By Carl Wakamoto
There is one company in the industry that has been like family to Tak Miyagishima for half a century. It is where he has made bridges globally with his wisdom and expertise. Tak is the Senior Vice President of Engineering at Panavision, and he is not a stranger to folks in the motion picture industry -- nor is he a stranger to receiving some of its most highly coveted awards. The day before this interview in March, he had met with Chinese cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding, a 2005 Academy Award nominee for best cinematography, featured in the film House of Flying Daggers. A few months earlier, Miyagashima had been voted an Oscar, the Gordon E. Sawyer Award, by the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The Oscar was later presented to Tak at the Scientific and Technical Awards Dinner on February 12, 2005. The Academy states that this Oscar is presented to an individual in the motion picture industry whose technological contributions have brought credit to the industry.
We've asked Tak to put his modesty aside, and to tell us about the numerous other awards he has received. We'll also hear from Tak about the notable people he's met in the industry, and about how his job took him to a place in China that no Americans had been to before. All of this and more, plus a closer look at that Oscar -- if you watch our exclusive interview. And that's a promise.
In summation, Tak is a true visionary constantly working toward perfecting his art. He has been a great example for design engineers and others who are behind the scenes in the making of some of the world's greatest motion pictures. We all cherish Academy award-winning movies like Lawrence of Arabia, and the contributions that Tak and Panavision made to their success. Miyagishima is the only Asian American to receive an Oscar in 2005, yet he exhibits all the traits of a global citizen with a legacy that inspires us all. In this much-anticipated interview with APA, he introduces his friend Oscar and shares that legacy with us.
Interview with Takuo Miyagishima
March 2, 2005
Interviewed by Carl Wakamoto
Transcription by Brian Yang
Click here to see the video interview using Windows Media Player.
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APA: Putting modesty to the side, I'd say you're quite a bit of an inspirational force for a lot of people today.
Takuo Miyagishima: Well...hopefully, you know, I look back and...well, as one of my sons said, "Dad you've been around so long they had to give you something." But, I've been fortunate, I've been blessed. I received the Fuji Gold Medal Award. You know, I received the John Bonner...John A. Bonner Medal of Commendation Award. The President's Award from the ASC. And finally this Oscar.
APA: Could you tell us a little about your friend Oscar here?
TM: Well, the Oscar is quite heavy -- as a matter of fact. And I try to keep it polished every day. But without the people from Panavision, I would never have this Oscar in my hand. So here's to everybody at Panavision that's given me this opportunity to get this.
APA: And under your leadership, Panavision received two Oscars, prior [to this one]
TM: Well, yeah, I say under my leadership, meaning I was head of the engineering staff at the time. We've never had a big staff. We've always worked hard. We did get an Oscar for the Panaflex Camera, which is the first silent -- what I call really silent hand held-able camera. And then we got an Oscar for the Anamorphic System that I was involved in all 50 years, basically.
APA: This is the first time you've personally received the Oscar, correct?
TM: Right. This is my first Oscar. Yeah, I've received an Emmy as well, but...this my first Oscar.
APA: Now, this year when you received the Oscar -- who was the presenter?
TM: Well, it was Scarlett Johansson, and she was in Lost in Translation, and she was in The Horse Whisperer as well. And the one I remember her in...Girl with a Pearl Earring. Which I thought she did great in. She's a beautiful girl.
APA: Yes. And you mentioned that she mispronounced your name?
TM: Well, she...she sort of a...in other words, she would have...She did a good job of it, really. It was a...I think it was Salma Hayek that mispronounced my name.
APA: I see. So it didn't get lost in translation?
TM: [Laughs] No, it didn't get lost in translation. It sort of took a long time. She just read out, MI-YA-GA-SHI-MA, rather than saying it all at once, you know.
APA: And what's your fondest memory of this occasion -- in the event that you received the Oscar at?
TM: Well...I think I said it in the...I was notified two months prior to it. In December they notified -- I was going to get this award. But, I never believed that I would, until I was called up on stage and handed this Oscar. It was all a dream -- been in a stupor for basically, two months.
On being a Global Citizen...
TM: I hope that I've been able to create something for the whole world to enjoy. I've always dreamed of making...building bridges and roads, you know, as we know it. But a...I still don't regret that I never had that opportunity. I think I built...I was able to contribute in building bridges for a...let's say the -- the citizens of the world to cross -- to get over to...to be entertained, and forget your sorrows. Even for a couple of hours. So in that sense, I think I built my own road.
APA: So you would say that you've in essence, a global citizen?
TM: I hope I would be taught that way. You know, people...the entire world sees my work of art or work of what I've done, even though it might be a small part.
Where he was born, and about his unique Asian American experience...
