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How to break into the industry as a Director of Photography - Matt Rozier

Matt is a freelance filmmaker in London, working as a Director of Photography across a wide range of genres. Occasionally he acts as a freelance director on his own projects, too. I met Matt 5 years ago when we were shooting a music video together. He is a brilliant DoP who gets the most out of any given situation with the tools available, which is a gift for any director and filmmaker. 

I have worked with Matt on many projects over the years, most recently on the documentary 'Me.You.Us.'

Matt is the most generous and friendly person you'll ever have on set, and is undoubtedly someone you can trust. Matt always goes to great lengths to achieve excellence on set, and truly wants the best for your project.

I’ve invited Matt to kindly answer some questions on his experience in the film industry which I am sharing with you below. Thank you, Matt!

"You must never be shooting pretty pictures.  You're using pictures to tell story."

 


1. What was your way into the film industry and  when did you first start working as a Director of Photography?


There's a phrase which goes "Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier".  For filmmakers that can sometimes include "...for never having gone to film school". 

 I didn't go to film school, I took a very different route into the profession, and I think, with time - having now met so many more people - each carving their own individual path, I'm starting to finally make my peace with that.  

The sad truth is, I hadn't taken a single picture, not a snapshot, a photograph, a family pic or a phone cam photo until I was 28.  Absolutely nothing about the technical side of filmmaking appealed to me in any way.  Not because I didn't like it - more so that I just hadn't really been exposed to it.  

I originally trained as an actor.  I did my three years at drama school then worked for ten years jobbing in various film, tv and theatre bits.  I was incredibly lucky and got plenty of work, but I didn't really like the performance side of things. I'd been coaching other actors for a while - and I'd started to move into theatre directing - the plan was to one day move into directing for camera - but I realised that I had absolutely no knowledge of the technical side of things.  

So, I set out to try to learn more. I thought if I could learn a bit about photography then it'd make conversations much easier when I was working with a cinematographer.  Then - BOOM.  I fell in love with it. 

2. What was the hardest thing for you to figure out on your filmmaker journey?

I think earning a living is tricky.  Though that came relatively easy - I found I was juggling roles, directing a lot, DoPing for other directors, editing, grading for people.  So, I found that if one element went quiet I could still keep working in the same area without having to take a job outside of the industry.  

I think I still worry that I've not spent enough time on other people's sets.  Assisting people.  Seeing how they work.  I think many cinematographers if they didn't go to film school then they assisted a lot, and learnt on the job.  

I did neither.  I try and ask other directors about what other cinematographers did, I look at lots of behind the scenes photos - when I meet other cinematographers, gaffers or colourists I ask them a lot of questions.

But I try to be honest with myself about it.  I obsess a lot, and try and sponge up as much information as I can to try to make up for it - but I'm also aware that doesn't make up for practical experience - so I try and put as much of that new found info into practice as I can.  

3. What do you think about the film industry and the way it works in terms of giving equal opportunities to freelance filmmakers?


This is a hard one for me to answer.  I'm white, I'm male, I'm able-bodied, I'm cis-gendered, I'm heterosexual, I'm British.

I'm working class and I didn't begin with any industry connections, but that's about all that I had going against me. 

I can only really relate what I've heard from others in those situations, which is that the industry is improving.  It's moving in the right direction.  Whether that's fast enough for everyone will come down to each individual's situation.  But the willingness to open up is definitely, definitely there.  

I've never met a racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic producer - that is to say - in my personal subjective experience it's not been through prejudice or bigotry that the people I know have won or lost work. It's more that every job I've had - I think I've had through trying to do a good job with someone and then being recommended.  It's impossible for me to say whether the fact I was male or white or straight had an impact on those hiring decisions - but who knows?  

Talent is important - but overrated.  One other thing that the film industry is hard for all of us to break into.  

That can take a long time. You have to figure out who you want to talk to, what of yourself are you prepared to give up - and finally - is this even something that you want to be part of?  From the outside it may look great. But it may be a different story from the inside.  

