Cherokee Nation citizen Tim Nagasawa grew up touring Universal Studios every summer as a kid, riding the tram and marveling at the atmosphere of the giant soundstages. He never once imagined one day he would be working on that very lot, but he is. Nagasawa now has credits that include the television series “Ray Donovan,” “The Affair” and “House of Lies.”
Nagasawa was born–and currently lives–in a small community in Southern California. He went to college close to home, studying art at California State University Northridge and later concentrating in cinematography at UCLA. He knew he belonged on a film set from the memories of his younger days and educated himself in hopes of working in the film industry.
To his surprise and self-proclaimed luck, Nagasawa scored his first job out of college at Dreamworks Animation Studio as a production assistant, making copies and doing a handful of duties to support crew members. From there, he began working his way up the ranks. Nagasawa focused his talents on creating the look of films and controlling everything on camera as a director of photography, or DP for short. His work as DP can be seen on season 6 of “Ray Donovan,” a major television show for Showtime.
By practicing, networking and learning, Nagasawa is now at a point in his career where he is making decisions every day that directly affect the look and feel of the movie or television show you watch at home. Before becoming a DP, he spent the majority of his career as a digital imaging technician, acting as a dot connector between the DP and the post-production team. A DIT works closely with the DP as a technician and creative consultant to ensure that the production meets the DP’s creative goals and maximizes digital image quality.
Nagasawa has been a member of the Local 600 International Cinematographers Guild, which promotes solidarity between camera departments to ensure fair wages for workers, for the past 14 years.
As a proud Cherokee filmmaker, Nagasawa understands the importance of Native representation and #MoreNatives blazing their own path in the film industry, which goes hand in hand with CNFO’s mission. No matter where you are or where you come from, this could be you!
CNFO went behind the camera with Nagasawa to talk about how he got to where he is and why he wants more Natives to blaze their own path. Read our Q&A below:
CNFO: How did you get started in the film industry?
Tim: Right out of college, with zero experience and some luck, I was able to get a job at Dreamworks Animation Studio as a production assistant. After about a year of doing everything from refilling copy machines with paper, to singing “Happy Birthday” to major Hollywood actors, I was able to make my way into a job at Amblin Entertainment. (I could see that Universal Studios tram go by from my office window.) Still very “green,” I was exposed to every facet of the film industry, inside and out. Dealing with a wide range of top industry professionals and creatives on a daily basis gave me a solid foundation of how and why films are made. I soaked it all up like a sponge and left Amblin to work on film sets. I bounced around working as an office PA and set PA for many years, only knowing I wanted to be a filmmaker but with no clear path. Being a very technical person with a strong art background, it soon became obvious that I was interested in cinematography. I worked hard, made smart decisions and made the right connections, which lead me to my first camera PA job.
What advice would you give to those looking to get into the film industry?
There is no one way into the film industry. Make your own path by networking, observing and learning. Work on anything you can, big or small. You never know who you might meet. Surprisingly, those early connections you make will last and help you throughout your entire film career. I know everyone says just go out and make movies and practice doing what you want to become, but it really is the best advice. Watching movies and studying the art of filmmaking are very important, but going out and putting that knowledge into practice at any level is what will push you towards bigger and brighter things. You can read a book about riding a bike and watch others ride a bike, but that doesn’t mean you know how to ride a bike until you go out and practice. Go get your hands dirty, make mistakes and learn from them, and always have the confidence to stand by your work. Mental toughness.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in your career?
Be prepared for anything and stay calm. Make sure to always be a problem solver and not part of the problem. As filmmakers, we are all just solving a big puzzle. Every day we solve a bit, have lunch, solve a bit more, then go home until the puzzle is finished. Some days are harder than others, but the more you prepare the easier the puzzle will get. Endless amounts of information is out there about anything; go find it and prepare for everything.
What’s your career highlight?
I definitely have worked on some very challenging movies that I am very proud of, but I would say most recently working as a director of photography was a major milestone of my career. As a young film loader and camera assistant, I remember working with some very well-respected DPs and thinking, how am I ever going to get to that point? WILL I ever get to that point in my career? Also, a major turning point in my career was when digital cinema took over and the whole digital revolution began. I was in the right place at the right time and quickly adapted. I used my technical background along with my art and camera knowledge and dove right in.
What is your highest career goal?
After I have exhausted all creativity and taken my filmmaking career as far as I can take it, I plan on spending my later years teaching some sort of filmmaking course at the university level. But before I get to that point, I feel like I have a very diverse set of skills and experience that would allow me to do well as a studio executive or even a studio head. We’ll see; anything can happen.
What is your vision for Native people in the film industry?
The most obvious answer with the hardest solution is the inappropriate and inaccurate image and portrayal of Native Americans across all media outlets. We have such a unique and culturally rich voice that most of the industry has been completely blind to. Racial, socioeconomic and gender inequality is an issue that the entertainment industry has been involved in from the beginning. Now more than ever there is the opportunity for more Native Americans to not only be accepted as filmmakers, but also have the desire to become a filmmaker. I want to be able to walk on to a new set or attend a film festival and see other Native filmmakers confidently blazing their own path. Take advantage of “intellectual currency,” learn and teach, promote yourself, and promote others.
Check out more of Tim Nagasawa’s work on his IMDB page. It’s impressive!
Inspired to be in the industry? There’s a place for everyone–all genders, ages and skill levels. You belong, and we’re here to help you get your start. Check out a list of film industry jobs and where you fit in, just click HERE.
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