Daryn Wakasa is a 4th generation, Japanese American graphic designer and filmmaker. He has a BFA from Loyola Marymount University in multimedia and an MFA in graphic design from California Institute of the Arts. He is a unique blend of creativity and social activism. His social activism stems from the fact that his grandparents, who are American citizens, were forced into internment camps by the U.S government during World War II because of their ethnicity. His life was deeply affected by the internment camps because his grandparents lost everything they owned. Realizing that his creative vocation and his social activism could possess a symbiotic relationship, Daryn started to explore opportunities where his graphic design and motion design skills could help communicate social and cultural issues. As of late he has been working on his greatest works of his career art directing sections of Katy Perry’s smash hit ‘Roar’ video as well as working on Pacific Rim. We caught up with Daryn and talk about his journey, his films, and more. Read below for the full Q&A…
There a quite a few companies that had their hand on the new Pacific Rim film but Mirada specifically has a culture and reputation surrounding the science of storytelling. What is your role in the company and what contributions have you made to the film?
Daryn: Mirada is a multi-disciplinary studio built for storytellers, so my role as an art director spans across several different areas and projects. For the most part, I work closely with the director or creative director to help develop the concept/story and then lead a team of designers and concept artists through a visual development process so that we can bring the director’s vision to life. These projects include: feature films, commercials, music videos, and digital production projects.
For Pacific Rim, I was fortunate enough to work closely with director Mathew Cullen (who was working with Mirada co-founder, Guillermo del Toro) to help develop the story as well as the visuals for the prologue sequence. Guillermo wanted the prologue sequence to not only tell the backstory of the movie but also bridge the world that we live in today with the world of Pacific Rim. Guillermo had specific story beats in mind but I worked closely with Mathew (Director & co-founder of Mirada), Fred Fouquet (editor) and the rest of the Mirada team to flush out all the details. John Fragomeni (President and Snr. Visual Effects Supervisor) also had a lot of input on the story development as well overseeing the VFX efforts for the studio, as our expectations were very high for the quality and aesthetic of the sequence. It was actually a really fun and interesting process as we dissected every aspect of world culture. We looked at fashion, environment, technology, cult & religious trends, economic trends and many other societal and cultural aspects to mold a believable story on how the Pacific Rim world came to be. Guillermo and Mathew’s vision really communicated a lot of story points in a very limited amount of time. Not only did I work with Mathew and Fred to figure out the story beats of our sequence but I also managed/lead an amazing team of concept artists and designers (Jing Zheng, Luke Belderes, Clara Moon & Mark Brinn) to figure out how to communicate del Toro’s and Cullen’s vision. The great part about the process is that our artwork informed our thinking. So instead of just developing a story and then giving that story to the artists for execution, we allowed the artists’ creativity to help influence and mold the story.
After the visual and story development process was complete, I worked closely with Zach Tucker (VFX Supervisor), Andrew Ashton (Comp Lead), Julian Sarmiento (CG Supervisor), and Alison O’Brien (VFX Producer) to oversee the execution of all the design elements within the post production process. Of course Mathew was driving the direction of the ship while John was still very much involved in overseeing all aspects of our visual effects development and execution. Lastly, Javier Jimenez (Mirada Co-founder/Executive Producer) was overseeing the whole production process.
It is interesting that they break up work between art directors for specific scenes and purposes. Did you seek out the prologue sequence or was it assigned? How does task allocating work in Hollywood?
Daryn: The prologue sequence was specifically assigned to Mirada so that the studio could showcase our unique storytelling prowess since there were a lot of story beats to communicate in a short period of time. Visually, del Toro wanted the prologue sequence to look and feel different from the rest of the film which is a type of creative problem that Mirada loves to solve on a consistent basis: how to tell a unique story by using compelling and intriguing visuals.
As far as why this project was assigned to me? Mathew Cullen and Javier Jimenez have known me for almost 10 years as they gave me my first job in this industry. They have always been extremely supportive of my creative growth so the both of them along with John Fragomeni believed in my talent to work with Mathew and fulfill the role as art director. I can’t really speak upon how the shots are allocated within the Hollywood and visual effects system since this was an entire stand alone sequence which was specifically assigned to Mirada by the director, Guillermo del Toro, Legendary and Warner Brothers. They believed we were the right studio to bring this sequence to life.
You are also heavily involved with short story filmmaking. Is there any difference between working on shorter duration length films and big budget blockbusters?
Daryn: Well I think the biggest difference is exactly what you stated in your question…”the budget”. With the short films and documentaries that I have been a part of, the teams have been no greater than about 30-40 people. With a big budget film like ‘Pacific Rim’, there are hundreds of people involved. With just the numbers alone, the team dynamic is very different. On the creative end, the visual storytelling process is very similar as you are still trying to tell an emotionally compelling story, in a visually engaging way, with a given amount of budget and resources. Usually, on a big epic film like ‘Pacific Rim‘, your imagination can run wild because story is the biggest issue. However, for Mirada’s prologue sequence, budget still played a factor in how we shaped our creative vision, as we had a limited budget and we had to be resourceful in creating and building our visual effects. Nonetheless, our prologue sequence still had access to a lot more resources than the smaller short story films that I have been a part of. However, constraints are not necessarily a bad thing because I’m a firm believer that constraints and limitations can germinate some of the most creative projects.
