With her second Primetime Emmy nomination in tow, Patti Lee, ASC, has helped change the face of multi-camera television one by one.
by David Geffner / Featured image of Sean Saves the World by Chris Haston / NBC
I first met cinematographer Patti Lee, ASC, on the Indie Filmfest racetrack about twenty years ago to shoot a feature film called Bunny, which was directed by Mia Trachinger with a crew of mostly other UCLA film graduates. And minutes after getting into a conversation, I knew (even back) that this was a person who was going to leave some deep mark on our industry. Full Disclosure: Little did I know Lee was going to add an ASC after her name, be nominated for two primetime Emmys in the multi-camera sitcom of all locations, or marry a two-time Emmy nominee, director Jennifer Arnold – but I could say that Lee was special in the best sense of the word.
Lee is smart, warm, kind, and eager to gain as much new knowledge about cinematography and lighting as her various mentors would ultimately provide. Lee has created a résumé over the past two decades that includes some of my favorite comedies – Sean Saves the World, Superior Donuts, Bob Hearts Abishola, as well as the new start of Mad About You. On the eve of the (strangest) Emmy Awards that Hollywood hasn't offered yet, ICG Magazine spoke to Lee on the phone about her brilliant career, including key aspects like lighting for the multi-camera format, inclusivity on set, and why she may have that Broken hearts of her Chinese-American parents when she chose filmmaking over medicine.
ICG Magazine: I think Patti Lee has a pretty cool origin story – can you share it with our readers? Patti Lee: When I came to UCLA, I was undeclared, but I always wrestled between a medical career and the arts, which are completely opposite majors. UCLA undergraduate film school doesn't start until you're a junior, and I was pretty blind to how hard that could be. So I just thought, I'm going to get all of my requirements (both for medicine and film school) because who knows where I might end up? After taking Chem-11A (chemistry) at UCLA, I realized that medicine was not for me (laughs). We had fifteen people enrolled in film school that year, and luckily I was one of them! Back then you were taken in with a portfolio of written work, not actual films, so I did a little bit of everything to dazzle you with my diverse abilities – I think it worked (laughs).
So you had no technical or other experience with filmmaking before you started film school? My dad had an 8mm camera, but that was his thing and we never touched it. My sisters, cousins and I went to my grandparents house every Monday and put on a show for the adults. We'd dance, sing, and play characters in The Newlywed Game! I did a lot of theater in high school, but that didn't seem like a viable option for making a living. When I grew up in Southern California, you know there is a big industry out there that hopefully has lots of jobs and does movies and television – so I decided to go to film school. In no time after starting out at UCLA (film), I fell in love with cinematography.
Have any other filmmakers from your UCLA class entered the industry? In fact, very few, if any, in my class now do this. But what happened is, I kept doing UCLA theses and short films for people and kept bumping into the next senior year and the next and the next … I'm still best friends with all of these people, including my wife, their UCLA -Degree thesis film I made.
You didn't go straight into cinematography – you started out in stage lighting and as a gaffer. Yes, I didn't get my first paid gig as a cameraman until the Bernie Mac Show, which was like 2004. I started with Grip and Elektro because I knew I wanted to be a cameraman, but these jobs were so rare. What happened is I got a call from a DP at USC who was part of a group that was doing a feature and they got hold of me and electrified me. Nobody on that crew really knew what they were doing, but at the end of the movie I tied myself to the (Location House) for power.
We met after you just shot Bunny, which got some nice attention on the indie film racetrack. Has this film advanced your career in any way? Bunny didn't do anything for my career (laughs). But it was a confidence builder, and I was allowed to travel to different festivals with Mia Trachinger, the director, and Rebecca Sonnenshine, the producer, where I met many filmmakers who are still friends. Bernie Mac was the first opportunity that allowed me to do more in a legitimate setting. and once you get your first opportunity on a network sitcom, others will follow suit. It's the first that's so hard to come by.
Bernie Mac is when you came to Local 600? Correct. I was previously a member of (IATSE) Local 728 (Electric) when I started working for Bernie Mac as a gaffer. I started bumping into it when (Director of Photography) Victor Nelli, Jr. came across Director. At some point, Victor started directing, and in season 4 I did a third of the episodes, and in season 5, I took on the role of DP. Bernie Mac was a single camera, which was all I had done up until then. In 2008, Bernie asked me to do a new sitcom for him that was multi-cam but wasn't recorded. It was on this show that I met (director) Andy Ackerman, who I later worked with a lot.
