Jason S. Lee likes to say that he’s lucky. After only a year of handling a camera, he won a Connecticut Regional Scholastic Art Award at 16. Only a few months later, Lee’s award-winning photography series was accepted into two galleries: 2448 MOON Fine Arts in Seoul and The Silpe Gallery in Hartford, Connecticut. Now a 22-year-old Tisch senior, he’s shot editorial work for L’Officiel Indonesia and Chanel Taiwan. The latter commercial is currently featured on RED’s website as an example of exquisite cinematography. Last semester, Lee served as the Director of Photography for seven different student films.
“A lot of things happened very quickly,” Lee said.
Lee didn’t become interested in photography until he was 16 years old and well into high school. Before then, he didn’t think much about photography and film — he says he was too busy with schoolwork and college prep to do much else. But something changed for Lee after he saw “Inception,” a movie that he says transported him into a different world through cinematography. He wanted to create the same experience for other people. Without a second thought, he bought a Canon EOS 5D Mark II.
“I guess I’m just really lucky, because I didn’t shoot a lot actually,” Lee said. “That’s what people don’t know about me. I probably went out to shoot photos maybe ten times a year. But when I did, I would go out for a full day.”
In high school, Lee’s grades always came first. As an international student at an elite boarding school in Connecticut, Lee had a lot of pressure from his parents to do well. He didn’t want to throw away all he had accomplished academically for a half-fledged hobby.
“My parents live in Korea and are purely Korean, so they’re like the typical Asian parents who wanted me to do well in school and get a good SAT score,” Lee said. “I was always busy going to SAT academies; I didn’t have a lot of time to pursue photography.”
Lee’s parents, however, quickly came around once he won the Connecticut Regional Scholastic Art Award for his photography. After that, they were nothing but supportive. So supportive in fact, that they bought him a RED DSMC2 Gemini camera — which retails for $19,500 — after he switched his major to Film & TV.
“It’s not necessary to own a RED camera,” Lee said. But, considering his work is being featured on RED’s website, it’s clear that it certainly helped.
In this sense, Lee is very lucky. Not only are his parents supportive of his artistic career aspirations, but they’re also willing to help him financially as he realizes his dreams. This, support, Lee says, was an essential factor in embracing his artistic identity. Without having to worry about making money right after college, Lee feels he has the freedom to be himself. After a short stint as a double major in Economics and Photography, he decided to transfer to the Tisch School of the Arts as a Film & TV major.
“When I was first on set, I felt like I was alive for the first time. I don’t know how else to describe it,” Lee said, referring to his first time on set at Tisch in an Intro to Video Art class he took in his first year.
Once he transferred, Lee devoted every waking hour to improving his photography and cinematography. He freelanced for anyone that would hire him and refused to accept pay. He said the experience and expertise he learned on these sets was more than enough compensation.
“I was willing to do it for free because I’m not doing this for money anyways,” Lee said. “I’m doing this because I’m passionate; it’s what I love. This is what makes me happy.”
Eventually though, Lee’s free labor paid off tenfold. After he served as a Director of Photography for a School of Visual Arts graduate student’s thesis film, she recommended him and his work to an editorial fashion director, Yuti Chang. Since meeting, they’ve shot three different fashion editorials together for Blanc Magazine, Chanel Taiwan and L’Officiel Indonesia respectively.
“In terms of filmmaking, it’s about knowing the right people, so a lot of it is about luck. You don’t know who you’re going to meet or how that person might help you,” Lee said.
While luck has certainly played a large role in Lee’s artistic career, he’s made sacrifices to get to this point. He was initially supposed to intern at CJ E&M in Korea last summer, but he gave up the internship to shoot the Chanel Taiwan commercial. It was only a singular day of shooting, Lee tells me, but having that work in his reel was invaluable.
Now, with his commercial experience, Lee hardly ever works for free. The only exception to this rule is when he shoots a thesis film that he truly believes in and would rather allocate the money they’d use to pay him to other costly aspects of production like equipment rental.
“I would rather have that they don’t pay me and that they use that money to improve the quality of the film,” Lee said. “It’s not about earning a quick $2000 […] If the film does really well and goes to a big festival or something, that’s how I could become really successful as a cinematographer.”
Clearly, Lee’s brief education in economics taught him a thing or two about opportunity cost. What he’s sacrificing now in gig fees, he has the chance to recuperate tenfold if he does his job well.
Lee has found his passion and he plans to stick with it. For him, there isn’t much appeal to doing anything else, even if that means he has to sacrifice some things in the process.
“To be very honest, I don’t think I could be myself, and be as confident as I am today, if I’m not who I am right now, doing what I’m passionate about and what I love.”
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 22, 2019, print edition. Email Claire Fishman at [email protected]