A man behind a camera on a filming set
Kunitaro Ohi discovered his talent and love for filmmaking at VCU. (Contributed photo)

Kunitaro Ohi creates 'pure poetry' with the camera

VCUarts grad used down time during the pandemic to expand his repertoire by co-writing and co-producing his first script.

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Like most freelance artists, cinematographer Kunitaro Ohi doesn’t always get the types of jobs that he hopes for.

So, during the COVID-19 lockdown, Ohi and his directing partner, Steven Wesley Miller, decided they would use the ensuing free time to create their ideal project.

“I'm a cameraman by trade, but recently I've started venturing into things that are really not my territory,” Ohi said. “I've been definitely dipping my toes in areas that I shouldn’t belong, so I started writing.”

That writing project turned into the script for this year’s “Always Together,” which went on to win Best U.S. Narrative Short at the Sarasota Film Festival.

“It might not necessarily be to a lot of people's liking, but at least we're being honest with ourselves in an artistic capacity,” said Ohi, who graduated from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in 2007. “Because nobody's going to really write that project for us. So we ended up having to write it ourselves. Nobody was really going to help get this movie off the ground, so we ended up producing it by ourselves. Even though we had invaluable help from other producers, we're pretty much the ones that lit the fuse and made the machine move on its own.”

‘It all comes together as pure poetry’

Born in Tokyo, Ohi moved to the United States in 1991, living in Hawaii and Oregon before his family settled in the Washington, D.C., area a year later.

He always liked the fine arts and knew he wanted to pursue a career in art. He just didn’t know what it would be.

A man sitting to the left of a woman. The man is in a chair and the woman is sitting on a couch
A scene from Kunitaro Ohi's “Always Together,” which won Best U.S. Narrative Short at the Sarasota Film Festival in 2022. (Contributed photo)

“I like drawing, and I was pretty good at it in middle school and high school,” he said. When he came to VCUarts in 2003, “I thought for a second I was going to be a fine arts major. I was going to be a sculptor.”

But then he took some photography classes and dabbled in video art. He found photography and film easier and more fulfilling than trying to paint something for three months and failing at it.

“It sounds kind of lazy,” he said, “but I really like the gratification of taking a photo or shooting some kind of video and then you have something immediately in front of your eyes.”

And Ohi has a natural gift for it, said Sonali Gulati, a professor in the VCU Department of Photography + Film.

“I think mainly it's the culmination of three things,” she said. “First, there is a way that Kuni [Ohi] sees and imagines light in a scene that just blows one away. Secondly, he thinks about how he frames the subjects while keeping in mind the emotional weight of the story, like whether we need to see two characters together at a certain moment or alone, etc. Lastly, I love how Kuni thinks about camera movement by asking the question of: When is camera movement necessary?

“It all comes together as pure poetry in the end.”

Gulati cites a car crash scene Ohi shot with classmate Matt West. It looked so realistic it shocked the class, she said. They all wanted to know how it was done and Ohi explained they filmed the cars backing away from each other, and edited it by speeding up and reversing the footage, eventually making it look like the two cars collided.

“It was one of those moments where one sees the strength of what students bring to the classroom and the peer-to-peer learning experience,” she said.

It’s no surprise that to this day — 15 years after graduating from VCU — Ohi still collaborates with former classmates on film projects, Gulati said.

Ohi and fellow VCU Photo + Film alum West have worked together on more projects than West could count. Working together professionally was a continuation from their time at VCU, he said. Their collaborations have included independent features, short films, music videos and countless commercials.

“Whenever I direct, Kuni is always my first choice as cinematographer,” said West, who owns Mad Box Made, a full-service production company, where he serves primarily as a director and colorist. “We have known each other so long that we have sort of a shorthand with each other. However, it never feels stale. … We are able to push each other and bounce new ideas and approaches off each other. There are also countless projects that Kuni films and I act as colorist. This is also a lot of fun because it’s sort of a reversal where I’m tasked with seeing his vision through.”

Kunitaro Ohi shot the film, Samba Diop’s “The Game,” mostly in Leesburg, Virginia, and Charleston, West Virginia.

Luxury of being picky about career

Coming from Washington, D.C., Ohi liked the comparatively small-town feel of Richmond and its relaxed, progressive nature.

“You think it's the capital of the Confederacy and that comes with a certain stigma,” he said. “It's amazing when you think that Richmond would be pretty backwards. But as soon as you step into VCU, your world kind of opens up to a whole different world of culture and thinking.”

These days, Ohi goes wherever the job takes him. Freelancing as a cinematographer gives him the freedom to work on a variety of projects with both old and new colleagues. 

At this point in his career, it also allows him to be a “little picky” about which projects he takes. Those projects have included films, commercials, branded content and music videos.

“That's pretty cool about being a freelancer,” he said. “Ultimately, you make your own decisions about how you want to approach your career.”

Ohi got one of his most recent freelance gigs by accident, he said.

One of the three finalists in Netflix’s “The Great Untold” competition was shooting in the area around his home last summer.

“I guess they were looking at some reels of camera people in and around the D.C. area and they stumbled onto my website or reel and they hit me up randomly out of the blue a few weeks before the project started,” Ohi said.

Ohi shot the film, Samba Diop’s “The Game,” mostly in Leesburg, Virginia, and Charleston, West Virginia.

A man sitting on the porch of a cabin in front of the woods
Kunitaro Ohi shot Samba Diop’s “The Game,” one of three finalists in Netflix’s “The Great Untold” competition. (Contributed photo)

“It was a very odd project,” Ohi said. “Even though it was sponsored by Adobe and Netflix, the overall budget was pretty nominal. It was a pretty scrappy group of people that were trying to do something pretty high end. And it almost felt like a student film.”

However, most student films don’t have several executives — in this case from Netflix and Adobe — watching the shoot. Ohi likened the experience to a zoo expedition where the subjects are stared at. “The stakes were so high, but the scale was so intimate, so it made for a very odd combination of set dynamics.”

Working with first-time director Diop — a TikTok content creator — was cool, Ohi said. “It's the first time that [Diop] was able to work with a crew. So it was very interesting seeing him working with his mindset of going from working with one camera — and that's primarily your iPhone — and then upgrading yourself into a crew with multiple people handling lighting and cameras.”

While Ohi himself is still most comfortable behind the camera, he and Miller are writing the sequel to “Always Together.”

“I don't know why we're doing it,” Ohi said. “I don't know why we're even attempting to do this. It didn't really set the festival world on fire, but we really liked the concept. So we're just going like, whatever. We'll just write it down and see what happens.

“I don't want to do it, but I feel like I'm compelled to do it.”