'Saw X' Cinematographer Nick Matthews Tips for Shooting in 360 Degrees
Saw X cinematographer Nick Matthews talks with NFS about shooting 360-degrees, upholding the legacy of the Saw franchise, and his advice for other DPs.
Saw X, which many have labeled Saw 1.5 has been “Certified Fresh” by Rotten Tomatoes and brought in a global total of $73.1 million (according to Box Office Mojo). It’s safe to say fans of the franchise approve of the latest installment.
A recurring topic around this film has been how it resembles the grittiness of the original and earlier installments. A grittiness that cinematographer Nick Matthews has brought to life through the guidance of director Kevin Greutert, who has also served as the editor on most of the Saw films.
When discussing the shoot, Matthews says, “To try and shoot digitally while still honoring the feeling of 35mm film, we settled on the Sony Venice. We shot 4K 4:3 (4096x3024) with 1.85:1 cropmarks, so we could use the extra recorded information for top and bottom reframes.”
Matthews also wanted to shoot in 360 degrees because “It felt like a practical reality where we needed to consider spatial lighting rather than lighting it shot by shot or by direction. I knew it was the right approach with the amount of coverage we were shooting (there are over 4,000 edits in the film) and with the style of filmmaking where we used two cameras on nearly every take. Kevin trusted me and it’s something we discussed in advance, but Saw’s brutality and edginess aided this approach.”
Matthews sat down with No Film School to chat about the cinematography of Saw X.
SAW X (2023) Official Trailer – Tobin Bellyoutu.be
No Film School: What did preproduction look like for you on Saw X?
Nick Matthews: Preproduction was a grueling, exciting journey where director Kevin Greutert and I defined the visual style of Saw X. The moment I landed in Mexico City, I was immersed in the world of Saw. I scouted all our major locations and took videos of the sun's path and photos of all the sites.
A lot of our energy was spent locking locations, hiring the right crew, testing cameras and lenses, designing the color arc of the film, shot-listing, and designing the traps. Our production designer, Anthony Stabley was crucial in making this happen. Once they were designed, we tested the traps three or four times to ensure that each element would work seamlessly across the many departments involved. You only get one or two days to shoot each trap and you cannot lose hours to a minor malfunction.
NFS: Was it intimidating stepping into an already existing, very popular franchise?
Matthews: Every film is daunting at the beginning. You’re faced with the unknown and I strive to make something compelling, unique, and great no matter the film. That said, the first Saw was something that thrilled me in high school and I had a real affection for its style and legacy. I felt that we had the best script of the franchise largely because it focused on the emotional story of John Kramer, giving Tobin Bell the opportunity to flex his brilliant skills as a performer.
I was thrilled to make this… but the pressure is very real. I lost sleep on that for sure. You want to serve the story–honoring the original while bringing something inventive. You want to serve your own artistic ambition and create a space that honors the strength of the actors, while also giving the fans the best damn ride of the series.
'Saw X' Credit: Lionsgate
NFS: A lot of critics have discussed the look of Saw X, saying that stylistically this one is bringing back the grittiness of the original. Was that a conscious decision for you?
Matthews: This was absolutely a conscious decision. Something Kevin and I talked about from the beginning. This film is placed between Saw and Saw II, so that directly affects the visual language. I wanted it to feel like it fit into those worlds.
From the beginning, we wanted to immerse the audience into a gritty, grimy world that felt like the original films. We wanted it to feel dark, textural, and scuzzy. I wanted audiences to feel like they needed a tetanus shot afterward, but at the same time, we wanted to honor the strong Giallo color palettes of the early films. At the same time, we tried to elegantly pay homage to those films and their choices, while still bringing an elegance and an arc to the photography that served this individual story. That’s part of why we shot with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
NFS: Which death sequence was the most difficult to shoot?
Matthews: Every trap presented new macabre and technical challenges. From a stylistic and technical perspective shooting Gabriela’s Radiation Therapy presented the most challenges. It meant multiple makeup changes and working with stunts to rig and hoist the actor and the radiation machine. We shot a lot of the material using a Technocrane and Scorpio head to be able to capture the action appropriately–operated by 2nd Unit DP and B-Camera Op Edgar Luzanilla. It’s just a really exhausting and tedious process to capture the material we needed.
From a gut perspective and what jolted me on set–Mateo’s Brain Surgery trap was the most effective. The prosthetics company Fractured FX (who did The Knick, Westworld, and many other films) was the best team I’ve ever worked alongside. They crafted such disturbingly beautiful pieces. And it certainly made an impression–I shuddered a few times while shooting those scenes. I mean watching someone rip out pieces of their brain is jarring.
NFS: Saw X was shot in Mexico and you had shot a film there previously, so you knew the ins and outs. What is different about shooting a movie in Mexico than the US?