TM: I was born in Gardena in 1928. And raised till about six years old in Long Beach, and then from there we moved to Terminal Island -- in a way, attended the grammar school there on the island. And after that, we attended Richard Henry Dana Junior High School in San Pedro. And then when the war broke out, we moved to Utah.
APA: I see. And you mentioned something interesting that there was one minority at your high school.
TM: Well, this is in grammar school, basically.
APA: Grammar school.
TM: In grammar school, the school consisted of six grades, but we only had one minority -- she happened to be White. She came from a family of a Russian immigrant, and she was the only white face that was in our school. Consequently, at school I should say, the only English spoken there was when the teachers were speaking to us. And after I got older I was thinking, that maybe you know, English was being taught to us as a second language, but it never dawned on me -- it wasn't our first.
APA: And how was this student accepted in your grammar school days?
TM: Well, she was one of us, basically. No difference, you know, she lived in the neighborhood -- played with everybody. So acceptance was great. That's what I thought, we didn't have any feelings of integration or anything of that nature -- never gave it any mind to it.
APA: Would you say, as being a Nisei or second-generation Japanese American, that you have a closeness or fondness for your land of your heritage -- Japan?
TM: I tend to think so -- you know, my mother lived until she was 90...94. So a...she just passed away, not too many years ago -- so, until then, you know, the only time...when I speak to her -- I was speaking to her in Japanese, never in English. She never learned to speak English. And my dad never learned to speak English. He came as an immigrant, and he never returned to Japan. So, the fondness of Japan has always been there.
APA: Did you come from a large family?
TM: No, basically I…it was a really small family -- had a brother and two sisters. But they were raised in Japan, and I was the only one raised here.
APA: So they were Kibei Nisei.
TM: Right, you would consider that.
APA: And being that you spoke in Japanese with your mom, would you say that the comprehension is good or your speaking ability is good in Japanese?
TM: Well, the only problem is the technical terms I think I get away with speaking Japanese but there are some old -- you learned the way your mother speaks or your parents speak -- those were the old Japanese, you know, it's not the modern way. They were all dialects. So the language you learn is just the dialect of where they came from.
APA: I see. And where did your ancestors come from?
TM: My dad and mom came -- both came from Shizuoka. Shizuoka-ken. My dad came from a place called Shimizushi Miho. That's where the…I guess it's the famous, Nihon No...what they would call Matsubata. And on one visit, I thought, well, I'd better get out there and see where he was born -- the area he was born. So one Sunday , I had some time off and we took a trip -- visited the Nihon No Matsubata. Which was great I thought, you know.
APA: You mentioned that you moved to Utah during World War II.
TM: Yes, when we came from Terminal Island…my dad got interned, my brother was in the U.S. Army, and consequently we had some relatives in Utah, so we moved there. So I went to a high school in Utah. I went to Davis High School -- graduated there. And then, as soon as the opportunity came, we moved back to the Los Angeles area.
APA: I see. And you mentioned that your brother served in the U.S. Army during World War II. Was he with the Military Intelligence Service?
TM: No. He was drafted about 1930…was 19…I think it was '41, before the war. So consequently he didn't go. He was not the interpreter, you know, that division.
APA: I see. Was he with an all-Japanese American Unit?
TM: No. He was…no, he was basically…in the hospital corps. I think that's where he was.
APA: And having gone to a high school in Utah, you didn't experience internment?
TM: No. Because we had relatives in Utah, we went there and whereas all my other friends that didn't have any place to go or to any relatives outside of California, they all went to internment. But we went to Utah and spent our war years there.
APA: Do you have a lot of fond memories of the place?
TM: Oh yeah. I still have old friends from there. I try to visit it every once in a while just to see, but it's not like going back -- it's difficult to go back any place. Everything has changed, you know, it used to be a farm land and now when I go back there are no farms to be seen. It's all been filled up with homes.
APA: Now your first introduction to Panavision was about 50 years ago?
TM: Correct. I started with Panavision and basically my first job was there in 1954. And I'm still hanging around and they still let me come in. And I enjoy meeting the people and spending time on the phone and doing other things.
APA: What is your current title at Panavision?
TM: Well, my current title is not what I do. Basically, it's titled Senior Vice President of Engineering. But I've sort of given up that now for quite a while and all I do is to talk to people on the outside. If they have the problem, I would look at the problem -- try to give wisdom.
APA: So you're like an advisor.
TM: In essence, that's what it is -- advising people. Yes.
APA: Do you know the word for ‘advisor' or ‘consultant' in Japanese?
TM: No, I don't.
APA: It's "Komon."
APA: Yes. So you could say you have good Komon sense.
TM: [Laughing] Well, ok. I'll remember that, ok.
APA: When you began at Panavision, you began as an engineer, or you've mentioned that you learned while you worked.
TM: Basically, I…they wanted, when I first got hired, they wanted somebody to do their drawing and their engineering, you know, of the equipment that they were building. So from there, as things progressed, I learned on the job and I went to school for a while and the only regret I have is that I did not have a degree. So you could say I did learn on the job.
