Matt Ardine, the lighting designer and gaffer specializing in commercials, music videos, movies and TV, transforms visuals through his great attention to detail. By creating multiple atmospheres in one video, or creating one single isolated ambience, Matt conveys emotions through light that support each story in its own way. He has been working closely with cinematographer Larkin Seiple on the music video 'This is America' by Childish Gambino but also created the light atmosphere for SIA's upcoming film 'Music' starring Kate Hudson.
Do you remember the first time you realized the power and magic of lighting?
During my high school period, I started making skate videos, and quickly realized I wanted to get into filmmaking. I took all the TV and film courses my high school offered, to the point where in my senior year I even created my own class about cinematography. I started reading all the textbooks my teacher gave me and quickly realized most off cinematography centered around lighting.
Going into Emerson College I was certain I wanted to be either a cinematographer or editor, as those were essentially the only two things I was doing while making skate videos. The first semester I edited a music video, and hated the process of being stuck alone in a room, so cinematography became my second step. After years of thinking I wanted to be a cinematographer, I felt myself gravitate toward lighting design and working as a gaffer.
What was that gravitational pull towards lighting design?
During the time that I had several small jobs as a cinematographer, I realized I didn’t like dealing with the camera as much as I enjoyed focusing on the lighting. During this time, EDM also started becoming a more popular genre of music, and attending those shows got me hooked on the amazing lighting design. After diving into the world of EDM for a minute, I quickly realized it wasn’t for me – I can barely stay up past 9 pm. So now I’m just starting to carve out this niche of lighting design for commercial, movies and TV – especially focusing on lighting that goes in coordination with the music.
In videos like Aloe Blacc - Love Is The Answer, lighting becomes key in reflecting the emotion of the character. What’s the biggest difficulty in creating multiple atmospheres in one video?
Whilst sometimes it simply means adding more lights, it also means trying to design rigs that allow lights to change from one look to another instead of having one light do one specific thing. For a movie I did last year, we constructed 360 degrees of truss above the heads of the dancer, as we just weren’t sure what the choreography was going to be. Having a centering truss, I can do pretty much anything, and change the look from a day to a night scene with the push of a button.
Is there a specific space you escape to or a specific thing you do which fuels your inspirations? Some creatives talk about the 50/50 rule when taking on projects. Execute 50% of your plan within your comfort zone and include 50% of challenge. How do you keep your work as challenging as possible?
I think with every job I’m always trying something new. Back in 2010, when I first started doing low-budget music videos, the lighting technology was just starting to change. I would always experiment. Whether it was getting different lights, a different media server or just lighting the whole music video with a projector, there was always something new. If I messed up, there was always the leniency to come up with another idea. During that time, I would say it was closer to 90% experimenting and 10% comfort zone. As the jobs get bigger and bigger, the freedom to experiment decreases, as there’s simply less room for failure – the ideas just need to work.
Still in every job I try to do something new. For example, a Disney music video we did in 2010 was based on lighting the whole video with a projector. Since then, I’ve built more and more projects on using projectors as lighting sources, to the point where I’ve done big jobs where we were using video projectors as the light source. The small projects where you’re allowed to challenge yourself with the tools and materials you use kind of work as important experimental basis for the bigger projects.
In a video like, ‘This is America’, what’s your process on controlling natural and artificial light?
Most credits here go to Larkin Seiple, the cinematographer, and Hiro Murai, the director. I’ve been working with them for years now – tracing back to our first music video together in 2011. The two of them really understand cinematography. Larkin and Hiro placed each shot so that it compliments the angle, in correlation to where the sun was for the time of day we were shooting. The schedule was all based around the time of day. For that specific shoot, there was no real controlling of the sun in terms of grip or lighting equipment. It was all about placing the talent in a position that looked good on camera, at the right angle, placed at a certain position for where the sun would be at a specific time in the day. It simply was just perfect planning, perfect shot placement and very, very little lighting.
You have an impressive resume from doing high-profile music videos to ads for big companies. What’s the next step for you?
I’ve have been working more as a lighting designer for jobs that require my specific style of lighting. I did a musical movie in 2017, directed by SIA with Maddie Ziegler and Kate Hudson. I really enjoy the role of working as a lighting designer, working closely with the choreography team. The lighting was very heightened and really expressed the mental state of the characters and the choreography. During my preparation, I constantly visited the choreography rehearsals and filmed them. I then broke down each song in excel to see at what time a dancer would be in a certain position – looking specifically at where I wanted the light to hit them. This year also involved working as the LD for the Transparent Musical, coming in September 2019. This had several dance numbers that I designed the lighting and LED screens. Then I did a movie called Covers, where I did the concert scenes. That comes out in 2020.
Matt ArdineAs the jobs get bigger and bigger, the freedom to experiment decreases, as there’s simply less room for failure – the ideas need to work.
Finally, could you pass some rare gems that you feel would help other lighting designers improve their workflow or skills?
I think when it comes to lighting, a lot of people don’t understand the power and benefit of using drafting software. I use VectorWorks to sketch up the whole set. It’s not only a way for me to communicate to my crew where all the lighting should go, but it’s also a way for me to work out specific challenges. For example, it allows me to know if I’m placing a light in a specific position, lets say 13 feet up in the air, there will be a 45 degree-angle hitting the subject. Drafting software does this whole process for you. I can build the whole set in the 3D drafting software and make sure all the angles will work out. I can rework it several times to come up with the best idea. During your load-in it will make the process of setting up much smoother. Gaffers in filmmaking barely ever use 3D drafting, rather they rely on someone else to do the drafting. By doing it myself, I can see problems before they occur.
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