Did you get the feeling that there weren't very many people who looked like you when you started multi-cam? (Laughs) When I started multi-cam, there weren't a lot of women or Americans from Asia on set. But it didn't seem that important to advancing my career – experience was big key. However, as a gaffer I was an anomaly. People were fascinated by me on set and wanted to come and talk – but I had to finish work! Sometimes I would show up on set with my tools and people would ask … "Are you hair or makeup?" And i really like it Do I look like this is the department I should be working in? "
Has that changed when you booked more shows? Yes, it has definitely changed. But the people who would have had a problem with me because of my gender wouldn't hire me anyway, so I wouldn't even know if that's a problem. I've always taken my job very seriously and done my homework; and I've always been a good manager of people so feel like I've stood up (to the staff).
What was the next benchmark after Bernie Mac? It would result in multiple cameras being used on a regular basis. The format is so different from a single camera. When I started working with Andy (Ackerman) it was a lot less stressful working with multiple cameras. I've been to another pond where you don't skip to episodes very often. I was a mystery being one of the few women with multiple cameras – Brianne Murphy paved that path, of course – so people were curious about me. Whitney was the first true multi-cam show I did – two seasons with the second season shortened.
Who were your mentors at Multi-Cam? George Mooradian had me come to his set to see, according to Jim, what he had in the air, how the runs worked, and just the basic mood of the set. When I did the Bernie Mac Pilot, I knew I wanted to apply my experience with a camera and make it as cinematic as possible. We shot on film, which was not normal as Multi-Cam was already on video. With multi-camera shows now all digitally recorded, everything is immediately satisfactory. But back then it was a video tap so I really had to trust myself. I remember we had a huge variety of characters on set and I couldn't figure out why it kept getting so dark! It found that the wing cameras, which had 2000-foot magazines, were panning across the stage and completely blocking my fill light (laughs).
Where do you position yourself on today's multi-cam set? I have a cart with a monitor that allows me to switch between each camera or the quad split. For me, I like to stay on the ground because when I'm hidden in a room I can't hear what's going on. The deputy director gives each camera person their job, but I go to the operators between settings or pass things on through the headset when I need to adjust them. I will also speak to the assistant director if we need a different approach.
The format feels like a mix of live event / reality and scripted narration, especially with the lighting. My lighting experience spans many different genres – indie features, music videos, reality TV – and I feel like this gives me a lot of situations where I need to figure out how to work for multiple cameras in an uncontrolled or more controlled type of light lights chaos. I will say that multi-camera is not up to date technologically. When we find something that works, we stick with it for a while (laughs). Right now we are using the Sony F55 which are great cameras. Usually you have a video controller to assist you in dialing in the color. At Bob Hearts Abishola, we don't bake everything – we record log and then do more of our work in the final color class. I'm always in these evaluation sessions because I want to make sure that the editing area doesn't get too light or that whatever I've added that's special to the scene isn't taken away. The tendency is for colorists to curb everything hot, but I like to put something extra hot in the multi-cam lighting.
What kind of lenses do you usually use? For the most part, I like to use a Panavision 11: 1 zoom on my A and X cameras, and on the two middle cameras – B and C – I use the Fujinon 19-90mm. That has changed over the years as I have used the Fujinon 20-120 in the past. But it's a bit slower than a lens and I like to shoot wide open – usually with a 2.8 / 4 split. We have a DIT in Multi-Cam, but this job is different than in a single camera. The DIT does not handle color or media management. This person works more like an engineer and takes care of all of your equipment needs and everything is running smoothly and in terms of equipment.
Are your directors spinning like episodic with multiple cameras, leaving you and the showrunner as the main visual constant? You can turn. But I've been lucky enough to be on shows like Bob Hearts Abishola, where Beth McCarthy-Miller directed all of the episodes. or the shows I did with Andy Ackerman who generally did all the episodes. I prefer the single director approach as a short form is establishing itself which I believe will serve the visual appearance over time.
We can't pretend to know what makes Emmy voters tick. But was there anything special about the two episodes you were nominated for – Superior Donuts in 2018 and Bob Hearts Abishola in 2020 -? Both episodes had nocturnal elements that allowed for things you wouldn't normally see in a multi-camera set. Superior Donuts was a challenge because in one of the scenes Franco (Jermaine Fowler) was stuck on a billboard at night. It was something that was written at the last minute. When we pre-lit it was an empty stage as the set wasn't built. We put tape marks where the billboard would be, and the walls would probably be here (laughs). I spent a lot of time thinking about how the scene felt natural. I remember asking Jermaine to put more pigeon droppings on the railing to make it feel more like a real building! For Bob Hearts Abishola we had some very dark scenes that felt more cinematic, as well as some special camera movements. There is no audience on this show so the writers can perform in many locations. That makes for challenging sets, like when we brought a real city bus with a blue screen onto the stage. Where do you hide four cameras that are all rolling at the same time?
