"Lenses are the Protein You Choose When You’re Cooking:" an Interview with Matthew Libatique

You could say that cinematographer Matthew Libatique is having a banner year, with F. Gary Gray’s N.W.A. biopic, Straight Outta Compton, and Spike Lee’s Lysistrata retelling, Chi-Raq—both of which he lensed—out in theaters this fall.

Then again, 2015 isn’t the first time Libatique’s doubled up on the big screen: In 2010 he shot both Black Swan and Iron Man 2, and he had another two-fer in 2006 with the wildly diverse Inside Man and The Fountain. The man’s got vision and range to spare, a fact that’s not lost on frequent collaborators Lee, Darren Aronofsky, Jon Favreau and Joel Schumacher. At last month’s CamerImage festival, the Academy Award-nominated cinematographer rattled off some highlights of his working philosophy—including a metaphor that, we’ll admit, we’ve never come across before.

On changing out the streetlamp fixtures in Straight Outta Compton to old-fashioned sodium vapor lights, instead of modern LEDs:

Matthew Libatique: “The film is representative of urban impression. The sodium vapor thing that was just a product of the time. I remember that light; that’s why I wanted that light to exist. I didn’t want it to feel like LEDs.

If you look at the concert scenes in that movie, I cheated; I used LEDs that didn’t exist at the time. I only did it because I needed to be more efficient in the change of color. But then we actually designed a set that had street lights, and then we designed a color that had a sodium vapor look.

O'Shea Jackson as Ice Cube in Straight Outta Compton

O’Shea Jackson as Ice Cube in Straight Outta Compton

‘Compton’s in the House’ was the song that we used in [a concert scene]. And I was like, ‘This is the color of light that we need with this song, to call back to the neighborhood scene [when the sodium vapor lights first appear].’ The metaphor of color is important. Really, I don’t feel like I use that much color. It’s a very color-temperature oriented thing. I mean, if you look at the films I don’t use that much color—I use maybe three. But it’s always a balance between the cold and the warm.”

On using the Red Epic Dragon with Kowa lenses on Straight Outta Compton:

“Because of the sharpness of digital, I’m drawn toward getting a dirtier image. Something about mistakes, or apparent mistakes, is kind of charming in films. That is just a personal taste that I have. Things that ‘artifact’ more, things that are not perfect, things that are more prone to accidents—I appreciate that, that was a choice there. Straight Outta Compton was a period movie and I wanted more accidents. I wanted it to feel like you were dropped into snapshots of the time.”

On doing things in-camera vs. during post:

“I’ll do everything I can in camera before post. I don’t like leaving things to chance. First of all, as a cinematographer, you never know where you’re going to be when that moment happens, when they’re finishing the film. Two, I find it very frustrating to search for something digitally. I also am fortunate enough to have started this career at a time where I had to be precise, because of photochemical finish. So it’s something I’m used to. The more you manipulate something the more false it feels. I think at the moment of capture is the most reality you’re going to capture.”

On the best way for cinematographers to work with actors:

“I work toward comfort level: providing an atmosphere and space where actors can feel comfortable to give the director everything he or she needs. I just want them to be able to perform without me dictating things to them too much.

Sometimes the director or the cinematographer are looking for a specific thing, so we talk to them technically, like, ‘This is a macro-lens; we really need you to move slowly, can you get up slowly?’ Honestly, though, my preference is to let them walk into the room I’m shooting and have them not see much gear at all. You want them to feel the space as an honest thing and then be able to perform and give the best performance they possibly can.

I think of myself as the guy who brings in the water and sets up the couch, brings in the chairs, and makes sure everything is nice and neat for them to come in and be comfortable enough to do their job. If I do need to speak to them from a technical standpoint, it comes from a warmth that doesn’t intrude in their performance.”

Teyonah Parris in Chi-Raq

Teyonah Parris in Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq

On when and how he chooses a particular lens:

“Lenses are the protein you choose when you’re cooking: Am I going to make chicken? Am I going to make beef? Pork?

It’s the language of the movie that you’re trying to create. That’s what I think about when I’m deconstructing a screenplay. Sometimes choosing a lens takes a long time—’til the very bitter end. It’s a day before the prep, and I just write something in, I send a list in, but actually haven’t decided yet. In the past, I’ve actually switched in the middle of the prep: ‘Guys, I’m sorry, man, see if they have the S4s available; I want to switch up.’ Because something clicks. And it is a feeling. The difference between an anamorphic and a spherical lens is a much greater than the difference between S4s or Primos. Those things are actually a lot closer together, but between a Kowa, an anamorphic, a Leica and a spherical, there’s a contrast there. You just have to know.” MM

Chi-Raq opens in theaters December 4, 2015, courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions. Straight Outta Compton opened in theaters August 14, 2015, courtesy of Universal Pictures. Featured image courtesy of CamerImage, photographed by Natalia Mentkowska.

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