May 23, 2023

DNA lenses on "Meet Cute."

Cinematographer John Matysiak shoots Peacock's dark comedy “Meet Cute” in large format with ARRI Rental DNA LF and Prime DNA lenses on the ALEXA Mini LF. 

May 23, 2023

Peacock's "Meet Cute" is a sci-fi rom-com in which the central character Sheila (Kaley Cuoco) uses a time-traveling tanning bed to relive the best date of her life with Gary (Pete Davidson), hoping she can help rid him of his past traumas. Cinematographer John Matysiak shares how he and director Alex Lehmann captured the film with ALEXA Mini LF cameras and ARRI Rental’s exclusive DNA LF and Prime DNA lenses.

What made you decide to shoot in large format? 

This was a decision that naturally evolved through our prep and camera tests. Alex and I tested both the ALEXA Mini and ALEXA Mini LF. We had shot “Acidman” earlier in the year with the Mini, so large format with the Mini LF seemed like the next logical step for us visually with this film.

Large format brings a lot of options for playing with depth of field. Something that came about early on in prep was the idea of shifting the depth of field as the time travel becomes more and more abrupt, and the days become shorter as we move through the film. We wanted the world to become more in focus the further along we went, and then towards the end shift to a shallower depth of field the more it unraveled around Shelia.

What lens testing did you do, and why did you decide on the DNA LF series?

If I recall, we tested everything we could get our hands on. Testing lenses for me often involves raising more questions than answers. I’m always looking for something that echoes and reflects the emotion of the story. In the case of "Meet Cute," we were also exploring the overall look during this testing period, hence the range of formats and lenses.

I always find it more intuitive than technical. Obviously, there are technical reasons why something may or may not be intuitively right for a project, but for me, it’s a process of discovery. You are searching for that intangible idea, circling around it until it just clicks and you know you’ve found the combination of lenses and cameras that serves the story. I have to acknowledge my two focus pullers on the film, Geoff Storts and Logan Hall, who were such great collaborators through this testing process.

What characteristics of the DNA LF lenses were most interesting and beneficial for this production?

We really fell in love with how imperfect they were at times, but never in a distracting way that interfered with the overall look, or the performance of the actors. Mostly we shot at around T2.8, but on some of the earlier sequences at the bar I remember shooting wide open to really smear the world around Kaley, creating a dream-like bokeh. It was always a balance of how the background felt – do the characters feel isolated in the world, or part of the world, or do we want them in a dream-like environment?

The way the DNAs reproduced skin tones and the way they handled faces and fall-off were huge selling points. We knew that much of our film would take place in medium close-ups, so it was important to have a lens that would inherently fall off where it needed to, and have built-in “character." We were always after a sense of heightened realism within our image and the DNA lenses nudged us further in that direction. We ended up using a full set of DNA LF lenses as well as several Prime DNA focal lengths mixed in, which we referred to as the “silver bullets” because they just got the job done when we needed them to.

A lot of scenes are at night. How did the camera and lenses handle those situations?

95 percent of our film takes place at night, a repeating date night that occurs again and again. It was extremely helpful at times to have the high ISO of the ALEXA Mini LF coupled with the ability to shoot wide open. That being said, we often found ourselves trying to shape the existing light as much as possible by turning off streetlights and shaping the ambient light. We also knew that lighting from the storefronts would be a very organic way to achieve our look and introduce color through neon and fluorescents. This lens combination was almost born to shoot under these circumstances; we kept pushing the ISO higher and higher, and never felt it fall apart or go beyond what we were after in the image.

What was it like shooting in New York’s iconic Indian restaurant, Panna II Garden, with all its thousands of colorful ceiling lights?

That location was particularly challenging. The city block it’s located on in Manhattan has its own challenges and the bike lane in front of the restaurant had to remain open, which added to the difficulties.

First off, it is extremely small and has very low ceilings, which made the logistics of moving people and equipment in and out exhausting. Air conditioning had to be pumped in from what seemed like blocks away. It was a bit like that scene in "ET" where the giant tunnels lead everywhere out of the house, but that is part of the experience of shooting a film in August in NYC. We shot at Panna II for three days and of course the biggest challenge was keeping our sanity surrounded by thousands upon thousands of flashing, colored string lights. We added a bunch of our own practicals and reflective wall decals – anything we could do to enhance the surrealism of the location. 

We used Astera tubes hidden in the string lights as actual key lights for Kaley and Pete. Given the limited size of the location, we had to fully embrace seeing as much of the ceiling as possible, which in this case was such a blessing. It’s one of those sequences that people really respond to and has this unintended effect of adding a bit of a sci-fi or cyberpunk element to this repeating date night.

