Meet a Digital Histories Filmmaker: Robert Shoji

Our Digital Histories program for the 2017-2018 season started last weekend, with returning filmmakers and a few new faces. A video production and storytelling program for senior citizens created in 2003, Digital Histories showcases the unique voices and perspectives of our seniors by sharing their stories with generations to come. 

Take a look at the interview below that our VC Social Media Intern Melody Chen had with Digital Histories filmmaker Robert Shoji.


M: Tell me about yourself.
ROBERT: By training, I’m an electrical engineer. I’ve been working in the consumer electronics industry for the last 30 years. We make electronics for home entertainment, stereo systems, and audio for the car. My last 10-15 years, I was involved in developing audio systems for Toyota, Honda, Lexus, and Scion. It was my work and also a hobby so it worked out well.

M: That’s great. Do you feel that it was seamless for you to go into filmmaking, since you were already working in audio? How did you get into filmmaking?
R: I’m really an audio guy, specifically in terms of anything related to the recording of audio, music, and cars. But I really had no experience in filmmaking. I had a friend who was in the Digital Histories class for about 2 or 3 years, and he was telling me about how fun it was and thought I might be interested, mainly to meet the people and see what everyone was doing. I had the time to do that, so I just joined the class.

M: How long ago was that?
R: Maybe 1 ½ , 2 years ago. Relatively recently. I really had no experience filmmaking and the main thing is that you have to be a storyteller. It was a steep learning curve. But since I have a technical background, it was relatively easy to buy the cameras and learn the software. The hard part for me was creating or crafting a story that somebody else besides my family would enjoy watching.

That’s the best part of the class. It gives us a voice in the community. The longer you live, the more stories you accumulate, and you end up telling them to your friends and your family. This class gives us a voice to communicate it to the greater community. Everybody’s got very interesting, very unique stories, that need to be brought out to the larger public.

Honestly, as you get older, the older segment of the population gets dismissed by the younger generation because they think that we’re not interested in doing anything anymore and that we’ve got nothing to say. I remember being younger and thinking the same thing. It's a travesty, in a way, because this population should be nurtured or encouraged to tell our stories. I think the next generation could learn a lot.

M: What made you interested in making your film IN PLAIN SIGHT about the old missile site at the Torrance airport?
R: It was totally random. I was actually having coffee with some neighbors. One of the guys mentioned that there were missile sites just up the street from where I live. I was completely skeptical and thought he was mistaken. I did a couple of internet searches and sure enough, there’s a whole story behind the missile sites in Torrance. There was actually a launch site in the early 60s and there was a control building at this park that was down the street from me. I thought it was pretty cool and when I took the class, I thought, maybe I should document this.

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M: Do you think you will continue the story? The film ended on a cliff hanger.
R: It depends on the interest. I have the footage but there's a limit on the length of the film, so I left the film on a cliffhanger. Part of it was that I wanted to inform the public that this place existed and the other part was that I wanted to encourage other people to investigate themselves.

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After I showed the film at the Festival, there was someone in the audience who came up to talk to me. A much older guy than me who had actually worked on the missiles as an engineer. Just recently, he agreed to do an interview with me. I have footage of what was in the bunker, and I'm going to go talk to him and potentially combine it into a Part Two. That's the fun part of it. Once you put something out there, it starts to stir up a lot of other things. 

M: What was the most challenging part of the filmmaking process? What did you enjoy the most about it?
R: The hardest part was learning to tell a story. In the beginning, I’d bring what I’d shot to class and they’d kindly say, “What point are you trying to make, what’s your story?” Then I’d have to go back and be like “Yeah, what am I doing. What’s the point of what I just shot other than it was fun to shoot and I thought it was interesting?” Learning how to create an arc of the story within the span of a short video was the most challenging thing because I’m a technology guy and not really a storyteller. It was a lot of fun to learn and difficult to do.

The other hard part was getting critiqued by my peers and the teacher. You create this thing and in your own head you think, “Oh, this is really good, I like it.” But then you show it to people who have no knowledge on what you’re doing and they go “Well, I don’t understand this part” or “That doesn’t make any sense.” It’s hard to absorb the criticism and then go back and change it. You really have to listen to people and then make it right to make it appealing to a wider audience. But Gary, the teacher, is really good. He gives criticism but he would say, “In the end, you’re the director, you decide what to do.”

The best thing though, is that through this class I branched out and met all kinds of people that I would’ve never met outside of my "comfort zone." Forget making the films and all that, just meeting the people has been really great.

M: Are you planning on continuing with Digital Histories in the future? What are your next steps in filmmaking?
R: I’m pretty sure I’m going to take the class again, I have a few topics that I’m looking into that really interest me. It kind of came out of the blue but now I’m completely absorbed in those stories. I’ve set up a few interviews, so we’ll see what happens.

To learn more about Digital Histories, click here.

Melody Chen is a student at UCLA majoring in Asian American Studies and minoring in Food Studies. With interests in the arts, community organizing, media, and food, Melody strives to utilize arts activism as a way to stir up dialogues within and across communities.

See below for some of Robert's recent videos.

6/28/17, Gil Garcetti recalls advice he received from his son Eric in 1988.
6/28/2017, Gil Garcetti was asked: How would you feel if in say 10 years from now you visited Little Tokyo and the only thing that remained was a bronze sign that said "Historic Little Tokyo"?