MATTHEW LIBATIQUE, ASC, SHOOTS "COWBOYS & ALIENS"

Matthew (Matty) Libatique, ASC was born in Queens, New York, but migrated to Los Angeles with his family in the 1980s. After completing school, he worked at Chanticleer Films as a camera PA where he gained experience working on set. He applied and was accepted to the AFI graduate program, during which time he met Darren Aronofsky and lensed two short films for him: “Protozoa” and “No Time.” After graduating from AFI, Matty worked in the music video industry and became known for his edgy visuals, working with top directors including Phil Harder, Paul Hunter, Chris Robinson, Floria Sigismondi, and Terry Richardson. His first breakout feature, “Pi,” was directed by Aronofsky, and the two would continue to work together on “Requiem for a Dream,” “The Fountain,” and the Oscar nominated film “Black Swan.”

His resume includes films with director Joel Schumacher (“Phone Booth,” “The Number 23” and “Tigerland”) and Spike Lee (“She Hate Me,” “Inside Man,” “Miracle at St. Anna,” “Passing Strange” and the television documentary “Kobe Doin’ Work”). His current release, “Cowboys & Aliens,” is the third project with Jon Favreau, having shot “Iron Man” and “Iron Man 2” with him. Matty was nominated for an Oscar for “Black Swan” and has garnered another nine wins and 16 nominations for “Black Swan,” “The Fountain,” “Requiem for a Dream” and “Pi.” (Interestingly enough, all the films Matty has had nominations for were directed by Darren Aronofsky). He is currently working with Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris on a small project called “He Loves Me.” Panavision caught up with Matty to talk about his career and work on “Cowboys & Aliens.”

Q: When and where were you when you were first introduced to Panavision?
ML: When I finished my undergrad, I worked as an assistant at Chanticleer Films. I was a camera PA and that was my first introduction to shooting. It was a low-budget company, and they ran a program for Showtime, which gave people working in the entertainment industry a chance to direct short films: a composer, or a sound mixer, or a documentarian. It allowed someone who was a craftsperson to try directing. It gave me an opportunity to work in camera with Panavision equipment. I had met Dan Hammond when he was at Panavision Hollywood, and one day I stopped by and he let me load magazines.

Q: What was your first project you used Panavision on?
ML: My first film with Panavision was “Requiem for a Dream.” I worked with several different rental houses when I was shooting music videos, and I met Tracy Morse from Panavision Hollywood at an MVPA (Music Video Production Association) event. My career started in music videos. I started when they were $30,000 videos, and then they went to million dollar videos, and now they are budgets of $10,000. They have come down in production value, and far less videos are made for over $100,000. Consequently, I rarely shoot music videos anymore, but I do shoot commercials in between features. I’ve been fortunate to work with directors Dante Ariola, Paul Hunter, Stylewar, Traktor, Kinka Usher, Noam Murro and Brian Beletic.

Q: What was it that influenced your decision to become a cinematographer?
ML: I was interested in filmmaking at the time of Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee, and later Richard Linklater; but it was really Jarmusch and Spike Lee who inspired me. I didn’t really understand the role of the cinematographer, the gymnastics of camera and light, and it was suggested to me by my girlfriend at the time that I should concentrate on cinematography rather than directing. Soon after I graduated from AFI, I went from studying Spike Lee to Ernest Dickerson, ASC. I ended up working with Spike three times, but “Do the Right Thing” was what really set it off for me. I became interested in filmmaking because of them, because of Spike, who I had no relationship with at the time; it was just someone whose work admired. When I saw “Do the Right Thing” I became enamored of that, and then I saw Jarmusch’s work. I bought a 16mm Bell and Howell to shoot films with and I soon realized that I was more inclined to be a cinematographer. I started studying the work of Ernest Dickerson, who was interested in the storytelling of the film. Cinematography was new and exciting to me so I started pursuing that and never stopped.

