Camera Op to Cinematographer: Matt Leonetti & His Road to Hollywood Success

Published on in Miscellaneous

by Michael Valinsky

Matt Leonetti started his career as a camera operator & quickly became a full-fledged cinematographer shooting iconic films, including Poltergeist, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Weird Science, Jagged Edge, Star Trek: First Contact, Dawn of the Dead, The Butterfly Effect, and Rush Hour 2. Forty years after his first role as director of photography on Bat People (1974), Leonetti continues to shoot, including the upcoming Dumb and Dumber To. Learn how Leonetti paved the way to his success, with tips, advice and much more. 

Leonetti will be recognized along with 3 other fellow cinematographers during the 29th Annual American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) Awards for Outstanding Achievement on February 15, 2015. 

* What piece of advice would you give an up and coming cinematographer that you wish you were told when you were first starting a career in the entertainment industry? 

A long time ago, when I was an assistant cameraman, I was lucky enough to work with some of the greats who got their training during the 1940s and ‘50s. A piece of wisdom they passed onto me was to ’keep an eye and ear open for the cinematographer and an ear open for the set.’ It’s important to know what’s happening on the set at all times. People will ask you questions constantly. For example, how certain props or wardrobe will photograph and you need to be able to answer accurately. They also gave me great advice to watch and ask questions – ‘you’re here, you might as well learn.’ So as a camera operator, I would stand by the camera and watch how the DP would light and ask the gaffer why he placed a light in a certain place, and then go to dailies in the morning to see the result. Of course, now it’s instantaneous, you just watch the monitor.

Also, always take the project to heart and immerse yourself to make it the best movie it can be. If you do that and give it your full attention, it will always pay off.

* You’ve worked on films like Poltergeist, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Weird Science to Rush Hour 2 and the upcoming Dumb and Dumber To, what major difference in cinematography have you seen from then versus now.

The cameras have changed dramatically from the early 1970s. There’s been an evolution from sound cameras that weighed 130 pounds, to film cameras that weighed 60 pounds, and now we use digital cameras as small as a GoPro. Film has also improved tremendously in resolution, contrast ratio, latitude and higher ISO. Now we see the digital world evolving with each camera having its own particular characteristics, more or less contrast and/or latitude. With higher ISO, the amount of light needed to create an image has changed dramatically. You need a lot less light these days. In the ‘70s, the ASA was 50 and today, the ASA/ISO can be up to 1600! 

* Do you have a favorite movie memory you can share with us? What movie set was it on and what happened?

I would say more of a favorite challenge. I was working on Strange Days and the director, Katheryn Bigelow, came up to me wanting to do a night shot with the actor driving down a road through San Pedro Harbor. It felt impossible; we hadn’t pre-rigged and only had two hours to prep and over a half mile of road to light. So we spread out 15 small Honda generators and put open globes and various sized fluorescents every 70 feet or so and was able to light the entire stretch of road. As the actor drove, the effect worked great and the director got her shot.

* What camera equipment do you typically prefer to use and why?

I work with various cameras and gear. My motto has always been to pick the tools that fit the project. Some cameras allow for a softer look – not as constrasty – and would be my choice for a lighter style movie. For a drama or thriller, I would choose a camera that gave me more contrast, allowing the blacks to be a little blacker for a more dramatic feel. Obviously the lenses you choose make a huge difference and are matter of preference. There is a various choice of lenses that will enhance the project you’re shooting. 

* What trends in cinematography do you see on the horizon?

Good question. What is a trend really, especially when dealing with cinematography? … It’s all about the story and the story driving the look and that hasn’t changed in years. 

* Congrats on your upcoming ASC Award. What do you believe has led you to become so successful in this industry?

I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in some very good projects, luck being the appropriate word. I’ve tried to surround myself with an experienced crew who were invested in making the movie the best it could be. There’s one gaffer I’ve worked with, Pat Blymer, on over 35 projects and considered it a complement when the producer/director and/or producing company would ask me if I had the same crew. They knew they were going to get a professional and efficient team. 

* Anything else you would like to add? 

I guess it’s important to mention that I’ve always liked what I do! I enjoy shooting and care about the work and the project. That makes a big difference in what I do. 

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