HomeBad Ass AsiansNewest Voting Member of the Oscars grew up near NY's Chinatown

Newest Voting Member of the Oscars grew up near NY’s Chinatown

By Shirley Ng, AsAmNews Staff Writer

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has long been problematic with the lack of diversity in their voting membership. Who can forget the trending hashtag, #OscarSoWhite and #WhiteWashedOUT, calling out the predominantly White members and nominees in 2015? 

Since then, The Academy has been slowly working to do a better job in representing the diverse workforce in the film industry by adding more people of color both as voting members and as nominees. 

Meet Wing Lee, the newest voting member of The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, more commonly known as “The Oscars, but we’ll use “The Academy” for short in this interview. Lee joins Awkafina and Constance Wu as some of the newest Asian American voting members in The Academy.

Lee works as a both an art director and production designer. He’s designed a number of sets including the set for World News Tonight on ABC when Peter Jennings debuted as anchor. He’s also worked on the television program, Ugly Betty as well as such movies as Revenge of the Green Dragons with Ray Liotta, Justin Chon and Harry Shum Jr, and the upcoming The Paper Tigers with director Tran Quoc Bao.

Lee moved from Macau at the age of three to New York City with his family. He was raised in the Lower East Side and lived in the New York City’s low-income public housing known as the Alfred E. Smith project, just a block from Chinatown till 1987.

He spent a lot of time in Chinatown and attended PS1 elementary school and Brooklyn Technical High School. He has a masters in Fine Arts from the Yale School of Drama. Now in his 60’s, Lee says he can still speak some limited Toisan and “bad semi Cantonese,” as he describes it. He now lives in Brooklyn, but still comes into Chinatown to see friends and dine in his favorite restaurant, Wo Hop on Mott St.

Wing Lee in front of his favorite restaurant, Wo Hop on Mott St. in Chinatown. Credit: Shirley L. Ng

1. What does it mean for you as an Asian American to now become a voting member of The Academy ?

It is with honor and pride to be part of this fraternity of talented artists and filmmakers. I hope to use my voice at the table to represent all that is exciting, honest, imaginative and cutting edge in motion pictures. 

2. How were you considered to be invited to be one of the voting members of The Academy?

To be considered for membership into The Academy, I needed to be sponsored by two members of The Academy in the Production Design branch. The two nominating individuals must submit a written statement on my behalf as to why they feel I should be considered for membership citing my qualifications, credits, and character. I do not get to dictate or see what they submit. After that, there is a period where I am vetted by The Academy and Production Design branch where they determine if I am whom my sponsors say I am and my qualifications and film credits are verified. Once this is all confirmed I was sent an announcement welcoming me into The Academy.

3. Did you know you were being nominated to be a voting member?

Yes, I knew I was being nominated. I received an email in June 2020 welcoming me to The Academy.

4. How long is your membership in The Academy?

I believe membership is lifetime or until I decide I no longer wish to be a member or The Academy no longer wants me as a member. 

5. What is the process in which you will vote? You have to screen all the nominated films? Do you only get to vote in the category of your line of work? 

Nowadays the voting is done online through The Academy website. 

At first, I was only able to vote on nominations for, ”Best Production Design,” “Best Picture,” “Best Animated Feature” and I think, “Best Documentary,” but I learned that in the final round of voting this week I am allowed to vote in any and all of the 23 categories nominated. 

So in addition to Best Picture, Best Production Design and Best Animated Feature, I can vote in all other branches such as Best Director, Best Actor, Supporting Actor, Music, Editing, Script, etc.Best Picture is pared down to 8 choices while every other category has 5 choices. I can abstain from voting on anything I don’t feel I have enough knowledge of or if I haven’t seen the films nominated for that particular award.

6. What category would you like to add in The Academy?

One category I would like to see added is stunt work. Many of the movies we make and like to watch are stories that depend on action, fights, chase scenes etc. to tell the story and make it exciting. All of this involves imagination, choreography, science, and planning. Much of this is quite risky and dangerous to pull off. I feel the ones involved in crafting these stunt scenes in the pursuit of excellence in motion pictures should be given full recognition. 

On the set of, “Cop Land,” in 1997. The water tower was built in 1/3rd scale as part of the distant background.” in 1997.

7. What is your exact title? Art director or Production Designer when you work?

I’ve worked under both titles at various times throughout my career.

