Interview with cinematographer Matt Hopkins

  • What personality or character traits are necessary to excel in being a cinematographer/DP?

I think the ability to be open and be willing to collaborate with all departments involved in a project is essential. All aspects of filmmaking are a group effort, and that means everyone needs to be on the same page and have their voice heard or shown. No one’s personality is the same as the next and finding compromise and getting to a place where everyone is happy and getting what they want out of a story is important. Also, patience, if there is one thing I have learnt over the years, it’s that nothing happens overnight, and you need to keep pushing yourself to strive for the next best thing.

  • In terms of cinematographers, who do you like?

There are way too many! Guys like Vilmos Zsigmond, Robert Elswit, Bradford Young, Greig Fraser, Dean Cundey, Erik Messerschmidt, Jeff Cronenweth. They would have to be my top picks. But I also don’t just look at cinematographers for inspiration as well. Photography has been around much longer than moving image, and some of the most striking images in history have come from photographers. Roy DeCarava, Gordon Parks, William Claxton, and many more. They each have made a profound mark on the way I view the photographic world.

  • What makes good cinematography?

Good cinematography to me, is the one that goes unnoticed. The one that is an addition to the story being told, not distracting it. I’ve always had a pension for more subtle, less flashy cinematography. Something that can add nuance to a scene, whether it be camera movement, shot size, lighting style or lens choice. It all adds up to be an addition, not a distraction.

  • What makes a good camera? And what has been your favorite camera to use?

Camera’s these days are all fantastic, but it’s always one that’s best suited to the job. They all have their quirks and limitations, but they can be easily worked around and adapted to what needs to be done on the day. Personally, I’m a RED fanatic, with the RED Gemini being my favorite camera to use. Small, amazing image quality, incredible lowlight capabilities. Hard not to love it! But if we are talking my FAVORITE camera of all time, it would have to be my old, faithful Hasselblad 501CM stills camera. It does something to an image like nothing else can.

  • Do you think that cinematographer’s work has changed when movies went from film to digital?

I think it hasn’t changed, it’s just a different way to work. I don’t have the age advantage to know what it’s like to shoot on 35mm film (only 16mm), but from what you can tell, it’s a different way of lighting and working. Digital cameras can pick up so much light in the sensor, which can lend a hand to some amazing lowlight work or using only single source lighting such as a lamp or candlelight. But film has this textural, nostalgic feel to it. I grew up seeing imagery on film at the theater, so it will always have a special place in my heart, but the convenience of digital and the ability to just pick up and shoot whenever is something that can’t be matched.

  • Now that people watch films on TV, computers and even their phones, do you think about that end experience when you are shooting?

It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. It’s hard to gauge what things are going to look like on each platform. Each screen handles color, blacks and highlights differently. So, something that looks amazing on a professional color grading monitor, could look entirely different on a TV or a phone. If you start thinking about what it’s going to look like to suit hundreds of differing factors, then you are detracting from what the overall look and feel that suits the project and the story being told.

  • Which one is more important: light or shadow?

They are both as important as one another, but the way shadow can have such a drastic effect on a scene is amazing. It can shape a character, the mood, the plot. Just look at The Godfather movies. There’s more shadow than light in those films! I’m very much in the group of people who believe you should, “only light when you need to”.

  • What is the cinematographer’s involvement in pre-production, production and post-production?

First and foremost, the DP is there to service the director’s vision. To add to it, make suggestions and collaborate on creating a story. With CNUT, Courtney, Ara and myself had many conversations and discussions on how best to tackle the short. Courtney storyboarded the whole film which was incredibly helpful as it made it easier to visualize the shots and have something to follow on the day of shooting. Because of the slow nature of stop-motion, having something to follow strictly made everything much easier. During the production, it’s always an exercise in problem solving. Things pop up on the day that you didn’t plan for. You always need to be ready to adapt and change to whatever issue could potentially come up, but always keeping the broader story in mind and what’s being told. Color grading is always the main post involvement with the cinematographer. They can guide the look and feel of the final image, along with the director, to ensure the absolute best outcome from start to finish. As post-production needed to be completed remotely for CNUT, this process wasn’t as streamlined as we hoped however we made it work.

  • What involvement in the production budget does the cinematographer/DP have?

The DP needs to decide on camera’s, lenses, lighting, crew and everything in between. All that gets calculated, adjusted (if necessary) and then assessed by the producer and director. It’s always a lot easier having a budget to work in, that way you know the limitations and how far you can work within it to deliver something financially and artistically viable.

  • What is your most valuable advice for being a Cinematographer/DP?

Patience. Especially in stop-motion. You can’t force things to happen. But don’t get complacent as well. Complacency is a deep, dark hole that you can get trapped into, and most people are dealing with it. Make sure you are always studying the craft, watching movies, looking through photography books. Even reading scripts. It all translates to the visual language of cinema, and what a language it is.