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Shutter Angles

Conversations with DPs, directors and below-the-line crew by Matt Mulcahey

“I Spent Nearly 14 hours Staring At That Lamp”: DP Paul Yee on Joy Ride

Four women sit in a storage room. They wear brightly colored clothes and accessories, but look mildly bewildered.Sabrina Wu, Ashley Park, Stephanie Hsu and Sherry Cola in Joy Ride

When you make your living in production, the relationship between work and time off can be a complicated one. After months of Fraturdays and Second Meal pizza at 2 a.m., you need to rest, decompress and resume the parts of your life that have been essentially paused during shooting. But stay off set too long and dread can fester—a fear of dwindling bank accounts, falling short on days for insurance and being usurped in your market’s hiring hierarchy.

Cinematographer Paul Yee is acutely aware of that delicate balance and how it feels when the equilibrium becomes askew. He took a self-imposed break from work at the end of 2019 to recharge after a grueling year. Before he could enter back into the fray, COVID shut down production. By the time he landed his first post-pandemic gig, Yee hadn’t stepped onto a set in 18 months. But after that famine came a feast. To start, Yee landed the first studio film of his career with Lionsgate’s Joy Ride, a comedy about four friends on a business trip gone awry in Asia. Shortly thereafter, he booked the HBO drama Reality. Both films hit release this year, while the Yee-lensed doc JessZilla has been making the festival rounds.

With Joy Ride hitting VOD as it winds down its theatrical run, Yee spoke to Filmmaker about recreating Asia in British Columbia, the challenges of lighting and framing an improv-heavy multi-cam studio comedy and how an awkwardly placed lamp led to a full-blown existential career crisis.

Filmmaker: You’re having quite the year. What’s it been like knowing you have these movies in the can—I think Joy Ride shot all the way back in mid-2021—and having to wait for them to get out into the world to see if they bring interesting new work your way?

Yee: People have been under the impression that I’ve been really busy lately because these movies are all coming out simultaneously, but it’s actually a culmination of several years of work on films that all happened to wrap up around the same time. At the moment, though, I am “between projects,” as they say.

Filmmaker: Any producers or directors reading this—Paul is available.

Yee: Yes. [laughs] There have been a few inquiries since Reality premiered, but it’s a weird time because everything is so slow right now [with multiple guilds on strike]. But I do hope Reality and Joy Ride will connect me with filmmakers who are looking to make something special.

Filmmaker: You had about an 18-month stretch that coincided with the start of COVID where you basically didn’t step foot on set. That sounds extremely anxiety-inducing.

Yee: That was a super dry work period for a lot of people, and it was particularly dry for me. Starting in late 2018, I filmed the second season of Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas, a limited series for the CW called Two Sentence Horror Stories and then Veena Sud’s The Stranger, all back-to-back-to-back. I was extremely burnt out at the end of 2019, and I was like, “I’m going to take a little break and spend some time with my family.” A few months later, I texted my agent to let her know I was ready to go back to work. A week later Tom Hanks got COVID and the NBA started cancelling games.

Filmmaker: Those both seemed to be important markers in America that COVID was something to be taken seriously.

Yee: Yeah, those were bellwethers for sure. Another one for me was Eliza Hittman’s movie Never Rarely Sometimes Always. I had tickets to see it and reluctantly decided it was safest not to go. Unfortunately, I’ll always associate that movie with the early pandemic lockdown. 

Filmmaker: I feel the same way about the Vin Diesel movie Bloodshot. I went to see it a week before COVID really hit the fan not knowing that it was going to be the last movie I’d see in an indoor theater for a year. Not my best moviegoing decision. So, after Tom Hanks, the NBA and Bloodshot, everything starts shutting down—including production work.

Yee: Yeah, and I have a young child who had just turned three at the time. Fear of giving it to anybody in my family added an extra layer of reluctance about returning to work. As time went on and the vaccine rolled out, I was seeing pretty much all of my colleagues return to work. It really felt to me like I was the last cinematographer to be offered any work. There was a wave of anti-Asian American violence during COVID and there was a project filming in New York that was a PSA specifically about that. They reached out and asked if I was available for it and I was like, “Yes! Absolutely!” Then they looked at my reel and ended up flying in a DP from L.A. to do that job. (laughs)

Filmmaker: Damn. That stings.

Yee: It really made me wonder if I just didn’t have a place in this industry anymore. At that point it had been over a year since I’d worked at all. 

Filmmaker: I think a lot of crew people think about that at some point during slow periods. Like, what the hell else do I even know how to do to make a living? 

Yee: Yeah. I had this harsh realization that I had to be on set just to survive and that I really wasn’t qualified to do anything else. On top of that, my family and I were getting health insurance through my union, so the wellbeing of my partner and child was also connected to work. There’s actually another sort of long story about my first job back after I didn’t get that PSA, if you have time for it.

