ASC Close-Up: Mat Beck

When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
They had Saturday movies in my elementary school. Popcorn, Goobers and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. The colors! The horses! The spaces! Bigger than life and realer than real! 

Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
Dean Semler [ASC, ACS], Vittorio Storaro [ASC, AIC], Sven Nykvist [ASC], Owen Roizman [ASC] and many others.

What sparked your interest in photography?
My dad’s Sawyer Stereo Realist Camera that I appropriated when I was 9 or 10. Niagara Falls in stereo! 

Where did you train and/or study?
I took some film courses at Harvard. The best one was where they handed you a Bolex and a few hundred bucks and said, ‘Go for it.’ I did documentary work in Boston with an Éclair NPR.

Who were your early teachers or mentors?
Robert Fulton — professor, a wonderful artist and a kind man. He specialized in hallucinogenic fast-cut sequences of beautiful images. He let me finish my last student film at his home in Aspen. Ricky Leacock, a great documentarian, hired me to work on a mixed-media opera. John Dykstra [ASC] and the Apogee guys had enough faith to give me a shot. Richard Edlund [ASC] transmitted his love of great imagery and great gear. Bill Butler [ASC] saved my ass on the set of Top Gun. Generous, brilliant people all.

What are some of your key artistic influences? 
Rembrandt, of course. John Singer Sargent, Velázquez, Hockney, Hopper. All masters of composition and light, with an eye for capturing the human spirit. Ansel Adams. W. Eugene Smith. Also great urban architecture and bridges — e.g. Porto, Portugal. 

How did you get your first break in the business? 
I showed up at Apogee — John Dykstra’s visual-effects company — and the front-desk guy told me to f--- off. A little luck and persistence got my skimpy résumé in front of Bob Shepherd, whose first comment was, ‘Hang gliding! Good!’ They hired me to design software and electronics because Al Miller liked me! Then when I told John that I wanted to use the camera controllers that I’d helped build, he put his head in his hands. Two weeks later, I had my own stage and was coming up with imagery for a transporter-beam malfunction.

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project? 
Any time I’ve gone from, ‘How the hell do we get this done?’ to ‘How cool is that!’ Or maybe the time I didn’t fall out of that helicopter.

Have you made any memorable blunders? 
I’ve sometimes spoken when I shouldn’t have. Most of my errors have been in the realm of being too careful. I once mis-set my alarm and showed up late for an aerial sunrise shoot at LAX. I jumped onto the plane and said, ‘Let’s go.’ Afterwards, the AD mentioned that he was surprised I didn’t apologize. The producer observed, ‘Why take the time? If we get the shot, it doesn’t matter — and if we don’t get it, it doesn’t help.’ We got the shot, and I got two more alarm clocks. 

What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
From Roger Dorney: ‘Never forget where your car is or where the door is.’ From Grant McCune: ‘Even if you’re not sure, act as if you are. We’re smart. We’ll figure it out.’

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you? 
Hockney at LACMA. This is not his photo-based work — just simple, insightful portraits. La La Land. La-loved it! Loved I, Tonya, too.

Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
How about a noir science-fiction mystery comedy?

If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
Maybe a teacher. Or an inventor. Or a builder.

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Russ Carpenter, Allen Daviau, Ron Garcia.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
Repeated many times: The ASC is by far the best club that ever agreed to let me in. To be admitted into the physical and metaphorical sanctum of the greatest cinematographers that ever lived is very humbling. When I got in, I told my mom that I was sorry I didn’t get a Ph.D. or an M.D., but an ASC was way better.

Personal site here.
Photo by Javier Hernandez.

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