Under the guidance of the Buddhist spiritual leader His Holiness Gyalwang Drukpa, 700 people of all ages, including a group of Kung Fu nuns, trekked 450 miles across the Himalayas — through blizzards and mudslides and at altitudes over 17,000 feet — to bring awareness to this massive environmental problem. As the group collected and hauled plastic waste on foot, Lee decided to take this journey with her sister Carrie Lee and Cinematographer Ngawang Sodpa, who is a Drukpa monk from the Hemya village of Ladakh, India. Lee first intended to make a short film but, after the four-month trek, she had enough footage to keep her busy editing for the next two years to create the feature documentary Pad Yatra: A Green Odyssey.
Collecting the footage for this vital project was no easy task. “The situation was so extreme it was like everything that I knew about filmmaking sort of went out the window,” explained Lee. “We were shooting with solar panels, so we could only shoot for minutes a day. A lot of it was general coverage and the story had to come together after the fact.” The entourage of trekkers created what was basically a mile-long set. “It was a lot of being on your feet and not really knowing what you’re going to get,” Lee noted. “Because of the limited electricity, we couldn’t shoot HD [or] power hard drives. It was like going back in time for production.” Since Lee and Sodpa had to haul their own equipment, they chose to mostly shoot with a small, light camcorder that Sodpa obtained from India. The team shot in pal standard definition that they later up-converted in post. They also had a tripod and monopod (while Lee had a heavier DSLR that was difficult to carry), and some of the footage was even captured on an iPhone.
Lee credits the film’s success to Sodpa’s extraordinary dedication. “I’ve never witnessed anything like [it],” she recalls. “He would trek days in advance just to get one shot then trek back to be with the group, shoot a little [more] and trek back out. He must have trekked triple the distance the rest of us did. He barely slept. He would leave at midnight to get a morning shot. That level of dedication was unfathomable to me.” Lee collected approximately 60 hours of footage for editing. “From a directing point of view, I love being involved in post on my films,” Lee reports. “It was kind of like a dream project. Anything that could be a potential scene I would segment off and cut that as a scene. Once I had this pile of scenes in front of me, I went back and wrote the structure for the film. I actually wrote it out as a filler screenplay what I wanted to see ... and had a very structured narrative based on that. So, basically, we had all the building blocks then structured it based on that, and then, of course, restructured it a number of times based on audience feedback and what was working or not.”
Lee also brought in an HD consultant in post. “He suggested that since we had to convert this pallet to HD, and we knew we were going to get noise and color blocking ... why don’t we add a little bit of subtle film grain and just embrace the fact that we’re blowing up this footage and [losing] a lot of image quality,” she explains. “We frame converted everything to 24p and all the shots have some version of film grain. It ended up having this character that [was] totally unanticipated.” Lee has now had multiple screenings of Pad Yatra: A Green Odyssey at various film festivals with very positive feedback. And at a recent screening at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, one enthusiastic viewer proclaimed, “I thought the cinematography was incredible.”