Filmmaker: Absolutely.

Yee: So, my first actual job back was on Zach Heinzerling’s true crime documentary Stolen Youth, which is on Hulu. I was brought in just to do a couple interviews and, like I said, it was my first job back on set in about 18 months. The subjects of the documentary were abuse survivors, and they did not trust anybody. So, no one was allowed on set [once we started shooting] except for Zach. It was a three-camera setup where I had an incredibly short amount of time, maybe three hours, and the set-up couldn’t change for the entirety of the interview. Once they started rolling, no one was allowed to go into the room. I thought the set-up looked pretty great—really natural, but also contrasty and textured. At the last second a set decorator asked me if I wanted a lamp on a side table that was in the middle of the wide shot. I decided we should have one, because the table felt empty. We started filming and about an hour in, all I could focus on was the lamp. It was right in the middle of the frame, and I felt like it really drew attention away from the subject. I couldn’t pull it out, though, because it had already been established. We ended up staying in that set-up for two whole days and I spent nearly 14 hours staring at that lamp, at first slightly annoyed and then having a full-blown existential crisis. I kept thinking, “This is why you’re not in demand. Because you make decisions like putting a lamp in the middle of a shot right behind someone’s head.”

Filmmaker: How long after that shoot did you land Joy Ride? I hope you weren’t beating yourself up over that lamp for like three months.

Yee: I had met [Joy Ride director] Adele Lim in 2019 and I had already been through a few rounds of interviews for Joy Ride [by the time I worked on Stolen Youth]. At no point, though, did I think that I would book the job. It was just so far outside of my experience. I’d never done a studio movie, a multi-cam comedy or a project with that sort of budget. Adele really pushed for me as the DP. It was really courageous of her. The easy thing would have been to go with a DP who had a lot of experience working with multi-cam studio comedies, especially since it was her first time directing. Thanks to her, I can say I’ve worked on a studio movie. She’s opened that door for me and I’m incredibly grateful.

Filmmaker: I was surprised to find out after seeing the film—which is set in the suburbs of the Pacific Northwest as well as China, South Korea and France—that you did pretty much all of principal photography in Vancouver.

Yee: We shot 100% in British Columbia. It’s been really heartening for me that a lot of people have reached out and been like, “What was it like shooting in Asia?” And I’m like, “I have no idea.”

Filmmaker: Does British Columbia have many areas or architecture that can pass for China with minimal set dressing or did the production design team really do some heavy lifting?

Yee: Michael Norman Wong, our production designer, did an exceptional job with creating or building an authentic view of Asia. During the scouting process, Michael and Adele would talk about what these spaces would actually be like in China or Korea. That’s something that Michael really brought to the table that I couldn’t. I don’t have that experience traveling through Asia and paying attention to those sorts of details the way he does. Michael and his team also dressed our locations pretty much 360, so we could film in any direction.

Filmmaker: Let’s talk about how that relates to coverage. It’s an ensemble comedy, so you’re often looking in multiple directions, because you have a ton of scenes with all four of the leads. That must make faking Vancouver for Beijing exponentially harder.

Yee: As with most multi-camera productions, we were often compromising our camera angles for usability. But again, Michael did such excellent work building our sets and locations that we were rarely worried about revealing that we weren’t, in fact, in Asia. The sheer quantity of necessary coverage was definitely a challenge, though. There could be as many as ten characters interacting and moving around and usually the blocking was established on the day. So, Adele and our actors would find the scene in rehearsal, we’d do a step through for marking and the floor would inevitably be covered in a crazy mess of colored tape marks. Something interesting I realized was that my happiness with the frames diminished as the scenes progressed. We always started with a wide master that highlighted the most interesting part of the set and that would, for the most part, lock in the blocking for the scene. Then as we pushed through the scene, the angles started to become a bit more awkward because you’ve established a character’s position and their close-up might be in front of a weird plant or an empty window and there’s really not much you can do to make it look nicer.

Filmmaker: And you can’t just shift one of the actors to cheat the background to something more appealing because you’re cross-shooting with three cameras. So, shifting one of them creates a domino effect that is going to alter the frame and the lighting for the other two shots.

Yee: Absolutely. And we’re shooting in the Judd Apatow style where pretty much every character gets a dedicated close-up so that they can do a run of alt lines and jokes, and that can go on for quite a while. A lot of incredibly funny material came from that process but, from a camera perspective, in order to give them that space for those jokes to work, you want each actor to be in a close-up with an eyeline that’s tight to camera.

Filmmaker: And if you’re cross-covering to get the other actor’s reactions, those tight eyelines mean the other camera is going to get into your frame.

