Behind the Cinematography of the Oscar-Nominated Documentary “Cartel Land”


Cinematographer Matt Porwoll is based in New York City. His most recent work, Cartel Land, was nominated for a 2016 Academy Award for Best Documentary (feature). Cartel Land was also selected for competition at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and subsequently went on to win the US Documentary Prize for Cinematography. He was one of three speakers on the documentary panel at MEWShop’s “Sight, Sound & Story: The Art of Cinematography,” 2015 event. We recently caught up with him to ask some in-depth questions about his career and experiences as a cinematographer.


Manhattan Edit Workshop (MEWShop): Where did you grow up and why did you want to be a cinematographer?

Matt Porwoll (MP): I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. I’ve known that I wanted to be a cinematographer since my freshman year of high school. It’s interesting to try and trace the reason why, but I think a big part of why I took this path was that my dad liked taking pictures. As a kid I loved going down to our basement, turning off the lights, and setting up the slide projector to click through his pictures. In a way, it was very cinematic. I also loved watching movies. Over time, I started to wonder how they were made as opposed to watching them for pure entertainment. I think the combination of these things helped guide me to be a cinematographer.


MEWShop: How did you get your start?

MP: In high school I took some cinematography classes at Atlanta’s IMAGE Film and Video Center. It was here that it really started for me. I was never one of those people who made films as a child, so this was my first opportunity to do it. This helped make filmmaking and cinematography a tangible thing, instead of just something you read about. I became friends with a few people in the class, and was asked if I wanted to go to New York to help them shoot a short film. I immediately said yes, and ended up choosing the film shoot over going to my senior prom! After that trip I knew I wanted to pursue film school. I ended up going to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.


MEWShop: Why University of Utah?

MP: It was an an interesting choice. New York was where I ultimately wanted to end up and I knew I didn’t want to go to L.A. I didn’t get in to NYU, but I found that the University of Utah had a film program. I had been to Salt Lake City once to go skiing, so I knew it was in a beautiful spot, and it had the Sundance Film Festival in it’s backyard! So that’s where I ended up. The department was mostly focused on History and Theory, so the relatively small group of us interested in production basically had free run of the place. This was great because in my mind, the whole point of film school is to make a lot of films, screw up, learn from your mistakes, and do it again.


MEWShop: Did you ever play any other role in film such as directing?

MP: In college, I worked at a grip and lighting rental house and freelanced as a production assistant for the local news affiliate. But since then, I’ve always been in the camera department. My first job after college was in New York at AbelCine, a camera rental, retail, and service company. From there, I was a camera assistant for many years before I started shooting.


MEWShop: Apart from your Dad’s pictures and slides, which films/television shows inspired you to be a cinematographer?

MP: Growing up the 80’s, there was never a lack of exciting movies. I loved E.T., The Goonies, Back to the Future and Ghostbusters. These were big, fun fantasy films. I knew all along that I was going to shoot feature films. Even in college, I never took a documentary production course because I knew wanted to work on features. It was not until I moved to New York and started at AbelCine, that I began to have other ideas. I found so many of Abel’s clients were documentary cinematographers and I immediately gravitated to them. They always had interested stories, meeting interesting people and going to interesting places. As I sat in the office day after day prepping camera packages to go out on these jobs, I thought this lifestyle sounded more interesting than being in a studio all day. Not saying I wouldn’t do that also, it’s just that I had never thought about doing documentary films before and it hit me like a sack of bricks. So that is how I fell into it.


MEWShop: Do you see yourself ever switching to fictional features? You mentioned earlier that you didn’t want to go to L.A., is that something you feel you might have to do one day?

MP: I love working in documentaries. They provide a challenge and an excitement that you can’t get anywhere else. Your goal is to observe what is happening in front of you and respond in a way that effectively translates that feeling or moment to your audience. With narrative, you are doing a similar thing, but with a lot more control. I enjoy working in the narrative space to help sharpen my emotional translations of moments and scenes, but I think I will always go back to documentary as my passion and love. In my opinion, New York is the best place in the world for documentary filmmaking, so I’d like to stay there as long as possible. I feel no beckoning from Los Angeles.


Matt Porwoll filming Cartel Land


MEWShop: If you had your choice, what equipment do you prefer using?

MP: There are a lot of options out there right now, but what you have to remember is the camera is only a tool. It won’t give you pretty pictures unless its working in your favor. In the end, it all comes down to the needs of the job. The biggest determining factors are what the story is, where are we going, and what are we trying to accomplish. While there are cameras that I enjoy working with, sometimes they may not be properly suited for what we are trying to do. I have shot on a lot of the films over the last couple of years with the Canon C300 and I absolutely love that camera, but I have also worked with the Sony FS7 and the Arri Amira when the time is right. I think it can become a problem when you say, “I want to bring this camera because I like it” or “I own it.” There should be a greater reason. It should serve a purpose.


