Any good cinematographer can tell you that controlling light is an important part of their job.; it can make subjects look more flattering and can set the mood of your entire production. However, in achieving this look, you may find that one of your fixtures is casting light across the lens of your camera making your image look washed out. You could move the fixture but an easier way is to flag off the light using a matte box. We're going to show you how to measure, cut, and glue, and assemble a simple and inexpensive matte box so that your shots can look their best.
If you've ever used a matte box before you're probably all too aware of how much work they can be to attach to your camera and most of all how much they cost. These are the reasons why you may want to consider building a matte box of your own much like this one here. Though this matte box isn't all that fancy, it accomplishes the purpose of a matte box without breaking even the smallest of budgets, plus it's simple to attach too. Here's an example of a shot where our backlight is hitting the lens making our image look washed out. By taking off the lens hood of our camcorder and placing it snugly inside of the small end of our matte box then reattaching the hood, we've completely blocked the light from hitting our lens. A simple, yet effective solution. That being said, building a matte box may not be for everyone. If you have the ability to buy a professionally-made matte box there's no reason why you shouldn't. The build quality is usually much higher, they usually have more features, and the warranty on your purchase will make fixes to your equipment a lot easier on your wallet. However, if you want to save a bit of money and love to customize your equipment then you may want to take the ideas we'll be presenting and incorporate them into your own design.
Like any good project, the best way to start off is by measuring and marking the cuts on your material. We'll be using a 20 x 30 corrugated plastic board to make our matte box. The reason is due to the fact that the material is light-weight, easy to cut, and incredibly strong so it's perfect for flagging light from our camera. Before we actually measure though, we need to know what we're basing our measurements on. Since we want the matte box to fit snugly around our lens hood, we'll need to measure both the length and the width of the lens hood on the camcorder we want to use. After measuring ours, we've found it to be 4 and a quarter inches tall by 5 and a quarter inches wide. Make sure to write these numbers down on a sheet of paper so that you don't forget.
Next, we'll need to find the center of our plastic board. Since our board is 20 inches tall by 30 inches wide, the center should be at 10 inches tall by 15 inches wide. If we use a pencil to make a small mark at 10 inches tall using a straight-edged tool like this T-square we can then make a straight line at the 10 inch mark on our board. All that's left to do is to turn our board 90 degrees and make another mark at 15 inches wide along the line we drew just a second ago. This should be the center of our board.
Remember those numbers we wrote down earlier? We're going to use them to make an accurately sized rectangle in the middle of our board. However, we don't want to make the rectangle as large or larger than our lens hood measurements. If we do, the matte box will simply fall off of our lens hood when we put it together. In order to avoid that, we'll divide the numbers we wrote down by half and use those instead. Granted, the hole we're going to make will be quite a bit smaller than our lens hood but as you'll find out later, that can be easily remedied. As long as we keep the same ratio between the width and the height, everything should be fine. Our new numbers are 2 and an eighth inches tall and 2 and seven-eighths inches wide. So let's again take our T-square and measure horizontally so that the 15 inch mark is in the center of our board intersecting with the 10 inch mark we made earlier. From this point, we'll want to measure an inch and seven-sixteenths from the 15 inch mark on both sides and make two more marks. Turning the board 90 degrees, we'll want to find the 10 inch mark and measure an inch and one-sixteenth from both sides and make two other marks. While we're on this side of the board, we can make a small line along our two previous marks. Then we can once again turn the board and make two small lines to connect the rectangle together.
The next part is all a matter of preference. We'll be measuring out how many degrees each side of the matte box will be slanted. Depending on what number you pick, you'll either end up with a larger opening at the end like this matte box here which we measured at 60 degrees, or a much skinnier opening like this matte box here which we measured at 75 degrees. We want to make a larger matte box so we'll be measuring our angles at 60 degrees. Taking a triangle measuring device, we'll set the angle at this 60 degree line here. Then we'll place the edge of the triangle against a line of our rectangle and draw a short line along the edge here. At this point, we can do that for every corner of our rectangle. Once that's done, we'll take a straight-edge and extend each line out to the end of the plastic board.
With all of the hard and precise work out of the way, it's now time to cut. You can either use a heavy duty scissors or in our case a utility knife to cut the board along the line. If you use a utility knife, you'll want to make sure to cut along a safe surface.
Once you have each piece cut out, you'll want to make sure that each one is the same length. By using the shortest piece you have as a stencil, you can make a mark on each of the longer pieces showing you where to cut. Then cut each piece to size.
At this point, all that's left is to assemble and glue your matte box together. Before we do though, you'll want to get a hot glue gun, some hot glue sticks, and a pack of cards that can serve as a guide to keep your matte box edges at 90 degrees. It's also a good idea to lay newspaper or sheets of paper along the surface of the table where you'll be gluing in order to keep the mess to a minimum. Hot glue is messy and will inevitably find it's way on your table no matter how careful you are. Take both a long and short piece of your matte box and line them up along their edges using the corner of the pack of cards as a guide. Then, while holding the matte box together at the top, place glue all along the inside edge of the box. You'll want to make sure you evenly apply the glue in order to eliminate any gaps in the box where light could get through. That would basically defeat the purpose of our matte box! Do this to all four edges of the matte box and let the glue cool for several minutes.
Once you're done gluing and have eliminated all of the gaps, it's time to make the gap for the lens a little larger. To do this, place your lens hood as far into the matte box as the box will allow. Then make a mark on the outside of the box as close as possible to where the hood ends on each side. Next, use your scissors or utility knife to carefully cut a larger gap out of the back of the matte box.
After the last cut is made, place the lens hood back into the matte box and put the hood on your camera. If it's a fit, then you're done! At this point, you could paint your matte box black like the one we have here so that it reflects less light on set. Now whenever there's any light spill on set, you can always use your matt box to achieve richer colors in your image and to make your video look like it was shot by the pros.