John Mathieson (b. 1961, Dorset) got into the film industry by hanging around his mates who were into movies and assisting on shoots. Later he went to India where his producer blagged a commercial from a tyre magnate and it looked good so they kept getting asked back. When he was 26 he started shooting pop promos and soon garnered recognition for the ground breaking video “Peek-a-Boo” for Siouxsie and the Banshees, directed by Peter Scammel. He also collaborated with the director of the Sinéad O’Connor video “Nothing Compares 2 U”, and honed his craft through the 90’s shooting numerous television commercials and music videos for artists including Madonna, Prince and Massive Attack.
As a cinematographer and director of photography, Mathieson’s films credits are a balance of smaller British arthouse films on the one hand, and multi-million dollar Hollywood blockbusters on the other. In the mid-90’s Mathieson photographed the film Plunkett & Macleane for Jake Scott, which attracted the attention of father Ridley who invited him to work on his next project. Mathieson has so far been the DOP on five films for the veteran director (Gladiator (2000), Hannibal (2001), Matchstick Men (2003), Kingdom Of Heaven (2005) and Robin Hood (2010)), was nominated for an Academy Award for Gladiator in 2000 and won the BAFTA award for best Cinematography in the same year. His second Oscar nomination came for The Phantom of the Opera (2004) directed by Joel Schumacher.
As a team, Ridley Scott and John Mathieson work very well; the cinematographer’s narrative sensibility and vivid sense of colour compliment Scott’s fluid, improvisational directorial style. Scott has developed a method for filming as swiftly as possible, preferring to work with a minimum of three cameras, and up to eleven on a big stunt – with the result that it may only take two or three takes to capture what’s needed. From a cinematographic point of view this meant the DOP had to create and capture images differently to the way you might work on other types of films. With multiple cameras to set up, there’s a lot to get organised and to communicate to the crew. “The production is like an ocean liner leaving port”, says Mathieson, “and you have to be ready to get on board every day and go with the flow.”
For somebody famously preferring the 35mm film to the digital (as was also the case on Mike Newell’s 2012 Charles Dickens dramatisation Great Expectations), and natural lighting to the artificial one, Mathieson still displayed an impressive degree of high-tech inventiveness on the dynamic sets full of big set pieces, battles, charging horses, the intimacy of people walking and talking and multiple cameras running simultaneously. One example includes strapping together two 100K SoftSuns delivering enough light for a shot of a horse and rider galloping a couple of hundred meters away from camera through the forest. Cameras included ARRI ST and LTs, often with nine of these running across a set-piece, or as many as 11 on a big day, as well as SI2K and various crash cams to get close into the action during the battle scenes. Along with lightness and speed of deployment, Mathieson’s lens choices were dictated by the simple premise of capturing the best possible quality, super-clean image – he selected a wide range of Panavision Primos, and an array of fast but lightweight zoom lenses. Mathieson believes the choice of lenses for shooting Super 35 gives you sharpness, range and incredible apertures – “you can cope with shooting in either low-light or in full sunlight on a beach, or pan from a bright exterior into a dark interior without introducing lens artefacts”.
DI post-production was used to enhance the dreary coolness of the imagery and take reflections of sunlight off leaves on the ground, helmets and armour, as well as for a lot of custom colour sharpening – helping to tell the audience on a subconscious level that it is a certain time of day and season.
Whether he’s shooting a multi-million dollar epic or a more modestly budgeted British independent production, Mathieson’s approach remains the same. “To me it’s all about the story, the script and the director, and how I as the cinematographer can make images come to life,” he says. “You’re at the sharp end, always on a tight schedule, working with the director and the crew, to light and frame the images that will best tell the story.”