Ozu on Wheels: DP Florian Hoffmeister on Shooting Kogonada’s Half of Pachinko
The pilot of a series is typically its true north, the aesthetic guiding light of all that follows. However, in the new Apple TV+ series Pachinko, two very different director/cinematographer teams have both been given their own creative compass.
Based on the 2017 bestseller, the familial epic unfolds over 70 years, tracing the story of four generations of a Korean immigrant family that settles in Japan following an oppressive occupation.
The season’s eight episodes were split evenly between directors Kogonada (Columbus, After Yang) and Justin Chon (Blue Bayou). The filmmakers shared the same crew, camera, sets, costumes and locations, yet each brings a divergent style—Kogonada the formalist, Chon the naturalist.
With Pachinko now streaming in its entirety, cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister spoke with Filmmaker about the show’s unique visual duality (and the equally unique schedule it fostered), participating in Todd Field’s return to movie making, and how choosing a LUT is like choosing a print stock.
Hoffmeister: Where are you located?
Filmmaker: I’m in Ohio.
Hoffmeister: I know that [region] a little bit. I spent a year in Wisconsin as an exchange student. I’ve also lived in Minneapolis and taken a few motorcycle rides across the country. Ohio is beautiful.
Filmmaker: You were an exchange student in high school?
Hoffmeister: Yeah, when I was 16. It was 1985. I stayed with a couple that didn’t have kids of their own. They hosted one exchange student before me, then I think every year after me for like 15 years they hosted exchange students.
Filmmaker: Was there a difference in the types of movies you had access to in Wisconsin compared to what you were watching in Germany?
Hoffmeister: I grew up in West Germany, so we were always looking towards the United States. I grew up with American culture dominating cinema, for sure. Access wasn’t that different, but the family I stayed with in Wisconsin would go and see a film once a weekend. On Friday night, you go to the movie; on Sunday, you go to church. It was just what they did. Going to the movies with that kind of regularity, that was different.
Filmmaker: On Pachinko, you shot the first block of three episodes, then episode seven. Where did you shoot during your episodes?
Hoffmeister: We shot most of the exteriors in Korea, and some interiors as well but very little—most of the interior sets were built on a backlot in Canada. So, we shot about three months in Korea and about three months in Vancouver.
Filmmaker: How did you split up the scheduling for this show, since it unfolds in multiple timelines that cross-cut during the same episodes?
Hoffmeister: The logistics were unique in many ways. One, of course, was that it was all dominated by COVID. The entire idea of having a schedule to accommodate an individual episode went out the window quite quickly. It was apparent that we had to cater to bigger questions around the entire show, then make everything work within that framework. So, the idea was born that we would have one crew and they would shoot all the time, then we would alternate days between Kogonada and myself and Justin Chon and [cinematographer] Ante Cheng. We would basically take turns. This didn’t happen every week, but there were times when we might shoot on a Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, then on Thursday and Friday [Justin and Ante] would come in and shoot their bits with the same crew. It felt quite interesting because a crew always syncs with the creative team. So, if the crew had a long run with Justin and Ante and then we would come back, the entire energy would be different.
Traditionally, we would set the look with the first block of episodes and the pilot, then the second block would work within those constraints, but Kogonada and Justin are such different filmmakers. For Kogonada, I think form is very much his way of thinking and Justin comes from a background as an actor/director, so he very much gets his energy from the performances. It would’ve been restricting to fall back on the traditional form of serial production, so we all lobbied for a looser approach where they did their own interpretation of the material and we did ours.
Filmmaker: Did you and Kogonada share the same lenses and gear as Justin and Ante?
Hoffmeister: I still did a lot of the long prep since I was shooting the first block and chose the Sony Venice as the show’s camera. We preferred a spherical approach with less distortion visually, but Ante and Justin went another route. They actually had anamorphics with them and differentiated the look more between the timelines, using certain lenses only for certain time strands. Kogonada and I always thought that the first three episodes were not that much about time but rather about space, and that the difference in timeline would be distinguished by the mise en scène, not necessarily by us creating another visual layer onto it.
Filmmaker: I first became aware of Kogonada’s work through his visual essays. Does he present his references in a unique way considering that background?
Hoffmeister: I have to say we actually prepped mostly verbally, but I knew his video essays as well. I had absolutely cherished Kogonada’s piece about neorealism, which I could watch once a day, and also his Ozu montage and his center perspective montage on Stanley Kubrick. I first watched [Kogonada’s debut narrative feature] Columbus when I was made aware that he would be one of the directors of Pachinko. I was introduced to the project through [series creator] Soo Hugh, who I worked with on [the AMC show] The Terror.
