The Future of Cinematography
Matt Meikle - Director of Photography (DP) for TV commercials, music videos, short films and documentaries - reveals a mature and considered approach to growing a career.
In this interview with Ande Schurr, Matt talks about weighing the future of his craft, so reliant on technology, with his own ambitions.
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Matt's understanding of the future of film has been carefully honed by regular trips around the world to Master Classes with the biggest names in Cinematography.
He has filmed productions in Europe, North America, Australia and the Pacific Islands. In 2007 he won an Australian Cinematography Society gold award for the Drama 'Hawaikii' filmed on 35mm, and a bronze award for the commercial 'Papatoa' shot on HD.
A few years have gone since he landed back in New Zealand. Comfortably busy, yet eager to progress, he has turned his attention to marketing.
What is filming about for you?
I never got into the filming for the money. I started off in audio engineering in London. Right back then it was all about enjoyment and having pride in what I was doing and being absolutely satisfied. I take pride in any job I do. If it takes an extra 30 seconds, and makes a visual difference to the best extent without hindering the director, then I'll do it. You have to think in that capacity - working as a team member but giving them the best visuals and co-ordinating that with not making things tougher on the schedule and being too self-indulgent.
When I go home from a day shooting and be really proud of it and go "I came out of that day, had a great time, learned a lot about the subject, about someone's experience, and I learned a couple of things myself - something technical and something artistic". At the end of the day, the money's great and it pays the bills and gives me a chance to pay the mortgage, but I think for job satisfaction you can't beat that kind of good feeling. Even if it's a reality doco, it's still nice to push it and get those nice shots. Find a little more foreground rather than going "yeah, OK, lift camera, point, shoot". Just making it interesting and different and putting your visual signature on it.
What professional goals do you have?
When I started learning film, I visualised my future 15 years ago when I was clapper loading - "oh yeah, I'll be working on 35mm and doing this and having an assistant and this and that" but it's only the top few jobs in NZ where budget is still being allocated for that. I think with technology changing with such a rate - crews, camera and lighting packages becoming reduced, because of sensitivity of cameras, the whole structure is changing and in 5 years time it's going to be really interesting to see how it is all working.
I like to think in five year plans: what assets do you want, what finances do you want, what work do you want. In 10 years time I'd like to be really focused on the TVC market but then, in 10 years time, will the TVC market exist as it does today? Will things still be shot as they are today?
What drives you to contemplate the progression of film?
What made me think about all this is that I did the IMAGO (European Cinematographers Society) Masterclass in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2008 where Director of Photography, Slawomir Idziak (Black Hawk Down, King Arthur, Gattaga) was the keynote speaker. Slawomir had drawn these big diagrams and said that the structure of a film crew in 10-15 years time will be this: "a DP will have a backpack on his back with a camera". The audience comprising many senior DPs from around the world just looked at each other as if to say - "this guy is absolutely mad".
But thinking about it now, only three years later, with cameras like the RED Epic, along with the speed of laptops and the power of editing and grading programmes, you start to wonder in 5 years time what you can actually achieve. I think he had a valid point about the whole structure changing due to technology.
What is the 'RED Epic'?
It looks like a stills camera, costs $28k, is 5K resolution, it does up to 120fps at 5k. The proxies (baby files) of the RED EPIC are h264. It was at the 2010 NAB.
If you were the keynote at the next Masterclass what would you speak on?
The progression of cinematography. I think I'd have an open forum. I'd ask other far more experienced DPs to talk about their and share their experiences - about how the future will go from a technological standpoint. I think that will create good thought and will be a good way to get people thinking and everyone would find that interesting. When I attended the 50th anniversary of the Australian Cinematography Society in Sydney, they had an open forum with 5-6 DPs including Don McAlpine (Dances with Wolves), Andrew Lesnie (I am Legend, Lord of the Rings) and Peter James (Driving Miss Daisy) and people could ask any question they wanted - be it how they shot a scene from one of their movies, or where they see the future of the film industry. I think everyone finds those fascinating and people can draw their own conclusions from it too - how the future will change and how they can be prepared.
Do you find you are a mentor for up and coming shooters?
