Photo: MICHAEL YARISH/CBS
Patti Lee first got her start in the business as an electrician and worked her way up the ranks to gaffer and lighting director before moving into the camera department, so her view as a cinematographer now comes with a full-360 understanding of the technical elements necessary to capture a perfect shot. The two-time Emmy nominee overall is back on the multi-camera series cinematography ballot this year, for the first time since 2018, for her work on CBS’ “Bob Hearts Abishola.”
What inspired you to start your career in lighting and then move into the camera field?
That was by accident. When I got out of film school I definitely thought I was going to be heading toward the cinematography route, and from what I saw, a lot of people were becoming camera assistants and then operators and would move their way up the ladder that way. I got a call from this one DP [who] was working on a really low budget feature, wondering if I was interested, and I said, “Of course. Are you looking for a camera assistant?” And he said, “I’ve got camera assistants coming out of my ears; I’m looking for grips and electricians.” I said, “Sign me up!” I was fresh out of film school, and I ended up doing it and really fell in love with it and realized there was so much more to learn, lighting-wise. I felt that camera-wise, you would set up the camera and there’s always going to be different lenses — at at the time it was film so I had to load magazines — but you’re basically building the same camera. With lighting, every single time you go to a different location you’re doing something extremely different. It was a lot about problem-solving and trying to pull from your own experience to emulate how [certain things] feel. And there’s many different ways of achieving the same thing, so it’s like a puzzle.
How important did that additional technical knowledge, hands-on experience and, quite frankly, crew connections become in helping you shift into camera later?
I basically got my first real opportunity to bump up and become a paid cinematographer on “The Bernie Mac Show.” I started as the gaffer and basically the DP, Victor Nelli Jr., started bumping up to direct every so often and so I got pulled up. All during that time I had been shooting low, low budget projects; working as a gaffer on middle-size projects and a lot of television and working on some big features as an electrician — so it was interesting because I was working in multiple capacities in multiple tiers of production. It was great being able to switch gears and be able to function in all of those worlds. Having all of that experience and going to be the DP on “The Bernie Mac Show,” I don’t think it was difficult, but it was still trying. Because when I was a gaffer I would be able to go into any location and, automatically, my brain would look at everything and lay it out: This is where the generator goes, this is where the cables go, this is how we’re going to get into this room. But all of a sudden I had to switch gears and look at things from a new standpoint and make a point of designing my shot before I could even talk about lighting. It was definitely a learning experience, but the hardest thing is getting the first opportunity.
Speaking of, how have you noticed opportunities changing for women in these fields since you started?
When I first started as an electrician people had never worked with a female electrician before — but even to this day people are like, “Oh I’ve never worked with a female cinematographer.” Even though people would talk about diversity or inclusion, it wouldn’t always happen. But I’m on the vision committee at the ASC because as a woman and a person of color, we don’t see a lot of that representation in our business and we believe in making an effort — that in our own home, we’re pulling people up that look more like the world around us. It’s sometimes difficult in a multi-camera situation [though] because you can’t just hire anybody for camera crews because they are more specialized, so it’s about making sure people get trained in a certain way so they get the opportunity. My “Bob Hearts Abishola” crew is not as completely inclusive as I would like it to be; we made an effort but last year I also shot “Mad About You” and we did a great job there.
What are the challenges to multi-camera today that makes the skills needed more specialized?
Part of the challenge is having to shoot everything at the same time — how do we hide ourselves and not see each other in the reflection and also get a satisfying frame for everybody? And you don’t want to just make the lighting flat, so everybody can see everything; you still want the shots to look pretty. And you can’t always put your lights where you want to because the lighting mostly has to come from the top. We are able to hide lights behind things — with the advent of LED lighting the profile of things is much smaller so we can sneak things into places we never could before. So we are pushing boundaries and making things to our taste, but it’s hard because you have to think about the best way to put it together.
Is there anything else you wish you could change about the format or shooting style?
In the end, with a multi-cam it’s all about the words and the acting, so I wish we could put the cameras closer to the actors. We’re usually about 13 feet away, and it’s perfect for COVID times but one of the things I would love is to be able to bring them in a little closer. But if you get any closer, you run the risk of running in each other and getting each other’s ways. The camera style have been around since the “I Love Lucy” days and it’s an animal that you don’t fix too much because it’s tried and true.
Looking at “Ice Cream for Breakfast,” the “Bob Hearts Abishola” episode for which you are nominated now, were there rules you had to create about shot styles in the usual home sets versus the special swing sets of a restaurant and pharmacy?
The thing about “Bob Hearts Abishola” is that because there is no audience we are able to put cameras wherever we want, so they initially built sets that are beyond the scope of a normal multi-camera set — almost every single set goes beyond the normal camera aisle. So it is almost like a single-camera set; we just happen to shoot more like 270-degrees. So for us I don’t know that we have so many rules about things we cannot do. We do have the ability to use Steadicam more, or using a Techno Jib or other things that we don’t always get on a multi-cam. But you do want to avoid being distracting: It’s not about making one particular shot work, it’s about making the whole scene work.
What part of the episode felt the most unique or extra satisfying to you?
Some of the scenes I liked the most were the ones set at night, like when Dottie is reaching, calling for help on the baby monitor. It’s always difficult to create night time or darkness for a sitcom because you want to see people, but you want to give in some mood.
What is it that you still really love about the format that keeps you working in it in general?
One of the things that makes multi-cam so interesting to me is having that live stage production where you are throwing jokes at people for the first time. You want to make sure it goes off without a hitch and everything needs to be right about it. The camera people are as much a part of making sure the play goes of as the actors [are]. It’s about all things contained and landing the joke and people feeding off of each other too.