Matt Windon’s big break as a splinter DOP on The Witches opened doors and introduced him to new tools. Now, he’s putting them to use as an additional DOP on Pennyworth
Marking the eighth feature-length collaboration between director Robert Zemeckis and cinematographer Don Burgess, The Witches remake also reunited the latter with trusted cameraman, Matt Windon.
The pair started out working together on Fool’s Gold (2008), with Windon operating as Burgess’ first AC – the partnership blooming ever since. On this occasion, Windon was even given the opportunity to lead aspects of the shoot.
“Working with Don in the past, I had always expressed an interest in shooting and becoming a DOP. When he and Robert came to town and asked if I could lead the splinter unit on The Witches, I was thrilled,” says Windon. “It’s a promotion in my career that’s happened much sooner than I expected, but having this relationship with Don and earning his trust has definitely helped me progress.”
The splinter unit is usually responsible for catching additional footage that doesn’t require the main cast, such as establishing shots, inserts and stunts. In particular, Windon was tasked with shooting elements of live-action animation. Typically, these were scenes containing cast members in the foreground, while animation occupied the background.
“What we shot could be slotted easily into the background of Don’s foreground scenes with the actors,” he explains. One sequence, capturing the children as they turn into mice, exemplifies this perfectly. The animated rodents interact briefly among themselves, before scurrying along the hotel floors between the guests’ feet. Windon recalls another: “We even did the famous banquet scene, with mice funnelling into the kitchen through air vents and running across all the pots and pans to pour the deadly potion into the witches’ soup.”
While shooting these memorable moments from Roald Dahl’s original tale was a novelty, the task had its challenges. Notably, splinter units land the meticulous task of matching their shots’ lighting with those captured by the main camera unit.
“Don had already shot the foreground elements for each scene weeks before I was due to get the background elements,” Windon outlines. “But while Don was working, I shadowed him, paying attention to how each scene was lit. I took notes, plus photos of the lighting rigs. That allowed
me to set up the fixtures correctly for either an Arri SkyPanel S360-C or S60-C.”
With lighting fixtures in the right positions, Windon had a fighting chance of achieving harmonious light levels between scenes. There’s still no magic computer that does this automatically.
“A lot of it comes down to your eyes – that’s why it was important I was there while Don shot,” he says. “But I could also utilise the digital imaging technician’s monitors; one monitor displaying the picture that Don shot, and another with my picture. That really helped me match the lighting perfectly.”
With Windon capturing plenty of mice scenes, he needed a gimbal that would help him get low with his camera. Nonetheless, he drew the line at getting as low as a mouse’s POV – that would have been slightly jarring for the audience!
“During the shoot, we used Camera Revolution’s Libra remote head with a Panavision Millennium DXL2 8K camera,” he says. “Sometimes, it was employed as a remote head for difficult shots, such as the mice scenes. On other occasions, it was carried – either by myself or two grips – and remotely operated to get dynamic moving shots.” It was also used with the Flowcine Black Arm placed on a dolly. This ensured smooth shots outside the hotel, where the location’s uneven ground didn’t allow for track.
Windon and his splinter unit spent one day filming the hotel exteriors at an outdoor set, built at Virginia Water Lake in Surrey. The other scenes were shot at Warner Bros. Studios in Leavesden. In the studio, three stages were built for the hotel reception, dining room and various guest rooms. “At times, we had to move between the different stages just to capture one scene,” he reveals.
While Windon is familiar with using a powerful tool such as the Libra remote head, it was this experience that inspired him to find similar options; albeit more financially viable pieces of equipment.
“The Libra really interested me – I wanted to explore what more I could do with it. Nonetheless, it’s a high-end piece of kit; I needed a more affordable option that could achieve similar results,” he says. “I got in touch with Aaron at CVP. We’ve been friends for a long time – we’re both from Sydney and became acquainted there, before moving to the UK. I visited him at CVP’s Charlotte Street location, where he suggested I give the DJI Ronin 2 a try. I tested it there and then in the showroom.”
Though arguably offering less control than a custom-designed system, such as the Libra, the Ronin 2 is versatile. It can be mounted to tripods as a stabilising device, or attached to a jib as an
inexpensive stabilised remote head.
“It’s simply perfect for my needs,” enthuses Windon. “I purchased it about 18 months ago, between finishing The Witches and starting on Season 2 of Epix’s Pennyworth, where I use the Ronin 2 for everyday dynamic shots.”
On Pennyworth, Windon supported fellow DOP Mark Patten on episodes 5 and 6, an opportunity stemming from his work with Burgess on The Witches.
“Working with Don over the years – either as first AC or DOP for the splinter unit – has opened up a lot of doors for me. Ultimately, getting that experience and receiving credit on The Witches meant I earned Mark’s trust. And, because of that, I got the opportunity to work as a DOP on Pennyworth, while he spent a couple of weeks preparing for future episodes. The whole thing has been a fantastic opportunity,” he concludes.
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The Ronin 2 excels on film sets, featuring a three-axis gimbal stabiliser that enables filmmakers to transition effortlessly between scenes
LEFT Windon spent a few weeks working on season two of Pennyworth, supporting fellow DOP Mark Patten
“Needing an affordable option that could achieve results, I tested out the DJI Ronin 2
there and then in the showroom”