MEWShop: What are some of the qualities in yourself and others that make one suitable to be a documentary cinematographer?

MP: Being a good documentary cinematographer doesn’t have as much to do with composing a nice shot as you’d think. You are a lens in which your subjects’ stories get translated to an audience, so you need to be able to handle that with extreme sensitivity. Being curious, a good listener, and having empathy for your subjects are really the most important things. Once you allow yourself to emotionally participate in the moment, the “cinematography” will more or less happen on its own.


MEWShop: That’s interesting. Someone else might have answered that question by talking about the technical skills that are necessary to be a good cinematographer.

MP: A technical background is of course important, but that is just step one. You need to be able to have a solid technical foundation in which to respond to the emotion in the scene. If you are focusing too much on the technical, you are going to miss these important things. Once you get that you are in pretty good shape.


MEWShop: What skills do you look for in your crew?

MP: Flexibility and awareness are probably the two biggest traits I look for in an assistant. Someone who thinks ahead and is one step ahead of me. Someone who tries to anticipate what I would like to do next. Everyone these days seem to know a lot about the technical side of things, but its harder to find someone who can put that to good use in the field. When shooting, you don’t want to be thinking about whether or not all the batteries are on charge or if you have access to your next lens. As an assistant, you need to be pro-active and prepared at all times. In the end, this will also make you a better shooter in the future, if that’s your trajectory.


MEWShop: Has the job description of a cinematographer changed in the last ten years? If so, how?

MP: Since everyone is becoming more and more technical, and has access to better equipment, cinematographers are expected to handle more on their own. It’s becoming harder and harder to get an assistant on a shoot, so you end up dividing your focus more. It seems the apprenticeship aspect of the job is going away. Spending years watching other people shoot had the greatest influence on me as I moved into shooting films myself. Most people now want to jump straight to the top as soon as they start in the industry. Yes, we might be able to do that because equipment is so much cheaper and that there is so much video production happening. The tradeoff, however, is missing out on the opportunity to learn, watch, and observe before actually doing.


MEWShop: Are crews shrinking because budgets are shrinking?

MP: Budgets are always in flux, but there is more documentary production now than there has ever been. I think because the equipment has gotten smaller, and cinematographers have gotten more technical, that there is not as much of an immediate need for larger crews. What once took up the better part of a van can now fit into a backpack! This can of course work in your favor as well. As a doc crew, we are able to go into more sensitive areas without causing as much disruption. But again, having a large crew or having a small crew each have their distinct benefits.


MEWShop: Is there anything outside of shooting that helps sharpen your skills behind the camera?

MP: I enjoy reading nonfiction, because its basically a documentary with words instead of pictures. Its insightful seeing how an author constructs energy and emotion to keep the reader engaged. The nonfiction books that I do like to read are not just standard reporting; they tend to have more of a dramatic narrative structure. It’s really helpful to see how other people tell stories in other mediums.

The other thing I do is watch people. New York is a great place to do this, either sitting on a bench in the park, on the subway, or sitting in a cafe by yourself. Just watch people and see how they interact with each other and what people do when they don’t think anyone is watching. Observing people’s body language can be quite telling. Watching people and trying to anticipate what they will do next helps sharpen your skills. It’s great to observe a situation and think, “how would I cover this if I were shooting it? What is the pacing of the scene? Will I need to bounce back and forth between people and shoot reactions, or can I just let it live?” It’s like watching a rehearsal of real life. It’s really fun to think about everyday situations in that way.


MEWShop: Where do you see the production industry evolving over the next decade?

MP: The continued digital revolution is really exciting. The first wave being mini DV and the second phase DSLR; though we are beyond the DSLR phase at this point. Not only do we have access to cheap cameras like we did with mini DV, but these cheaper cameras are able to produce beautiful images in high quality and resolution. Documentaries have gotten so much better in the way they look. We have never seen the quantity of beautiful docs that we are seeing now. What I am looking forward to is for documentaries to become less of a different genre, less marginalized; to become more of a genre that general audiences seek out. I think this is already happening, but there is so much more room to grow. It’s exciting to see because I think that documentaries can be informative, dramatic, entertaining, and cinematic all at the same time.


MEWShop: Do you shoot differently if the project is for the web and not for TV/theatrical release?

