Matt Sakatani Roe, the cinematographer for the new Netflix movie Purple Hearts, recently spoke with us about his work on the film — including working as the camera operator, as the film used a significant amount of hand operated camera movements. He also shared how he shot multiple concerts at venues including Whiskey a Go Go, The Hollywood Bowl, and a concert series near the ocean with a live crowd, and more.
PH: Hi Matt! Can you start by sharing a bit of your background in the industry?
Matt Sakatani Roe: I grew up in Alabama and moved to California to find work in the film industry as a production assistant. I got my first big break working with Director Mark Pellington as his assistant, and he gave me an opportunity to shoot second unit work on most of his jobs to learn and experiment. He then directed the first feature film I shot, “Nostalgia.”
PH: What were some of your motivators to become a cinematographer?
Matt Sakatani Roe: I love logistical problem solving and finding ways to pull off nearly impossible ideas. There are a lot of questions that need decisive and clear answers during production. I joke that as a cinematographer, I’m a manager 70% of the time and an artist 30% of the time, but sometimes that’s actually true.
Early in my career, I was obsessed with learning all the technical elements of the cameras, lenses, and lighting. Although the tech is important to have as a foundation, I feel like I can now put it in the background and think about ideas unobstructed by technical limitations. Coming up with solutions that serve the story is always the goal, and that’s what I enjoy the most about the process now.
PH: Let’s talk about Purple Hearts. How did you come to work on it? What enticed you about it?
Matt Sakatani Roe: Purple Hearts is the 3rd narrative project I’ve done in a row with Director Elizabeth Allen Rosenbaum. She has a brilliant creative mind, and she lets the story drive every decision we make. We discussed finding a project where we could improvise on set to find every special moment and get creative with finding ways to add as much scale as possible on our conservative budget. She shared Purple Hearts with me while we were in post production on Sneakerella. It’s a story about two flawed and complex characters, and it offers many opportunities to document their lives visually. Purple Hearts was the dream project.
PH: Can you talk about some of the other projects you’ve worked on and how they presented different challenges compared to this one?
Matt Sakatani Roe: The opening of Disney’s Sneakerella called for an aerial shot over Astoria, NY, with Manhattan in the background. We shot at the height of Covid-19 in Toronto and couldn’t get a helicopter unit going in New York City at the time, so I came up with the idea to charter a sightseeing helicopter by myself. I used a stabilized rig to safely capture all the shots from a window port for all the aerial photography you see in the film.
PH: What goes on in your mind before you start shooting? What did ideation and pre-production look like for this film?
Matt Sakatani Roe: My first step for every project is writing down every theme, technique, and idea the script gives me. I’ll collect images online from books and collage them into a document I call my DP mood board, and that’s where a palette starts to form. I’ll arrange the reference images so everything flows in an arc, while adding text that provides details and focuses the ideas into specific, executable actions that we can do in production. The mood board gets shared with all department heads, so we can all collaborate on the look of the project together.
PH: How did coming up with multiple concert venues present challenges? How did those different venues also portray Cassie’s emotional journey?
Matt Sakatani Roe: The concert scenes in the film each had an objective to propel the story forward. We wanted to make sure they had distinguishing characteristics, both from a camera perspective and with the lighting design. The first time we see Cassie perform, we wanted to use long, unbroken takes to show the audience Sofia’s commanding stage presence as the character and establish Cassie’s potential talent. The Oceanside concert was a collaboration with a real music festival that happened to be going on in Oceanside where the film is set.
Production worked out an agreement to let Sofia perform as Sofia Carson for a set each night in the actual live music festival. After her set as Sofia, she changed costumes and then she performed “Come Back Home” as Cassie. Blake Farmer, my gaffer, is the hero of the concert scenes. We had to design six live concerts with story-driven lighting design synced to playback timecode while we were shooting the film. The entire crew delivered everything I could have asked for.
PH: What impact did color have in this film, and how did you utilize it strategically?
Matt Sakatani Roe: The lead characters are guarded in Purple Hearts. They fragment themselves visually and metaphorically. I created a concept of a color and lighting arc that would transform with Cassie and Luke as their dynamic relationship evolved. In the first act, mixed multicolored artificial lighting echoed the anxiety and mental state of distress when we meet both of them in the bar. Their emotions are conflicted, and so are the colors in their environments. When the characters start to learn more about each other, we start to engage natural light. As it starts to touch each character, it finds ways to enter her apartment and leak into our lenses. Once Cassie decides to go to Luke at the end of the film, it’s the first time they both embrace full spectrum sunlight, which represents the focusing of their emotions and finding clarity. We developed a color bible and used it to help expedite decision making.
Every department was onboard with these concepts, and they executed them with great ideas from set dressing, costume design, and lighting design. 8.Were there any colors you really leaned into? Why? Red represented our characters’ obstacles. The motivation for red came from Cassie’s diagnosis of type 1 diabetes and her mounting medical debt. It was her own blood that was one of the antagonists in the film, causing her to take the actions she did. We tried to design the film so that anytime Cassie confronted her obstacles, you would see red in the frame. Luke’s lingering burdens, both present and past, had cues of red with elements of his father’s character, the production design of scenes with Johnno, and the crimson of the military insignias. Any time you see red in the frame, we put it there to represent a roadblock in the characters’ journey.
PH: What was it like working as a camera operator—using a lot of hand operated camera movements?
Matt Sakatani Roe: We knew we wanted the audience to experience Sofia and Nick’s energy on-screen and to experience life with them. The camera needed to be as subjective as possible. Our rules were that if the operators could reach out and touch the actors, we knew we were in the right positions. Or, if we wanted to show the emotional distance between them, we would reflect that. The camera work became choreography. We would count out our steps to make sure we landed on our camera marks and communicated over a headset to track our adjustments so that the camera assistance could compensate on the fly. If we saw a beautiful moment on set, we got it. 10. What equipment did you use and how did it help you achieve your goals?
The main camera package was the Sony Venice 1 with Cooke S7 primes and Tribe Blackwings. I used 1/8-1/4 Black Satin filers to mimic halation in highlights. The 65mm was the hero lens for singles and close-ups. I wanted the sun to creep into the lenses, similar to how the sun creeped into Cassie’s apartment as Nick slowly became a bigger part of Cassie’s life. The way the Cookes let some of these imperfections paint an image with life is beautiful.
PH: After years in the industry, what are some of the biggest lesson(s) you’ve learned?
Matt Sakatani Roe: Finding balance in your life is the most important lesson I’ve learned. I regularly take some time off between projects to spend time with my family at home. I’ll sometimes even leave my camera at home when I’m on vacation to stop myself from thinking analytically about a space I see. Starting out, I had a lot of anxiety and felt the constant pressure to create. There are so many talented DPs that it can be daunting to try and compare yourself to others. Now I just try and do the best I can with each project because filmmaking is about collaboration, not competition.
PH: In your opinion, a great cinematographer has to embody what characteristics/qualities?
Matt Sakatani Roe: Cinematography is a team sport. Trusting the crew and delegating responsibilities is the most important quality to me. I believe my job, as a cinematographer, is to formulate themes and concepts with the creatives to derive a visual representation of the text. Then I’ll collaborate with my crew and other departments to bring all the ideas to the screen.
PH: Would you like to share any other upcoming projects you have in the works?
Matt Sakatani Roe: I recently shot a project with Imagine Entreatment and HBO called Wild Life, with Director Rachel Raimist. It was the first time I shot a comedy, and I had a great time working in a new genre. I’m also focusing on learning how to golf and teach my son how to ride a bike.