Catching Up With Brisbane's Cinemapodgrapher - LUCAS TOMOANA
Updated: Jul 22
Interviewed and transcribed by Gabriel Faatau’uu-Satiu
Shooting for South Australia tourism at Lake Gairdner. 2017
My name is Lucas Tomana and I am both Māori and Samoan. I was born in Singapore to kiwi parents. I was raised in New Zealand and Brisbane, Australia. I’ve lived extensively in both countries.
What area of the film industry do you work in?
So I work in the camera department as a cinematographer, shooting mostly commercials and documentaries.
Did you always envision this for yourself? Was there a defining moment for you?
My father was in the army, so growing up I always thought I was gonna be in the army too and follow his footsteps. Growing up, I looked up to him a lot. For a while, I actually joined the army reserve. But there was always a part of me that was quite visual and I only picked up a camera quite late in high school.
Anyway, to answer your question specifically though, the defining moment was when I received my marks from school. I wasn’t a great student, I wasn’t a bad student. I did okay. But the marks I received allowed me to pursue tertiary education. Originally, I was gonna take a gap year and then join the army officially. But something forced me, which I can’t quite put to words to give the film industry a go. So I did, I studied. And here I am.
Did you grow up in a conservative family?
Looking back, I think so. I grew up around the church. It’s hard, especially here in Australia. For 5 days of the week, I was surrounded by Australian kids. And as soon as I’d go home, it’s like I was stuck and part of 2 different worlds. It was tough. But I am so grateful for my upbringing.
Were they always supportive of you pursuing a career in the arts? How did your Father take the news when you told him you weren’t gonna be in the army.
Yes, they were super supportive. But I was really surprised though. I remember getting extremely nervous the night I told my Dad that I wasn’t gonna join the army. And that I really wanted to pursue a film career. I thought he’d be disappointed but he was the opposite. He said, I don’t care if you’re the janitor. You can be the best janitor in the country. So whatever it is you want to do, be the best possible version of that. You can be the best if you want to. I was genuinely surprised by that reaction.
If you could give advice to other younger kids in a similar predicament, what would you say to them?
As Pacific people, we are and always have been artistic people. It’s a huge part of our identity since the dawn of time which is evident in our history and the way we tell stories. Look at the songs we sing, our unique dancing and clothing attire. And obviously there are other aspects but it is a huge part of our everyday being. So it’s in our blood. The way I see it, we were always really resourceful with the things we have, even if it were limited. And now in modern society, it’s the exact same principle. We are still exercising the same artistry that has always been a part of us but with and through different tools. So my advice is that if you are finding a way to express your artistry, however it may be, just remember it’s always been a part of who we were. Like me for instance, our ancestors never had the luxury of picking up a camera, which is something that is only existent in the 20th/21st century. But they are calling us to keep telling stories, modern or not, it’s what we were always good at doing.
A big thing about family is that regardless of who you are, there will always be people that will doubt your decision. And if it is what you want to do, you have to constantly defend your mindset that this is what you want to do. It’s tough! You just have to be fully committed and prepared for what is coming. It’s not an easy ride for sure.
Screen QLD short - My name is Mudju. Won first National Award at 2020 ACS awards. 2018
Let’s talk about some of the works you’ve done. An opportunity to humble brag.
Haha. Humble brag. I love it. It’s definitely something that Pacific people, particularly in Australia and New Zealand are not good at doing. To be honest, I’d much rather talk about someone else.
Of course. But this is about you, so please, where do you want to start? How long have you been doing this?
I began shooting in 2013, so 7 years now, wow! Yeah, I’ve done pretty well. Won a few awards in fact. I won 8 gold at state level and 1 at national level which I am super proud of. I’ve also been very fortunate to work abroad for a few different things.
Can I ask where?
Cambodia, China. U,K.. Um...I’ve been to Europe a couple times, France is one of my favourite places to shoot.
Incredible. What did you shoot in France?
