Cinematography of “Saw X” – interview with Nick Matthews

October 6th, 2023

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Nick Matthews. In this interview, he talks about the evolution of digital tools at his disposal, how we see art, the impact of storytelling on our society, and the enduring appeal of the horror genre in the last few decades. Around these and more, Nick dives deep into his work on “Saw X”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.

Nick: I grew up in a family that cared a lot about art and storytelling. My dad had a master’s in English literature, and my older brother played the flute, eventually going on to Yale and Juilliard doing that. At the same time, my family was also religious, and I grew up in a conservative, fundamentalist Christian home in the South. Because of that, movies were often censored. They would look up to see what was in it before we would watch it. But in spite of that, my dad introduced us to a lot of cinema as I was growing up. I remember seeing “Lawrence of Arabia”, “The Shining” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” all very young. There was a dichotomy growing up around a culture that censored a lot of media, but then also giving you a bookshelf with Hawthorne and Dostoevsky. I grew up reading a lot of books, and that was what sparked my interest in filmmaking.

When I was in high school, I was watching behind the scenes of “The Lord of the Rings” and other big movies, and that was that era of DVDs and BluRays becoming prominent. A lot of companies invested money and time into making behind the scenes features and director’s commentaries in a way that’s not quite paralleled now. That’s when my interest in filmmaking started.

I had a friend come over one day and he said that we should make a movie together. We took my parents’ camcorder, and we shot a little sequence of someone shooting a bow and then we whip panned the camera to reveal someone that had the arrow “inside” of them. It was a fun way of starting to create a story with editing. We were doing all that on tape, and we started doing a few of those in high school and playing around together. I started writing and shooting stuff with my friends, and that was what got me interested.

I would say my path to cinematography was a lot more of a winding path. I didn’t go to school for filmmaking. I studied electronic media and broadcast, and I was making shorts on the side. I came to Los Angeles to intern on a movie as locations PA [production assistant] on a little movie called “Pete Smalls Is Dead” with Steve Buscemi, Tim Roth, Peter Dinklage and Mark Boone Junior. That was my first taste of making movies. At that time I was directing, shooting and cutting a couple of my own short films, and this was one of the first experiences I had that showed me that there are more people involved with these productions. It was an eye opener to see all the roles and all the people involved.

Right after college I ended up getting a job doing AV, projection installation and live sound. I was also shooting stuff on the side, and working for a religious organization shooting and editing a lot of their material. In the process of that I both lost my faith, and also started down this journey of trying to make movies. Eventually I had enough work to build a reel. At the same time, I was reading all the REDuser threads that David Mullen was doing. He did “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and a bunch of other movies and TV shows, and he’s generous with his knowledge and wisdom. I was also reading a bunch of filmmaking books, and shooting stuff on my own. So I was learning by reading, by watching things and also by making stuff.

Then about ten years ago when I was 25, I made the decision to move to Los Angeles and start a career as a freelance cinematographer. I did a lot of jobs from Craigslist and other places, doing whatever I could to make any money. Fortunately enough, that included booking some small independent movies, which started my career shooting features. Along the way I also started shooting music videos and commercials. It’s been a slow, tumultuous journey, but it’s been really rewarding, now leading to making “Saw X”. I remember back in high school begging my dad to let me see the first “Saw”. I pushed with “Seven” and “The Godfather” and with every movie, but “Saw” was something I really had to fight for. It was so exciting being able to watch that first one, and now the chance to work on “Saw X” was a great experience.

Lighting diagram of the warehouse set on “Saw X”, courtesy of Nick Matthews.

Kirill: What are your thoughts about digital vs film? Has it been settled by the financial side of it, with film remaining more of an eclectic choice?

Nick: In some ways, I am a product of the digital era filmmaking. I started my career shooting on MiniDV and 3-chip Ikegami TV broadcast cameras. Then we used 1/3 inch cameras like HVX200 and And then I kind of walked through the like third inch chip cameras, like the HVX200 and the XL1. It’s been this whole progression of technology that has directly impacted my life and my career. It moved to the CMOS sensor DSLRs, and then eventually starting to shoot on the RED and Alexa.

To me, film always felt untouchable because it was a process and a format I didn’t fully understand. There were more upfront costs with development and with procuring the film itself, and so it felt a little off the table for me. Eventually, I convinced a friend of mine to shoot a music video on 16mm. We did that a couple of times, and I got a chance to experience that.

