What's it like to shoot summer's biggest movie?
Matthew Jensen, ASC has a dream filmography for a cinematographer who aspires to go big or go home. As if shooting episodes of Game of Thrones—arguably the most epically cinematic show of all time—weren’t enough, he was Director of Photography on this summer’s box office smash hit Wonder Woman.
There was a lot riding on the success of Wonder Woman, given the perceived risk of a female director and lead (which were fortunately proven wrong), and the hopes that this film would save the flailing DC Comics enterprise (which may well prove correct). Jensen has clearly exhibited superlative technical prowess throughout his career, but he was likely chosen for the daunting job because he keeps a solid commitment to storytelling at the center of his work.
“In action, you almost have to be divorced from feeling in order to see if the cinematography is working.”
The film, which Jensen shot on 35mm film, follows the young heroine Diana from her sheltered childhood on the island paradise of Themyscira to an unexpected venture into a war-ravaged Europe where she emerges as the powerful superhero Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). Jensen’s cinematography is in service of her journey—at once personal and larger-than-life.
No Film School spoke with Jensen shortly after the film’s release about how he pulled off one of Wonder Woman’s most complex battle scenes, the difference between shooting action and drama, where he weighs in on the film vs. digital debate, advice for up-and-coming DPs, and more.
NFS: Was there anything different about your approach to Wonder Woman because she is a female superhero?
Jensen: No. Not at all. We approached the material and the look and everything the way I would approach any movie. The idea always was to tell the best story that we could, to do this character justice. I think we always wanted to make her look strong and powerful and beautiful and frankly, I take that approach with male actors or female actors. We're always trying to put them in the best light. It was all the same to me.
NFS: So what is the general shooting philosophy that you apply to each film?
Jensen: I'm always trying to tell the story in visual terms, so that's how I approach everything. Everything comes from communicating ideas about the story or ideas about the emotional journey of the character.
The way I approached Wonder Woman was trying to really have you understand Diana's journey from this island of paradise to the mechanized, ugly, industrial world of man. That was the big contrast in terms of the look, and I think in charting her journey to understand mankind. It began there and the look evolved from wanting to highlight that contrast.
NFS: It seemed like there was a conscientious color shift happening throughout the whole film. I was looking at it as though it changed as her powers grew.
Jensen: That's interesting that you say that. I think that there's an element of that, too. What we were trying to do with Themyscira was to emphasize its natural beauty and have a really full color palette and for you to feel the warmth of the sun and the bronzy, healthy skin tones of the Amazons, and the lush greens and the aquas and cyans of the water.
Then, as we got into London and the Front, we put a heavier emphasis on cyan and we had a lot of overcast light. There's a little more contrast. What we're seeing in front of the lens, there's more blacks and more browns and deep greens. The environment isn't as filled with color as Themyscira is.
A lot of the references that we were looking at of London in particular at that time, it's heavily polluted and you really had black skies because they were still burning coal everywhere. That's something that we wanted to emulate in the looks but we didn't want to get too oppressive. Just to give you a palpable sense of the environment.
“The ergonomics of film is much more suited to rugged environments and terrain.”
NFS: From the technical side, what camera and lenses did you shoot with and why did you make those choices?
Jensen: We shot on film and that was always the route that Patty wanted to go down. She's a big proponent of film and so am I. I love film. Warner Brothers is committed to film for their DC movies and that's largely, I think, the influence of Christopher Nolan.
It was really a no-brainer choice. I think the resolution and the color and the way it photographs faces is just terrific. It's also easier to manage for a film like this where we had a lot of really tough locations and terrain. Even our sets in the back lot were tough. We created the No Man's Land set on the back lot and it basically was 300 yards of mud.
I think film is really a lot easier to move around in those situations where you're not tethered to a DIP station and multiple HD monitors and all of that. The ergonomics of film is much more suited to rugged environments and terrain.
NFS: I don't know if that's the conventional wisdom. I think young filmmakers view film as an extra challenge.
Jensen: It does have its challenge. Both formats have their advantages and disadvantages. I find that it's so much easier for me to move a film camera around knowing that the film is in the magazine and all I need is my light meter and I'm ready to shoot.
So often on digital productions, you get the camera out and you've got to boot up the camera, you're looking for the lens, you set up your shot and then you're waiting to run the BNT cable back to the monitor to really see where you are in terms of exposure and color and if it's all working.