APA: But you do have a lot of wisdom.
TM: Well, that comes with age, I believe. Wisdom comes with age. There are things that you pick up along the way. You make great friends, you meet great people. So this industry has given me the opportunity to meet with people from all over the world and I know people in England, Japan, China…I mean, no matter where the movie industry is. It's such a small industry.
APA: You would classify the movie industry, of course, as “Arts and Entertainment.”
TM: Well, yes, the movie industry is worldwide, basically. It's 35 millimeters of world standards. So the movie industry -- it goes by the roots of 100 years of history. But as the digital age comes along, things change. There are gonna be different technologies and you're gonna be working...or keep up with it or you're gonna get left behind. And at my age, I'm sort of at that stage where it's getting more difficult to learn -- put it that way.
APA: But you have a lot of professional experience.
TM: Well, right. The experience, I believe, counts. And that, you always have to deal with people, and that's where the experience comes in.
APA: Would you say that you've been, basically, fulfilling the capacity of the mentor for a lot of the young people who are working today?
TM: I, hopefully, that's what I could keep on saying to myself -- that I've been helping out people. You know, there's a question raised and I would answer it.
TM: How long is it from Hong Kong, which I've visited few times as well. It was then when I visited to China. One leg of the trip, we were the…basically we were so far in the west end of China that we were just the first Americans there. I say ‘American' for myself and my co-worker. They had…they said that they had some Canadians, and they had some Japanese there. But we were the first Americans. So you could just about imagine how far west it was and it wasn't that long ago as 20 years ago. A little bit over 20 years ago when we visited. But, yeah.
APA: You must've felt, so to speak, like Marco Polo.
TM: Well, when we, I remember, we told the plant…we visited the plant that was manufacturing optical equipment, film equipment as well. We said that we wanted to visit the village during lunch. And the foreman there or the manager there said that, “No, I better go with you.” It was a good thing he did because we were like the monkeys in the zoo, you know. We were the main attraction so we must've had hundreds of kids milling around us. So as you say, maybe we were the Marco Polos of that time.
APA: Are you familiar with the movie industry in China currently?
TM: Well, I say familiar with it. I know of it. I visited their studio about three times. The last visit was in December of last year, which was December '04. And we spent two, three days in Beijing, one day in Hong Kong and visited with people there. And then we spent about three, four days in Japan.
APA: I see. Did you ever meet Akira Kurosawa?
TM: I…no, I did not have the opportunity to meet him. That's one of my regrets. I met Mifune -- Toshira Mifune. He came over to Japan. And the others…Mr. Kozo Okazaki. He shot Yakuza and he did a lot of work. He was the first DP that used Panavision in Japan on a movie called Gorilla King. And I think it might've been produced out of Toho Studios. He just passed away this year. And he was the oldest working cinematographer. I think he was about 86 years old. He started when he was…he started in 1940, I believe, as a cinematographer.
APA: Before the war.
TM: So he started awful young, so I could've imagined. Then I got to know Mr. Shinoda. He happened to pass away…he passed away this year as well. This year he won the cinematography award for…in Bosamus, but he did win the award. And I had the occasion to meet Mr. Takaba. He's the one that shot all the Otoku wa tsurai wa series.
APA: I see.
TM: So it's interesting to meet all these people.
APA: So you've met quite a few Asian-American cinematographers.
TM: Well, the ones…I meet the ones that come to Panavision in essence. One regret is that they were shooting in the one in Canada. If you recall, the war scenes of the…where they got the horses and everything else…they were all in Canada. I wanted to visit there, which I never did. But then I did, when I was in Japan, I did attend the premiere in Japan. So that was good. I met the stars there at that time.
APA: Did you say that you met the late Sessue Hayakawa?
TM: I met him on the set once at the…he was shooting Green Mansions, which was one of the first movies that used our anamorphic system. He shot out of a…the shooting took place onstage at MGM at that time, which is now the Sony Studios now. But at that time he was with MGM. He was there with Audrey Hepburn.
APA: I see. What was your impression of Sessue Hayakawa?
TM: Well, I saw some of his work, which I loved, you know. I guess he was the gentleman of his own rights. I never did really get to know him that well.
First Big Pictures using Panavision…
TM: The first big picture was naturally Ben Hur…it was one of the big ones.
APA: Ben Hur starring Charleston Heston.
TM: Right. And prior to that, that system was used on the movie called Raintree County, with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Cliff. That's the story involved with Montgomery Cliff when they were shooting Raintree County, which was the first picture when we furnished the lenses. And I was the only one that was making all the drawings. We were late on delivery on some lenses. They were shooting and we were still delivering equipment to them.