How long have you and Alex worked together, and what are the dynamics of the working relationship?

Alex and I go back all the way to film school. He reminded me recently that I actually shot the first short film he directed at Emerson. It’s been really refreshing to connect so many years later on several films within a short amount of time. We have this intuitive trust for each other as artists and collaborators, maybe because we knew each other back before anyone would dare trust us with a feature film.

Before Alex was a director, he was a cinematographer – one that I looked up to as we were both cutting our teeth shooting horror films and indie movies years ago. We have this extreme shorthand that cuts across a lot of the typical conversations you tend to have. He’s very generous in his trust as he knows we both view the story as the most important element of the film. He also has such an understanding of editing and what we are able to get away with in postproduction that it’s very freeing on set. When it came to discussing all the different lens options for "Meet Cute," his response was something along the lines of: “These all sound great, let me know what you decide.”

We knew we were going to be slowly deconstructing the romantic comedy within our dark comedy, using a lot of handheld camerawork as things begin to unravel in the second half. Our previous film "Acidman" was almost entirely handheld, and we both have such a love for how the handheld camera can capture the nuance of performance and at times become a part of the scene. One of our early inspirations for "Meet Cute" was “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” We loved how that film was stripped down visually; it’s a camera, a location, and actors. There’s a purity to that.

Some scenes have almost a bleach bypass look – were you doing much filtration on set?

For some of our flashback sequences with young Gary we leaned into a slight bypass look to differentiate it. A lot of that look tended to be driven by the colors of the location and the wardrobe, how it all points towards a narrow palette. That being said, we were also using filtration on set.

Nothing about this story is clean or precise. We always knew we wanted texture in the image and our wide range of filters gave us additional halation when we needed it, or took the edge out of the lens when necessary. I change intensities of filtration almost as often as changing lenses. So much of how they react is due to environments and backgrounds, it’s rare that one size fits all. I believe we used a combination of Black Satins, Pearlescent, and Glimmer Glass as our typical diffusion. These, coupled with the DNA lenses, gave us the right amount of imperfection at any given time.

Were there any other particularly challenging sequences?

Shooting a movie in the middle of New York City with Pete Davidson and Kaley Cuoco was constantly challenging because of the logistics, the paparazzi, and the fans. But scenes on the Manhattan Bridge were especially challenging. 

Originally the plan was to shoot some of the wide shots on the actual bridge and build a partial set on a volume stage for the majority of our scene work. We also looked at putting a partial set on an actual rooftop, but in the end went back to the idea of shooting full sequences on the Manhattan Bridge. We were limited in the amount of crew we were able to have, as well as how much gear we were able to bring. Everything had to be wheeled or hand carried almost half a mile from the base of the bridge to the section we had chosen to use. Every time a train came by the sound was deafening, the bridge would shake and your whole body would shake, it was a very physical experience.

Once we got to the wider section of the bridge just below one of the large towers, we noticed several workers welding and working on the bridge, adding to the complete chaos we were embarking upon. We quickly rushed to scout other portions of the bridge that would work with some of their existing lighting. In the end, we filmed in two other sections, and I am grateful for our crew who were able to pivot and still amazed at how much lighting control we were able to achieve. 

Every 10 minutes or so a train would come by. It got so intense at one point that Kaley lost it when a train came by during a take and they used it in the scene – you feel the train, you see the train, it’s in the film. There is no way we would have been able to achieve anything close to that on a partial set or in a volume. Everything about those scenes is heightened. At the end of that night we shot one of the last scenes of the film, when Pete comes off of the bridge as the sun is coming up. It was one of the more physically challenging shots I have operated, coming at the end of a 12-hour day and involving a long take going all the way down the stairs. I did take after take until we finally got the timing of everything right. That day was a metaphor for the entire production. We relied on our instincts and were constantly thrown challenges, but we walked away with something that felt uniquely our own and reflected what the city, and these two amazing actors, had given us.

What was your favorite scene to shoot?

I’m extremely proud of the sequence where Pete goes back in time to visit a young Shelia, but he goes back too far and she is way too young. Young Shelia is played by my daughter Mia, who was four at the time, and her mother is played by Alex’s wife Sierra. That was such a special day on set, not to mention we all loved that location. There’s nothing like a 1980s living room to give you flashbacks of your own childhood and then to have your daughter actually in the movie. I was probably more nervous about that day than any of the big night exteriors!