BackBack to selection

Shutter Angles

Conversations with DPs, directors and below-the-line crew by Matt Mulcahey

“Anamorphic Just Looks More Like a Movie”: DP Nick Remy Matthews on I.S.S.


When war breaks out on Earth, the kinship between Russian and American scientists aboard the International Space Station (including Ariana DeBose and Chris Messina) is shattered when both sides receive orders to take over the station by any means necessary. What follows is a taut chamber piece of ratcheting paranoia and betrayals, shot in 32 days in Wilmington, North Carolina partially on an I.S.S. replica originally created by NASA.

After a theatrical release earlier this year, the movie is now available on VOD and Paramount+. Cinematographer Nick Remy Matthew talked to Filmmaker about counterintuitively shooting anamorphic in tight quarters, spending almost his entire lighting budget on Astera Titan tubes and his quixotic plan to use teeter totters to simulate zero gravity.

Filmmaker: When I saw the film in the theater back when it first came out, I didn’t realize how long ago you actually made the movie. You shot this in early 2021. What was going on with COVID and production at that time?

Matthews: I was lucky enough that I actually worked through COVID. When COVID first broke, I was in Dallas, Texas in 2020 doing a small movie called The Seventh Day, an exorcism horror movie with Guy Pearce. We wrapped and I got on a plane, and by the time I arrived home to Spain with stops in Atlanta and a couple of other places, the military police were out and you couldn’t go anywhere. It was really shocking because at the time in Texas they were saying, “Oh, this is all just rubbish. It’ll blow over.” Then I was lucky enough to go and shoot with my friend Magnus Martens, who was directing the first half of a Norwegian television series called Furia, which was sort of a European version of Homeland. I shot that partly in Berlin, then went and had a super quick vacation in Costa Rica. I wasn’t allowed to fly directly from Europe to the States because of the way the COVID rules worked at the time. I got this job to do I.S.S. but they said, “There’s just one thing—you can’t enter from Europe. You have to go via a non-EU country.” I had a choice. It was Mexico, Costa Rica or a couple other places in South America. I hadn’t been to Costa Rica before, so I took a little vacation there and sort of defrosted myself after having just been through a pretty brutal Berlin winter. Then I landed in Wilmington to start work on I.S.S.

Filmmaker: Tell me about the sets you used for the film.

Matthews: The plan was always to use this NASA replica of the I.S.S. that had been built prior, I’m not exactly sure what for. It had been customized a couple of times before by other productions and commercials.

Filmmaker: Wait, you used an existing I.S.S. replica built by NASA?

Matthews: Yeah, it was shipped in from somewhere—I’m not sure exactly where—and the production designer, Geoff Wallace, had to build some sections and make some additions to make the story work. I certainly got involved in implementing a bunch of lighting into [that replica] for my own purposes. I had to basically create a whole lighting system with my gaffer and our team of electricians to make it shootable.

Filmmaker: Did it already have a removable roof, or did you have to essentially cut the roof off? You’re doing your zero-gravity effect with harnesses and wires, so you need to feed those lines out the top of the set.

Matthews: The journey of working out how to shoot in those sets is in and of itself a story. In some ways, we didn’t really know how shooting was going to work until we got the cast in there and, of course, like most films these days, you don’t tend to have the cast for long, certainly not for a rehearsal period. We did a variety of tests. I had a bunch of crazy ideas about attaching cameras to the cast. I really liked the look of that. I had some of the engineering guys on the lot working with the grips to make these kind of teeter totters that we could attach cameras to one side and then put the cast [on the other side], so they would move together and that gave us kind of a zero-gravity effect because [the actors and camera] were floating around together. It just looked absolutely beautiful in testing, and I thought, “Wow, we’ve really come up with something cool here.” [laughs]

Of course, one thing I didn’t really quite think enough about was how difficult it would be to get those teeter totters into the set. It was a genius idea if we were shooting out in the soundstage or in the middle of a field or something, but it was completely impractical for our sets. We did end up utilizing them a little bit because both Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the director, and I loved the look of it. It was a poor man’s way of achieving a zero-gravity effect without having cast dangling on wires, but, like I said, it was really tricky to get them into the sets. We ended up realizing very quickly in our rehearsal period that we basically had to pull the roof off of the set in order to make [creating the zero-gravity effect] practical at all. That had implications for me. I had to then get up a whole lot more greenscreen than we’d anticipated.

