LEE Sung-jae, Director of Cinematography of CONFIDENTIAL ASSIGNMENT
by KIM Hyung-seok /
Mar 14, 2017
“You need to follow your gut along the way”
LEE Sung-jae has recently proved once more with his very powerful car chase scene in Confidential Assignment why today he is definitely among the most popular directors of cinematography in Korean film industry. LEE has been in close collaboration with NA Hong-jin from the beginning, at the time of their early short films. LEE was behind the camera of NA's The Chaser (2008) and The Yellow Sea (2010), and showed his great accomplishments in The Suspect (2013), by WON Shin-yun.
The car chase in Confidential Assignment is very impressive. Which approach did you have to make it stand out from similar scenes in other movies?
I design all my action scenes in such a way that you could keep them as single long takes, as long as the actors can keep up with it, and with wide shots, instead of relying on close-ups and fast editing. I did the same with the car chase scene. Cameras with wide lens were placed as close as possible to the cars, and I designed the action to be rather long, while also paying attention to the reactions of each character. In these circumstances, we could have ended up losing the sensation of speed, but for this car chase we used powerful cars that were running at around 100 km/h, which is actually 1.5 times faster than usual car chase scene. The scene in Itaewon also has the signature move of Confidential Assignment, since it is made of large perspectives and long takes too.
So I presume you must be good at shooting speedy scenes in a cityscape. The Suspect was especially impressive.
What was the most important in The Suspect was the feeling of real presence. The kind of real presence that you can feel in the middle of action, and through which the audience may feel the determination of the main character, and yes, that was the goal of the director. The camera had to be as close as possible to the action, and had to catch the reactions and facial expressions of the main character the whole time. As many as 10 cameras were used during this shooting. Each camera operator could freely use techniques such as quick zoom or handheld camera, depending on each’s tastes and choices.
You have been working with NA right from the beginning, when you were making short films. What would you say you learned from these collaborations?
NA is very careful, which made me rely more on my intuition and my discernment. NA always thinks there must be a better method than that, and I understand his qualms, but you also need to follow your gut along the way. That’s why working with him has always been fun, we were complementing each other.
What do you think is the most difficult part in creating the pictures that the directors have envisioned?
Because it is always very busy on the set, I try to talk a lot with the director before the beginning of the shooting. There is sometimes a disagreement or a conflict, and you must pick an option and discard all the other ones just because you are running out of time. That is the kind of difficulties we can have while shooting. Of course, there is no right answer.
I guess you must be a great fan of the Bourne series and Michael Mann's action films.
I like all of them. I am especially crazy about Heat (1995) and The Insider (1999). I must say The Insider has had a huge influence on my style of shooting, as it made me think a lot about the best way to shoot to reproduce reality. These days, I am very much into Paul Thomas Anderson's movies. I like the distance he keeps between the object and the camera, and also his perseverance in trying to do long contemplative shots.
Director YIM Pil-sung told me he wanted to show how a beautiful story could become spooky. He named a few examples, one of which was Tess (1979) by Roman Polanski. That film features the life of an unhappy person, but the pictures are paradoxically beautiful, as they represent the character in an artistic style that is somewhat theatrical. That became the main concept behind of Scarlet Innocence, and so I needed precise lighting and camera work.
At the beginning of career, you worked a lot as a lighting director. How did this experience affect your shooting?
As much as the camera angle, size and movement are important for a cinematographer, so is the lighting. My lighting style is not academic at all, and I didn’t get obsessed with lighting. But these days I am sometimes captivated by well-designed lighting.
How well do you think the DP system could work, if it was applied in Korean film production?
It has been a long time since the directors of cinematography and the directors of lighting have been working separately, but some of them made great teams along the way, through long partnerships, much like the DP system in other countries. As long as you can produce great pictures, it does not matter whether it is a DP system or not. For me, my lighting director is like a great gaffer, because we discuss every detail. Such interaction will gain momentum in the future. I think it is important to pay attention to the present, because the system will also evolve according to the changes of the environment.
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