Ascending the Cinematic Ladder: Insights from Nick Matthews on Climbing to ‘Saw X’

Posted on: Nov 07, 2023

Nick Matthews, DPPhoto Credit: Courtesy of Nick Matthews

By Steffanie Jensen

Nicholas Matthews is a highly skilled cinematographer based in Los Angeles, with an impressive portfolio under his belt. Matthews has lent his artistic vision to a number of films and music videos, and has crafted award-winning commercials for esteemed brands that include Nike and Specialized Bikes.

Most recently, he captured gripping scenes for Lionsgate’s Saw X in Mexico City. I sat down with him to discuss his career journey and advice for those looking to break into cinematography.

How did you get your start in the industry?

I started shooting in high school and got really excited about picking up a camcorder that my parents had. I had a friend come over once —a friend from church— and they were just like, “What if we made a movie together?” That was kind of the first experience I had making a short film with people. I was interested in literature and storytelling from the time I was really young, and I saw Lawrence of Arabia very young, and a number of other films. As I got older, I loved the BTS (behind the scenes) footage that was popular in movies at the time, like Lord of the Rings. It got me really interested.

I went to school for electronic media and kept shooting shorts and writing and studying the process, but because it was a small Christian school it didn’t really have the wherewithal about the industry and it didn’t really provide me much of an education in terms of filmmaking itself.

After that, I came to Los Angeles and did an internship and took a class at this place called Los Angeles Film Studies Center that I think is defunct now. I worked on this movie that had Peter Dinklage and Steve Buscemi, called Pete Smalls is Dead.

Would you say most of your early work was self-taught?

I would teach myself lighting by using the gear that we had at the Creation Museum, where I worked in school back home. I would take that time to set up lights and set up the cameras we had and sort of learn how to use things. 

A lot of how I learned cinematography was my own experiments, as well as reading Roger Deakins’ forum on the internet. David Mullen has a forum on REDuser that’s like 5,000 pages long and there’s a number of books on filmmaking and cinematography that were all influential. This was also the era when digital SLRs started to surface. 

I started using the 5D and then we started renting the RED Epic and the RED MX, and some of these other professional camera systems to shoot projects for the Creation Museum. When I moved to LA I was 25 and I was just like I know that if I don’t try to move to Los Angeles and make movies and spend my life making movies I’d regret it.

What kind of work did you have on your reel?

I had a website and I had a reel—a montage reel. It wasn’t great, but it was solid. It had some high production value shots that I’d been able to do because we built some really cool sets at the Creation Museum. I took jobs as a camera operator and as an assistant camera (AC) when offered, but in general I was putting myself out there as a cinematographer and taking jobs doing that.

Many of my early jobs were bad Christian music videos. I remember the first time that I finally got a job where it was $300 a day I was so happy because a lot of the low-budget movies pay terribly. I got lucky from there, and shot a half-million dollar movie my first year in LA.

What helped progress your career?

Instagram kind of became a thing for a bit within the filmmaking world. People would use it as their reels and portfolios. I think by that point I had shot four or five features, and so I had a bank of images I could share that reflected the kind of work I wanted to do. One of the bigger projects was when I did my first legitimate music video, which was with Ice Cube. 

It was a mix of commercials, music videos and some features for quite a few years and updating my reel on whatever was big at the time, like Instagram or Vimeo, to showcase my work and get it out there to get the next gig.

Your biggest project now is Saw X. How does that feel?

I’ve been a cinematographer for 10 years as of this year, and Saw X is the biggest movie I’ve shot and on the biggest stage. I really hope it will lead to more things, but I think it is just an example of doing this thing for 10 years in relative obscurity. I would say this movie opens a lot more people up to what I’ve been doing, so I think recognizing it’s a marathon. You really have to get dialed in on what you love about making movies.

Ask yourself, “What is it I love about movies? What is it I love about the process of making movies?” Because you might find some of the movies you love watching you don’t want to make. I love a variety of comedies, but in general my taste tends toward the dark side of life. I think it’s worth remembering that the kind of work you do is the sort of work you’ll get.

How do you stay motivated as a cinematographer?

As an artist, you’re only as strong as your life experience and understanding of the world. I think you have to work on yourself. I think self-care is really important. I’m not always good at it, but when you’re not getting a lot of sleep and you’re overseeing a lot of different people in order to treat them all well and respectfully, frankly get the best work out of people, you have to empower them to do their jobs and do them well. 

What would you say to someone looking to get work starting out?

Using these online aggregate job websites is a great way to start. It’s a great way to meet new people. You might find people who become long-term collaborators in the process, but you also use your resources at your disposal to reach out to people. If someone does something that you love, reach out to them and don’t reach out in a way that’s like, “Hey, I do this and I want work.” 

Reach out to them from a place of genuine curiosity. “I saw this thing you did. It touched me in this way. I’d love to know how or why you did this.” That could start a conversation that might lead to genuine connection and genuine relationship. I think it’s worth keeping that in mind because this is ultimately a relationships industry, and there is no one path. There is no single way to do this.

Recognize you won’t love every project. I’ve shot movies where I was like, “None of these reflect me, no one’s ever asked to watch them.” People look at your stuff and they’re like, “You did this.” They look at what the coolest, biggest thing you’ve done is, but not the oldest, least impressive thing you’ve done.

I love what I do, and I love getting the chance to do it. 

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