Yee: Yes, so you are always compromising on one of the overs. From a lighting perspective, you can’t frontally light somebody in a cross-coverage situation, because the light will be in the other camera’s shot. We ended up doing a lot of overhead soft boxes that the rigging crew could build into our locations, then we would supplement on the floor with small LED units. Our gaffer Todd Lapp and key grip Melissa Beaupre were incredibly adept at rigging a soft box anywhere. For an early scene in a living room, the grips stretched pipe spreaders across the room and built a makeshift grid. We then attached LED Titans to the top of the grid that were bouncing up into the ceiling and returning through an 8×8 combo of Lite Grid and bleached muslin that we hung about a foot below the spreaders. It was an incredibly broad and flattering light that enabled us to film probably a dozen different three camera set-ups in just under six hours.

Filmmaker: Let’s talk about a simpler scene in terms of coverage. There’s a scene where Lolo [Sherry Cola] and Baron Davis [playing himself] are on a hotel room couch recreating their favorite sex noises. I’m assuming most of that is ad-libbed. Does that render the wide shot basically useless for most of the scene because that alt coverage isn’t going to match the continuity of what was done in the wide?

Yee: The masters for a scene like that were basically used so that the performers could get a sense of the blocking and a rhythm of what the scene is, but for the most part those types of scenes live in the close-ups and in single shots.

Filmmaker: Joy Ride certainly isn’t a $100 million tentpole movie, but, as you said, it was a big jump up in budget for you. On smaller projects like your movie The Fits, budget often dictates the tools you use in terms of the camera package and lens set. What was the gear selection process like on Joy Ride? Did you have carte blanche to use whatever you wanted?

Yee: I was given the freedom to decide on pretty much whatever digital camera that I wanted to use. I spent a good bit of time in prep visiting different camera houses and trying out all the different large format lenses. Ultimately, we ended up going with Arri Rental for their proprietary DNA LF lenses, which add a beautiful texture to the image and have some really unique characteristics. The Alexa Mini LF was also the ideal camera for us because we had so many tight locations and the wider field of view with the large sensor allowed us to get wider without distorting the extremes of the image. We also used a “red-tuned” set of DNAs from Arri Rental in Vancouver for a few specific scenes set in Seoul. That set had an even more extreme cat’s eye bokeh at the edges of the frame.

Filmmaker: Which scenes did you use those lenses for?

Yee: We used them for everything with Daniel Dae Kim, including the scene where Audrey [Ashely Park] finally sees a video of her birth mother. That scene has long been one of my favorites. Joy Ride is a raunchy comedy, but at its core is a journey about a woman finding her birth mother. That duality is one of the things I love most about the movie. There were three versions of that video from her birth mother, and they were all so powerful. There was a tone reference read in Adele’s lookbook, another one we did on our camera test day and then ultimately the one performed on location. Every single iteration moved me to tears, so it was daunting to know that we had this incredibly moving scene between a mother and daughter, and we’d already recorded one side of it. I felt a pressure to earn that powerful moment. I know that’s outside my purview as a cinematographer, but I feel a responsibility to help the director maintain a movie’s tone. It was always in the back of my mind that this crazy comedy with a K-pop music video and slap fights would eventually arrive at this heartbreaking scene.

When we finally got to film the scene, it was a crazily scheduled day. We had a big company move and then probably ten pages to get through in eight hours, plus it started to rain heavily, which added an additional layer of anxiety to the set. Fortunately, we’d designed the lighting of the house to be a fully tented soft box. Basically, every window and glass door was a booklight. We had an Ultrabounce a few feet off the glass that we bounced a SkyPanel into, and that indirect light illuminated the set’s transparent, cream-colored curtains. It created this all-around ethereal glow and also protected us from the inevitable loss of natural daylight. Even though we were moving along at a decent clip, we still ended up very short on time to film the scene where Audrey watches the video. That honestly felt miserable— knowing that we needed to film the emotional climax of the movie and that we had all the right tools and talent, but we had to rush because we were running out of time. Once we started rolling on the scene, my anxiety about honoring that moment just melted away. Ashley’s performance was so good, and it calmed my nerves about being able to earn that moment in the movie. 

Now that it’s all done and I’ve seen the movie more than a dozen times, that scene still gets me every time, and I think that’s a testament to not just the performances but also Adele’s work balancing the movie’s tone and navigating between different genres. A funny detail about that scene is that because we were so tight for time, we actually didn’t manage to finish filming all of the house inserts. The last thing we owed was the insert of the laptop that Audrey is watching the video on. We ended up filming it on a stage day while the A-camera was filming greenscreen dance performances for the K-pop video. So, it was this weird dichotomy where one side of the studio was basically filming a party where people were dancing and cheering and thirty feet away we were filming the reverse angle of the saddest scene in the movie. That moment basically captured the movie in a nutshell—a world that is brimming with joy, laughter, sex and noise, with a really heartfelt journey at its core.

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