Q: How long have you been using the same crew in terms of gaffer, AC, key grip, operator?
ML: The gaffer I have worked with the most is Mike Bauman; we met on the first day of film school at AFI. I have known him longer than anyone else in the business. I shoot films all over the world, so I have different people in different cities: John Velez in NY, and I have a gaffer in Montreal who I have worked with three times. I have worked with my key grip, Tana Dubbe, for 12 years. She was one of the grips on “Phone Booth,” and after that I had her key for me, mostly on commercials. Her first film with me was “Never Die Alone,” and she did “My Own Love Song” which was shot in New Orleans. My first AC now was my long time 2nd AC, and I have worked with him since 1997: Matt Stenerson. I don’t work with the same operator, because for a long time I operated myself, but if there is someone I work the most it is probably Steve Constentino in NY.

Q: Do you find it hard to start over with a new camera operator when the rest of your team is consistent?
ML: Not really, because I work with great, great operators, and I have been introduced to those people through my regular crew. I ask for recommendations through my crew. There has never been a personality conflict. They all know my personality so well that they know who would work well with me. As far as crews working together, there has never been a problem. More cities have become film towns, so you have crew who live in these towns. I have never brought a crew member to Montreal, or to NY. They’ve shown me a lot of loyalty and I have shown them loyalty.

Q: What is your decision-making process between shooting spherical or anamorphic?
ML: There are two things: one, it comes from the subject matter, and two, it comes from the director’s taste or mentality. Directors have become more camera savvy, because it has become more about the technology. The DI has also made directors savvier about the lighting, contrast and color saturation. They are definitely more in tune and it becomes a point of discussion. Some directors are enamored of the feeling you have of anamorphic film, and some directors are terrified. If I had my choice I would shoot anamorphic all the time, but it doesn’t fit every project. I had this discussion with Liev Schrieber on “Everything is Illuminated” when we were shooting spherical, and I said, “I see the film as 1:85 and only because of how close it would look.” That was a decision we made together. When you time an anamorphic film and you get to print on anamorphic, spherical doesn’t compare. There is much more texture. The easiest thing I have every done was “Number 23,” which was anamorphic, and I credit that to the fact that every image had texture baked in, which you don’t get with spherical. I don’t even care about the framing; you can’t compare. It speaks for itself.

Q: How much of that decision is related to your artistic take on the script vs. that of the director?

ML: As with any preparation, I try to study the script and interpret it for myself. I have to get my head wrapped around the subject, and around the creativity and the choices I would make. Then, it’s about getting to know the director and what he would want to do: the conflicts and/or similarities. It’s how well we mesh at the beginning that determines if we are on the same page. I like to think of myself as someone who adheres to what the director wants to do, but sometimes the directors rely on me to suggest what that decision should be.

Q: Do you have a different approach in how you shoot anamorphic vs. spherical?
ML: No, not really. I think you use less focal lengths in anamorphic than spherical. In spherical, the zooms are so great people get kind of lazy. In anamorphic you go with a prime-oriented philosophy versus a zoom-oriented philosophy. There are more choices when it comes to spherical lenses.

Q: At one point, there was talk of shooting 3D vs. 2D for “Cowboys & Aliens.” How did you come to the decision to shoot 2D anamorphic?
ML: Early on, Jon Favreau was really excited about 3D; “Avatar” had just come out and it was a game-changer. But for every “Avatar,” there were ten 3D movies that weren’t as great. It became about ticket sales, and it was an attractive thing. Ironically, the studio wasn’t really into it. Jon really wanted to do it and I and the visual effects supervisor went along with it, but we were going to be outside and not in a controlled setting. We were going to deal with dust and elements with the glass and the 3D rig. We tested the Pace rig and it was a fantastic rig, but to get that footage it was four times longer than to get it in 2D. So I was worried about the setup and how long it would take. The last straw was setting up for scene with the horses: we had to lay cable in ditches and I said, “We can’t do this every time.” This was pre-Epic and pre-Alexa so I was going down the road of working with something very cumbersome. Jon asked me point blank, “What do you think?” and I said “I don’t think we should do it.” It would have been a commitment to have fewer shots. He’s performance-oriented and editorially driven, and it was suicide to go in and shoot stereo on the movie. After weeks and weeks -- we spent almost the entire prep working with 3D -- we made the decision not to do it. So my AC, Mark Santori, had to scrounge together three sets of anamorphic primes. He saved the show. He should get a special credit for it. It was a sigh of relief once we made that decision. For the two operators, sigh of relief. This was the same crew I had worked with on “Iron Man” and “Iron Man 2.”