TM: When Montgomery Cliff goes to a party, on the way back, he crashes his car and breaks his collar bone. I think that's what it was. Anyway, the picture got postponed. And that's what saved Panavision and that's why Panavision is still here. Otherwise, MGM might've been suing us for being late on their lenses.
APA: So this was a twist of fate…
TM: Right, right. Otherwise, if that didn't happen, Panavision might not be here today.
APA: So would you say that Panavision is pretty much a blessed company?
TM: Well, I believe so. There's not very many companies that last for 50 years. One of the things that Panavision has is like a family. We've had people here with over 30 years of experience. Or 30 years of being employed and I'm going on 50. I just passed my 50th. But Panavision has been like family.
APA: Would you equate your art and craft as being somewhat like a swordsmith making a sword for a samurai?
TM: Well, what we do is, in other words, like for instance, you would come to us and say, “Ok. I want to use your equipment. But I like to do a certain shot.” Or you want a certain equipment to do this certain…to shoot it in a certain way. So I would equate that as Panavision working with the cinematographer or working with the people who actually use the equipment. A case can be Lawrence of Arabia -- the famous mirage scene as Birotu rides in from the desert. I remember Freddy Young coming to Panavision before his shoot. Freddy Young, the famous cinematographer. He said, “I'd like to have a long lens to do a certain shot. So what we did was we scraped up that lens and found him the lens and built it for him. Consequently, I think that's the only shot that was ever used…that lens that was ever used on.
APA: So it was specifically tailor-made for that.
TM: For his particular shot, which is still famous as it is.
APA: So in essence, you are like a sort of swordsmith.
APA: I noticed the portrait of Anna May Wong in your gallery.
APA: Could you tell me a little bit about that?
TM: Well, the one that produced it or one that shot it was a fellow named George Morell. He was a portrait photographer for the studios. As the studios, let's say, started to get smaller, they did this way with the portrait photographers as well. He had those things he did, he had them blown up and that's how we managed to get a hold of it. He's a really famous portrait photographer. But I've certainly been blessed. I had the right people, I guess, as you'll recall.
APA: You've met all of the current famous directors and cinematographers in the industry today?
TM: Well, the business we're in, we've met a lot of the famous cinematographers; like Bob Bridgetson I've known for a while. As a matter of fact, yesterday, I had the cinematographer who did the House of Flying Daggers…
TM: ...from China. He visited us yesterday. Caleb Dashnel -- I've known him for a long time. He's the one that did Passion of the Christ and Black Stallion. So…
APA: The cinematographer from China. Did he speak through an interpreter or did he speak English?
TM: No, he had an interpreter with him. As a matter of fact, when we were in Hong Kong in December, we had dinner with…I had dinner with Peter Pao who did Crouching Tiger. I've known him for a while. Then we had…along with him was Arthur Wang, who was the new DP -- when I say the new DP, I mean that I met him for the first time. But he just finished Ultraviolet in Shanghai. So, I mean, you get to meet these international DP's, which is good. So it's been a long, good, good run. It's an industry that...
APA: On your desk, there's a picture of you and some of the executives of Sony Corporation.
TM: Right. There's a picture of myself with Mr. Idei and Mr. Yamakawa. Mr. Yamakawa. He was the director -- one of the directors of Sony. I met him previously when they were in the NAB that year; they had me come around to our booth and my pictures taken with him. Since then, I met Mr. Idei in Japan…a short meeting with him.
APA: A fine gentleman.
TM: Real, fine gentleman. There's our association with Sony…goes back over 20 years -- basically, when we started out.
APA: Among the pictures that are on this where you're receiving the Oscar, could you touch one of them and show us?
TM: This was taken -- this one is taken at this high-tech awards. And this is where the awards are given on the set on a different night, different evening. My award was the Gordon E. Sawyer Award, which is given in essence as a Lifetime Achievement. And hopefully, I guess, people thought that I did achieve something.
APA: I see. And when you achieved this or received this award, you said you had advance notice.
TM: We were notified in…I was notified in December when Frank Pierce, the President of the Academy, called me up and said that, “Tak, you've been voted to accept the Gordon E. Sawyer Award.” And I said, “No, that can't be true.”
APA: Are you sitting among colleagues in the industry that also received Oscars?
TM: This was all this high-tech award committee...right, so the high-tech committees, the one that I received was a technical awards of merit, which is the Oscar. Luna Crane received one. And there is a certificate in the plaque. They're all given on a separate evening at the Academy. Then what happens is that…this is the first time, I guess, that at the Oscars, they were broadcasted…the awards were given, were broadcasted. So that was quite an experience to be shown live on TV.
APA: That's great. Well, Tak, thank you very much for this interview. The people at UCLA really appreciate this.
TM: Well, I hope, let's say, I provided some sort of path for the up-and-coming engineers. So this is to all the engineers in the movie industry -- something to look forward to.