So yeah, although I can't speak with any wisdom as to your personal struggle - you're not alone when trying to figure out how to break in.  

Matt and I on set of Pleasure Seekers

4. What was the greatest thing you’ve learnt about the craft of filmmaking in the last 6 months? 


Simplification.  I think I've been through a period of wanting to learn about a lot of kit - sometimes you're hiring stuff and learning as you go, but I try not to do that where possible - I prefer to try and get comfortable with a bit of kit before I start using it in a professional situation.  

This means I sometimes buy a lot, and carrying it all gets in the way - ask anyone that's helped me unload for a shoot. So I'm learning now to simplify my kit.  

I think as part of that process of simplification I'm taking a few more creative risks - which I'm actually finding really freeing. 

It takes a bit of self-confidence as you don't want to look like you don't care or you don't know what you're doing, but sometimes leaving all the big lights in the van, only using a single lens, just closing a curtain or two; they can lead to some really powerful results.  

So maybe being more present, not as locked into a plan or a previous idea has been a big turning point for me this year.  

To slow down and to really see what's in front of me before I start building a picture.  I'm much more interested now in finding ways of using things naturally.  Using natural light wherever I can, cutting light rather than creating it.  

To sculpt more rather than to always be painting.  


5. Where on the spectrum between tecky and artistic do you position yourself as a DoP? 


I think my background means I fall right down the centre.  I spent my 20s obsessing purely about storytelling, human behaviour, and art - studying paintings - understanding colour theory.  Understanding the technical bones that make up a story.

I spent my 30s obsessing purely about the craft and technical side of things - T-stops and ratios, ISOs and camera movement. 

I'm 39 now, I'm 40 this year.  And I genuinely feel like everything is kind of meeting up for the first time, I feel a zen-like balance where art is meeting craft.  

Also, I'm starting to think more about what I want to say.  What's important to me.  What I like, rather than just what I can recreate.  




6. What can you say about the relationship between director and DoP?


The relationship is paramount.  But it's important for any DoP to recognise that we aren't equals.  


The cinematographer's job is to serve the creative vision of the director. It's incumbent upon you to offer ideas.  It's not incumbent on the director to accept them.  That's the relationship.  


The director, if they're good, and you must always assume they are - will be the only one who's got a complete overview of what they want to achieve.  You may have a great idea for a lighting setup - it may serve the story beautifully - but maybe the director has had a conversation with the screenwriter, and they've decided to approach that scene with a gentler touch.  Perhaps your setup calls too much attention to a moment. That's why you need to trust your director, whole heartedly, to make the right call.  

And you must never be shooting pretty pictures.  You're using pictures to tell story.   Sometimes they'll be pretty, sometimes they won't be.  But they must always support story.  

I try and take the same approach with the director that I take with anyone I'm working with.  However stressful I think my job is, I presume their job is harder.  This makes sure that I'm treading lightly, I'm working with them, rather than at them, that I'm constantly asking what I can do to help lighten their load.  They'll thank you for it and you'll thank yourself for it too.  Sometimes you'll disagree, that's totally fine.  Sometimes you'll even walk off set convinced you were right, that's totally fine too.  But it doesn't mean you were.  Pick yourself up, trust the director and move forward.  


7. What camera is your weapon of choice?


It's a bit like asking a mechanic which is his favourite spanner.  Depends on the nut you're trying to loosen.  But I suppose we all have brands we're more familiar with than others.  I try to be as agnostic as I can, as I see cameras a bit like film stocks, they've each got their own look and feel.  You can do a lot in the grade to alter them, but there's sometimes more technical stuff going on that you can't change.  When people talk about a camera's feel - they may be talking about stuff they find difficult to put into words - like motion cadence or highlight roll-off.  

Also, different situations call for different setups.  I probably wouldn't want to bring a fully kitted out Alexa rig on a run n gun documentary in the heart of a warzone.  I probably wouldn't want to shoot a broadcast ad on a Canon 5d.  

