A group of police officers in the aisle of a supermarket wearing tactical gear and all pointing guns at the camera.
Behind the scenes of Hot Fuzz (2007). Image credit: Matt Nettheim
Stories & Ideas

Mon 28 Mar 2022

Capturing magical moments: Matt Nettheim's 'Portraits'

Behind the scenesFilmIndustryInterview
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Photographer Matt Nettheim tells us about his creative practice, mindset for success and impressive career capturing on-set stills for local indies and international blockbusters.

Encouraged into the film industry by his director brother Daniel Nettheim and Australian icon Rolf de Heer, Matt's career has spanned most genres of photography. He has worked on films like Rabbit Proof Fence (2002), Bran Nue Dae (2009) and The Eye of the Storm (2011) alongside international credits on Hot Fuzz (2007), Where the Wild Things Are (2009) and more. To celebrate the launch of Matt's new book, Portraits, ACMI Shop manager Leaona Cusick spoke to the author about his career and what inspires both his personal and professional work.

Leaona Cusick: What motivates and inspires you within your creative practice?

Matt Nettheim: Whilst I am very autonomous with my motion picture stills work, in that no one really tells me what to do, I am always very focused on impressing my client – usually the film’s producers and publicists. I really love to do a great job and present them with a situation of too many good stills. I also want to impress myself, to be happy with my delivery. Towards this, I always prepare well, reading the script multiple times and watching any relevant films. I always go into a film job assuming that it is going to be a fantastic movie and a huge success – that there will be books published and exhibitions of my work and a dazzling publicity campaign. It doesn’t happen like that very often, but it is good to be prepared for that outcome and it’s a good mindset to work with.

My equipment can also be an interesting source of inspiration. When digital cameras first came out in the late 1990s, I jumped straight on board and my creative process changed dramatically. Being able to take as many photos as I wanted – literally thousands a day – became a tool for increasing the number of great shots that I was able to get. It made for a lot of time in front of a computer, but amongst the hordes of images, there would always be a few magical moments and unexpected surprises. I could fine tune a bunch of portraits or scenes from a film down to just a handful of really special ones that tell the story or capture the moment.

These days, the cameras I work with are remarkable. They're able to shoot in nearly no light, with incredible tonal ranges and crazy technology like auto focusing on the subjects’ eyes when they are running towards me. The creative potential that lies in the new technology is always exciting.

Adam Driver on the set of the movie Tracks. He is wearing glasses and looking into the camera while sitting in a car and resting his elbow on the ledge of the car window.

Adam Driver on the set of Tracks (2013). Image credit: Matt Nettheim

LC: Is there a favourite project you've worked on? What made it so special?

MN: My seven films with director Rolf De Heer have been career highlights. Every project was completely different from the last and all seem to welcome technical challenges – remote locations and challenging personalities, which makes for memorable filmmaking experiences. Rolf is a wonderful humanitarian and everyone on his small, dedicated crew is treated with respect.

My first film in the UK, Hot Fuzz (2007), was a wonderful job. Directed by Edgar Wright, the script was hilarious, the shoot itself was crazy fun and the film was laugh out loud funny. With a cast of around 40 iconic British actors that I had spent my life watching, I loved the whole experience.

LC: What's your favourite time of day to create?

MN: My favourite time to create is the early morning, I am an early riser and really love that first light.

Still from the film Storm Boy. A young boy sitting in tall grass with his arms around a pelican, with a view of the coast and ocean in the background.

Still from the film Storm Boy (2019). Image credit: Matt Nettheim

LC: What are some of the sources of inspiration that you draw from when creating?

MN: When I am working on a film I try and key in to the vision of the Director of Photography – to look at their references and keep an eye on what look they are trying to get on the film, and match that look. I am inspired by my filmmaking team and all the skills and time that have gone into creating these moments that unfold in front of me.

In my personal work, I am very interested in connection, the challenge of making a subject at ease and having an enjoyable photographic experience with me even though our time together may be very brief. I carry a strong awareness of history now, recording people and places with an awareness that the images will become more precious with time. Having just made my way through my entire archive, as well as the photographic archives of my deceased father and uncle, this sense of recording history now is particularly heightened.

LC: How does the wider world of screen culture influence your work?

MN: I study film publicity; I really take notice of the image that makes the poster and the key images that do the rounds of the media when a film is being released. It is always fascinating what images emerge as key stills from the tens of thousands that get taken on a film shoot.

Black and white portrait photograph of an older woman with long hair, crossing her arms and leaning against a bench.

Portrait of Matt's grandmother, Laura McCausland. Image credit: Matt Nettheim

LC: Do you have a favourite exhibition or film that you've seen at ACMI? Is there anything you would like to see in the future?

MN: It was very exciting to see my big brother's film The Hunter scheduled to screen with a live cross to lead actor Willem Dafoe. It was a proud moment to see it programmed at ACMI.

LC: What are you currently watching, playing, streaming?

MN: I am currently watching Peter Jackson’s Get Back, The Beatles documentary, and I am just loving every moment of its indulgent 8 hours.

Buy a limited edition, signed copy of Matt's book

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