Matthews: I love working in Mexico City. The crew are absolutely brilliant creatives and technicians. My A Camera 1st AC Zitali Vargas was instrumental in bringing together an amazing camera team and my gaffer Ignacio Sanchez was an incredible collaborator. They were two of the biggest reasons we had a successful film. Some of the best crew in the world. I knew that our production budget would go further and we’d pull off astonishing things by shooting in Mexico.
There are a number of differences. In CDMX, it’s expected that there is a 6-day work week. This is very taxing on your body and ability to reset and prep for the next week, but it’s just the way things work. Additionally, the gear tends to come with technicians from the rental house who aren’t a part of your standard crew, so the crew size is rather large. Furthermore, you’re dealing with a lot of transportation nuances. The city is unpredictable in how the traffic will flow or what streets will shut down–so occasionally that creates challenges. Inherently there was a language barrier since I don’t speak Spanish which slowed things at certain points, but the amount of planning and tenacity we all had kept us moving at an unbelievable pace. I can’t wait to go back and work together again. Every country has its own way of making films.
'Saw X' BTSCredit: Lionsgate
NFS: Can you talk about the equipment you used on Saw X?
Matthews: We wanted to capture a gritty, textural, filmic look to hearken to the early Saw films that were shot on 35mm stock, grainy, and pushed. To achieve that we shot Saw X on the Sony Venice at 2000 ASA and used the Cooke Panchro/i Classic lenses and Pearlescent 1 filters. We further added grain in post. This combination gave us a textured look and lots of range to maneuver in post. I love these lenses because they give a very vintage quality but have all the convenience of modern lenses. We wanted to avoid the crisp, hyper-realism of digital in favor of a more painterly, organic film.
For our larger location work, we used a range of 20Ks, M90s, M40s, and M18s alongside a battery of LEDs. For the interiors of the main trap location, we completely blacked out the warehouse space and built the entire room out of LED film lights dressed into practical housings. This was a range of Skypanel S60s, Arri Orbiters, Aputure Accent B7c, Astera Titans, and Mc7’s on the camera for eye lights.
Because we designed some expressive shots that felt perfectly Saw to us, we used a range of styles of gear for camera movement. This included revisiting the circular dolly track and 12:1 zoom lens, lambda heads for specific spinning movement, probe lenses to place the audience into the eye tube trap, techno cranes to move the camera for a variety of scenes, and Steadicam. We did a number of shots that feel like kinetic flash frames shooting at 6 fps, 270-degree shutter. Some of that was even shot on my Blackmagic 6K Pocket Camera with a mixture of lens whacking because it was so much faster to mount or grab for certain types of shots.
NFS: You mentioned in the EPK that you wanted to shoot in 360, which the director (Kevin Greutert) hadn’t done before. Did he look to you to educate him on how this would be done?
Matthews: It felt like a practical reality where we needed to consider spatial lighting rather than lighting it shot by shot or by direction. I knew it was the right approach with the amount of coverage we were shooting (there are over 4,000 edits in the film) and with the style of filmmaking where we used two cameras on nearly every take. Kevin trusted me and it’s something we discussed in advance, but Saw’s brutality and edginess aided this approach.
Nick Matthews on the set of 'Saw X'Credit: Lionsgate
NFS: What is key when shooting 360-degrees?
Matthews: I look at the space and think deeply about the color arc and palette of the space and the progression. So I think, “How do I craft something that walks you into that kind of space and into that sort of a world? How do I create shape and darkness within a space?” For me, it’s about thinking in terms of deep background, midground, and foreground, and then letting things fall off in a lot of places. I want the light to reflect John Kramer’s design and perspective. So the lighting articulates and changes as the traps evolve and change. I’m using color separation and a mixture of poisonous green, jaundiced yellow, sodium vapor orange, crimson red, and fluorescent blue. It’s all embedded into the space as practical lights in industrial fixtures.
We couldn’t shoot everything 360 degrees–it just doesn’t always work. But if you’re keying from the far side of the character or from above it gives you a lot of leverage and makes a variety of angles look great simultaneously because of where the shadows are being thrown. Because we’re using all LED, we’re able to dial everything on the fly–even the eye lights that we have attached to the cameras.
I took the palettes of the first two movies and mixed them in the spaces to create a film that would bridge Saw I and II with a certain elegance. I didn’t want this to feel monochromatic.
NFS: The first part of Saw X is more of a drama and then it gets into more of a horror film. Did you change techniques or anything when the movie shifted?
Matthews: The photography really follows the form of the film, so we elevate the color palette to a more heightened place and an edgier place as the film moves along. The story is one of elation and devastation, so the photography goes from more beautiful to brutal. It goes from more Rembrandt and side-lit and brighter to more gritty, grimy, and dark with a lot more color mixing.
NFS: Anything else you would like to add?
Matthews: I love world-building and it brought me such joy to play in the dark, macabre world of Saw. I hope to continue crafting unique looks and thematic worlds like this film for the rest of my career. I hope the fans really enjoy the attention to detail we baked into the movie.
Saw X is now available for digital and physical purchase on Amazon Prime, Vudu, Apple TV, and more.
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