I love the way that film looks. When I see it as a viewer, it has an impact on me. There is something about it that feels painterly, there’s something about it that does feel textural. It’s the way that it reads colors, the way that it reads highlights. There is something about it that doesn’t feel so hyper-real and so present tense, and something about that really immerses me into a story.

That said, the majority of my career has been shot digitally. I would say there is an acceptance of what digital brings to the table. The director of “Saw X” Kevin Greutert came from the days of editing film on negatives, and he has no interest in ever going back to film in any world. There’s a lot of complexity to the process with film that could result in you losing your material. You don’t have immediate feedback, you can’t immediately see where you’re shooting. If something’s out of focus or the negative is scratched, you don’t immediately know. If you flash the negative, you don’t immediately know. It’s a scarier process. There’s a bit of taking a leap. I remember on one of the projects I shot on 16mm, we were shooting at one frame a second, we were doing 360 degree shutter and doing pretty wacky things with the camera – and you have no immediate feedback.

There’s a lot artistically to love about film. There’s a lot of challenges to the process. Both film and digital exist. There’s a reason huge movies are still being shot on film and projected on film. I hope that film stays around long enough for me to shoot a feature on film. I love the way it captures images. At the end of the day, I’m pushing a lot of my digital work to try to look more like film.

That said, most projects do shoot digitally right now. You really have to fight to shoot something on film and you have to fight for that budget. For some people it’s worth it and for most it’s not. Digital has a lot of convenience to it. There’s ways to use digital photography to do things you could never do on film. It’s better with low light. Cameras can get smaller and smaller to the point that we’re able to put them in places we’ve never been able to put them before. It can capture certain color tones that were not capturable prior. There’s a lot about shooting digitally that’s beautiful.

You look at the evolution of digital cameras with RED M, RED MX, ARRI ALEXA, ARRI Mini LF and others. All of these camera systems have brought something to the table. And I’ve had the great fortune of being able to use them on some of my own work. You look at a movie like “Zodiac” that was shot on Grass Valley Viper at 1920 resolution back in the days of early digital cinema, but it was Harris Savides who’s an absolute master. It looks fantastic even now, because the people that are crafting the film ultimately matter more than the gear. But I would also strongly argue that the gear directly affects the story that you’re telling. If you try to shoot a certain movie on an XL2 or an old mini camera or DSLR, it will directly impact the images that you capture, as well as the way in which you move the camera.

I love that we have both. I hope we continue with both for a very long time.

Lighting diagram of the vet set on “Saw X”, courtesy of Nick Matthews.

Kirill: Is it possible to define what art is? Is it possible to draw the line and say that everything to the left is art and everything to the right is not art? And on top of that, is there such a thing as objectively good and bad art?

Nick: Asking that question gets to some big philosophical questions about the way people view the world. There’s also another part of it – whether filmmaking is art. It exists as a business. It exists within a capitalist framework. There are many movies I love that were not financially successful. Are they still great films? Ultimately, my answers to those are fairly agnostic.

In many ways, art is in the eye of the beholder. Art is how you perceive something. It doesn’t even have to be something created with the intention of being art. The spaces we see things in affect how we perceive whether something is art or not. I don’t feel like I know if I can define what is art or what is not art. That almost feels beyond what I feel capable of. There are things that I encounter and engage with in the world that are meticulously and beautifully crafted. Those put me in a place where I ask a lot of questions about what it means to be alive or to be human, or to know all the emotions and the transcendence of being human, as well as the tragedy of it.

Art is something that is crafted to reflect our reality. To get us to ask questions about our reality is meaningful and matters and is art in some way.

I don’t know if we can quantify fully what is or isn’t art. There is no such a thing as objectively good or bad art. Ascribing moral values like good or bad gets in the way of what art even is. It gets in the way of being perceived by someone. Something that one person might love, something that becomes important and vital in their life may not be something that connects with another person or even their friends. The beauty of art is that all of us find a little piece of home, a little bit of something that feels like this was made for just me. This thing didn’t exist before someone made it or put it together or assembled it. And now it exists and has the ability for me to perceive it and to react to it.

The beauty of art is that not everybody – but most of us – find things that become cornerstones in our lives, for understanding our own world, for the way that we look at the world, for feeling like we’re not alone in this giant universe. That to me is the beauty of what art is and can be.