Q: When shooting “Cowboys & Aliens,” what can you tell us about how you designed your lighting to photograph key actors?
ML: I studied Westerns from the more classic John Ford to Clint Eastwood, and we watched a lot. We watched more contemporary ones, too, including a film shot by Benoit Delhomme called “The Proposition,” and, of course, “Butch Cassidy,” shot by Connie Hall. Connie’s work really stood out. His work was beautiful but very naturalist. His style was about making the photography believable, and I find that the contemporary photography strives for that, but because of the DI, things get over-modulated. That’s a danger. For me the inspiration was to find realism, a fake naturalism, especially at night. We wanted to make the night look motivated by firelight, so we did soft back light with Luma Panels, in combination with low-lying batting sources; and we put household lights on gels, to create diffusion from the ground where it would be flames. Rarely did we have lights at face level. Lights were 40 feet in the air or on the ground. We tried to evoke a sense of motivation from what would happen. The human eye would see in the distance but there is no real light to speak of. The film goes from very dark interiors to bright light outside. We didn’t really light our exteriors, because of weather and the amount of coverage. The film takes place in 1870 when there are only oil lamps and candles. No gas lamps; they hadn’t made it to this town in New Mexico yet.

Q: Are there any particular scenes in “Cowboys & Aliens” you can talk about where you really pushed the envelope on lighting?
ML: The bar interior where Daniel Craig’s character is confronted by Keith Carradine was a scene that was really tough. We first walked into the location and it was difficult to understand how we were going to light it, because there were a lot of characters to cover. Everything we did seemed wrong and artificial. When you start lighting a dark space, it seems artificial. Ultimately I under-exposed the scene, played it darker and darker. This is something you can do with film that you can’t do with digital. You can underexpose it and still get what you need. Underexposed, it started to feel more real. You struggle to see it. That was one of the hardest scenes. When I initially walked into the place it was hard to see, and I wanted to duplicate that. Instead of working at 32 on my prints, I was working at a 27. There was also a riverboat scene that was really difficult. It was an upside-down riverboat they come upon and sleep there that night because it is raining and there is an alien. How do you light an interior that is supposed to have no light? There we opted to use moving lights, for directional sources, with a lot of smoke. We basically used backlights with movers and smoke to create an impression of moonlight. When you see the film, the tones are very cool -- cool moonlight -- and we had a fire to motivate light.

Q: Do you have any favorite Panavision lenses? If so, why?
ML: I always loved the G Series 50mm and the C Series 50mm and the G and C 75mm. Those are my favorite anamorphic lenses. And I love the Primo 65mm and 75mm, which have been my favorite spherical lenses.

Q: Out of all the projects that you have shot, what was your favorite? And why?
ML: I like them all for different reasons and I hate them all for different reasons. I definitely have a soft-spot for “Requiem for a Dream.” I have a soft spot for “The Fountain” as well and for “Illuminated.” Those are my favorite three and my fourth is “Tigerland.”

Q: Any digital projects on the horizon?
ML: I am currently shooting a project with directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine.”) called “He Loves Me.” We are shooting with the Alexa and the reasoning behind that is because it’s a very short schedule and we have scenarios in the film that need a higher ASA capture device. If I get the lookup tables right, I can achieve that.

Q: Any advice for cinematographers starting out today?
ML: I would suggest they read up on the history of cinematography and how they used to work. I think it’s easy to get lost in the digital technology, and I was fortunate to be taught by the people who I was taught by. They taught me what precise cinematography is. If you go back, you understand how precise DPs had to be, which shows how lucky we are to be working with the tools we have. There is no excuse not to shoot and learn. The tools are available, you can shoot anytime, and you can learn. If you get inspired, you can go shoot rather than wait and organize it. For DPs coming up, be as aggressive as you can, because the ability is there, now more than ever.

Q: Films that inspired you?
ML: “Manhattan,” “Last Tango in Paris,” “The Conformist,” “Night of the Hunter.”