MP: When shooting for a web-based project, you have to realize that the video will most likely be seen on a phone or tablet more so than on an actual computer screen. In the small formats people don’t like a lot of wide shots, they like things to be closer and tighter. Regardless of the medium that the picture is watched on, attention spans have gotten so much shorter. I am constantly being asked to shorten and not to hold on shots for as long. Shorter pans! I know a lot of times the footage will be cut fast regardless of what the subject matter is. Completely different than let’s say a Maysles film where they can let an entire scene play out in one shot. Now you have to be prepared that this long shot will be chopped up and condensed.


MEWShop: What was your most challenging experience on set?

MP: Cartel Land had a fair number of challenges. The most challenging was hearing people talk about losing their friends and families, and filming the funeral scenes. Those were much more difficult to stomach than being in the middle of chaos. Seeing people at their most vulnerable is tough. It’s not natural for you as a stranger to be in that environment, and it’s hard to stay. It’s hard to keep filming. It’s hard not to give them their space and their privacy. But knowing that you’re doing it for a greater good is what makes it possible to stay.


MEWShop: What advice would you give to make the relationship between the director and the cinematographer run smoothly?

MP: As a cinematographer, it is easy to get stuck on a specific visual idea and do everything you can to make it happen. But it’s important to realize that the director may have a different idea of how it can be done, or just that the environmental situation may not allow you to do the idea you had in mind. Being as flexible as you can will help the director get what they want. Have a lot of conversations with the director beforehand about story and objective so that when you go into a scene you know the goal. I think that helps build trust, especially if it is the first time you are working with a director. Trust is very important. It’s a hard thing for a director to let go and trust that the cinematographer will get the scene. It’s a lot of responsibility for the cinematographer, so doing everything you can do to build that trust from the first conversation.


MEWShop: If you had to be something other than a cinematographer what would it be?

MP: I was very close to double majoring in film and anthropology in college. It’s a very similar path in comparison to documentary films. Both study cultures and people, discovering how and why people make the decisions that they do. I think it would be great to sit and study people without necessarily having a camera in my hands.


MEWShop: Did you have a mentor?

MP: I learned so much from every cinematographer I assisted for. Each person has a different style, so learning what works and what doesn’t helps shape your own approach later on. There were two people in paricular that had a great influence on me. One was Ben Bloodwell, who I initially met while at AbelCine. Ben previously worked at AbelCine as well, and was a common face around the rental department as a camera assistant. He taught me what it was to be a good camera assistant and the importance of being prepared for any situation. It was when I was with him that I started to think about making that switch from fiction to nonfiction. Once I started assisting myself, I would say the next person who had the greatest influence on me was Wolfgang Held. I assisted for him on numerous films and he taught me how to move in a scene, how to cover a scene, and how to emotionally capture a scene. Not just shoot coverage, but creatively interpret the story. He had a lot of impact on me in that regard.


MEWShop: Can you recommend any books or specific films for aspiring cinematographers?

MP: For documentary, one book that I have read repeatedly is Directing the Documentary by Michael Rabiger. This book does not focus so much on cinematography but rather focuses on how to approach a story and a subject from a storytelling perspective. In terms of films, the Maysles Brothers collection is a must for any filmmaker – fiction as well as non-fiction. Everything that they have done better informs you how to capture a story.


MEWShop: What project are you working on now?

MP: I am in production of two films at the moment. The first explores what goes into making people happy. It’s a nice change to do something that is uplifting! We recently were in Mumbai, in one of the largest slums in the world, exploring how work can be a major contributor to happiness. The visual and audible stimulation was exhilarating, something I’ve never quite experienced to that magnitude. It was wonderful.

The other film is about “Wakaliwood,” the low-budget film industry emerging out of the slums of Kampala, Uganda. It’s so refreshing to work with people who are making films for no other reason than the love and enjoyment of cinema. It’s like being back in film school.

This is what I love about documentaries. Everyday is different, and everyday you learn something new. Its wonderful to walk into something you know nothing about and come away from the experience having a better understanding of the people and world around you. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

About the Author: Janet Dalton is a freelance editor, as well as Director of Education at MEWShop, where she develops curriculum and is a certified instructor in Avid Media Composer, Adobe Premiere Pro & Apple Final Cut Pro.

About “Sight, Sound & Story” Event Series: “Sight Sound and Story” is an annual event presented by Manhattan Edit Workshop that brings audiences “behind the scenes” with legends of visual storytelling. Each year the one day summit brings together a collection of diverse and intriguing high-profile speaker series to discuss the evolving world of post-production. Panels topics have included the art and processes of editing film & television, exploring ground-breaking interactive media, the fast pace of cutting sports television, getting the real from reality television, experiencing the magic of feature sound design, taking a look at the vital roles of the VFX artist, and deconstructing key scenes from fiction and documentary favorites.  For more information go to: https://www.SightSoundandStory.com.

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