Were these ideas always intended as a part of a longer story or they are flushed out for the time allotted?
Daryn: For most of the short story filmmaking projects that I have worked on, the story was molded for it’s specific time duration although I am working on a short film right now that is a part of a bigger story, but this is a first for me.
You went to quite a few universities and prep schools. Are you a big advocate of formal education and do you feel it is necessary in this day and age to acquire a degree to be successful?
Daryn: I have definitely had my fair share of schooling [laughs]. I love the academic atmosphere as I think it was a crucial part of my maturation process as a designer, storyteller and human being. Access to professors is invaluable to me because they have so much knowledge to share and they genuinely want to feed that knowledge to their students in hopes that the students will continue to grow and evolve. This mentor/mentee relationship is something that is very special about the academic world.
The other aspect of school that I love is the network of people that you meet. It is one of the few environments where you are surrounded by hundreds of people who share a similar hunger, curiosity and creative energy that you do. What was great about CalArts (MFA Graphic Design program) specifically was that I had access to artists from all different disciplines, which inspired me to continuously think outside the box and figure out how various collaborations could lead to more compelling storytelling projects. In short, grad school was a place where I could explore my voice as a storyteller and designer. Another great aspect about both my undergraduate education and graduate education was that LMU and CalArts both encouraged me to use my storytelling and design skills to address socially conscious issues. I have this utopian idea that the arts have the ability to heal our world. Stories have the ability to help us understand our environment and in turn, ourselves in a more simplistic and compassionate way. This is probably why my personal storytelling projects revolve around my cultural past of the Japanese Internment Camps. I am constantly using my personal projects to dissect the post generational effects that the internment camps had on my personal development. “A Lost Generation”, which was my MFA CalArts’thesis film was just scraping the surface of this topic and I look forward to diving deeper into this issue as my storytelling skills continue to evolve.
Now, Is schooling necessary? I personally think that an undergraduate education is important as it plays a big role in a person’s development. I also think an employer will trust the life skills of a college graduate more than someone who doesn’t have a college degree. Is a graduate degree necessary? Definitely not. I know plenty of successful filmmakers, designers and artists who didn’t go to graduate school as it is always a tough decision to weigh the amount of debt that you will accumulate vs. the amount of occupational or personal reward you will receive. For me though, graduate school was worth it. It allowed me to explore my artistic voice and I met a lot of amazing people through the CalArts network. However, as tuition rises, the decision to attend graduate school is becoming more difficult. At the end of the day, I just think that the more knowledgeable someone is about the world in which they live in (with or without schooling), then the richer their stories will become.
Pacific Rim is a giant nod to Neon Genesis Evangelion. Any favorite anime that are personal favorites of yours you can share?
Daryn: Unfortunately, I am way behind on my anime watching and need to study more anime films and shows. I loved “Spirited Away” and shows like Cowboy Bebop and Ghost in the Shell but there are a lot more titles that I need to see.
You have worked with a lot of Fortune 500 companies, Like Ford, and Bravo, etc. As a creative how you deal with restrictive clients that already have a brand identity in tact. On the subject versus autonomy and client restrictions, do you work better under direction?
Daryn: I think this is what makes me unique as a designer/storyteller. In general, I love solving creative problems and whether you are dealing with the brand of a big company like IBM or with the 3rd Act of your script or showing the psychological conflict of your protagonist, to me they are all creative problems that need solving. So I can’t say that I thrive in one more than the other but I will say that I enjoy longer form narratives that deal with the complexities of humanity and human emotions. Storytelling is just a metaphor for life so I love telling emotionally rich stories that help us digest the world that we live in.
What is ahead, in terms of your career? Any film projects you can open up about?
Daryn: Yes I can! I’m actually very excited that my short film, “Giri” will be done by the end of the year. It’s my first live action directing project that started as this small vignette but blew up to be this bigger production. “Giri” is a dark action thriller that has a lot of potential to be expanded into a larger storytelling project. It’s been a great project to be a part of because I was blessed to have some amazing talent attached to it. I was very lucky to partner with Conrad Sun, a talented young producer who also took my story idea and wrote the script. He did a great job helping me develop the story and in turn, taking all my notes and putting them on the page in a clear and concise way. Jade Quon, who is a veteran stunt woman and has been on countless feature films was my fight coordinator and choreographer. She took the project beyond our scope of imagination by choreographing some amazing fight scenes that compliment the story and characters. In fact, it’s really because of Jade that this project originally developed. Ernesto Lomeli took my vision to new heights with his cinematography and the list goes on from our lead actress Lauren Mary Kim, who gave an amazing performance, to our production designer Rudie Schaefer to our amazing music composer, Kwan Fai Lam, to our great editor and concept editor Victor Brown and AJ Calomay. We had a great crew because of the chemistry we had amongst ourselves.
I also just finished working on Katy Perry’s “Roar”music video and mobile app called WePop. I could be working on another documentary in the near future as well as some other short formed storytelling projects. There is a lot on the horizon but these are just a handful of the ones that I can talk about.
Lastly, any advice for any creative out there?
Daryn: Keep telling the meaningful stories that you want to hear and see. Storytelling is a really special craft that has shaped our understanding as a culture and society. For me, it’s more than just entertainment… it’s about getting a unique voice heard. Don’t let anyone tell you what should or shouldn’t be on screen, paper or canvas…just make, learn from your making, grow and then make again.
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