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A Matte box serves two major purposes:
- It cuts flare
- It helps mount filters
The advantage of using a matte box is that you only need one size of filters for any lens type, and you don’t need a lens hood. Stacking filters is also easier. The disadvantage is that it makes the rig bulkier and front-heavy.
There are two basic kinds of matte boxes – lens mounted and rod mounted. Light matte boxes can be fixed directly on the lens. Heavy matte boxes are better off affixed to rods.
Not all video applications need a matte box. When in doubt, decide if your rig is going to be mainly handheld or on a tripod. If there’s a lot of camera motion, the flare-cutting abilities of the matte box are reduced, since you can’t move the flaps continuously. Also, if you are in control of your lighting situation, or don’t need any filter other than an ND or a UV, etc, a matte box might be more trouble than it is worth.
Don’t forget to take into account your lens choices, too. If the filter threads of your lenses vary, you’ll need different adapter rings for lens-mounted matte boxes. If you’re going to be using many lenses, get a rod-mounted matte box.
What do you look for in a matte box?
- Build quality, preferably of metal construction
- Light weight
- Movable flaps (barn doors) – on all four sides
- Ability to hold multiple filters, rotatable if possible
Here are my suggestions:
For lightweight ‘running-and-gunning’
Most of the lenses I’ve listed in Part 2 are of a 77mm filter size. Unfortunately, run-and-gun also means the system will take a lot of abuse, so going cheap isn’t a good idea.
If you know the filter size of your lens, you could use an adapter ring:
If you have lenses with varying filter thread sizes, you could also use nun’s knickers – these are like bellows that can take any filter size 72mm and up:
Beware that nuns knickers can’t be used in a lens-mounted mode, so you’ll need to buy the additional rod kit. Here’s a video from Genus with a brief introduction to this system:
For ‘heavyweight’ filmmaking
Rod mounted matte boxes are too heavy to be left on the lens. Here are two great options:
Arri MMB-2 Matte Box kit
The MMB-2 matte box has a 114mm filter size – which fits perfectly to a Zeiss CP.2 lens. If you’re using 77mm or other filter sizes, you’ll need adapters. Here’s an excellent video by AbelCine on the Arri MMB-2:
You might be wondering why I haven’t mentioned any cheap knock-offs. First of all, not everyone who makes cheap versions really understand how matte boxes work. A matte box, when used as it is supposed to, takes a great deal of abuse – filters are changed frequently, lenses are changed, flaps are moved, etc. Plastic matte boxes really don’t stand the test of time (not to mention high or low temperatures!), in my opinion.
If you really don’t have the money, you can always make do with a lens shade and a folded newspaper, right?
Most lenses worth their salt have manual focus rings. The good ones are well-made and are excellent for still photography. Videography, however, is another ball game.
Low budget productions usually can’t afford expensive or large light sources or huge sets, and indoor shooting happens between f/1.4 and f/2.8. Pulling focus at these apertures is the job for a zen master.
Which brings us to the follow focus system, which fulfills the following functions:
- Geared focusing mechanism for finer focus throw
- Rigid construction to limit vibration
- Allows a second person (focus-puller) to pull focus by standing out of the camera operator’s way
- Clear white area for markings
Here are my suggestions, from cheapest to best:
Arri MFF-2 Follow focus system
The MFF-2 has interchangeable focus knobs and is available in two different bases: a cine style base an HD version that utilizes a 1:1 gear ratio for lenses with a shorter throw (such as EF lenses). Here’s a video, from AbelCine, that explains all this:
A lot of people are swayed by the cheap systems, mostly plastic-based, available online. They are cheap for a reason. Some of them can only work with certain lens ranges. Some of them are worse than using the focus rings on the lens! Read reviews by users online – it’s the little things that make a difference.
The video should have made it clear how a good follow focus system gives you options – so you’re never left hanging. You need a system that can be adjusted minutely, is rugged, and gives you years of trouble-free performance.
Without experience it is almost impossible to understand why the pros use expensive gear. Nobody wants to pay more for something that can be accomplished for less. There’s always a catch. Remember, matte boxes and follow focus systems are long term investments, just like your lens.
In Part 4, I’ll cover audio gear.
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