Young DoP Rain Li explains how her relationship with cinematographer-turned-director Christopher Doyle is crucial to her career.
Born in Beijing in 1983, Rain Li grew up believing that cinema was a propaganda tool used by the government to brainwash people. As a teenager she moved to England, and was working as a part-time model when she discovered the power of lighting. “I loved how lighting affects our mood, our perceptions of people and objects, and how it creates atmosphere,” Li explains. “I became a trainee electrician on commercials and music videos, then a qualified electrician.”
Being of slight build, however, the heavy work of a gaffer took its toll on Li, so she moved into the camera department. “I learnt how camera shutter, focus and movement work closely with lights to capture action and performance, to create a magical visual language and a platform to make the audience experience a story instead of just understanding it.” But being a young Asian female in the male-dominated world of cinematography wasn’t plain sailing. “I always knew the journey wasn’t going to be easy but I didn’t think it was going to be that hard. I think my age was more against me than anything else [but] after having spent a day working with those people, they usually changed their minds about me. When I talk about visuals, I’m very technical, as a result of being a lighting camera technician for several years, as well as being intellectual in the way I see life and beauty.”
A good partnership is based on trust and working out the best way to complement each other.
Li’s big break came when she worked as Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s assistant, which led to her being the DoP on his directorial debut, Warsaw Dark. “We had collaborated on various projects for three years, including Paris, je t’aime and Paranoid Park, so it was natural for us to work together on his film. Chris is an incredibly generous person in life, but when it comes to cinematography, he just doesn’t know how to let it go! It was very hard to work with one of the best DoPs in the history of cinema as my director, but it’s also one of the best things that ever happened to me as a cinematographer. I wouldn’t be where I am today without Chris’s trust in me.
“The relationship between the director and the DoP is one of the most important in filmmaking,” Li continues. “There has to be a working chemistry between the two, otherwise it would be a painful experience and would have a terrible effect on the quality of the film. In my opinion, a good partnership is based on trust and working out the best way to complement each other. The director is the biggest factor for me in choosing the projects I work on. We will discuss the script in detail, but my job is to find the appropriate visual rhythm to complement and enhance the story, without overdramatising it. We work out a way to make the visuals in synch with the performance and make it flow with all the other elements. Directors do have the final say on the framing and look because it’s his or her film, but it is a collaborative decision and I have been very fortunate to have worked with many extraordinary directors who trust me and have given me the freedom to create something together with them.” ♦
Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 17 (May/June 2010)
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