I shot a documentary for ABC called ‘Lest We Forget What?’ and how we commemorate ANZAC day - it looked at the things we remember but also honouring some of the things we don’t necessarily talk about or remember. From what I recall, there were 15,000 Australians who died at Gallipoli which is unfortunate, and I think somewhere around 50-55,000 Australians who died on the western front. There are so many towns and memorials that are specific and dedicated to those Australians. It’s quite beautiful. I love that I got to be part of that space, and honour those people, and also because of my Dad and him serving in the army, it’s always nice to to integrate my love with something that is close to him as well.
Other work that I am proud of was doing a shoot with the Australian ballet and went to China for. I got to witness Australia represent and perform Black Swan. That was another amazing journey for me. And just recently, I was doing a shoot up in the Torres Strait Islands to a sacred nesting place for turtles. I saw them give birth which was another rare experience. That project was a small one, but for me was probably one of my biggest highlights in the way that not everyone will have the luxury of seeing these rare turtles, but also to be part of something special like the birth. It was incredible.
Aww...that is so beautiful.
It really was.
Have you done any writing?
I’m glad you asked this question, so quite recently I have. I’ve been writing a few documentary projects that I am really keen to explore and to exercise an opportunity for me to wear my director’s hat. So part of my heritage, being both Sāmoan and Māori is that I have the opportunity to explore 2 worlds. So the dream would be to do a documentary that explores both heritages separately, but also how they intertwine as I know there are other people like myself too.
Do you speak Sāmoan or Māori?
I can speak the basics and have some understanding.
Which is enough. I also speak the basics of both those languages, being of Sāmoan descent and having grown up in Aotearoa. For me, part of my journey is learning that is enough. Ideally, I want to be able to speak far more fluently, and it’s an ongoing battle as I get older.
I hear you. I’m open to learning and reconnecting too, which is something that I think about a lot more now as I mature.
Same. I just don’t let it hinder what I do, what we do, as storytellers.
Exactly. Part of me not knowing both languages is the result of my upbringing, our upbringing, because our parents wanted a better life for us. And it’s never too late to learn and I’m conscious of it far more than I used to. Making films for me is a reminder that I am like my ancestors, and that this is my way of telling stories as I connect me to my fa’asāmoa and my whanau across the Tasman. But also, despite my lack of or very little understanding and basic speaking of my heritage, at the end of the day I am still both Sāmoan and Māori.
Documentary in Northern France "Lest We Forget What" with director Rachel Landers. 2014
Can you explain what cinematography is for those who might not have an understanding. Actually, believe it or not, I originally studied many years ago in hopes to be a cinematographer. But eventually figured out I wanted to write and took that more seriously.
Oh, then you explain it.
Hahaha. No no. I’ll leave it for you. You are definitely the expert.
Cinematography is motion photography or moving image. Cinematography is like photography in a way. The difference is that cinematography has the element of time added to it. So it includes all the elements of photography, lighting, framing, composition etc. There are 25 frames per second so there is definitely that element of time that we don’t have in photography.
So on set, who calls the shots? How much control do you have as the person behind the camera? Is there some negotiation with the director? Is it a 50/50 decision? Or is it the result of 1 person’s decision?
In my experience, it is 100% always the director’s film. For me as the cinematographer, I am more 2IC (second in command) to help elevate the director’s vision as best as I can. So I would be their right hand man. There is a lot of compromise but ultimately, the power is in the hands of the director, which is fine.
Have you had any bad experiences with any directors?
Hahahaha. Well, for me, and most cinematographers would agree. Is that, like you said, a compromise. Would I call it 50/50, no. The worst experience is when a director isn’t able to communicate their vision clearly. So I am in a position to give half of what I want, and half of what they want. Ideally, they should come up with as much as they can. Even if it’s all of it, it’s fine. It’s just then my job to either work around their idea or fill in the gaps I see.
I have seen directors who might not understand the full process of what their role entails. And when that happens, it affects everyone on set. And we lose time. You know this. Time is so key on set. It’s like a machine. So as soon as someone drops the ball, it’s only a matter of when the wheels start to fall. So in that case, I usually do what I can do within my power to salvage the situation.
Tell us about your podcast, which I’ve started listening to btw. It’s great! I’m about 3 eps in.
