Rain Li is recovering. She just wrapped her most physically arduous project yet, hand-operating the heavily improvised 75-location shoot of “Uncertainty” for directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel. The movie was supposed to be half-Steadicam, she explains, “but we had such a nightmare with the Steadicam guy that I literally handheld every shot for the movie.” That meant seven weeks of nearly 60 setups a day with a 40-pound camera on her shoulder.
“It’s very hard to be a female cinematographer,” says the 24-year-old Chinese dynamo. “I’ve been through so much rejection, people laughing at me. I’ve just been stubborn enough to work my way up.”
Li left home at 13, then moved to London and found work as a model, but decided that lighting fascinated her more than posing. At 16, she joined a filmmaking collective, working first as an electrician, then a camera assistant.
“When I first saw her, I saw what I should be,” says renowned Hong Kong cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who met Li four years ago on a London-based musicvideo.
Without asking to see a reel, Doyle invited Li to shoot a project for a Dries Van Noten runway show. He was committed to M. Night Shyamalan’s “Lady in the Water,” so they collaborated by phone. Liking what he saw, Doyle referred more jobs her way, mostly commercials and musicvideos like Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack,” before teaming up to shoot Gus Van Sant’s “Paranoid Park” together.
It took intimacy and trust to reach a point where he could relinquish control, but Doyle now feels so confident in her aesthetic that he asks Li to d.p. his own work, including his segment of “Paris je t’aime” (which she co-wrote) and his second feature, “Warsaw Dark.”
“It’s difficult to work with a director who is such a good cinematographer. They can’t help themselves from telling you exactly what they want,” says Li, who brings a technical expertise to the table that the self-taught Doyle doesn’t have.
“In many ways, I’m more Chinese than she is, and she’s more English than I could ever be,” he jokes.
Fave tool: “The Arricam because they’re so light and simple and easy to work handheld, and I love Cooke lenses. They have beautiful flares.”
Preferred film stock: Li swore by Kodak’s 320T until she met Christopher Doyle, who converted her to Fuji’s 400-T Eterna.
Inspiration: Frequent collaborator Doyle. “He’s like a kid,” she says. “I have to look after him every single day. Apart from cinematography, he’s absolutely incapable of doing anything else in his life.”
Up next: Shooting Doyle’s “Warsaw Dark” in Poland, then off to England and Spain for James Killough’s “Hatter,” followed by “Sea Changes” in Scotland for female directors Elizabeth Mitchell and Brek Taylor.
Reps: Jonathan Silverman and Devin Mann, Endeavor