Matt Porwoll is an award-winning cinematographer based in Brooklyn, NY. His work has screened in theatres, appeared on TV networks such as HBO, CNN, A&E, and PBS, as well as online outlets including Vogue, Glamour, Wired, and W Magazine. Most recently, the feature documentary Cartel Land, which Matt shot and co-produced, won Best Cinematography awards at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and 2016 Cinema Eye Honors. The film was also nominated for the 2016 BAFTA and Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Porwoll has served as an additional cinematographer on numerous other films including Be Here Now: The Andy Whitfield Story, directed by Academy Award-nominated director Lilibet Foster, HBO’s Emmy-nominated By the People: The Election of Barack Obama, and HBO’s Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, which won the 2015 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short.

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Matt poses during filming

KitSplit: Tell us a little about your work. 

Matt: I primarily shoot documentary films and love every minute of it. The places you go and the people you meet give such a great perspective on the world. The types of films I enjoy shooting most are the ones where the stories can evolve naturally over time. It is amazing to watch people grow and change in front of your eyes and your lens.

K: How would you describe your style?   

M: I have had the fortunate ability to assist some of the best vérité cinematographers and sound mixers in the business, so  I’ve come to appreciate the nuances of filming real people in very real situations. I feel vérité (or observational) shooting gives depth and emotion to a film that you can’t get any other way. You need to be respectful and compassionate, yet firm in your approach. Knowing when and where to be requires a balance of predicting the next move with reacting to the inevitable curve ball that is life.  

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Matt films on location

K: What have you been working on lately

M: I love having multiple projects going at the same time. Since each film is a huge investment of time and energy, both physical and mental, being able to switch gears and hop onto the other projects helps give a clearer perspective on the subject matter.  I am currently working on a couple projects at the moment. The first film explores the impact that work has on happiness. We’ve been all over, from the slums of Mumbai, to prisons in Texas, to the coal towns of Eastern Kentucky, looking at how people’s perceptions of work can uplift communities, even those in the direst of straits.  The second film is about “Wakaliwood,” the Hollywood of Uganda’s slum, and its challenges of production and expansion. Since we are making a movie about making movies, we’re pushing the film to be very cinematic in its framing and devices, while also letting the style and mood of Wakaliwood to shine through. It’s been fun creating a distinctive look for this story.

K: What piece of yours are you most proud of?

M: I am most proud of my work on Cartel Land. Shooting this movie was unlike anything I have ever done, and probably unlike anything I’ll do again. Every day was a challenge and I learned so much from shooting this film. We put our entire lives into the making of this film, and are extremely proud of the result. Although it was dangerous, we felt the telling of Cartel Land was something people needed to see, and something we as filmmakers needed to personally understand. That’s what drove us to go back day after day, week after week, for more than a year and a half.  

K: Can you tell us a little about your process?

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Matt films at night

M: There are so many unknown variables when shooting a documentary, so I try to be as prepared as possible. The director and I will typically do a fair amount of pre-production before going into a shoot. We will come up with a plan for coverage, stylistic goals, and crew management. Oftentimes the plan falls apart, but having those initial conversations makes adapting to the new situation a lot easier. Also, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment, so I shoot with a mental checklist of coverage in the back of my mind. Wide shot, close up reactions, details, step back and scan the room – look for a different perspective.  It helps keep me focused.  

K: Can you give us a general overview of the gear you typically use?

M: My gear list varies project to project, but in general I like to keep things simple. That isn’t to say I don’t bring out the toys from time to time. I typically shoot on digital cinema cameras like the Canon C300 and C300 MKII, Sony FS7, or the Arri Amira. The lenses will depend on the style of the shoot. For something like Cartel Land where we needed to be lean and mean, I shot with Canon EF zooms such as the 17-55mm and 24-105mm. But with something like The Wakaliwood Project that aims for a highly cinematic style, I shoot with cine lenses like the Zeiss Compact Primes or Canon Cinema Zooms.  My lighting is always simple. I carry a variety of diffusion and blackout material to augment the natural light whenever possible. I will typically light interviews with a Kino-Flo Diva 400, Litepanels Astra, K5600 Joker 400 or 800, or some combination of them all. Beyond that, I will sometimes employ a drone, slider or gimbal system, like the DJI Ronin, to add a little interest to the shot. This all depends on the story or situation we are shooting.  

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Matt films with his camera on location

K: What is your most-used piece of gear?

M: My most-used piece of gear is undoubtedly my camera. First it was my Canon C300, now it’s my C300 MKII. They have become an extension of my own body and I get quite anxious anytime I travel through an airport without it, thinking I’ve lost something!

K: What’s your favorite piece of gear?

M: I love the Litepanels Astra. The output is crazy bright for its size, I can power it off a battery, and its bi-color capabilities let me use it anywhere. It’s easy to pack and can function as my only light for jobs where space and weight are concerns.  

K: Can you talk a little about what inspires you?

M: While I am obviously inspired by books, art and films, I am mostly inspired by regular people doing regular things. Watching how people move, converse with each other, or act when they think no one else is watching informs how I shoot more than anything else.  

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Matt speaks at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival

K: What’s the best piece of advice you got when starting out?

M: I was always told to take anything that came my way, and keep an open mind. In the beginning, it’s important to establish working relationships and really figure out what it is you want to do. You can learn something from every job, even the horrible ones!

K: What advice would you offer to other folks just starting out?  

M: “Watch, listen, and learn.” This mantra was beaten into me as a camera assistant, and I’m thankful for it. It’s important to remember your role and don’t overstep. When you’re starting in the business, it’s important to see how other people work:  learn from their successes and mistakes. These are the building blocks to creating your own style.

K: Closing thoughts?

M: There are so many wonderful, intriguing stories out there for us as filmmakers to explore. In the age of accessible, high quality cameras and lenses, we are constantly working to bring our stories to light in the most cinematic way possible, but we also have to be mindful to not over-complicate or diminish the story with excessive technical (and, by default, complicated) influence. Since documentary films and reality TV have become so prevalent, we must all work even harder to not exploit our subjects in the process of creating engaging content. At the end of the day, we are in the business of sharing deeply personal stories and have a responsibility to not lose sight of that.

Written By

Simone Kovacs

Simone is the Social Media and Community Outreach Coordinator for KitSplit.