Q: From your first film Suzhou River to Purple Butterfly and now Cinderella Moon, you’ve been the DP for an impressive array of films. Tell us a little about your background.
WY: I studied painting and still photography when I was in junior high. I grew up in the film business in China; my father was a prop man. I loved photography so much, I just kept doing it.
Q: Richard describes the film as having a “magic realism style.” How did you, as the DP, help to bring both magic and realism to the cinematography?
WY: I think the realism in magic realism needs to come first. Creating a magical look is not difficult; what’s important is making people believe that what they’re watching is true. The Chinese have a saying: “You can’t separate reality from illusion.”
Q: What photographs, paintings, films or other forms of inspiration came to mind for you when you and Richard conceived the film’s look?
WY: Richard and I spent a lot of time sharing images we loved and that we felt were relevant to the look we each imagined for Cinderella Moon. We took inspiration from the craziest places. It was very interesting that most of the pictures that inspired me were western and his were eastern.
Q: How would you describe your collaboration with the director, Richard Bowen?
WY: Both Richard and I are very visual people and, since we speak different languages, sharing the universal language of images was essential. It’s really interesting that the process of making films is universal. We do some things differently in China than Richard was used to in Hollywood, but they were small compared to all the things that are done the same. It was also very interesting to have another cinematographer as my director. In the most important way, we did speak the same language. We talked an enormous amount during our prep time about every little detail and by the time we started shooting we already knew what we were going after.
Q: How would you describe your collaboration with the production designer, Zhai Tao?
WY: Zhai Tao and I had never worked together, but we got along very well and I was always very happy with his sets and everything he gave us to work with visually. It freed me to be as creative as possible in that I never had to work around insufficient art direction.
Q: What was it like to work with an American director?
WY: Like me, Richard works from an emotional place, and we were both able to bridge the language barrier by speaking to one another through images. His approach is more “Hollywood” than mine, but we always found a way to meet in a middle place where the Chinese and western worked together.
Q: I know Richard had never shot a film digitally before Cinderella Moon and the films you are most famous for were all shot on film. What was it like to shoot a digital feature?
WY: I found it very easy and it was wonderful being able to see our high resolution dailies on the same night they were shot, even though we were working in very remote locations. If we had shot on film, there would have been about a week’s delay between shooting a shot and seeing it. That was a huge help. But, honestly, the work of a cinematographer isn’t determined by the equipment. We make pictures, we don’t “capture them,” as many people think. In that way, working with a digital camera changes very little.