- Friday, Dec. 22, 2017
Cinematographer Matthew Jensen’s ascent in feature films, punctuated by the global hit Wonder Woman (Warner Bros.), was prompted in large part by his varied television endeavors.
His early career indie feature exploits dovetailed into those initial opportunities in TV spanning a variety of shows, locations, circumstances and directors. Among the most significant of those series was Showtime’s Sleeper Cell which, while low profile, showcased the DP’s talent and penchant for getting the most out of limited resources by deploying smart planning and exhibiting a willingness to experiment.
“Since nobody watched the show, it gave us a lot of freedom,” recalled Jensen. “The show was ahead of its time, had us creating all kind of looks during the early days of digital. I cut my teeth on television. Sleeper Cell was a major component on my reel that got me True Blood [HBO], a much bigger show in terms of scope.”
In turn True Blood prepared Jensen for even more creative and ambitious fare. “It was a show that had me dealing extensively in visual effects, learning what I could and could not do. The show was set up with alternating DPs from one episode to the next, which gave me more time and the chance to prepare, providing a structure that remains with me today. We had to successfully attain complicated scenes in a short amount of time—like night exteriors in the middle of a forest with no source of light. We had to deal with all of this in very efficient, creative ways.”
Among the directors Jensen collaborated with on True Blood was Daniel Minahan who went on to helm episodes of Game of Thrones (HBO). Minahan helped bring Jensen into the Game of Thrones fold, marking the DP’s big break in TV.
“Game of Thrones—with its visual effects, great stories and characters—opened up most of the doors I’ve gone through recently,” acknowledged Jensen, alluding to his going on to shoot Ray Donovan (Showtime), as well as the features Fantastic Four directed by Josh Trank, and Wonder Woman with director Patty Jenkins.
For the latter, Jensen helped bring a distinctive visual style to the DC Comics universe, which befits and honors the first female-driven vehicle to come out of either DC’s or Marvel’s recent superhero movie adaptations.
SHOOT connected with Jensen who reflects on Wonder Woman, his working relationship with Patty Jenkins, and their decision to shoot on film.
SHOOT: How did you get the opportunity to shoot Wonder Woman? This marked your first collaboration with director Patty Jenkins. How did you initially connect with her?
Jensen: A few years ago she was going to do a small dark comedy. She had been researching DPs and had run across a dark comedy I had shot called Filth. She liked the look of it, thought it was interesting and that it would apply to the movie she was planning. She liked what I had done on film for very little money.
I remember Patty calling me and we had coffee. At the end of the meeting, she offered me the job to shoot the dark comedy. I accepted but that movie fell apart. A few weeks later she got Wonder Woman so she called me for that. It was a completely crazy turn of events. I think the producers were a little more comfortable with me that they would have been otherwise because of my time on Game of Thrones as well as my having shot a superhero feature, Fantastic Four.
SHOOT: What was the biggest creative challenge that Wonder Woman posed to you as a cinematographer?
Jensen: We were putting a superhero into a period piece, set during World War I. The biggest challenge Patty gave me was that she did not want to make a period film that felt ‘old-timey,’ faded and desaturated—the usual trope you would associate with period photography. What she wanted was a modern movie that takes place in 1918. We were making a serious, modern period piece with an extraordinary character in the center of it all.
It’s one thing to say you want a modern period piece and quite another to realize that goal, to give it the right photographic dimension. But it was much more than the cinematography which helped us accomplish this. So many people worked hard to achieve it—through visual effects, production design, costume design.
The big thing for Patty was that she wanted a colorful movie. She didn’t want something ultra realistic but she needed it to be, to look and feel authentic. She said she wanted it to be 10 percent pop—which I interpreted as 10 percent pop culture. She didn’t want it to be a documentary. It was a comic book blended into World War I trench sequences yet you had to believe the world you were entering. You weren’t observing it at a distance as you might with a faded photograph. It became my mission to methodically go through the look of the movie, all its different locations, and to chart Diana’s [Wonder Woman’s] journey, figuring out the looks and presenting Patty with different options. We did a lot of testing and photographic references to see what Patty would respond to.
SHOOT: What was your choice of camera and why? You ultimately opted to shoot on film.
Jensen: Eighty-five to ninety percent is shot on 35 millimeter film. Patty is a big proponent of film. Warner Bros. is very supportive of film. I love film. It was the only way to create the epic feel we wanted and to root us in the time period. Both Patty and I feel that film is kinder to faces. And I’ve always loved the discipline that film imposes on the director and crew, including me. You end up much more present on the set when shooting film. You’re not running off to some monitor all the time.
We used Panavision Millennium cameras and Primo lenses with 35 millimeter film stock—and some slow mo done digitally on the Phantom at 500 frames per second, as well as some drone sequences using the Alexa Mini. We used digital cameras sparingly in places where the technology afforded us some flexibility—the Phantom for certain fight sequences. The Alexa Mini was good for a couple of drone shots. A drone can’t handle even the smallest film camera. We also did an underwater sequence with Alexa so we were not constantly changing film rolls.
SHOOT: What was your biggest takeaway or lessons learned from your experience on Wonder Woman?
Jensen: I continue to be amazed by the impact that Wonder Woman has had on the culture. I never could have anticipated that. The effort we put into the movie and our ambition throughout the process resulted in a story that was really so well received. That’s both mind blowing and a great lesson. It had me refocus on the fact that movies can have an impact and that what you put into them very much matters. When you make something out of sincerity, I think that shows and it registers with audiences.