Filmmaking is a challenging one because it is driven by the market. There are auteurs and filmmakers who do not have that approach, and they are genuinely trying to create meaningful pieces that audiences can have experiences with, that ask them to reflect and provoke questions about their world and their life. My hope is that I get to be involved with a variety of things that both entertain and enlighten the audience.

For some people, a film like “Saw X” will only be seen as torture porn. And others will see it as a way to cathartically experience and think about life. “Saw X” is directly asking some big questions about bigger systems and structures – in the medical world specifically – and about the value of human life. But I also understand that that’s not for some people, that that’s not something they’ll ever connect with as well.

Kirill: Is this something that is important for you as an artist to be probing and poking and raising these questions about issues that concern not just you, but our entire planet that is a shared space for billions of people to live on?

Nick: I feel like all art is fundamentally political. All art fundamentally stabs at questions of how we should live, what it means to live, what it means to matter, what it means to do or be in the world. If it’s not entertaining, it’s not worth watching [laughs]. It’s that Emily Dickinson quote – “tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

Artists tend to look at the world in a different way, and scientists do too. There are groups of people for whom the way they perceive the world is shaped by the work that they have experienced and taken on. I want to create things that force people to contemplate. I like provocative things. I like polarizing art. I like things that cause a reaction. I like a gut punch, and I love that in the art I experience as well. Sometimes you want some popcorn, to watch things fly and to feel good. And then there are times where I want to deeply consider what it means to be human.

Storytelling and art has been one of the most impactful ways in which I’ve thought about empathizing with a person from another country, and the way that they grew up and their cultural touchstones, and their point of view as a result of that. I have four siblings, and I think about the ways in which all of their experiences and the things they’ve encountered have shaped each of them, and how each of my siblings is a different person. There are some shared experiences we all have, but all of us had a different reaction to that shared experience. I get to be a part of making stories. They get launched into the world and a variety of people get to take in and everyone’s going to experience it differently.

I hope that it pushes all of them to consider their life and to think about who they are and what they want in their life – and hopefully have a damn good time.

Lighting diagram of the Hacienda set on “Saw X”, courtesy of Nick Matthews.

Kirill: Getting back to what you said about the medical industry, certainly there are a lot of profit-driven excesses and abuses in it. Do you want to only shine the light on the problem, or also to suggest solutions?

Nick: Art tends to work best when it’s not propaganda. Art is great at asking questions, but it’s bad at offering answers. But the questions that we ask often lead us to a specific set of answers.

I don’t tend to connect with art that feels didactic, that is trying to teach me something. I connect more with art that takes me on an emotional experience and then lets me draw conclusions. I hope that that’s the kind of work that I get to make and keep getting to make.

Kirill: How do you explain this enduring appeal and the enduring presence of the horror genre in the modern American cinema in the last few decades?

Nick: We all love to be scared. There is something about the adrenaline rush of being terrified. There’s something childlike about sitting under the covers and thinking there’s something in your room that you can’t tell what it is and not being sure. We’re all scared of what we don’t know. We’re scared of the unknown. We’re scared of uncertainty. Those things don’t go away as you get older. The unknown exists. It gets bigger. The uncertainty exists. It becomes more in a way more profound. As you get older, you begin to realize how little control you actually have.

Violence, uncertainty in the unknown, and sexuality are core parts of our questions as humans. Unfortunately, it is inherently violent to be human. The birthing process is a violent process. It’s impossible to be human and not go through trauma. Horror as a genre allows you to explore trauma, to explore mystery and the inability to know everything, the inability to be fully comprehend. There’s so much that happens in our life that we can’t fully comprehend, even with people that we know and love and situations where you don’t understand why it happened. Horror allows you to explore those hidden spaces, the dark places, the uncertainty, the unknown, the mystery. It lets us confront our fears in a way that no other genre does.

All storytelling involves conflict, and horror involves some of the most intriguing and profound ways of it. And at the same time, how many other genres of film get to be magical realists that you buy into – the way superhero and sci-fi movies do? Horror lets you access that. That is all on the fundamental human level.

From a cultural perspective, the generations that have lived in the last few hundred years, and our generation as well have experienced colossal amounts of change and colossal amounts of transformation. We have experienced the advent of new technology and the way it directly affects all of our lives. These things are huge, and our generation is now globally connected like no other before us. Mass communication has allowed us to be more aware of everything that is happening all around the world. If you lived just a few hundred years ago, you would have a vastly different experience because of the limited information.