I find that even though I tend to use my light meter and conventional lighting techniques with digital, I'm always double-checking with the monitor. I'm much more present on set when I'm shooting film, and how it's going to look is in my head. That can free me up.
“Had I been shooting at 500 frames a second on 400 ASA film, I would've lit the whole set on fire with the amount of light I needed.”
Digital has certain other advantages and we do have quite a few shots that are digital. We were able to do some drone work with an Alexa Mini that I wouldn't have been able to do. Even the smallest film camera, you can't really fly it on a drone.
There was only one way to get the shot of Diana riding on the horse back to the town of Veld. It's a shot that I love and we wouldn't have been able to get it any other way. We also used the Phantom because we were shooting a lot of the fight sequences at 500 frames a second and really, there's no other way to get that now except with a digital camera. Frankly, it's just a lot of easier.
We tested a Photo-Sonics camera trying to keep everything on film as much as we could, and Panavision had an old Photo-Sonics camera and they tested it for us and they burnt out the motor. We thought, "Well, that's not really going to work."
You have advantages of being able to bump up the ASA and work with a more open shutter so you don't need quite as much light. Had I been shooting at 500 frames a second on 400 ASA film, I would've lit the whole set on fire with the amount of light I needed.
I think what you find in a lot of movies of this size is that there's always a bit of a hybrid of both. We tried to stay on film as much as we could until it was technically impossible. We used Primo lenses in combination with the Millennium XL2 cameras.
NFS: The fight scenes were pretty intimate. How did you accomplish those? Were you really right up in there with the talent?
Jensen: The fight sequences are a combination of my work and the second unit's work. The second unit was led by Damon Caro, who directed and conceptualized a lot of the fights and shot by second unit DP Tim Wooster, who also did a phenomenal job, in not just the artistry of the sequences but also carrying out a lot of the ideas that I had in the photography, and he was great at mimicking my style. That's a vital relationship in these movies, the first unit and second unit DP and Tim was a great collaborator as far as that goes.
Often, I'm shooting stuff with Gal or the lead actors and I'm getting closeups and completing little bits of choreography that they can perform and it might lead into a shot of their face, and then the second unit is going back in and doing all the complicated wire work that takes a long time to rig. The first unit really does not have time to sit around and wait for those shots to be rigged and done, and then they're doing a lot of the complicated ballet of stunts with the stunt performers. Communication is the key there.
“The light kept changing on me that day because it was a classic London winter day where I had bright sunshine and then I had overcast and everything in between.”
NFS: You mentioned that there were a lot of challenges on this particular shoot. Are there any that stand out, particularly in how you overcame them?
Jensen: There were a ton. I think I'm very proud of the No Man's Land sequence for a lot of reasons and it was made up of so many pieces both in camera and on our set, and then smaller detail work that was on green screen and made up of 500 frames a second footage and a good combination of stunts and live action and visual effects and complicated camera rigs.
For example, all the stuff of Gal running across No Man's Land, that really was a mud bog and very hard for her to run in and also nearly impossible for us to keep up with her with the camera and get it over this terrain. We rigged essentially a Skycam which is not unlike what you see on Monday Night Football with the cameras around all over the stadium to get those flowing shots of the kickoff and things.
We did something like that out there to track with her, and the art department built a path for her to run so that she had a smooth path, but it also has to look like it's all part of the set and wasn't just made specifically for her.
Then the light kept changing on me that day because it was a classic London winter day where I had bright sunshine and then I had overcast and everything in between. The light's changing and I'm riding exposures and then I'm talking to the VFX team and they said, "Well, we'll replace some of the sky and put some clouds broken up in the background” when we had just gray, flat skies to suggest that the clouds are moving through and the sun is breaking through. All of that becomes a great collaboration.
NFS: That sounds insane.
Jensen: Yeah, it is nuts. Then you're dealing with the weather and it's freezing and sometimes raining and Gal's out there in the Wonder Woman costume and we're trying to be courteous to her and get things done quickly so she's not freezing the whole time. That's just a microcosm of the challenges that we were facing.
“You have to be very critical about what the shot is doing and what part of the shot is effective.”
NFS: Talking a little bit more broadly about your career and being a DP, what different skills do you think are required for shooting an action film like this versus a drama or period piece? Or does it boil down to the same skill set?