The titles are different from one another. The Production Designer is the head of the Art Department and makes all the creative decisions. Depending on the scope and needs of the film, some of the key personnel that make up the Art Department are the Art Director, Set Decorator, and Property Master.

If there is set construction needed, there would be a Construction/Fabrication Department and a Scenic painting Department. The Art Director can be described as being the executive officer of a naval vessel if you think of the Production Designer as the captain. 

8. Did you have a natural talent in art that led you down this career path? 

I don’t know what I had, but I ended up really liking what I’ve been doing and hopefully doing it well. I had majored in illustration and graphic design, along with drawing and painting in art school.

I took what I learned and applied it as a Production Designer. Film is similar to illustration, is a kind of visual storytelling. So much of what we choose as a career path can be linked to one’s particular interests and personality. I was always interested in pursuing an art related career and found I enjoyed the collaborative aspect of filmmaking where I can use my sketching and art abilities to communicate and convey ideas.

Using visual research, we create the world where the story takes place. I also liked the involvement in the nuts and bolts end of designing sets, scouting locations and running the Art Department. The Production Designer is part designer, part artist, part architect, part painter, part draftsman, part sketch artist, part collaborator, part social observer and part history buff rolled into one. 

9. How did you land your first job in the industry?

My first job in the industry was as a set designer at ABC Television for the news and sports departments. ABC was introducing a new prime time news set for Peter Jennings and additional help was needed. The person who was the lead designer left before the project was completed and I was asked to take over. I ended up staying at ABC for a number of years designing for news, sports and various soap operas.

10. Chinatown has been used as a backdrop for many films and television shows. They seem to always hang up red lanterns as the identifying marker that the scene or location is in Chinatown. Would you do something differently? Or not use anything at all?

Whether I would do it differently depends on what happens in the scene and what it is required. There are many reasons for using paper lanterns as set dressing in Chinatown. Look at Chinatown now. Lanterns are hung all over. Sometimes we need a source of light to film the scene, sometimes you want a bit of movement in the background like on a windy day and sometimes you just want to tell the audience that they’re in Chinatown. I call it the three E’s. To help tell a story, sometimes we need to enhance, embellish and exaggerate a bit. 

Wing Lee assisting world-renowed theatre designer, Ming Cho Lee at his studio in the summer of 1983. Ming Cho Lee received the Tony Award for his design for Broadway play, “K2,” that year.

11. Were there other Asians doing what you were doing then? How many do you know?

If there were other Asians doing what I was doing at the time, I only knew of one and it was Akira Yoshimura who was the Production Designer on Saturday Night Live. My professor at the Yale School of Drama, Ming Cho Lee was an internationally recognized giant in theater design and has won two Tony Awards for this in addition to receiving the National Medal of Arts from President George H.W. Bush in 2002. 

The film industry has opened up to more Asians and other minorities since. Pursuing a career in the arts was generally not encouraged in traditional Chinese families. Most people outside the film industry do not know what a Production Designer does nor the fact that you can make that a career choice.

12. Are there more men or women in your field?

At one time there were more men than women in my field and though that gap has gotten narrower in recent years, there is still a ways to go. 

13. What were some of the challenges you had in your career?

Every film, and show has their own particular challenges unique to the project. My job as the Production Designer falls somewhere between creating a visual style, and serving the script and Director. What I do can be described as telling the unwritten part of the story. 

There is also a budget and a schedule that everyone must adhere to in addition to a level of management and leadership which I have to exhibit. 

 During the early part of my career as I was starting out, I realized that many in the industry had never encountered someone like myself with my particular job title, which came with a certain amount of authority and responsibility. Like any “rookie”, I was inexperienced at first, made mistakes, learned from them and survived with on-the-job learning and developing a thick skin. Navigating through this was tricky and difficult. 

The systemic racism and glass ceiling was both overt and subtle, depending on who I was dealing with and what the situation was. It was a balance of finding ways to work around it and winning people over. There were also a great many open minded, generous people who took a chance on me, giving me the encouragement and support instrumental in getting  me where I am today.

14. What is one of your most favorite films that you worked on you and why?

The Paper Tigers is one of the best films I worked on for a number of reasons. This is an independent film written and directed by Bao Tran with a plot centered around martial arts.

When he and his producers shopped the project around Hollywood, there was certainly interest in it, but on the condition that certain Asian characters would be replaced by White characters. Bao and his team decided to turn down the larger offers, choosing to remain true to telling their own story.