Today’s kids all dealt with Covid. It affected their schooling, it affected their social life, it affected their friend life. You talk about kids from the ’70s and the ’80s, and the Cold War and the threat of nuclear warfare affected the way that they looked at the world. You have people dealing with colossal cultural trauma. Every country has its own thing and the U.S. is an extremely divisive place. It has an odd history of a lot of people pulled together with different points of view. You have a lot of scars, and a lot of generational trauma. For a lack of a better word, U.S. seems like a haunted place. The unknown exists in every culture and in every mythology, but the U.S. in particular is a bizarre place [laughs].

There’s an attachment to horror in some part because there’s a religiosity to the U.S. We’ve had some very bizarre demagogues as our presidents. It’s a place that draws out some absurdity and contradiction, and horror is a good place to explore that.

Lighting diagram of a set on “Saw X”, courtesy of Nick Matthews.

Kirill: Would you say that the “Saw” universe has some “basic” rules that you need to follow in order to make another film in it?

Nick: There are certain staples of the films. When I went to shoot this film, I talked with Kevin and I was interviewed for the project. At that point we discussed a lot of what is inherent in “Saw”. There are a few rules, but they’re not necessarily written in stone. It fundamentally comes back to John Kramer’s morality, and who is John Kramer as a person, and as a result, how do Jigsaw’s puzzles unfold. There’s a certain ethos to that.

In terms of the rules of how the films are made, the franchise has played with a lot of different things. We wanted to return back to the first three movies. We wanted to create intricate traps, but at the same time we wanted them to feel simple and direct. We wanted something that felt machined. Some of the later “Saw” films went into some more extravagant traps photographically, but we wanted to return to the basics. We’re doing the circular dolly track, and using the under cranked stutter frames that kinetically whip around the characters to generate the sense of intense violence.

We’re returning to form in terms of some of the color choices that we’re making. We’re returning to form in terms of trying to shoot it in a dirtier, grittier way. We’re still shooting digitally, but we’re using vintage lenses. We’re adding grain, we’re using filters, we’re using strong lighting choices. We’re returning back to the aspect ratio of the early films. The last two movies were shot with anamorphic aspect ratio, but we went back to 1.85:1.

“Saw” is a world that is bathed in darkness. It’s a place that makes you feel like you want to take a tetanus shot. It’s dripping, it’s oozing, it’s unsettling. It’s industrial. There’s rust, there’s grime. We wanted to shoot and create a world that reflected that and took you there. We were looking to return to the form, but to also bring our own style to it. This “Saw” film is probably the most linear in the franchise, as it’s following John Kramer’s emotional story. It’s giving the most access that the movies have ever had to John Kramer, to Jigsaw, and to Tobin Bell who is a fantastic performer. As a result, I think the movie is more emotionally rich than any other “Saw” film has been.

Kirill: Do you feel that this particular movie wants to blur the lines between the absolute villain and the absolute victims, and make them a little bit less one-dimensional?

Nick: The audiences will be the ultimate determiners of this. Going back to your earlier question on what is art, outside of a few sociopaths and psychopaths, there’s all kinds of people in between. I don’t necessarily see the world in terms of heroes and villains, or good and evil. What I see are people who have navigated trauma in different ways. Some of them are narcissistic and psychopathic in their tendencies, and some of them are not.

In my head John Kramer is driven by a morality, and that morality is shaped by a variety of things. We’re trying to bring a humanity to who he is, but at the same time, Jigsaw and John Kramer do horrible things. Are those things deserved? Are those too much for the situation at the end? I don’t think they’re ethical, but at the same time for this character, those are what feel right, those are what feel appropriate to him. There’s a reason people resonate with that, because there is a lot of injustice in the world. There are a lot of people who take their lives and the lives of those around them for granted. And John Kramer and Jigsaw are trying to point a finger at that in their own way.

We have some fantastic performers in this film. The more you get to watch and experience each of them, the more you begin to see that there are shades to every person. There’s good and evil contained in all of us. Our lives and the choices we make tease out different parts of who we are. There is a degree of exploring what people will do with their free will and how far they’re willing to go. And that’s very much explored in these traps.

Mock up on the main room set on “Saw X”, courtesy of Nick Matthews.

