Field Notes Interview #57: Matt Johnson, Filmmaker
When you watch any given film from Texas-based filmmaker, Matt Johnson, you're watching every ounce of his time and energy devoted to that project. Whether it's a wedding film in Dallas, or a travel film exploring the Oregon coast, Johnson places equal amounts of intention and thought in each piece. Matt's path as an artist is an intense one, guided by a personal and spiritual calling and it speaks in each of his films.
Keeping up with his inquisitive wanderlust, he's developed a travel drone film series that gives the audience a unique perspective a sense of place and landscape. We were floored by his recent film Pacific and how he paired beautiful aerial footage of our home turf with the atmospheric sounds from Josh Garrel's.
We caught up with Johnson when he came into town and we got a chance to dive into his artists path and what drives him and his compelling stories.
M: Why film? What compelled you to be a filmmaker?
MJ: I've always enjoyed the emotions that a good scene generates. My parents have VHS tapes of me at 10 years old, directing my mother to hang some black trash bags in front of our fireplace to make it look like outer space. Once the set was properly dressed, I directed my brother and friends to have a lightsaber battle in front of it while John Williams' Star Wars theme played. There are multiple takes of me yelling "cut" and telling them to start over because the choreography wasn't up to my high standards. Video creation continued as a hobby, but it wasn't until I won a video contest my university was holding in 2008 that things really took off. Texas A&M's Division of Marketing and Communications hired me as an intern and I started making videos for them, and anyone else who wanted them. That trend has continued to this day.
M: What's the toughest decision you've had to make as a filmmaker?
MJ: I had been at my university for around six years earning my bachelors and masters degrees. Graduation was rapidly approaching, and I realized that I really didn't have a plan to do anything other than film making. Even though many people have done it before, going freelance and starting my own business was terrifying. In college I had a comfortable excuse of "being a student", which kept me from having to commit to freelance video full time. At the same time, many friends of mine were graduating and still having difficulties finding jobs. They felt like their degrees weren't worth the paper they were printed on. I had to make a choice to either make videos or get a job doing something I didn't want to do. It was difficult, but only because it was unknown. After making the leap to freelance everything got a lot easier. I no longer had classes taking up the time that I could spend editing. It was a scary choice, but I'm happy I chose film making.
M: How do you feel music has a role in film?
MJ: Music, and sound in general, play a HUGE role in video. There are many studies out there showing that music provides emotion to a film. How many times have you been watching something and you feel yourself emotionally respond? The hero defeats the villain as the music swells to a crescendo. *Spoilers* Old Yeller dies while a really sad horn plays and we all cry. The emotions of a scene nearly always match the music and without it, video isn't really complete. Oh, and music is always great for montages. Any time there's a need to skip ahead in the story and they decide to do a musical montage I usually find it hilarious. Examples: Rocky's training scene, Remember the Titans, any '80s movie in general.
M: How do you feel music is misused in film?
MJ: One of my biggest peeves is when a new movie comes out and it extensively features a new song from an artist just because it is new. In a less Hollywood sense, I find that I'm now recognizing most of the songs that other filmmakers are using in their videos. This isn't only because I listen to a ton of tracks on music licensing sites (although I do that), but it is because they are going to the page that lists the most popular tracks on the site and using them. This isn't like Google search results where everything past the first page is not relevant. If you go past the second page of music licensing sites there are some amazing tracks that not many people are using in their films. I even hear other filmmaker friends of mine complaining that there aren't enough options on music licensing sites, or that all the songs sound the same. Of course they do if you only go to the popular page! Go listen to the least popular tracks on the site, listen to songs that aren't favorites of the staff, hear an entire artists library, you'll find amazing songs I guarantee it.
M: How do you feel your films are different than others?
MJ: Oh man, this is a good question. Remember that I'm trying to make the best videos that I can, no matter what. I would say what makes my videos different from others is probably my rampant perfectionism leading to my desire to only post something when it is finished. At least in my mind, my videos are the best they can be. There's this electronic band called The Glitch Mob and their work is amazing. A big reason is they aren't a part of a major label and they have time to perfect their work without having to worry about deadlines to release their albums. I was listening to a podcast interviewing one of the members and he shared that they go through at least 300 revisions of each song before they are finally happy with them! I have the same mentality when I am creating. It may not take me 300 rounds of changes, but I always find myself with at least 10 revised versions before I am happy with the finished product. In the case of Pacific or my other travel videos, it's more like 20 to 30 revisions. Most of these changes are usually me altering a clip length by a couple frames, or straightening something; really tiny stuff that only I notice and am
bothered by. Eventually I have to just release what I'm working on or I would be editing it forever.
M: What's the most recent album you've listened to?
MJ: I'm gonna be that boring guy and say that I don't listen to a ton of new music in my free time. About 90% of the music I listen to is on music licensing sites. When I hear music, my brain makes imagery to go with it, so it is nice to know that the songs I am listening to I can now use in a video. If you go to the newest releases on popular music licensing sites like Marmoset and I've probably listened to them. Otherwise, I spend a lot of time listening to Podcasts. My current favorites are Undisclosed, The Tim Ferriss Show, and The Adventure Zone.
M: How do you know when you're finished with a project?
MJ: This is so tough. How do I know when I am finished? Possibly when I realize that I can't make any more revisions. I am usually unhappy with most of my projects until they are about 98% finished. Let me explain my usual working style: I make a rough cut and revise it multiple times. Then I ignore it for a few days and work on something else. When I go back to it I see more things I would like to change. This whole process can repeat. Everything starts coming together after I do this a few times and I really begin to like the video. Eventually, I realize I need to move on to the next project and should send it off. That's about it. Of course then I'll watch it a few months later and see more things I should have fixed, but it is too late. In my head things are never finished, but for clients I usually have a deadline I try to stick with.
M: What makes a good story?
MJ: I would say a good villain. Or in a story where there isn't a specific villain, I would say it is critical that the main character have a strong adversity they are facing. People love Star Wars because of Darth Vader, The Avengers because of Loki etc. I re-watched The Imitation Game last night, a movie about cracking Germany's Enigma machine in World War II. This was such a good story because the problem was so complex for the main character to solve. The better the adversity the main character has to face, the better the film's story will be.
M: What's coming up for you as an artist?
MJ: I'm leaving on August 11th for Colorado/Wyoming/Idaho, for a week with my dad and brother. I'm bringing my video gear, but I don't know if I want to release another film so soon after my Pacific video. Otherwise, I'm going to be enjoying a month where I don't have any shoots before things get crazy again filming weddings most weekends.