“Faces Take Five Minutes to Light, Backgrounds Take Five Hours”: Cinematographer Matt Wise on his Lighting Philosophy and the Horror Comedy Werewolves Within
Trapped in an isolated mountain community by a snowstorm, a forest ranger (Sam Richardson) and a postal worker (Milana Vayntrub) must discern which of their neighbors is the culprit behind a lycanthropic killing spree. Though based on the Ubisoft VR whodunit, the film version of Werewolves Within owes an equal debt to the various genre favorites of director Josh Ruben, from horror comedies (The Monster Squad, Arachnophobia) to small town satires (Fargo, Hot Fuzz) to murder mysteries (Clue, Knives Out).
The challenge of converging those disparate inspirations into one cohesive whole fell to cinematographer Matt Wise, a veteran of low budget movies and high end music videos. Wise spoke to Filmmaker about the lessons learned on both.
Werewolves Within is currently in theaters and available on VOD.
Filmmaker: Your dad was a TV producer and director and, if IMDB is to be believed, you began working with him when you were still a teenager.
Wise: Yeah, my dad started as a DP early on for the original Unsolved Mysteries and then he moved up to director and eventually started producing documentaries for (places like) The History Channel and Discovery. As a young kid I always found myself on his sets. I didn’t know I would become a cinematographer, but I always knew I would be in the industry somehow just because I loved being on set and I loved being around creative people.
Filmmaker: What was your first paying gig with him?
Wise: That’s a good question. I think it was a summer job where they paid me to log footage of Unsolved Mysteries. So I would sit in the office and look at old reels of the show and basically write down what was in the shots for stock footage.
Filmmaker: How old were you?
Wise: This was probably early high school. Somewhere around there. I was on set often with him before that, but I don’t remember actually being paid for anything, probably because it wasn’t legal for them to hire a 12-year-old. (laughs)
Filmmaker: I checked out some of your music videos, and it’s an impressive roster – Taylor Swift, Imagine Dragons, Jennifer Lopez, Billie Eilish. Tell me about music videos as a training ground. They have short schedules, but you’re working at a scale and with a level of gear that you wouldn’t normally have access to on a low budget movie. I mean, you shot a video using ILM’s Stagecraft. At this point not many cinematographers, period, have had the opportunity to use that technology.
Wise: In the beginning of my career I was actually gung-ho to do narrative and I didn’t really focus on music videos or commercials. So working on very small projects and learning how to shoot quickly was actually more of my training ground. Speed, to me, has always been the biggest lesson, figuring out little tricks to light really quickly or fix a problem quickly.
With music videos, because of their short schedules, you also have to move extremely fast. They may have big budgets, but that doesn’t mean you can move any slower. I only remember one or two times where I had a schedule where I was like, “Oh, this is really comfortable.” (laughs) When you’re working with a director like Joseph Kahn, he doesn’t slow down for anybody. You’ve got to move at his pace. So now when I come to a movie like [Werewolves Within], working with speed is absolutely key because you have no time to slow down. In the moment, you have to use your instincts to figure out the fastest way to fix a problem. And, just as importantly, in preproduction you have to know what gear to rent and how to utilize it to move really quickly. And I learned that from low budget narrative and music videos and commercials.
Filmmaker: How did you do that When The Party’s Over video for Billie Eilish? It’s a oner where she drinks a cup of inky black liquid and it starts flowing from her eyes.
Wise: Carlos Estrada is one of my favorite directors to work with. He came to me with this piece as a oner and we were discussing different ways to do it and we came to the conclusion that the only way was with a motion control rig. And actually Billie had a lot to do with the video in terms of the way she wanted it to look. It was before she blew up so I didn’t actually know much about her. It was a relatively small music video, but what Carlos does really well is create a great vision out of a relatively modest budget. So it was a motion capture rig for the camera move with some minor visual effects. All the tears are in-camera effects and all we did was (digitally) erase some pipes along her forehead. It was a really brilliant idea done on a relatively low budget.
Filmmaker: With Werewolves Within, you started shooting in February of 2020. Did you wrap just before COVID started shutting productions down?
Wise: Literally days. I think our last day of shooting was on a Monday and then on Friday I went down with my wife to New York City and flew out because we heard a rumor they were going to shut down the airports. So it was literally three or four days between the last day of filming and COVID really starting to shut things down.
Filmmaker: Director Josh Ruben has talked about an eclectic group of influences for Werewolves Within – among them The Monster Squad, Arachnophobia, Clue, Fargo, Hot Fuzz, and Knives Out. Did he have a long list of films he wanted you to look at?
Wise: We definitely had a few movie nights. Often times when you first meet with a director you don’t really know their personality yet, but within five minutes of sitting down with Josh I knew immediately it was going to work. It’s a comedy script and he was just insanely funny. The biggest thing going through my head during that first meeting was how we were going to approach it visually. As a horror movie? As a comedy? As both? When Josh started talking movies during that meeting, he brought up this very diverse group of references and I started to understand that the only way (Werewolves Within) was going to work was as kind of a collage or mosaic of these different influences, with different scenes each having their own flavor.