I’m glad, thank you. It’s still very new but the feedback is overwhelmingly really good. People are so nice. Anyway, so during the virus situation, we had the luxury of time to do lots of self reflection. And I took the time to really think about what I want to do. I’ve always wanted to leave this earth with some kind of legacy. I just want to be remembered for the works I’ve done hence why I work so hard. But part of leaving that legacy was also the chance for me to help others. I mean, I know I have only been working for 7 years, but I have some luxuries that I know others don’t. And I really want to share those experiences to help other people out, especially our own people. But also, as a way to grow the camera department. We need more cinematographers!
The podcast stemmed from the holes of knowledge I’ve had to learn myself just by doing the work or from amazing people who have mentored me while I’ve worked, passed on their wisdom to me. All I think is…
Why didn’t they teach this at film school?
Exactly! People focus on doing the actual job which is obviously important, but people forget it's a business too. Like I didn’t know how to fill out applications, or invoice etc. I thought, why isn’t anyone saying all of this? Obviously I’m just a mid-range cinematographer but I really want to help our young people, just so they don’t make the same mistakes I did. But also, so they’re far better equipped in going into the industry. I want us all to succeed.
Lucas Tomoana's rst drama feature in Cambodia with Director Mark Toia. Monsters of Man to be released later this year. 2016
Are there any other works you want to talk about?
I mentioned this before, but I am writing a treatment about the short documentary I want to do in Sāmoa. Now, with this situation and everything else going on, there is an ongoing and visible discussion about diversity, inclusion, which is something that I have been waiting for. It’s great! I see other people, particularly in New Zealand but also the works you’re doing in Sydney and the handful of other Pacific creatives, we are here. It’s time!
When I heard this sentence recently, one that I’ve heard countless times, ‘that there are just no more good movies anymore’ it actually really annoyed me. Like look at Spiderman, we’ve told that story about 20 different times already. And X-men 30 different times. At the moment, we just seem to be telling the same ones from the same genre by the same people, again and again.
Look at our experiences between just you and I for example. Having lived in more than one country. Belong to different heritages that aren’t necessarily from the land we live on now. There are stories right where we are. People just haven’t been looking at us for them. But now, seems to be such an exciting time, even more than ever, especially looking at the democratisation of the resources we have at each of our disposal. Filmmaking has the ability to do that. And I want to be part of that as it is something that I’ve always wanted to do but never had the luxury and space to do so.
I want to ask a fun one. If I could give you all the money in the world, offer the best resources which you’ll have at your disposal, what would that project look like?
That’s a great question.
This is the chance to project what your big dream is, without being humble. Speak it into existence.
Hahahaha I love that. But basically, all those things that I mentioned previously. Just even bigger. Particularly, my Māori side. There’s so much I’ve learned over the years about the Māori land wars which I know is not currently taught in schools. But I’d love to showcase those stories in a way that measures up to the level of Game of Thrones. But even bigger and better.
Now having read and learned some of those stories, there’s so much happening in today’s climate that shows the battles between Māori and the pakeha people. But there were also issues and battles within Māori against Māori too. Just so many stories that need to be told to highlight and show the full rounded culture we are. There is one that always sits in my mind, about a Māori person that was exiled to live on an island. Anyway, he found his way back to the mainland and started a huge war. Isn’t that amazing? To have a story like this that exists but no one is telling them because no one is giving us the space to tell them. Now is the time, more than ever, it feels like this is the time to tell them.
What’s stopping you from achieving that? What needs to change and how?
I think for me personally, fear of failure and rejection. It’s a day by day thing for me. But now that you’ve asked me, which I see what you’re doing haha, and just quickly thinking about it, there is actually not much that is stopping me to do this. I can do this.
Seeing that I am primarily a cinematographer, I’d need to go into a director/writer role or collaborate with other like minded people who share the same vision and make that happen. Directing is something in the cards for me to do now that I’ve been working for a while now. In that space, I’d obviously work on something smaller first just to get on my feet as one and then work my way up to this vision.
Who inspires you?
