Having worked as a digital effects artist on various films – War Of The Worlds, The Perfect Storm as well as Star Wars: Episode I, II & III to name a few – actor Masi Oka knows exactly what to do when his character has to interact with a CGI creature.
This was the case when he shot The Meg – a big-budget monster movie centering on a 23-metre long prehistoric shark known as the megalodon, (or just The Meg), which is brought to life on the big screen with state-of-the-art CGI.
In the film, Oka plays one of the scientists who discovers the existence of the giant predator hibernating on the ocean bed.
“I love working with special effects,” says a friendly-sounding Oka in a phone interview from Los Angeles, California.
“When I am an actor, I act. But, I know how to be supportive of behind-the-scene team. Typically (when working with green screen) you tell the actors where to be. Some actors will say, ‘I need character motivation to move there’.
“But I know the exact reason why the actor needs to be at a certain spot because they need to composite you against (a certain CGI). So definitely I have an advantage … I understand the trouble they have to go through if I stand (at the wrong spot).
“Also with my visual effects background, it kind of allows me to have an idea how (a CGI creature) could potentially look like.”
The Tokyo-born actor, who grew up in Los Angeles, is best known as Hiro Nakamura in the popular TV series Heroes (2006-2010), a role he
reprised for Heroes Reborn (2015).
But his first job after graduating from Brown University with degrees in Mathematics and Computer Science and a Theatre Arts minor was with George Lucas’ special effects house Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), a job he kept even while he gained popularity through Heroes.
Although he’s not involved in the visual effects field so much these days, he has added other things to his resume.
Besides acting gigs in series such as Hawaii Five-O and Mozart In The Jungle, and now The Meg, Oka has a gaming company (called Mobius Digital). He also wears the producer cap for the American remake of Death Note (available on Netflix) and Mega Man, a film project based on the Capcom video game series.
Not only that, the 43-year-old is the adviser for a lot of corporations in Japan that want to enter the US market.
“I like to bridge Japan with Hollywood through arts and business. Being fluent in both languages allows me to bridge the gap between the two cultures and bring the two worlds together.
“That is why I help the Japanese government because there are a lot of companies in Japan that want to be in the US but they just don’t know how to break that market, to have that connection.”
With so many projects on his plate – Oka constantly shuttles between the US and Japan – does he even have time for fun?
Laughing, he shares: “Those things are fun. I love everything I do. I love producing, I love being in front of the camera, just all aspects of it. I just love to create. The greatest thing about creation is the collaborative effort, you get to meet all these wonderful people around the world. I would say that that is the most fun, without a doubt.”
One of the things that is obvious with most of the characters Oka portrays, and even during this conversation, is that he’s proud to be a Japanese. He says he needs three hours to recommend all the things one could do when visiting Japan before settling on Tokyo’s world-famous Tsukiji fish market.
“They’re going to relocate the fish market. I would say check that out before it’s moved.”
Twelve years ago, his was one of the few Asian faces regularly seen on the American TV.
Today, Asians’ presence is more prominent. For Oka, this is a great progress.
“This is still a country of immigrants. I am still Japanese, I have a Japanese passport. But that’s what makes America great; we have all these different viewpoints from all around the world. We’ve had American representation, African-American representation and now a lot of Asian-Americans are banding together and coming up with great content.
“I am happy to be part of the change and happy that a lot more changes are happening.
“But this comes from behind the scene, creating more content and getting support from (studios) … We need more variety in front of the camera but at the same time we need voices behind the camera as well to create those roles for everybody.
“It’s great we are going forward where there are a lot of juxtaposition from all the world … to show the real world as it is.”