When it comes to simple pieces of high quality production equipment that can completely change the look of your captured footage, it's hard to go past the humble matte box. Yes, it may not be as 'sexy' as a specialist lens that opens up new creative capabilities, but the matte box more than makes up for things by giving even the simplest of scenes a professional and appealing look.
Not all matte boxes are created equal though, and to understand which ones you should be looking at, it's helpful to have a look at what these products should and shouldn't do. That's exactly what we'll explore in this article, along with a few examples from one of our favourite manufacturers, the venerable Bright Tangerine.
The difference between a matte box and a lens hood is the added amount of versatility that you get with a box.
All about matte boxes
At a first glance, the role of a matte box might seem quite similar to your common or garden lens hood. Both block light from hitting the lens and creating flares, visual artifacts or a hazy field of view. In most cases, these are highly undesirable – unless you're going for a specific look, a la J.J. Abrams. So, minimising unwanted light is key, with the difference between a matte box and a lens hood being the added amount of versatility that you get with a box.
This is achieved through the use of easily adjustable flaps (known as French Flags), that can be tilted to block out specific angles. Matte boxes are particularly useful if the light source isn't simply coming from above, with well-lit film sets a particularly frequent environment where matte boxes are used. When filming on a set, you'll typically be shooting from multiple angles, and regardless of how the setup is changing between shots, you'll still need to ensure consistency in all of your footage. After all, it's not very useful to have flares from one perspective when you'll be cutting back and forth between several shots.
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Let's talk about filters
Another advantage that matte boxes have over a basic lens hood is that most of them allow for one or more filters to be inserted in front of the lens. These filters could be doing anything from balancing out exposure to warming up a harsh landscape, but the key is that they provide a DOP with even more control over the footage that they capture. Of course, it is possible to simply attach a filter to the front of your lens, but with a matte box you get the added advantage of being easily able to retain the same filter configuration within the box, so there's no need to waste time whenever you swap lenses.
While all of these advantages are big pluses in the column for matte boxes, the products themselves have traditionally come with one big drawback – their size and weight, with older matte boxes being heavy and difficult to use without a tripod or special rig. This has made them somewhat unpopular among DOPs who shoot handheld or have very tight time constraints. Fortunately, companies are now creating products specifically designed for modern workflows, with Bright Tangerine's matte boxes some of the very best around.
Based in the UK, Bright Tangerine has been around since 2009, with the aim of providing all the great functionality of a classic matte box (among other products), but with none of the drawbacks. Accordingly, the company puts a huge emphasis on how each product will actually be used in the field, with innovation focused on real life workflows and how they can be improved. As a case study, let's look at how the lightweight Misfit ATOM matte box can make life easier on set.
The Misfit is as light as a feather, at less than 200 grams with the shader attached. This has made it a popular tool among Steadicam operators and other handheld cinematographers, as it can be used to add extra functionality but without making movement more difficult. Similarly, the Misfit ATOM has a modular design that allows it to be easily reconfigured based on whatever role the matte box needs to fulfil. For example, you can add extra filters or detach the shade, it's all up to you.
Products like the Misfit ATOM are the future of matte boxes, and thanks to continual innovation that future is looking bright (but not too bright). For more info, get in touch with DVT today.
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