Honestly, this might sound cliche but I think anyone who steps into the role that is not necessarily Pasifika dominated. I’m inspired by a lot of athletes for this reason. Similar to Tim Cahill and what he did in the Socceroos. I mean, he became captain and was one of the most revered Socceroo players in Australia. Robert Whittaker, a Māori/Australian in the UFC space. And then you have the likes of Taika Waititi and basically anything he’s done.
In my inner circle and people I am connected with, I want to recognise Mark Toia, a Māori film director and editor, based here in Brisbane actually. He’s probably one of the smartest people I know. His skillset and everything he has in his toolbox is so vast. He knows how to shoot. He knows how to edit. He knows how to colour grade. He knows how to do VFX. I’m so proud and honoured that we are friends. Somehow, not even sure how we are. But he is someone I look up to a lot because of his knowledge and willingness to always mentor and help me too.
Amazing! It is rare to find those sorts of people. I myself have obviously had to do that while being here in Sydney. And I found them.
That is incredible.
Northern France with Director Rachel Landers and Producer Dylan Blowen 2014
What advice would you give to a first time cinematographer?
This is a great question. I think people should clarify exactly what their goal is. What I mean is, don’t just say I want to be a cinematographer. The spectrum is really broad. Be specific I say. I think you need to decide the types of works you want to shoot. Be a cinematographer that has a set trajectory and purpose in which stories you want to help tell. Whether it be just documentaries. Or just feature films/narrative. Or just for mainstream TV. Or Hollywood. Or Wildlife. Or underwater. Whatever it may be, be specific and clear with exactly what that is. In my experience, and others I’ve met on the way, I’ve seen way too many younger cinematographers who just want to do everything. And I get it, when this might be your full time gig so this is where you make your income. But I think if you can clarify what that one thing is, or a few, then you can put all your energy into it wholeheartedly and at 100%. It’s also a lot of sacrifice and requires so much commitment. It’s the best job in the world. I love it.
I do want to say that here specifically in the Queensland area, there are not many Pasifika creatives. There’s a handful. So I have had to fight a few stereotypes. When coming into the industry first off, I always knew that being brown could be seen as something that might hinder me. But I never let it stop me. So I don’t want people to be discouraged by it. I’ve been questioned if I’m actually qualified, which is silly as I’ve put it in the work, I studied hard, and I know what I’m doing. It’s actually quite nice to prove people wrong. In saying that, I’m in a place now that people are finally seeing me for my work first, rather than judging me on my skin colour. So no, I’m not just good for a brown person, I’m good because I’m great at what I do.
Prior to our interview, we talked about the Pasifika Film Festival and it’s past. What’s your experience with this or any festival?
I’m a cinematographer. So most of the works I do are usually documentaries and commercials. Festivals are not spaces that would hold commercials. As for documentaries, the idea I spoke about doing something specific to Sāmoa is obviously something that I really want to do. I plan to do it next year and have already started discussing with a producer on how we can make it happen. I also understand that the festival runs bi-annually, so obviously my submission will not be valid until the following year. But also do know, this is already at the top of the list of where I’d submit it too as well.
Speaking along those lines, why do you think it’s important to have a space dedicated specifically to Pasifika filmmakers?
A festival like PFF will encourage the next generation as it has the ability to seek and reach out into remote/smaller communities, which is actually where the vast majority of our people are from right. I mentioned this earlier is that Pasifika people have always been artistic and visual people because it’s in our history and a part of who we are as storytellers. Initiatives like this will encourage the next Taika, or Mark Toia. Our own people are generally ignorant to these sorts of things because they’re not familiar with the work we do. But knowing that a space like this exists gives me joy knowing that there are other people like me who are doing the work.
I have many many friends who are Australian. And so when I share things about my cultures, they are always so amazed. I think the more we expose people to Pasifika culture, the better for everyone. There’s often a misconception that we are just the stereotypes. I saw your face change haha. Anyway, but it’s true and we know it. So having a space for us that allows us to produce and share the same work as everyone else, shows that we are in fact not any different. Which we already know. But it’s nice that the rest of the world can see and recognise us too.