Gosh, I'm still up and coming! If someone threw me a 200 million dollar shoot I'd jump at the chance because I feel confident enough and trained enough to do it. With all the prep and backing of good HOD's it would be a dream come true. Whether it's tackling a small job on a little digital camera and trying to make something look really nice and suitable for a certain product, I put the same effort in, it's always 110%. I don't see myself as inspiring anyone else. I chat to friends who are DPs and we talk about things and, if anything, I hear stuff from those guys and see the way they're working and I go "that's really really cool"; "That's a nice progressive way to look at things"; "it's a really good manner to have"; "it's a nice use of technology in that way".
So how does one get the big jobs?
Never had one...but I think track record and very importantly projecting self confidence. I've naturally a bit of a shy person. It's only been through this industry that I've come out of my shell. I think I've sometimes lost the potential of getting jobs because of producer's mis-reading your humility as lack of confidence. It happened more so in Canada. The first thing I learned in 6 months was ... I'd say "Oh sure I can do that, no problem" and I remember loosing jobs to guys straight out of film school at the UBC (University of British Columbia) and they were shooting on 35mm and I was just going "I've done 10-12 years as a loader, and shot digital for years...". When I met some of these guys I could see that they could talk and it was all about the talk and projecting self-confidence and a little bit of fibbing "yeah no problem" and playing it down and on the inside you're thinking "oh shit". NZ, like Sweden is a funny place like that, you've got to come across as humble. Though in saying that, there are quiet producers too who respect that attitude while others like the gusto, loud in your face attitude. I think they look upon that type of person and go "ok, they're loud enough and staunch enough to take control on set".
My mentality is you don't need to do that. You can take control of a set by really nice, well chosen diplomatic words and, if you can't, walk off set, have a breath and come back in. I've seen other DPs do that. They walk out, smash poly boards, and walk back in. I saw that once on a film in Sweden. He'd had too much of the director and producer changing their mind that he walked straight into the lighting room we were using and punched a hole in the poly board.
How emotionally involved do you get to your projects?
If it runs parallels with past occurrences in your life, you can feel strongly with it. I visualise it in my head before I shoot. I read it, get a feel for it and then write a visual treatment or I chat and explain how we could technically and artistically approach things. It's a tough one. What some director's may see as being helpful and suggesting, others may see it as not my place. It's incredible how much director's differ; how they like to work on set; what they want from a DP.
Often it's directors and producers overriding you and basing their decisions on the hype of different cameras or "no no no we don't need to do that. I'm about to give 110% and despite my best efforts and suggestions, I've become better at convincing directors to go another way and many appreciate the end result and realise that the production standard comes up and it works all round.
What is your approach to marketing yourself?
You have to circulate. You have to spend more and more time pushing for work - updating your CV, sending it out, making calls, catching up with directors and producers and other HODs, friends in the industry and assistants.
I'm quietly ambitious and so I've stepped up my marketing recently, I want to feel like I'm progressing and wanting to get recognised more by producers so I can pick and choose a little; having a little bargaining power so I can walk away from a project that I don't feel the producers or directors have thought about or might potentially damage my reputation by putting me a situation where lack of technical budget causes quality to suffer and makes you look bad. There are all these things you have to consider. In my experience It's protecting your reputation and walking that fine line of getting a job.
Do you believe what goes around comes around?
Absolutely. I find it really interesting that you can send your CV in or have a phone call with a producer and then a couple of years later you get a call and it's them - "you might not remember me but I have this job that's come in from the States, would you like to give us your rate and what your ideas about how you'd like to shoot it, if you got the job". So it all pays dividends, whether it's in the first three months or three years, if you approach things well and respectfully, they'll come back to you.
Which cinematographers inspire you in our industry?
Ginny Loane (TVC's, short films 'Manurewa') and Aaron Morton (Spartacus, Sionne's Wedding). Ginny has put in years and years of really hard work and has really known what she wanted to do. Her career over the last 5-6 years has been unbelievably impressive. It's like a quantum leap of doing beautiful beautiful work. That, I must say - Aaron's story, Ginny's story - is very inspiring. Two very nice people - who've worked really hard, really determined, love their craft, really good people - have triumphed.