentor, Felix Wiedemann BSC, has spurred me to see and try things differently and show me how to approach a project from an honest place.”

Mari originally aimed to be a painter.  She studied a foundation course in art and design prior to studying film, receiving a distinction, and regards that training as fundamental to what she now wants to do.  Looking back, Mari says: “I was happy to take the long route coming through the ranks because it allowed me to observe works of distinguished DoPs in the field.  I now eager to go back to my roots as an artist and focus on improving my skills as a visual story-teller.

“When I started out, feature film and TV drama were two separate communities and I didn’t have many opportunities to work on feature films. This is why I am particularly pleased to be accepted on the Film Forward programme.  I am excited to see what it may bring to the next stage of my career.”

Films participating in the programme receive support including a subsidy towards a placement for the Film Forward candidate. The programme is intended to extend the network of talent known to those with hiring responsibilities on the production.