Kirill: Was there any color that you wanted to stay away from?

Nick: Kevin and I talked a lot about it. We didn’t want to land in a cyan-teal space. For us, “Saw” was either jaundiced yellow or poisonous green. I love cyan in “Blade Runner” and “Pan’s Labyrinth”. For us, cyan felt storybook. It felt too gentle and fantastical. Blue needed to either be fluorescent, or a little more magenta than green. And our greens didn’t go towards cyan.

I’ve seen some of the publicity stills coming out from the film and some of them don’t quite land that. But in the actual film itself, wherever we did play a blue or a cyan, we made very intentional choices in the color correction process. If I messed up on set, which happened a few times in the speed of doing things, we fixed that light in post. It’s easy to key colors and bend them around if you bake them in a strong way – which we did.

Kirill: Does it feel that once you do your final cut and it gets to this wide variety of screens that people have in their lives, that you lose that control over the color choices?

Nick: It is a part of what you have to accept when you make a film. People will watch it in their own way on their own devices. When I was involved with doing the commentary with the director and the production designer, we were at an audio studio where they wheeled out a TV and had us watch the movie. It was my third time watching it after the color correction. The brightness was all the way up, motion smoothing was on, the saturation was all off – and I did stop us recording just so I could change the motion smoothing. It was so frustrating to watch something that I’d spent so much of my life like that.

At the end of the day, if people watch something on their home device, they’re going to see it the way they see everything else. I’ve seen it in different formats, from the P3 DCP for theaters, to the HDR version on a properly calibrated HDR monitor, to the SDR version on a properly calibrated monitor. We’ve seen the movie in a lot of different ways in different contexts to make sure that it looks correct on calibrated systems. But even myself, I don’t have a properly calibrated television. And my iPhone is going to have a slight color skew. So you’re making the best decisions you can using the best tools that exist.

There’s still conversation around if there will be a way to standardize creating a cinema look on TVs for people that care in terms of their motion smoothing and the colors. It is painful to accept that. But also, if someone’s watched everything else in their life on that device, they’re used to colors all reading in that space. So our stab at what this movie looks like and what “Saw X” will ultimately look like on their device, it’s still going to be gritty and grimy and dark compared to everything else they’re watching – even if it tonally changes the movie to some degree.

Kirill: What was the most challenging scene or sequence or set to be working on?

Nick: The most challenging scene was scene 89 in the script. It’s a long monologue introductory sequence when you meet all of the characters that are in these traps in one room. We meet all of those characters, and we see John Kramer walking around and talking to each of them as it unfolds. It was a 9-page scene, and it was later cut way down by Kevin to something concise and powerful. But the actual experience of shooting it was difficult for two reasons.

One, that’s just a lot of material with a lot of important pieces. If you don’t understand where everyone is and who everyone is, the rest of the movie becomes a little jumbled and challenging. And then secondly, I got Covid right before we started shooting that scene, so I had to step off set. They put me up in a trailer, and I worked remotely and basically oversaw the photography remotely for two days. And then we had to shut down production for a week. There was a technical challenge of watching a live feed of the set and having to direct the photography over walkies and headsets.

There were a lot of other challenging sequences involved. All the traps involve special effects, stunts, prosthetics, makeup, lighting, wardrobe – everything is involved in every single trap. And you have to make sure all those pieces function properly. We tested all the traps at least three or four times to make sure that all the little pieces worked before we actually got to the day of. I would say we were mostly successful. We had a few hiccups along the way, but that’s to be expected. We ended up on budget and on time.

Painted mock up on the main room set on “Saw X”, courtesy of Nick Matthews.

Kirill: Do you want people to see it in the movie theater? What’s your pitch for the viewers to go out and see it on the big screen?

Nick: “Saw X” is the kind of movie you absolutely should see in a movie theater. It’s horrifying. It’s scary. And it’s also emotional. Ultimately, when you go to the movie theater, you’re looking to laugh, you’re looking to cry. And for a horror movie, you’re looking to jump a little.

What’s going to happen when you go watch this in a movie theater is you’re going to take on the crowd mentality of everybody yelping when they see somebody cut off a part of their body, or reach into their brain to pull out a bit of their brain, or these violent, uncomfortable spaces that the movie puts you in. It’s a chance for you to collectively be a part of that. If you’re looking to be scared and you’re looking to have a great time with an audience and fully immerse yourself in that, then absolutely see it in a movie theater, because it’s a space where everyone is going with that mission.

