The work of a film stills photographer

BY JESSICA BOLTON

The work of prolific on-set stills photographer Matt Nettheim features prominently in the Starstruck: Australian Movie Portraits exhibition. The exhibition is currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery, and draws significantly from the NFSA collection.

In an interview with Portrait Gallery Curator Penny Grist, Nettheim said of his work, ‘It’s about being sensitive to an environment - knowing when to stop, when to back off. My role is to document what everyone else is doing, capturing the performance, when the actors are really going for it… As far as I’m concerned, if an actor is on set and dressed they are fair game.’

The value of hacky sack

While working as a photographer at an arts festival, Nettheim met Rolf de Heer. He credits de Heer’s invitation to work on his low-budget film Dance Me to My Song (1998) as marking a crucial turning point in his photography career.

Nettheim’s first big-budget film was Rabbit-Proof Fence, which opened the door to many other opportunities in Australia and abroad. His international projects include The Quiet American (Phillip Noyce, 2002) and Hot Fuzz (Edgar Wright, 2007).

He’s worked on the sets of a number of films with young cast members including The Boys are Back (Scott Hicks, 2009) and Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze, 2009). When it comes to developing rapport with young actors, he says ‘I can’t underestimate the value of hacky sack’. It encourages a relaxed atmosphere and allows actors to be more comfortable with him and his camera’s presence on set.

Making Tracks

As on-set stills photographer, Nettheim has to capture publicity images that draw viewers to the film and use photographic storytelling to document the filmmaking process.

The added challenge when photographing Tracks was that the story was also about an American photojournalist, Rick Smolan (played by Adam Driver). He accompanied Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska) for part of her nine-month solo journey in 1977 from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean.

The look and feel of Curran’s film was strongly influenced by Smolan’s photographs so Nettheim had to pay homage to Smolan’s familiar images through composition and tone, while also capturing a fresh adaptation of Davidson’s story.

Of capturing the portrait of Mia Wasikowska and camel in the water (main image, top of page), he says modestly, ‘We had a flat cloudy day and he [Smolan] had a bright day, so we did our best. There was a sense of trying to replicate [Smolan’s] shots … it didn’t [always] come off.’

But there were other rewards of working on a film in which photography played a pivotal role. ‘Tracks justified me getting my film camera out again because it’s about a photographer … every now and then the lead actor Adam Driver would consult me on how to hold the camera or something about photography.’

Now on display

Starstruck showcases Matt Nettheim's photographs from Australian films Beautiful Kate (Rachel Ward, 2009), The Eye of the Storm (Fred Schepisi, 2011), Little Fish (Rowan Woods, 2005), Rabbit-Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce, 2002), Somersault (Cate Shortland, 2004), The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014), The Tracker (Rolf de Heer, 2002), Tracks (John Curran, 2013), Oyster Farmer (Anna Reeves, 2004), The Hunter (Daniel Nettheim, 2011) and Jindabyne (Ray Lawrence, 2006).

Starstruck: Australian Movie Portraits is showing at the National Portrait Gallery until 4 March 2018. Book your ticket to the exhibition.

Main image: Mia Wasikowska as Robyn Davidson in Tracks (John Curran, 2013). Photo by Matt Nettheim. Courtesy: See-Saw (Tracks) Holdings. NFSA title: 1261431