Singaporean nominated for two Oscars left for LA at 19 to fulfil dream
Oscar-nominated Singaporean sound editor Ai-Ling Lee's career mirrors that of the protagonists in La La Land, the acclaimed musical film she worked on.
Like Emma Stone's Mia and Ryan Gosling's Sebastian, who pursued their respective acting and music dreams in Los Angeles, Ms Lee had also packed her bags to move to the city to fulfil her creative aspirations - and found success.
When she was 19, she left the Republic for Hollywood in 1998 and knocked on the doors of film studios for a way into their sound departments.
At the time, she had completed only a vocational course in audio engineering here, as well as some sound work for local TV and radio commercials.
"I wrote letters to sound department heads or sound studio heads in Hollywood, just to tell them who I was.
"I asked them if it would be okay for me to visit, to sit in and observe the film-making sound post-production process.
"Maybe it was good timing and luck, but I was amazed that quite a few of them responded.
"So I started sitting in, built my contacts and just moved up from there," said the 38-year-old in a telephone interview yesterday from her home in Silver Lake, Los Angeles.
Her film credits include Deadpool, X-Men: Days Of Future Past, Man Of Steel and the Maze Runner movies.
At the Oscars tomorrow night (Monday morning, Singapore time), she is nominated in two categories - Best Sound Editing alongside Ms Mildred Iatrou Morgan, and Best Sound Mixing with Mr Andy Nelson and Mr Steve A. Morrow.
Her nominations are among La La Land's record-equalling 14 Oscar nominations.
The 89th Annual Academy Awards airs on HBO (StarHub TV Ch 601) on Monday at 8am, with an encore telecast the same day at 7pm.
Ms Lee is the first Asian woman to be nominated for sound editing, and she and Ms Morgan are also the first all-female team to be nominated in their category. She hopes this will set a trend for women in film sound work, a field traditionally dominated by men.
"I've only known a handful of women who work in sound design, recording or mixing.
"But over the last several years, I have been approached by female graduates from film schools such as the University Of Southern California who have an interest in sound design.
"It's an encouraging sign, and I try to encourage young people by telling them that this is in fact a creative job and not a technical one," said Ms Lee.
When asked, she said her favourite sound is the birdsong of morning doves, adding that "I find it very calming".
Her father works in a shipyard and her mother is a housewife. She developed her keen interest in sound after watching movies at home in Singapore with her father as a child.
She said: "We had a basic surround sound system at home, but I noticed how sound could really help elevate the film experience. It brings audiences into the world and that fascinated me."
Her passion for sound drives her to carry a portable recorder with her at all times, so that she can capture her auditory environment. Her recordings of Los Angeles city life - such as in the areas of Pasadena and Hollywood - ended up in La La Land.
Ms Lee said: "Los Angeles being such a big character in the movie, we had to make sure that the backgrounds and ambiences help reflect the tone of the city.
"I record sounds wherever I go with my portable recorder, and so I had already amassed a library for Los Angeles."
With mere days to the Oscars, she is starting to feel "a little nervous".
Fielding this chat in the middle of a busy press interview schedule, Ms Lee said: "It has just been a crazy flurry of activity ever since the Oscar nominations were announced.
"I've never been through this before, and I'm surprised by how much is going on. There are so many interviews, and I've been spending way too much time and money on finding a dress."
Ms Lee finally settled on a "simple gown" by Alexander McQueen.
"But this whole thing has also been a lot of fun.
"I feel really fortunate to be nominated, and no matter what happens, this will all have been a great experience."