If you’re watching it at home or on your phone, you’re going to miss a lot of what makes this movie so special. It’ll still jar you. It’ll still shock you. You might need to watch it at home so you can get up and look away. But getting the chance to watch it with an audience who’s experiencing all these thrills and all these chills at one time, that is going to be quite an experience.

Kirill: Do you see the longer-term effects of the Covid pandemic still affecting the industry?

Nick: I’m curious to see what happens. We’ve had a few more outbreaks of late. Ultimately, there’s an awareness that Covid created. The entire industry had to mobilize and shift in order to stay alive and active during the early pandemic. I don’t know what the ongoing effects will be. There’s an awareness and a readiness surrounding an airborne virus, as the industry learned how to adapt in order to keep creating material. We all recognize that we’re capable of doing that and we can make things under a variety of circumstances.

At the same time, wearing a mask on set limits the ways in which people interact, the ways in which trust gets built, the ways in which you connect with each other and craft scenes. I really hope that a lot of elements of Covid and the way we had to approach making movies in an early pandemic time would stay in the past, and that we don’t have to resort to that too often.

It’s so expensive to shut a movie down for days. You’re talking about extending everyone’s schedule, you’re talking about putting people up in hotels for extra amounts of time. It is a costly endeavor. I certainly understand protecting the investment and taking every precaution possible in order to protect that investment of making a movie.

Kirill: Do you worry about the potential impact of generative AI on the industry as a whole and maybe on the craft of cinematography?

Nick: We don’t know what AI fully will be or how it will function. There’s a lot of fear around the ways in which it has been talked about being used. And there’s a lot of possibility with it that’s really exciting.

From where I come from, I think there’s great possibility with it. The current models are based mostly on theft in the ways in which they’re being trained on existing artist work and replicating existing artist work. That has to be addressed, that’s part of the bigger question. Fundamentally, human beings will want to watch movies made by human beings that reflect a human experience. That is not going to go away. “Black Mirror” screen writers tried to do a screenplay with ChatGPT and it was terrible. Will AI get to the level where generated writing or images are totally believable to us? Probably. But will that be something that you want to experience or craft? I’m not sure.

Of course, I’m not looking for a technology that puts me out of a job. The way that I see my job right now is that it involves mobilizing a variety of people at a specific point in time to create a version of a world that we’re trying to create. I don’t foresee AI taking over that position. It’s the ability to capture a human performance and experience the power of that performance in those human stories that I always want to be able to experience as an audience member.

There’s concern, and there’s concern for a reason. And also there’s excitement, and there’s excitement for a reason. I’ll be curious to see how this continues to unfold. Can AI actually express emotion? A film is a single sitting experience where you experience an emotional journey.

Kirill: Are you excited and maybe sometimes overwhelmed by how much innovation is happening on the technical side of things, from lenses to sensors to lights?

Nick: Technology exists to serve storytellers and stories. It exists to serve a variety of users and whatever functions they have. In my specific case, it’s a camera as a storytelling device. So for me it’s always exciting because it’s new tools and new possibilities.

I love using LEDs. It means I have pixel-controllable lights everywhere on the set. Not every light I use is LED, but I use a lot of LED for that reason. The more we use it, the more we understand what it’s good at. And that’s true of every new camera, or shooting on virtual walls. Virtual volume brings a lot of possibility.

Sunset is only about ten minutes, and there are ways you can do it practically, but it’s difficult. If you have an emotional five-minute scene, and you want to be able to shoot multiple angles with multiple people, now you can shoot it on the volume. You’d still have to figure out how to create a hard light, because the volume is all soft light. It’s a great tool to create that make-believe. Whatever new tools come into being that allows to better create that make-believe, that’s great. Shooting in the volume is inherently better than shooting green screen, because you’re interacting with real light. You can actually see it.

The innovation is all quite exciting. Some things stick and some things don’t. The vertical video is a real thing that’s going to stick around with us. But people just don’t like to watch long form material in vertical video. It’s the same thing that’s happened with 3D. It makes a resurgence every few years, but people are not interested in wearing glasses in order to watch their material. So it cycles back out of being interesting.