When I prep something like this, I try to do a lot of testing and get hands-on quite quickly. On Pachinko, we actually got a camera, a couple lenses and a stand-in right away, went out to the sea for three hours and just shot stuff. So, it was very hands-on from day one. In terms of references, Kogonada always said, “This should be like Ozu on wheels.” I also watched [Kenji] Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff and Ugetsu and Koreeda Hirokazu’s Still Walking and Nobody Knows. But Kogonada very much approaches things also with his own intuition. He wouldn’t open a lookbook and say, “Let’s do it exactly like that.” He thinks within a form, but he wouldn’t copy a form.
Filmmaker: I really need to dive deeper into Japanese cinema one of these days. I haven’t seen either of those Koreeda films.
Hoffmeister: Nobody Knows is an amazing movie about these kids in an apartment and the mother just walks away. She never shows up again and they are left there by themselves. Really interesting film. [Before that] he made a film called After Life where people that die, before they go to heaven, can choose one memory they can keep with them.
Filmmaker: You can’t see them in the frame of this Zoom call, but to my right is a bookshelf with hundreds of Blu-rays. I’ll never make it through them all, but I’ll definitely add those to the pile as well. They sound like films I’d enjoy.
Hoffmeister: Since we finished Pachinko I’ve subscribed to the Criterion Channel and I’ve been watching a lot of Asian cinema. It’s fascinating how some of the sensibility is slightly different. In Asian cinematography the eye of the audience can wander a bit more. They tend to give the audience [more freedom] to decide where to look.
Filmmaker: Is Pachinko’s aspect ratio 2.2:1? That’s an unusual frame.
Hoffmeister: Kogonada had the idea to actually not put the subtitles over the image but rather push the frame upward, almost like a Polaroid, and have a black banner at the bottom for just the subtitles. Hence we developed this aspect ratio of 2.2:1, which felt like a perfect use of the image space. Apple approved it, but I think they felt after a while when they went into postproduction that people would be irritated if the subtitles were in the black so they abolished the system. But that’s where that aspect ratio stems from.
Filmmaker: What lenses did you shoot with?
Hoffmeister: We used Panavision large format lenses called the Panaspeeds. They’re a little bit in the realm of the traditional Primo spherical lenses. They’re beautiful lenses, but also subtle in terms of the bokeh and the distortion toward the edges.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the pachinko parlor location. Is that a build?
Hoffmeister: It is a build that we did in Canada. Within our episodes, the storyline that takes place in Tokyo in the 1980s had very little exterior work. Sometimes you can use the trick where you shoot a [practical] exterior to plant the idea with the audience that this is a real place, then go inside to a stage interior. With the pachinko parlor, we couldn’t really do that. We didn’t have an exterior to establish that feeling of authenticity, so those interiors had to feel really authentic. That meant that I wanted to light it almost in an “available” light approach, meaning only practical lighting with very little film lighting. We had all these LED tubes above the actual aisles of the pachinko machines that established a cooler look, then in the deep background we contrasted that with a warm look at the counter area.
In prep, I tend to develop one LUT almost the same way I’d, in photochemical terms, choose a print stock. We worked with a colorist called Tom Poole. I’d done Antlers with him, the Scott Cooper film. We shot a lot of tests and we looked at some still photography by Burt Glinn. He did a beautiful series of early color photography in Japan in the 1950s, which had a really Ektachromey feel. I looked at Gordon Parks as well, just for the intimacy of his portraiture. I sent Tom those references and he came back with this LUT. I think part of a photochemical feel is achieved by contrast, but also partly by the color curves not all feeling as if they are perfectly shaped. Like, the red might just turn a bit blue in the highlights. Things weren’t perfect in celluloid emulsions and I think Tom’s LUT [replicated those imperfections]. The most important thing for me in terms of the LUT is the contrast ratio. Color is easy to change [in the Digital Intermediate], but changing the contrast will affect the entire image one way or another.
Filmmaker: In the opening credits sequence, where the characters dance in the pachinko parlor, the lighting is quite different.
Hoffmeister: That was directed by Soo Hugh, the showrunner. We shot it over two days and due to actor availability I did a day and Ante did the other day. That looks so different, because we introduced lighting sources into that space because we wanted to break that illusion of authenticity. In a way the actors are outside of their characters in those moments. So, we introduced a soft frontlight feel and also added quite a bit of grain in post. That was absolutely Soo’s baby. The show, apart from the family saga, is very much a conversation between different generations about what it is to be Korean and I think the opening credits reflect that in a playful way.
Filmmaker: Your episodes really push the boundaries in terms of the highlights.