You recently rebooted Mad About You – how was that? I was a huge fan of the original show. I remember doing an ENG shoot in the 90s that had to be on set and I was super excited! When the restart came it was nice to be asked and meet Helen and Paul. But it was a little surreal to light the same house I'd seen on TV for so many years. We have the same carriers that were used on the original. Bobby Byrne was the DP of the original show, and they loved how she looked towards the end of her run. They asked me, "What are you going to do to make it look different?" I said, "If you love it that way, it shouldn't look so different. The sets are all being updated, as are the camera systems." They wanted it to look familiar but didn't get stuck in 1997.
I went to the ASC website and counted 15 active female members, each and every one of whom I know. You are the only Asian American woman and the only active female member in Multi-Cam. (Laughs) I'm still waiting for another DP woman to show up (with multiple cameras) but they never seem to come. It's one of the best jobs in Hollywood. The hours are great, you go home for dinner; Everyone on a multi cam set is really happy and it feels like a family atmosphere. (Pause.) I got into the ASC about 18 months ago. I was sponsored by George Mooradian, Johnny Simmons, Chris Chomyn, Wayne Kennan, and Steven Poster. Steven had asked me earlier in my career if I would like to be sponsored, but I didn't feel ready for it.
How is the conversation at the dining table between a woman who shoots multi-cam and her wife who stages hour-long dramas? (Laughs) Well, if you ask if we're both longing to swap careers, I certainly don't. I love having a very planned day, not having to travel or work 16 hours. I can also hire a lot of people with multiple cameras, between the camera, grip and electrical system. We have four dollies, so that's four operators, four first ACs, four dolly grips, two utilities, a DIT, a video controller, a second AC and then a gaffer, key grip, two best boys, a board operator and three of each . Because shows are shot on different days, I can have two crews working all the time, which we did at Mad About You and Bob Hearts Abishola. That's a lot of people in several unions that I continue to employ – which I'm very proud of.
Given this type of hirer, do you feel compelled to make your sets more inclusive – like gender, race, and LGBTQ union members? I definitely do. I am co-chairing the ASC Mentoring Committee with Todd Dos Reis who is part of the Vision Committee, and we put our money where our mouths are by trying to create more comprehensive sets. I pushed for all of my sets to look more like the whole world. Mad About You's Helen Hunt sought the same diversity across all departments.
Have you worked to bring more Asian-American filmmakers, second generation people like you, who grew up in LA, into this industry? I conducted seminars for Visual Communication's Armed With A Camera workshops. With this year's ASC Vision Mentorship Program, Todd and I awarded almost 100 mentorships with more than 650 applications. The difference between last year and this year is how much more diverse it is. A lot more women in our ranks than mentees and a lot more Asians and people of color from all over the world, which is great.
Given the number of people you hire for the camera, grip, and electrics, you want to make sure your devices are as secure as possible. What should it look like when the industry goes back to work? I already had a Zoom meeting with my camera department on Bob Hearts Abishola to hear about their concerns, such as the special equipment required. With a multi-cam set, the air conditioning is traditionally right next to the cameraman, who is right next to the dolly handle, and that's four cameras in close proximity. We'll be sending our camera assistants back to give them some space. Everyone has to wear their PPE and once the dolly handles are done they have to step back. I got calls from my crew who were working on other productions asking about issues they encountered and I tried to be a sounding board. The actors have to be safe too, of course, so let's try to figure out how best to go about it.
Will the pandemic have a lasting impact on the creative process? It could mean a lot more VFX than it does to background gamers who are the people who go nuts and who we least know. The writers may continue to write crazy stuff, and as always, it's up to the production team to figure out how to do it. I consider this to be another challenge as opposed to something disastrous or long lasting.
Did Local 600 help you and your crew during this time? You have been very active in ensuring that our members have accurate and up-to-date information, which I really appreciate. It's great to keep these newsletters out and the videos of (President) John (Lindley) and (National Executive Director) Rebecca (Rhein) make me feel like this union really cares about their membership. that we are protected and cared for.
How will newer digital workflows – such as 4K and HDR – affect shows with multiple cameras in the future? The first time I shot 4K, I was alarmed! We always try to make the look (in multi-camera format) softer and more forgiving, of course for the actors. In general, I don't see a need over 4K, which companies like Netflix and Sony are now mandating. We mainly work on sound days in which we can control the lighting. Control the highlights so that I don't see the benefit of even higher resolution workflows. And with 4K, the DPs are actually losing control because now in the mail they tend to get on as hard as they want. I haven't done an HDR show yet, but that would certainly mean I'd have to tone down the hot spots that I love to put on our walls before we even get into the color bay.
Right or Wrong: The comedic moments that separate the crew on set are just as funny at home when the episode airs? Not correct! There have been many times that I've laughed out loud at something on set and then when I see it at home I think, "It's not that funny, is it? (Laughs)