Filmmaker: A lot of the films Ruben cites as references are shot anamorphic. How short was that conversation for Werewolves Within?
Wise: That was a very short conversation. (laughs) That was one of the first things he said to me, “How do you feel about anamorphic?” I said, “I love it.” He said, “Great.” And that was it.
Filmmaker: What set of lenses did you use?
Wise: It was the Hawk V-Lites. I had used them before a few times on commercials, but we still did a bit of testing. There was just something about the Hawks. They have a little bit more contrast than some of the other anamorphics that have a similar sense of character to them, which tends to be a lot of older glass. I also love their flares. When you read the script and see there’s a lot of flashlights, you know there will be places where you can bring literal flare to the image.
Filmmaker: Those lenses are great for the tableau shots in the movie where you have to squeeze 10 characters into the frame. There’s a low angle shot I love after Sam Richardson’s forest ranger finds a body where all the people from the town are crammed together to see the corpse.
Wise: Josh is instinctually a very funny person so he understands what I call “funny frames.” He was great at finding the right focal length that made a shot funny.
Filmmaker: Tell me the story behind “Monster Squad green.” So Ruben wanted a certain green from that 1980s horror movie?
Wise: Yes, there was a specific green that Josh really wanted to get into the movie. The problem was that because most of the movie is either moonlight or (motivated by) practicals, there weren’t a lot of places to bring in green that would make a lot of sense. At one point in the shoot Josh was finishing a scene that I had already lit and I went outside to pre-light the next scene, which was (oil man) Sam Parker getting a crossbow out of the back of his car. We had an Astera tube inside the trunk of the car that we literally put up with some twine and we had it set to the normal tungsten light that would be inside a vehicle. And then I was like, “Oh! Hold on a second!” and I used the iPad to change the Astera to the “Monster Squad green” that Josh wanted. So when I went back inside to the other set I told him, “I’ve got a little gift for you.” He came out and he freaked out when he saw it. He was so excited that we got to use that green.
Filmmaker: The moonlight also has a very 1980’s blueness to it, which I enjoyed. It’s not naturalistic, but who cares. It’s a werewolf movie.
Wise: This movie really broke a lot of rules for me. One of my own personal rules is to try to motivate light and the color of light. I stuck to that for the most part in this movie, but for the moonlight I had to say, “This is a movie based off of a video game. It’s a horror comedy. No one is going to care that there’s a blue 1980s moonlight coming from nowhere.” So I’m really happy I went outside my comfort zone and did that.
Filmmaker: You shot in a small town in New York. Are most of the interiors practical?
Wise: Yeah, we shot up in the Catskills of upstate New York and the only set that we built was the interior of the bar, The Axe Den. Everything else was practical. The Beaverfield Inn is an old mansion from the 1880s called Spillian, which is in Fleischmanns, New York. That’s a real place that you can go and have a wedding or birthday party. The ceilings were only eight feet high so thank god for anamorphic or else there would’ve been no way for me to hide the moonlights.
Filmmaker: A big chunk of the scenes at that location are done after the town loses power, so you’re motivating with your blue moonlight and lanterns. And you’ve got the actors basically serving as the lamp operators since they’re carrying around those lanterns.
Wise: Yeah, thank god for professional actors that know how to act and use practicals at the same time. We spent a few weeks trying to figure out which lanterns would work and which ones wouldn’t. Then my gaffer Mike Hunold worked with the art department to install these LEDs into them and the actors did an amazing job of knowing, without me even having to tell them, how to light their own faces. They can tell if there’s light on them or not. That’s one indication of a really professional actor.
Filmmaker: You said one of the things you learned early in your career was how to light quickly. How did you apply that to your one interior set, the Axe Den bar?
Wise: I like to try to light 360 as much as possible. The conversation I have with my producers and my UPM is to say, “I like to spend more time at the beginning of the scene and light 360 as much as possible so that when we do turnarounds all I have to do is bring in the key light.”
So that’s one of my tricks that I’ve learned. My mentor Maz Makhani said something really clever, “Faces take five minutes to light. Backgrounds take five hours.” I’ve always thought about that and it’s kind of true. Backgrounds take forever. So for Spillian, we basically pre-lit the entire bottom floor with moonlight. Then when I came in to light the faces of the actors I just had to bring in a little bit of firelight or light from the lanterns. For The Axe Den, I basically pre-lit it with SkyPanel S60’s from the ceiling and then I lit the faces with an S60 OctaDome that I literally had on rollers and also a LiteMat 4. Those two lights were my workhorses for the whole movie minus some exteriors.
Matt Mulcahey works as a DIT in the Midwest. He also writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.