Filmmaker: So, these teeter totters were like a fulcrum with the actors on one side and then the camera and counterweight on the other side so they would float up and down in unison? Were you going to wheel them from room to room in the station?

Matthews: When I hear you say it, it really makes me feel like, “What the hell was I thinking?” [laughs] It was a great lesson in the philosophical conundrums of filmmaking. Sometimes you can be a little bit myopic and just see your own bit and go, “This is a real cool shot.” And it might be a cool shot for two seconds of screen time, but it took you an hour to get the right camera position. But we didn’t have an idea that [the teeter totters] would move us through the station. We always knew there would be some cable work where we’d need to pull people along to trolly them through the sets, but we thought that maybe there would be bits of dialogue, like in a shot/reverse shot situation, where people were more or less fixed on a spot hovering around their computer or something, that we could achieve that on the teeter totters. But, in the end, you’ve got so much arm coming into the shot and the cast has to stay on the node and they weren’t able to really move up and down the set at all. So, it just became very obvious very quickly that it wasn’t practical, and everything went to cables over the top, which we were trying to avoid as much as possible because we were trying to keep the amount of VFX shots down. At some point in the filmmaking process you just have to sort of own up to what the reality is.

Filmmaker: Here’s what I couldn’t figure out—you’re using overhead wire rigs to float the actors through the station from room to room. How do you get them through the doors, because the wires would get snagged?

Matthews: We realized really quickly once we went to that wire-intensive methodology that the hatches were impossible to go through. So, the director and I basically worked out when we absolutely had to have cast go through a hatch and we created hatches that were just a half-moon shape [that allowed the wires to pass through at the top], then the upper half [of the hatch] was created in VFX.

Filmmaker: Did the VFX budget just explode when you figured out late in the game that you were going to have to do things like VFX port replacements? The pot of money usually is what it is. Did you have to start cutting from other places?

Matthews: Well, there was certainly an anticipation that somewhere along the line it was going to be a pretty VFX intensive experience. We made a good effort to circumvent that VFX spend in preproduction by coming up with all these things, like the teeter totters or having the actors stand on these Lazy Susan kind of things, like a little turntable, when we were shooting tight enough. There was definitely a science to the physicality for the cast. We had a NASA consultant who would say, “Look, guys, you don’t need to ham that stuff up with the movement. It’s not really like that. When you’re standing in one spot, it’s not all psychedelic [with your arms waving around]. Your micro movements are actually pretty natural.” A lot of the movie is just mid-shots and close-ups, partly because that’s the nature of the script, but also because there just wasn’t a lot of room to get the camera back [further from the actors]. It’s really a performance-driven chamber piece. You have to figure out how to be inventive and find fresh camera angles in a little tiny space. 

Filmmaker: How did shooting in those small spaces affect your choice of camera and lens package?

Matthews: In the end I used Hawk V-Lite anamorphics and an Alexa Mini. When I’m lining up a project I’m always deeply suspicious of the instinct to use the technology, equipment or methodology that feels like it would be the easiest thing because I think, very often, it’s not the best thing. For example, in small spaces, you sort of go, “It should be spherical lenses because we need the close focus and don’t want to be using diopters on everything.” Maybe I just have some sort of desire to subvert comfort and ease in the process, because I think somehow difficulty is inextricably linked with rigorousness. When you set yourself up in a really difficult way, there’s something in the tension of that, that makes the filmmaking process really interesting. I remember going through a similar psychological process with a film I shot called Hotel Mumbai, which was about people in tight spaces and high stakes. I suggested anamorphic to the director and the producer, and they were like, “That sounds terrible.” Then I ran around Panavision with some camera assistants who were holding broomsticks [to simulate weapons], and I created two showreels of exactly the same shots—one spherical and one anamorphic—and got an editor to put them side by side and did a little split screen. I got everyone together and played the footage and after the test was over, everyone turned around and looked at me and went, “Yeah, it’s anamorphic.” I didn’t have to go through as much protesting on I.S.S., perhaps because people were sort of aware of Hotel Mumbai and how I’d used anamorphic in tight spaces. We always try to come up with lots of fancy adjectives to justify our choices, but, let’s face it, anamorphic just looks more like a movie, doesn’t it?

Filmmaker: Periodically the movie cuts to black-and-white surveillance camera footage from the station. What did you use for those?