But who knows? Maybe!! If the look was right and we felt it'd help the story, why the hell not? As long as the gear is never getting in the way - as long as it's enabling your choices rather than holding you back.  

But if you're asking what I shoot on a lot. I'm a big fan of the Alexa Mini and Blackmagic cameras. 

I own a Ursa Mini Pro G2 and a Pocket 6k - I shoot a wide range of stuff and am very happy with what they give me in terms of flexibility.  But I've used lots of different cams, Red, Canon cinema cams, Sony's.  They've all got pluses and minuses.  That's something I'd recommend any cinematographer to do - rent some of the stuff and try it out. For one it'll make you less scared of cameras - once you know one camera well there's a lot of cross over.  But it'll also allow you to widen your palette.  It's not about making a wrong or right choice - there's no wrong or right.  But it just gives you options.  


8. What would you say to film makers starting out who don’t have expensive equipment to hand? 


I'd say the important things have nothing to do with the technology.  I don't know how helpful that is, because when you've got nothing you feel like you can't start unless you've got all the kit you need - but let me tell you - even with all the kit in the world, it can still be tricky getting the images you see in your mind onto the screen. 


The important things are the things which may not cost a fortune. 


Take lighting for example - certain lights are more expensive because they offer us convenience - they may offer us more power, or smaller footprints, or may come with a softening filter - but they aren't expensive because they're putting out some kind of magical light that makes pictures look nicer.  

It's what you do with that light that counts - how you use it - not what it is.  And you can affect the look of it very cheaply - for example - depending on the situation -  if you want to soften it, a shower curtain can be as successful as an expensive octobox or even cheaper - bounce it off a wall!   Some of the prettiest things I've seen have been shot with cheap tungsten bulbs mounted onto wooden frames.  

When I started in all this I had no money at all.  So I built my own lights.  I'm surprised I didn't blow myself up to be honest - but it gave me a real insight into how to fix them if they failed on me and also helped me understand how to effect the quality of the light I was using.  I mounted lightbulbs and kino bulbs into chloroplast plastic.  I built camera dollies using planks of wood and rollerblade wheels.  

Our generation are incredibly lucky - as there's so much information online - YouTube channels, webinars, books all detailing how you can improve at your craft.  Dive in, swim around a bit, enjoy learning and learn to be masters of the tools you have before you worry about accessing the tools you don't.  I promise you all the skills you learn are translatable, everything you can teach yourself with cheap equipment will be helpful when you start working with larger sources - there's new things, for sure, but nothing you learn will be a waste of your time.  

Also don't forget that you have one the most precious resources on any film set.  Time.  Use it wisely as it's much more valuable than you think.  



Matt shooting for our most recent documentary film 'Me.You.Us'


9. Where do you want to see your own career go in the next few years?


I think I'd like to just build on what I've started really - I'd like to do more branded content, more documentaries, more music videos, definitely much more narrative work as I'm obsessed with story!  I'd just like to take it all up a notch. 

For me, there's a primary difference between being a cinematographer and a DoP - to me a DoP is managing the camera, lighting and grip departments - whereas a cinematographer can be working on much smaller sets with fewer crew (or sometimes no crew!) 

I've worked on a few big sets, a few medium sizes sets and a lot of small sets, but I think I'd like to experience more at managing those departments and enabling those people to do a good job - working with people who are great at what they do - focus pullers, gaffers, camera operators, grips. I learn a lot from those people as everyone brings a wealth of experience with them.  

I tend to make good friends with the people I work with - and find myself working with the same people again and again - it's brilliant as I really look forward to going to work and seeing them plus you start to develop a shorthand and you can predict (sometimes) what they may or may not like - but collaborating with new directors, new gaffers and focus pullers is something I need to do - they all teach me something  and that helps me bring fresh ideas to the table on each job.  It just makes sure I'm doing the best job I possibly can.  



Matt and I met shooting the music video 'Atom'


Find more of Matt's work on his website

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