Hoffmeister: Apple is embracing HDR [High Dynamic Range] quite strongly, because all their devices now have HDR compatible displays. All the on-set monitoring was done on Sony HDR monitors. Tom Poole is also quite outspoken about this as well, but I actually don’t really worry about HDR while we shoot. I still have an old spot meter, a Pentax, that I use. I was fortunate enough to actually be trained on film and to get to shoot film for about half of my career. In the world of film, we would always have, no matter how flat your negative was, the same contrast ratio in the projection. Print stock had four [stops] to the top, four to the bottom, period, and you sat in the middle. You could push or pull the processing of your negative, but when it came to projection it was always the same contrast ratio. So I’ve just grown up with this idea of a fixed contrast ratio. So, when I expose, I will take my spot meter, put myself in that sweet spot and see that the highlights are four [stops] above [my key], maybe five max. So, I actually produce quite a narrow negative. Hence, you could almost grade as much in HD as in HDR, because the highlights would almost sit at the same position. It’s just that the HDR image will still have color tint in the highlights and a softer roll off, but I don’t expose for highlights differently when I shoot HDR.
Filmmaker: Which of the dual ISO modes did you use on the Venice?
Hoffmeister: I’m really old school. I think I’m actually getting old. (laughs) I just use it at 500. I’ve shot 500 ASA most of my life, starting with celluloid, and it wasn’t a problem then. So, to me, 500 is fast enough. I shoot between a 2 and 2.8 at 500 ASA and I’ve shot that for literally 20 years now.
Filmmaker: Where did you shoot the fishing pier in the village where young Sunja grows up?
Hoffmeister: That was shot in Vancouver. There’s an actual fishing market that’s now a historic site, a salmon fishing factory. So, it’s a real place. It was quite a complicated set to shoot in, because it was a historical site and highly restricted in terms of where we could put the camera. We couldn’t use atmosphere. People couldn’t smoke. It was just a very, very restricted set.
Filmmaker: How about the office building where Solomon works in the 1980s timeline set in Tokyo?
Hoffmeister: That was a build in Vancouver.
Filmmaker: How did you create the backgrounds we see out of the high rise’s windows?
Hoffmeister: They were photographic backdrops we printed out. For night scenes, we would backlight them and in the day we would frontlight. I also find sometimes that for day scenes when you front and backlight at the same time, you can get a bit of a different variation. I think the key thing in those scenes is not to be too perfect. Whenever I work on a stage I try to weave in subconscious mistakes, because life isn’t perfect. The rest was quite traditional. We had overhead lighting in the office, but we didn’t use LED lighting. We dug out these old Image 80 tubes.
Filmmaker: Kino tubes? I haven’t heard anybody talk about those in a while.
Hoffmeister: Yeah, old Kino Flos. We were also under economic pressure because it was a big build. So, we decided to go old school with Kino Flos.
Filmmaker: When you print out those photographic backgrounds, how do you figure out the appropriate size and how in focus you want them to be?
Hoffmeister: We did test prints, then you guess a little bit. Our problem was that at times the prints were a little too close ]to the set’s windows]. The stage was quite small. Ideally, they would’ve been further away and bigger, but shooting large format helped with that because the falloff is different.
Filmmaker: There’s a night driving scene in episode two that I want to finish up with. The coverage is mainly a pair of two shots, but the foreground actor closest to the camera is in focus and the other actor and the scenery passing by the window are soft. Obviously, the night setting helps sell it, but that scene looks fantastic for stage driving work. Any tricks you can share?
Hoffmeister: Basically we’re sitting there on stage in Canada and using plates that were shot in Japan and sent over to us. Those plates should just feel like an atmosphere. You can’t treat them as if they’re a real thing you’d ever want to see in focus. So, it was clear from the start that it had to be soft focus. I used to shoot ]practical] trailer or process work for car scenes, but it’s just so painful in terms of communication with the actors. It’s so much more concentrated to do it on a stage. I don’t know what to say, I just tried to make it look good. (laughs) I’m pleased that you liked it. I did a film after this, which is going to come out this fall, called TÁR with Todd Field…
Filmmaker: Wait, there’s a new Todd Field movie? [Field’s last directorial effort was 2006’s Little Children.] It’s actually finished?
Hoffmeister: Yeah, yeah. He’s a master at car work. For In the Bedroom they did these back projection scenes in the dark that I still remember. Car work is actually an interesting field. I’ve tried to figure out why [it often looks unrealistic on stage]. You try to expose it as if you’re traveling. So you try to keep the faces dark as it would be naturally, then do the movement of the car, which sometimes is basically somebody with a 2’ x 4’ piece of plywood [jostling the vehicle]. But then even though you do everything right, you still go, “Why does it look like a stage?” If you were shooting with a real lens in a real environment, any highlight that travels away from the camera would change its bokeh. So, the light would go out of focus the further away it gets and the bokeh would change. But when you’re shooting LED screens [that display the background plates outside the windows of the car on stage] and you have the background out of focus, the bokeh never changes. It just occurred to me recently that’s why it doesn’t look right to me. But in that scene you mentioned, [Kaho Minami] is such a fantastic actress that you would have to really mess it up to make people aware that anything else is important but her eyes against the window in that shot.