When cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bing received his apprenticeship training at the Central Motion Pictures Corporation, Taiwan’s largest studio and production company, he was exposed to elaborate lighting setups and shooting on sound stages. To the young cinematographer the sheer number and size (often large 10Ks) of the lights never felt quite right.
“We were just putting up lights because that was what was expected, but I never understood why,” Lee told IndieWire in a recent interview at MoMA, where a two-week retrospective of his 30 year career started on Friday. “You don’t always need more lighting — sometimes you put up a light and it kills the good light you already have.”
Courtesy Well Go USA Entertainment
Lee had his opportunity to test his ideas in 1985 when he met Hou Hsiao-Hsien, a young director who had his own distinct ideas of how movies should be made, along with his own frustrations with the large apparatus of filmmaking at the time. “Hou is focused on his script and working with his actors. He wanted them to be free,” explained Lee.
In their first collaboration on “A Time to Live, a Time to Die,” Lee started pulling down all the lights and working with practicals and small watt lights. Lee’s minimalist set-ups freed Hsiao-Hsien’s actors, whose movements no longer needed to be perfectly marked off and choreographed.
“People came to set to see what we were doing,” recalled Lee. “I remember one time, Hou’s old DP and gaffer asked, ‘Where’s the lights?’ They started making fun of me and tried to embarrass me.”
Courtesy of MoMA
Lee said he was aware people throughout CMPC were talking behind his back and he was gaining the reputation of being unprofessional, but this first collaboration with Hsiao-Hsien had freed him and he never looked back. Together, Hou and Lee helped changed the way films were made in Taiwan.
Lee started to explore working with natural light. For the first few films after “A Time to Live,” he would scout and study the light at locations during pre-production, but soon he even started to abandon this type of pre-planning.
“Every time you go shoot the light is different, it’s never the same as when you visit the location before,” explained Lee. “Moving outside the studio meant embracing giving up control. I like every day being a challenge.”
If you have ever seen one of the strikingly beautiful films shot by Lee, you know he’s not simply pointing the camera at the action and setting the exposure to capture the natural light. Lee insists the key to his work is to embrace the unique way natural light is working on that particular day and help shape the essence of what is beautiful about it.
“If the light is too white, I’ll add some tungsten to make it warm,” explained Lee. “If it’s too bright, I’ll cut the light. But I always work simply and fast.”
Courtesy of MoMA
Lee is best known for the ten films he shot for Hsiao-Hsien, who Lee explains gives him more freedom than any other director he’s worked with. “He gives me too much space and sometimes it makes me nervous,” laughed Lee. “He really doesn’t care about the image, even the angle of the camera. He’s so focused on his story.”
In their first few films there was little to no camera movement, but Lee felt strongly that it was time to change and told IndieWire, “even with beautiful and good films, you can’t always stay in one moment.”
On “Puppetmaster,” Lee kept trying to move the camera while they were shooting, but when screening the final cut he saw that Hsiao-Hsien had edited out all the shots with movement. Then, on “Flowers of Shanghai” which largely features scenes shot in one of three small rooms and actors seated at a table, Lee was determined to keep things visually interesting. He laid down track in the small room and would quietly direct his camera operator to move around the actors, sometimes focusing on characters who weren’t speaking.
Courtesy of MoMA
Whereas Hsiao-Hsien doesn’t pay attention to what Lee is doing while they shot, the cinematographer has worked with plenty of more visually focused directors, most notably War Kar-wai on “In the Mood for Love.”
“[Kar-wai] just watches the monitor and says, ‘no good’ and I’d make changes,” explained Lee. “He wasn’t specific. He knows what he wants, but you have to find it. He’s a very smart, very picky guy, who gets you working for his vision.”
Lee believes strongly that movies belong to the director. He’s very conscious of not trying to maintain a unique style of his own, but prides himself on following the lead of the director and adapting to their style. It’s this desire to explore a director’s vision that has led to his fruitful collaborations with other great directors like Tran Anh Hung, Tian Zhuangzhuang and Ann Hui.
The Criterion Collection
One new way Lee has recently adapted how works is by embracing digital cinematography.
“I think Hou and I were waiting for digital more than most people because of the way it worked, but when digital came in it [was] not good,” recalled Lee. “It looked good close up, but in long and wide shots the color and detail was missing, and so was the feeling.”
While shooting Hsiao-Hsien’s most recent film, “The Assassin,” the production took a three month break in the middle of production. Lee decided to use that time to experiment trying the newer generation of digital cameras and shot a Taiwanese film called “Sex Appeal” using Sony’s F65 digital camera. The great cinematographer was please with how the movie came out, but says the key was to ignore all the rules he was told about the camera and how to shoot digitally.
“They gave me a bible about what to do — shoot at this speed, use this setting — I destroyed that and then it looked good,” laughed Lee. “People couldn’t tell I’d switched from film to digital, so now I feel the technology is ready for me.”
“Luminosity: The Art of Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bing,” a retrospective of Lee’s greatest films, runs through June 30 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.