Jensen: It's a very interesting question. I think it's all the same skill set. You're always trying to communicate as effectively and as simply as possible whatever idea is driving the scene. Hopefully, even in an action sequence, you're trying to tell a story. Luckily on Wonder Woman, that's [Director Patty Jenkins]’s thing. She was always trying to move the character forward in a direction or move from point A to B in the story even while we were enjoying all the action.
Drama's the same thing. You're trying to clue into what the characters are doing, what's going on emotionally, and how the story's being advanced. If you look at it in that way, fundamentally every shot should advance your agenda. In that sense, it's no different in the broad scope.
Action sequences are so big and technical that a lot of times it requires a more removed approach. You have to be very critical about what the shot is doing and what part of the shot is effective, if it's a really fast cut or something. In action, I think you almost have to be divorced from feeling in order to see if the cinematography is working.
I think with a drama, or just two characters relating in a scene, when you're on set and you're looking through the lens, you can feel it. It becomes an intuitive process where you can see how the actors are relating and you're very close with them, so if you're in tune you can tell what's important or what they're emphasizing or if they're going to look a certain direction and you need to pan with them or not pan with them. You get a very intuitive sense of what's going on because it's all right there in front of you.
“Game of Thrones is as ambitious and as big as any of these $100 million movies that I've been a part of.”
NFS: Similarly, everyone's talking about the age of cinematic television and, of course, you have shot some of that cinematic television. What are the main differences between shooting for TV and the big screen?
Jensen: Mainly there are differences in the schedules, and schedules dictate a lot of how you approach things. Look, Game of Thrones is as ambitious and as big as any of these $100 million movies that I've been a part of and they do have very long schedules for a television show but they don't have very long schedules in comparison to a movie like Wonder Woman. The pressure is on to get it right faster, but you know it's going to be just as intensely scrutinized and probably watched even more than a movie, at least initially, until that movie's released on Blu-ray or streaming.
Frankly, I don't really approach it differently, I just know that there is a tendency in television to say "We got it, move on" faster. Even when I might be dying for one more take, especially on Thrones. Thrones is so different than anything else.
I think most of the TV shows that I've done, fundamentally, even though we're talking about the age of peak television, they are still about a couple of people in a room, talking. There's very rarely a scene that is completely devoid of dialogue, where it's completely visual storytelling. Game manages to do it but it's one of the few shows that does. A lot of shows, it's still a person walks into a room and they talk.
It's still very much the classic writer's medium in that regard. You don't get to flex your filmmaking muscles as much. It's much more about being in tune with the actors and, not to say that that doesn't happen on a movie, but there are usually extended sequences where you're just focused on moving the story visually.
NFS: Game of Thrones seems like both a dream and a nightmare to work on, but it's certainly an amazing show.
Jensen: It's a great show and it was a great experience for me.
NFS: I'm wondering what advice you have for up and coming DPs both in terms of the technical, but also in terms of positioning yourself for bigger jobs. How do you get the work you want?
Jensen: I think in terms of getting the work that you want, you have to first and foremost be unafraid to turn things down that don't interest you, and that's not always easy to do, especially when you're up and coming and you're struggling for money and things. The industry is so quick to pigeonhole you into "He does this kind of movie, he works with these kind of directors" and somehow there's no latitude for you to grow out of that.
I think you have to pick your projects carefully as much as you can and recognize if something's maybe a little out of your wheelhouse that maybe it's a good opportunity for another reason, either the talent behind the camera that you want to align yourself with or there's some visual opportunity.
I was very fortunate in that I love movies, and I watched a lot of movies. I tried to figure out what I liked and what I responded to and tried to pursue similar-minded people and filmmakers, and I think then they become attracted to you and you become attracted to their work and then hopefully your sensibilities mesh.
“You have to first and foremost be unafraid to turn things down that don't interest you.”
On the technical end of it, it's very hard to keep up with all the innovation that's happening and it can be quite daunting and overwhelming. While the technical side is very important, I think more than anything it's craft and discipline that needs to be emphasized, and having certain fundamentals that you do whenever you go to set and how you prepare and how you post a movie.
If you develop that skill set, all the technical end of it comes and goes. You have to know how to apply the technology, but I don't think you always have to know how big the sensor is on the camera. It's important but that doesn't help you tell a good story. That doesn't help you know where to put the camera. I think studying film and, once you see something you like, trying to figure out how they did it are the most important techniques that you can use to advance your style.