Cinematographer PATTI LEE

Photo by Jennifer Arnold

Born the youngest of five girls from a traditional Chinese American family, Patti Lee did the unthinkable and went into show business.  After graduating UCLA’s film school, Patti began her career lighting feature films, commercials and television shows, working first as a set lighting technician, then later as a gaffer.  Lee’s career continued to rise, and she got her first big break as Director of Photography on “The Bernie Mac Show” (FOX).  Some of her other cinematography credits include “Men at Work” (TBS), “Whitney” and “Perfect Couples” (NBC/Universal).  In addition to shooting, Patti produced the acclaimed feature documentary, A SMALL ACT, which premiered at Sundance and was broadcast at HBO.  The film was named by Roger Ebert as one of “The Best Documentaries of 2010”.
We asked Patti questions about the challenges in different media formats, who her idols are, and why it’s good to be the youngest in the family.

Not only has a female never won the Oscar for Best Cinematography, but in its 84 years, the Oscars has never even nominated, repeat nominated, a female in this category.  What are your thoughts on this, and do you think we’ll see this remedied in the near future?

Camera training on A SMALL ACT. Photo by Jennifer Arnold.

Kathryn Bigelow just broke the glass ceiling by winning Best Director in 2010. Now it’s time for cinematography.  There are a number of talented female DPs who I believe have done Oscar worthy work, among them Ellen Kuras for ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND and Mandy Walker for AUSTRALIA.  I think the cinematography in each film was imaginative, emotive and integral to the story.

The unfortunate reality is that I seldom see female DPs in the credits of theatrically released films. Is it possible for a woman to be nominated for Best Cinematography?  Yes, anything is possible.  Is it likely soon?  I hope the odds get better.

You have done diverse work in feature filmmaking, documentaries and episodic television.  Could you briefly describe the challenges and advantages faced with each type of medium?  And please let us in on some of the secrets (aka, which tend to have better craft services).

My roots are in indie filmmaking.  We never had much equipment, experienced crew or anything at crafty besides donated day old bagels and red vines, so I learned to think on my feet.  The lid to the Styrofoam cooler became a reflector, and a flashlight with diffusion became the fill light.  It was frustrating and freeing at the same time.  You just do what you have to do to get things done.

All that training came in handy when I shot A SMALL ACT, a documentary that I produced as well.  The director, Jennifer Arnold, and I were shooting in Kenya and Sweden on a shoestring budget.  We brought a small camera and one light, which we couldn’t use half the time because we didn’t always have electricity.  We filled plastic bags with rocks to use as sandbags to hold down our reflectors.  While traveling across Sweden, we even set up a makeshift scanning station in the backseat of our Volvo to scan photos for the documentary as we drove.  There was absolutely no downtime.

Patti Lee filming Hilde Back in A SMALL ACT. Photo by Jennifer Arnold.

Lately, I’ve been shooting a lot of network sitcoms.  You know, the four camera shows in front of an audience.  Now I have a crew, equipment and a large selection of tea, spa water and snacks for days.  I’m lighting the set for 4 camera angles simultaneously, trying to keep it flattering without being flat and interesting for both the audience and myself.

Patti Lee with “Whitney” guest star John Cleese. Photo by Chris Haston.

Sometimes I’m amazed by all the different film worlds I live in.  If I had to choose which was my favorite, I don’t think I could choose.  I like that I can switch between them all and not be flummoxed by the differences.

Setting up a shot for Royal Caribbean film. Photo by Tom Stanger.

Quan Phung (Visual Communications’ Board President) is the Executive Producer on Whitney.  So we already know who’s your dream producer to work with.  Who are your dream directors to work with?  Dream actors?

If I could time travel, I would bring Billy Wilder to present day and shoot a film for him starring Tilda Swinton.  Quan, can you help me make that happen?

Quan Phung. VC Board President.  Possible Dream Maker.

Whose cinematography work do you admire and give us some examples.   And if you could have shot one feature film, what would it have been and would you have done anything differently?

I have so many cinematography heroes.  I really love the way Matthew Libatique moves the camera in BLACK SWAN;

I’m awed by the framing, imagery and darkness from Gordon Willis in KLUTE.  During film school, I would always watch WITNESS, shot by John Seale, to get inspired before a shoot.  I especially liked the sequence in the train station where the young Amish kid is walking around and ends up witnessing a murder.  So much story is told visually.

I would love to have shot any of these films.  Only I wouldn’t want to change anything except put my name on the credits.

You’re a self-proclaimed “foodie” – being the “go-to” person on set when it comes to finding lunch spots.  Recently I just learned how to make steamed egg (mostly because I’m not that bright).  Not having it for some time, it brought me back to memories of a kid on Saturday mornings when my mom would make it for breakfast.  What are some of your nostalgic foods and the memories they evoke?

My mom used to make a cake that consisted of a ton of eggs and sugar.  If she steamed it, it was a sponge cake.  If she baked it, it formed this beautiful, delicate, sugary top that was full of cracks like a dry lakebed.  I loved the top of that cake!  I would taste a bit, walk away, come back and taste some more.  I would eventually eat the entire top off the cake and leave the rest.  My four older sisters would complain, but I always got away with it.  It’s good to be the baby!

What Patti’s four sisters never got to see.

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