So much of life is about perspective. The way which we view the situation we find ourselves in, the circumstances that surround us, even the interpretation of this by others…all of these things factor into how happy or fulfilled we are at any point in our lives. The 2015 film Shun depicts these factors in the story of two chefs who happen to be father and son. As cinematographer for Shun, Avner Mayer is in charge of so many points of perspective that it’s practically dizzying. Mayer helps the audience (that’s perspective #1) to see things the way that the son (perspective #2) and father (that’s #3) do, by using his (#4) exemplary skills to communicate director/writer Shiyun (Lavi) Hu’s (#5) story. While many might see the cinematographer’s role as sitting at the camera and making sure the action is in focus, they fail to understand the depth of planning and all-seeing overlook of professionals like Mayer. Great cinematographers not only capture the action during filming but they become the eyes of both the production and the audience, coloring the emotional content to heighten what every other aspect of film creation has done, breathing life into the corporal vessel that is film. If that sounds hyperbolic to you, you don’t have experience in the film industry. A smart director understands that a cinematographer will lift a film to new heights or send it all crashing down in spite of its other redeeming qualities. Shun’s director has worked with Avner successfully on two films (the films Beyond and On The River) and it was due to his ability to cultivate depth in a film that she contacted him to be the DP for this production.
Shun is a very emotional movie for a number of reasons. It deals with a conflict between family, work, and self. Kazuki is a fifty-year-old Sushi sous chef and the right hand of his father (Yoshi) in the high-end grip sushi restaurant “Hasimoto”. Kazuki has worked under his father for the past 30 years but they have very different ideologies regarding food and life. Yoshi runs his restaurant with a strict, traditional, and almost sterile approach. He treats his food like a piece of art and believes others should do the same. For Kazuki food is a way to a man’s heart and soul, a tool to connect to people’s emotions. When Yoshi falls ill, he decides to pass the control of the restaurant to his son. Kazuki finds himself trapped between the need to continue his father’s heritage and in his own wishes. The deceptively simple storyline introduces many difficult emotional ideas. Dealing with the ailments and aging of one’s parents, the desire to find your own path in life and career while also desiring the approval of your parents; these are difficulties that many of us can relate to regardless of our country of origin or vocation. The universality of the theme allows everyone to access the filmmaker’s frame of reference but it was Mayer’s role to make it interesting for the audience. It’s obvious that this goal was well attained with Shun as it was an official film selection for such festivals as: Salento international Film festival (2016, Italy), Montreal World Film Festival (2016, Canada), the Toronto Reel Asian international film festival (2016, Canada), and as a finalist in the “Vizio” and “Dolby Vision” Filmmakers Challenge – Cinematography awards – 2016.
The differences between father and son in Shun establish the conflict that Kazuki (and we suspect Yoshi as well) must deal with throughout the film. Kazuki and Yoshi have drastically different approaches and opinions towards food and the process of creating it. Yoshi has an almost surgical, scientific approach to food making. He runs his kitchen like a Swiss clock factory. The work must be done in a precise predetermined order. Improvisation is not allowed. Yoshi’s connection to food is different. Preparing food is instinctual to him, full of flavor and improvisation. For Yoshi, food is a process of connecting with other human beings rather than a planned and organized ritual. To highlight this, Avner explains, “In order to show the differences between the father and son, we used our lights to create different energy. The lighting is clear, blue and bright when Yoshi runs the kitchen. It has an almost ambient/office feeling. When Kazuki is in charge, the lighting changes to a dimmed yellow-red environment. This creates a much more comfortable and inviting atmosphere; like being at home.”
Mayer also customized the lighting for the lighting for the restaurant location in Shun. The choice to create the restaurant on set rather than a preexisting location gave the production the availability to take the time and movement needed for their shots. Avner chose to use ambient studio lighting from above to again capitalize on the freedom of movement during filming. He notes, “The general approach to the lighting was high key and natural. We didn’t want the movie to feel lit but we still wanted to establish a high key ambience. In order to create this effect, we rigged big top light sources to create a soft, natural light. We aimed for a natural Japanese look and I feel we were very successful in achieving the proper look and feel. Camera wise, we wanted to be patient and static. We decided to tell the story mostly using the blocking and editing (different camera positions) and to keep it as simple as possible. This is the way the characters in Shun see the world so we adopted this approach in telling their story.”
While you can see a great deal of Mayer’s talent and skill as a cinematographer when viewing Shun, you won’t see the largest part of it. Director Shiyun (Lavi) Hu declares, “Avner is very precise in his planning. This was a great benefit to Shun since we shot almost everything in a studio, which limited our shots selection. Avner’s preparation work with our Production Designer allowed us to maximize the space to our need’s, using lighting built into the design and creating moveable set walls for extra flexibility. I had the pleasure to collaborate with Avner as my cinematographer on previous projects. At this point we have a blind understanding of each other, which makes the filmmaking process fast and efficient.” Shun’s producer, Cedric Gamelin, states, “Usually when you shoot a movie, you have surprises in every step. In this project the process was the smoothest I have ever encountered, I must say that Avner and the team’s preparation work made it seem easy. Avner did all of that without jeopardizing the images, which were magnificent! I’m very proud to be a part of the team who created Shun.” Avner Mayer is happy to be a cinematographer that is appreciated and respected among his peers in the film industry, whether it be for his work on set or the planning of it. He relates, “Since I discovered in my early twenties that I wanted to be a part of filmmaking, to arouse that same excitement that I felt sitting in a theater…I’ve always been excited about all the parts of the process. I feel that the key for a successful project usually lays in the preparation work. It requires a lot of communication between all the key groups involved in order to be synched on one vision. When everybody is synched like that, the set can be a big celebration…and who doesn’t want to be a part of a big celebration!”