I do think innovation leads to more interactive and more exciting ways of moving camera and telling the story, and also of the stories we can tell. I love technology. Every technology has things that it inherently does really well. If you look at VR, people tend to connect with shorter experiences, but they’re very immersive. So there’s a place for it and a platform for it. We’re trying to understand some of these new technologies and how to harness them in order to continue to make engaging, immersive experiences for people.

Kirill: What keeps you going in this field?

Nick: I’ve been doing this for 10 years, and there have been a lot of moments, and a lot of decisions big and small along the way that I’ve had to make to start this career and to continue working in this field.

What keeps me going is the extreme immense joy I feel getting to work alongside amazingly brilliant, talented and beautiful people to craft stories. It brings me so much joy to light and to think about storytelling. I love prep and I love pre-production and I love thinking about how we’re going to make something, and why we should make something that way, and what the arc of a film, and how to tell that story with lights and cameras. But there is nothing quite like the adrenaline rush of being with 150 people on set, and being the person behind the camera or the person overseeing where the cameras are going and the way the lights are interacting with the actors.

When I’m operating, I actually am the first audience. I’m the first person to experience Tobin Bell crying in a room, or the elation, or the sadness, or the joy. I love being around actors and capturing those experiences on a camera. The way in which I’m experiencing their performance unfolding is the way in which the audience will experience it – because of how I’m with the camera. The last movie I did I wasn’t able to operate the camera at all, and it felt a little disembodied.

What keeps me going is actual love of the craft. I do get a lot from it. I do love the experience of it. Being away from home is hard. When I’m away from people, I miss deaths or anniversaries. It’s difficult. But I also love what I do, and I’m good at it. I love stories and the power of stories in our lives. I want to be a part of making those, and I hope I get to do that for a very long time.

Kirill: What would your advice be for somebody who wants to have a longevity in this field?

Nick: You have to understand that making films is a marathon and not a sprint. It’s an extremely unpredictable craft. You will go on some of the most insane adventures, and breaking and challenging runs of your life. I did three movies in a row and then the strikes sidelined me for months. I went from a very fast-paced mobile lifestyle to having to be a lot more careful and frugal. That is something you have to recognize.

Don’t live beyond your means. Be smart about your overhead. Know that it’s going to take some time. I’m very fortunate to have shot a franchise film and a horror film. I did make money and I’m very happy, but it’s not a life-changing payday. At the same time, you’re going to have this challenge of being very busy and then not at times. So be smart about what you’re doing with your money.

Another thing is you have to create space in your life for reflection and for community. You will have busy seasons, but that’s not where your growth is actually going to come. You will grow, and I grew a lot shooting “Saw X”, but that was also a result of ten years of having been a cinematographer, and all of those little decisions and jobs I had already done playing out and me having a lot better sense of what I was doing in the process. A lot of my growth has been in these little projects that I do with friends where we’re trying something new, or when I have some free time to test a new camera or a new technique. You want to create a space for you to stay curious and to explore.

Keep that in mind so you can connect to what drew you in in the first place. I still read “American Cinematographer”. I still watch movies. I do take breaks. I do burnout and I need time, and literature has been a great way for me to reconnect. I love hiking and being in nature.

And then the last piece is community. Like it or not, it’s an isolating career. I’ve been on set with other cinematographers maybe three times in my career. I’ve always been on my own sets and shot my own things. So I regularly meet with other cinematographers. I regularly meet with directors. And I have friends that I’ve known since I moved to Los Angeles about 10 years ago. That’s three parts of it.

Another big thing is, whether you see yourself as an artist or an entrepreneur or a sole proprietor or a business owner working in this field as a cinematographer, you have to recognize that you will only be as capable at your work as you are capable in your life. So you have to take care of yourself. If you’re not, if there’s no self care routine, and there’s no sense of taking care of yourself, you will burn out. This is not an industry that honors boundaries. You need to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. There’s a lot of stress, a lot of lack of sleep. You need to invest in the workout rituals, the meditation rituals, the health rituals that you take on.

I’m not going to say that I enjoy all of it all the time. But fundamentally, you have to find a way to take care of yourself. That is going to look different for everybody.

Director of Photography Nick Matthews in Saw X. Photo Credit: Alexandro BolaƱos Escamilla.

And here I’d like to thank Nick Matthews for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of cinematography, and for sharing the supporting materials. You can also find Nick on Instagram. I also want to thank Jordan von Netzer for making this interview happen. “Saw X” is playing in theaters now. And finally, if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.