Matthews: I loved the idea of not doing the standard trope of visually degrading the image and putting a flashing red dot in the corner of the screen and all that stuff. I used these little S1H Lumix cameras wedged in there but with proper anamorphic lenses on them. Of course the first thing that happened when everyone got into the edit was they hit the black and white button and the pixelating button and then Russian Cyrillic characters went all over the screen. I saw a cut of the film when I came to have a chat about color and that’s what I saw had been done to those shots. It’s beyond my pay grade. I think it still works. It gives it a certain appropriate Orwellian vibe, that the eyes of the authorities are looking upon you.

Filmmaker: There are times in the film when the camera feels like it’s moving almost as if the operators themselves are floating in zero gravity. How did you get that look?

Matthews: Sometimes in preproduction you wake up in a cold sweat and go, “Hang on. I’ve got something here.” Then you have to go about convincing everyone that this crazy idea is what we have to spend some money on. So, I said, “We need a Technocrane in Matrix mode all the time on this movie. The whole movie.” It was a cold sweat moment for me because I thought, “Most producers are just going to say, ‘No. It’s not that kind of movie, Nick.’” But I went to our line producer, Alison, and it was such a great example of how inextricably linked the world of the bean counting—the numbers and the money—are to what’s on screen. Alison went, “Okay. Why?” And I said, “Well, because the sets are cylindrical. How do the operators walk on the set? It’s full of stuff. There’s general space shmoo everywhere and the cast is going to be floating. So, how do we operate?” Then I said, “Sure, there’ll be times where we can build ourselves a little something and walk on some Apple boxes or whatever with the Steadicam, but it’s going to take time to do that. I actually think we’ll be more time efficient [with the crane].” And, like really great producers do, Alison said, “Okay, what are you willing to give up to have it?” And I said, “I don’t need dollies, because how am I going to use them? I’m not going to be breaking off the full side of the set and tracking in profile. That’s just never going to happen because we couldn’t afford the time to do that.” So, we went down [our gear] list and kind of went, “no, no, no, no” and then a big “yes” to the Techno. Most of the time our A Camera lived in Matrix mode on a 30-foot Techno with our A Camera operator, Matt Doll, who’s a local out of Wilmington and a fabulous operator. Gabriela and I would sit over Matt’s shoulder and play around with the rotation. We’d usually start with the actor vertical to the horizon and then say, “Why don’t we roll it a bit?” It was really disorienting. There was no science to where the rotation was, but that was another tool that the Techno gave us. We could rotate on the move as well and that really added to the zero-gravity effect.

Filmmaker: How did you approach lighting the station’s interiors? You can see some of the tubes doubling on screen as practicals.

Matthews: I think we had about a hundred Astera Titan tubes that I basically spent probably 90 percent of my lighting budget on. Our fabulous crew got all of them connected to a desk and numbered up so I was able to individually dim and affect the color temp of all those tubes. That was really a lot of the lighting, then we would use big tungsten units like 5Ks to come through the windows when we wanted something more sourcy. Sometimes we would go, “This scene could do with a menacing, hot beam of light.” So, we would have that harsh sunlight penetrating in and hitting the actors in the guts or hitting the floor rather than beautifully backlighting them.

We also used some smoke. It might seem counterintuitive to say, “I’m going to put smoke and particulate in space.” But I was like, “Let’s test it and see how much we can get away with to see if we can have a little bit just to break up the digital feeling of the cameras.” Gabriela right from the top always wanted this film to have a little bit of a gritty look and to get away from something that felt like a typical space movie, kind of sterile and clean and futuristic. We were trying to think of ways of giving a little more textured, degraded feel without going too far. In the end, I think we did that with a little bit of smoke and some Glimmerglass filters and pushing the ISO a little bit and using a base of 1600, which I do quite a bit.

Filmmaker: Earlier you mentioned rigging the camera to the actors. There’s a scene where Chris Messina’s character is attempting to do a repair outside the station. He is using this tether line and hooking it to different points as he moves along the station’s exterior. There’s a few shots where—as he leaps from point to point—the camera is rigged to him, but it’s pretty far away. It’s not like SnorriCam distance. How’d you do that?

Matthews: That was our teeter totters! That was their great moment. After having spent a chunk of our budget on building all these steel 15-foot-long things we finally used one. We used it in space because we weren’t restricted by the sets. Chris was out there floating on the side of the craft. I don’t know if it makes practical sense. I mean, why is the camera attached to the astronaut out in space? I don’t know, but it looks cool.

© 2024 Filmmaker Magazine. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of The Gotham