The budget was minimal, but with a lot of passion and hard work, we pulled it off. This was indeed a story about Asians, written and directed by an Asian with Asians in front of and behind the camera.

It went on the festival circuit garnishing rave reviews and picking up awards in LA and Boston. Audiences really seem to like it.  A distributor picked it up and it’s slated for a theatrical release in the Spring of 2021.  I had a great time on it and met many fabulous and talented people in the Seattle film community. 

(The Paper Tigers will be opening in NYC at the Village East Cinema Angelika on Second Avenue on May 7th.)

Wing Lee working on location on the film, “Three Seasons,” in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam 1997. A temple was designed and built in the middle of a lake filled with white lotuses.

15. Which film was the most challenging?

Three Seasons was quite challenging. The story took place in Vietnam around Ho Chi Minh City. One of the major sets was a temple on a lake filled with white lotuses which I had to design and get built. On the first day of filming we were met with a typhoon. The weather was extremely hot and humid and rained a lot.

I didn’t speak Vietnamese, so I had a translator for all my communicating, so getting things done became very slow. The film support infrastructure I was used to in the states simply did not exist in Vietnam. In addition there was corruption, government spies and censors we had to deal with.  Because I was away for so long, I also missed my family. 

16. Which film did you work on that you are most of proud of?  

Three Seasons was a film I’m most proud of and in spite of the difficulties. It was one of the best and most unique film experiences I’ve had. It was the first film to receive all three major awards at the Sundance Film Festival; Best Cinematography, the Audience Award and the Grand Jury prize.

17. Was there a time when you were working that something from your experience being raised in the Lower East Side and Chinatown influenced how you designed the set?

Revenge of the Green Dragons comes to mind. The storyline was familiar to me as I grew up in Chinatown during that period. Another example is The Story of Siao Yu, a 1995 Taiwanese Film about a green card story that takes place in the Lower East Side. 

With Director Peter Wang (right) and Wing Lee (left) and a local woman (center) in a hutong while scouting locations in Beijing for the Asian American film, A Great Wall in 1984.

18. What are your accolades/awards for the work you’ve done?

Soon after graduating from the Yale School of Drama, I received a Drama Logue Award for designing a play called, Through The Leaves, by Franz Xaver Kroetz in Venice, California. I was also awarded, Best Production Design at the Asia/Pacific Film Festival for Siao Yu. In addition, an Art Director’s Guild Award as part of the Art Department team for the TV series Ugly Betty.

19. What more can the Academy do for diversity in the films being produced – in front and behind camera?

I believe The Academy can help promote opportunities available in the industry through educational and apprenticeship programs aimed at the high school level in poorer neighborhoods of color. Diversity is a good thing – it keeps ideas fresh, different and current. Cinematic art is always evolving and challenging everyday norms. The stories told on screen are mirrors of our own lives and experiences. 

20. With a little bit more diversity in The Academy, what are you expecting in this year’s awards?

I’m hoping to see our numbers continue to grow in the film industry and move forward in being more inclusive in the stories we want to see and create both in front of and behind the camera. 

21. Do you think Asians finally broke through to be recognized in Hollywood in front and behind camera or do we still have a long way to go?

I feel we are on the threshold of the long overdue recognition of the worldwide Asian film Community. Art, conflict, and the human condition are universal themes that do not have borders. Motion pictures help us realize we have more in common than we think.  

22. How did you feel about Chloe Zhao winning Best Director in the Golden Globes for Nomadland?

 I feel anytime a Chinese filmmaker creates something original and notable and gets recognized for it is something good for all of us.

What’s nice about her getting the Golden Globe Award and being the first Asian woman to receive it was she received the award not because she was Asian, but because she made a compelling, revealing and touching story about a culture that did not have a single Asian in it.

She created art that transcended where she was born and helped open our eyes to a different world. She’s not the first Asian to do so. Ang Lee has made films that transcended his ethnicity. To me, that is the true power of Art and talent. Something that goes beyond race, culture and ethnicity.

If you haven’t seen Nomadland yet , by all means put it on your list. Francis McDormond, the star in the film was a year ahead of me at the Yale Drama School. I met her when I was painting a set as part of my work/study in play she was in.

23. What is your next project?

Currently there is nothing on the burner. Covid has certainly changed the film industry and the way we work and live.

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