DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY - MATT GRAY
Matt is a UK based Cinematographer specializing in high quality, distinctive drama.
He has worked alongside many world class directors and actors and has a wealth of experience using film & digital media.
In 2012 he became a member of the British Society Of Cinematographers.
He is known for his work on Broadchurch, Vera, The Living and Dead, Code of a Killer.
HOW DID YOU GET IN TO THE INDUSTRY?
I left school and attended a two year Art and Design course in Torquay and then went to Film School at Newport. After Film School I was lucky enough to get a job with Magpie Films in Birmingham as a camera assistant and they were kind enough to step me up to a camera operator very quickly.
WHAT SKILLS OR PERSONAL ATTRIBUTES WOULD YOU CONSIDER TO BE THE BIGGEST FACTOR AS TO WHY YOU GOT TO WHERE YOU ARE TODAY?
Getting on with people, being able work as part of a team, being tenacious, passionate, a certain amount of confidence and a willingness to take on responsibility. Just being technically minded and knowing the kit are prerequisites and entry-level skills, it’s really about energy and passion. When you get to a certain technical level there is an assumption that you can do the job technically, but then it becomes about inter-personal skills.
WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR IN A CV/EMAIL FROM STUDENTS TRYING TO BREAK IN TO THE BUSINESS?
I prefer to receive emails that are personally addressed, it doesn’t sit well with me if I feel I’m reading something that has been cut and pasted and sent to everybody. I don’t think it takes that much more to make it a little more personal and to do some research. However, if I get a well thought out personal email or letter I will always try and follow it up and I have helped a lot of people along the way, ranging from helping them with their final year thesis, to inviting them to visit the set. When I was starting out I tried to pitch myself as an apprentice and was able to gain a huge amount of information just by listening to the camera people I came in contact with and asking loads of questions. I wrote to people saying ‘really love your work, I would like to spend some time with you’ and I didn’t talk much about what I’d done at film school. Those people who are open enough to being taught, in my experience, have gone the furthest. You get them on set and they soak up the experience. If you are faced with someone who appears to ‘know it all’, you don’t want to bother giving them your time.
WHAT MISTAKES DO YOU SEE STUDENTS MAKING THAT ARE COMING UP IN YOUR AREA?
Students have to be in touch with the latest technology; I have often found that I am more in touch with new kit and advances than they are. You have got to be hungry and devour the up-to-date information, live and breathe it and have that infectious attitude. What students lack in experience and technical knowledge they can make up for with energy, passion, enthusiasm and older people in the industry really respond to that. When you talk to students, you want to be reminded of the excitement of first entering the business, however you would be surprised how many students are a bit flat and low in energy. People say it is a competitive business, but I think you can discount a large proportion of the people straight away because they do not have an open and learning attitude.
WHAT IS YOUR ATTITUDE AND OUTLOOK ON THE CURRENT STATE OF THE INDUSTRY? ALSO, HOW HAVE THINGS CHANGED FROM WHEN YOU BEGAN AND HOW HAS THIS IMPACTED ON YOUR WORK?
The industry is always changing, which is exciting. The technical entry level is much easier now than when I began and that is wonderful, but we do have to watch that things do not become
‘de-skilled’. We want to balance new ideas and new working practices with quality skills that have longevity. We need to protect those craft skills that have been passed down, the subtleties of storytelling and image making which will stand the test of time. I am really keen for students to spend time learning their craft, but equally I always warn them not to be too subservient to those technicalities. They have to serve you, do not fall into the trap of believing that bigger and better kit is a substitute for an intelligent thought process behind your images.
ON SET/IN YOUR WORKING ENVIRONMENT:
CAN YOU OFFER ANY ON SET/PRACTICAL HINTS AND TIPS?
I try to always be alive to natural light. If I can, I will be on set watching while the electricians are setting up the lights, so my gaffer and I can discuss what lights we might switch off. It is about what you take away, as well as what you add. Just because you have a lamp doesn’t necessarily mean you have to use it. Often the natural light is far superior, so we may decide go with that. That can be a little bit risky as it may quickly change, so you have to be prepared to recreate it for close ups etc., but the results are often wonderful. Also, ‘keep it simple’. Sometimes it’s just a simple, bold application of one or two ideas, or perhaps the use of minimal kit, such as using only three lenses and physically moving the camera to your subject, that can give your images real power.
WHEN YOU ARE FIRST BROUGHT ON TO A PROJECT, WHAT ARE YOUR IMMEDIATE THOUGHTS AND PROCESSES?
I always try to think, ‘What can I bring to this story?’, ‘How do I feel about the themes of the story and the subtexts?’, ‘How can I unearth images that can enhance this narrative?’ You are hired for your eye and your voice as much as your technical ability. To do that you need strength, tenacity and an understanding of what you came to the project to achieve. You are trying to fulfil the director’s vision and be part of the creative team. You have to be exited by the project because the long hours are tough and often resources are limited, so there has to be something that makes you excited and passionate about the story.
ADVICE AND MISTAKES:
WHAT WAS THE BEST ADVICE YOU’VE EVER BEEN GIVEN?
Early on in my career I was lucky enough to interview one of my favourite cinematographers, Chris Menges, and he told me something that has stayed with me. He said ‘It’s very easy to destroy something the director is trying to create’ and that is very true. It is very subtle, but you have to be very sensitive to the changes in atmosphere on set and not bring a ‘seen it all before’ attitude to bare on the work. You have to listen to the director and try and understand what is it they are trying to achieve and support them in that. Creativity itself is very easily crushed, it needs to be nurtured and protected.
WHAT IS THE BEST ADVICE YOU COULD GIVE?
I like to develop a very close relationship with directors. One of the things I am proud of on my CV is that nearly every director has asked me back to work with them again and that is going right back to my early documentary days. It is important to develop close relationships and invest as much of yourself into that relationship as possible. It is a very lonely place being a director, so the more support you can give them and the more trust that develops between you, the better the final result will be. In fact, it is the team film-making spirit that is one of the real joys of the job for me. If you get the right team, it feels like an expedition to a far away place, everyone pulling together and ending up producing something that is more than the sum of its parts.
WHAT WAS YOUR MOST MEMORABLE BLUNDER?
At film school I was shooting a friend’s graduation film and completely used the wrong film stock and the sequence was badly underexposed and ended up looking day-for-night. We only had a limited amount of film stock, so we couldn’t go back and redo it. I was mortified, I had really let everyone down, but he was wonderful about it and just said, ‘Oh Matt, it’ll be fine, it looks great, don’t worry’. My friend went on to become a successful BAFTA winning director, and we worked together many times through the years.