Born and raised in Los Angeles, as the youngest of five daughters,, ASC “always had someone to break the path for me,” she says. “But that all changed when I chose to go into the film industry.”
When she was growing up, Lee’s grandparents owned a Chinese restaurant, and when the cinematographer was only 12, she worked on weekends, juggling two phone lines, seating customers and making wonton and paper-wrapped chicken. As she moved into high school, Lee joined the drama department and was drawn to directing and running the light board. This interest brought her to the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, where she says films like The Bicycle Thief, M and Le Samourai changed her. “I not only saw the beauty of the images, but I acutely felt the emotions they evoked. I wanted that same power to transform,” she explains.
Following graduation, Lee joined the set lighting teams of ASC presidentand members , and . Lee remarks that these opportunities allowed her to gain firsthand knowledge of how large-scale productions operated. At the same time, she served as a gaffer on television projects and cinematographer on low-budget films.
Lee’s break came, she says, when she was hired as a gaffer on season three of The Bernie Mac Show and finished seasons four and five as the director of photography. “Bumping up was a welcome challenge,” she notes. “I finessed the look of the show to suit my taste while maintaining its tone, [and] I successfully navigated the politics of the set and earned a new level of professional respect.”
After the show wrapped, star Bernie Mac asked Lee to photograph his next project, which was a multi-camera pilot. Despite having never shot a multi-camera project before, Lee embraced the challenge. She visited, ASC on the set of one of his multi-camera projects and “discovered the complexity of lighting a proscenium show for a studio audience,” she says. “I combined this new knowledge with my single camera experience and put my own spin on the form.”
In the decade since, Lee has served as director of photography on more than 25 television shows, pilots and features. In 2018, Lee made history as the first woman ever nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Cinematography for a Multi-Camera Series for her work on the television series Superior Donuts.
In addition to her television work, Lee says, “I continued to seek personal and rewarding projects — stories that might move an audience the way cinematic classics moved me in my youth.” In 2010, Lee collaborated with her wife, director, to photograph and produce the documentary A Small Act. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and audiences, so moved by the story, donated $90,000 to the education foundation featured in the film. Following the documentary's run on HBO, over $2 million was raised. A Small Act was named one of the best films of the year by critic Roger Ebert and received a 2011 News & Documentary Emmy Award nomination for Best Documentary.
Lee’s recent projects include the television series Living Biblically and the television movies Mean Jean and Pandas in New York.