Most of my life, I’ve lived here in Australia. And we, although are not indigenous Australian. We are indigenous to the Pacific. I’m indigenous to New Zealand and Samoa. So my experience, being an indigenous or a person of colour, I’ve always felt some kind of comfort and have been gravitating towards indigenous Australia. No, we are not personally responsible for the horrible things and issues in the past, but we empathise with them in a way that we can understand some of their struggles, because of our own colonial histories too.
I’ve been so lucky to work on lots of indigenous Australian projects. And man can I just say, they have such a cool culture. I’m so lucky to be in that space. I just think if I am living here, benefiting on a land that hasn’t always been good to it’s true owners, I feel obligated to always put them first. I have no regrets with my experiences but I can see how in some ways it has hindered my own experience to tell my personal story, one which is still and always in the back of my mind.
Lucas Tomoana's first feature Documentary in Beijing,China with the Australian Ballet at the National centre for the peforming arts. 2015
Is there anything you’re currently working on that you can share about? Want to humble brag about?
Yes! So I’m doing a shoot in Sydney for a friend. She’s about to launch a mobile application called ‘Train like a ballerina’.
I love that name. Cute!
Yes! It’s a fitness program that is specific to dancers which I think is pretty cool. So going back to your question, she wants a video created to launch her app.
There are a few documentaries as that is my forte and pathway that we mentioned earlier, so yeah, still in the works but has been put on hold due to the corona virus situation obviously.
Speaking of the virus and current situation, how badly were you affected?
A lot actually. All of my bookings were either pushed back or cancelled. So unfortunately I did lose some work opportunities. But I do have lots of things lined up from September, hopefully sooner depending on how we go obviously. I’m very positive.
Actually, one that I can talk about is a documentary on Chris Tamwoy, a Torres Strait islander.
The musical artist?
Yes! Wow, do you know him? He’s a first nation Australian. So a little bit about him. We’ll go out to the islands and get to film him. Something I am excited about. It’s something that will eventually be shown on NITV. We get to go to Badu Island. It reminds me of Sāmoa actually.
Speaking of Sāmoa, or Māori for the same matter, have you had the chance to shoot anything specific to any of your heritages?
Why do you think that is? I mean, we both know the answer to that. What’s your take on it?
I’m based in Brisbane and I understand in Sydney, most of the work would be there. So naturally, I’d think they’d be more clued on to having more Pasifika film works. Hence the festival and the work you and others are doing which I can see.
If I am being completely honest, I grew up middle class-Australian. I had really understanding parents who know how hard and expensive filmmaking is. I know my privilege and understand how lucky I am in that sense. So I am super grateful to have such incredible parents (being Sāmoan and Māori) to really support me throughout my career.
Part of my agenda with the podcast and agreeing to do this interview was always a way for me to connect with other like minded creatives who are Pasifika. It’s something that I have always been conscious of in my career, usually being the only Pacific island person on set. But I have met other Pasifika creatives on the way, and when we do, it’s like that thing I can’t explain. We just immediately connect. Like me and you. We literally just met at the beginning of this interview and I feel like I’ve known you for a long time. But like I said earlier, time is changing. And so glad to have connected.
Where can we see some of your work?
What’s your greatest fear?
I think it’s around that idea of life passing you by too quickly. But also the idea of wanting to be remembered, and being remembered well. Like I want to leave something behind. Something good. Something that I’ve been able to do through my work but also for my people and where I come from. This might seem a bit spiritual but that idea of afterlife. Like I left something behind in a way that made an impact on people for change, something amazing.
Any last words?
My last words would be specifically to those young Pasifika people who have made it to the end of this interview and are still deciding they want to pursue filmmaking. I say, don’t worry if no one looks like you. Or sounds nothing like you. Or thinks differently to the way you do. Any of that actually. You can do it! You are enough. Remember our history and the people we carry and come from. We are and have always been artistic and visual people. It’s in our blood. Yes, the resources we have at our disposal might be different because of technology being so advanced. So what? We have always been storytellers.
A day of operating practice. Had a go on a Russian arm, Movi and Drone with AJK grips and Drone FX.