There is a brilliant tale of light and electrical expertise behind every scene in Nollywood’s most impactful projects which the audience doesn’t always get to hear. Who better to tell this story than someone who is recognized as one of the best in the field?
With two consecutive AMVCA wins in the Best Lighting Designer category, and an ARRI lighting Ambassadorship in his bag, Matthew “Matolight” Yusuf is undoubtedly one of the biggest names in Nigeria’s lighting and electrical design scene. Besides working on blockbusters like Brotherhood (2022), Ayinla (2021), Juju Stories (2021), The Griot (2021), Finding Hubby, and Rattlesnake: The Ahanna Story (2020), he has also gathered experience in several stage productions across different countries.
Now, he takes us on a tour of what it means to be such a unique crew member on set and stage, in this edition of WKMUp’s Nollywood’s Hidden Men and Women.
How would you introduce yourself?
My name is Matthew Yusuf, popularly known as Matolight. That’s what everybody knows me as, and I think Matolight goes a long way in the industry.
Which Nollywood projects have you worked on?
I have worked on over 50 Nollywood projects. Just to mention a few, for the record, I worked on Sugar Rush (2019), and I worked as a special days gaffer on Gangs of Lagos (2023). I worked on Nneka the Pretty Serpent (2020), and also worked on Brotherhood (2022). Actually, Nneka the Pretty Serpent (2020) and Brotherhood (2022) gave me my back-to-back AMVCA awards.
How did you get into the lighting and electrical field?
I got into this business in the year 2000/2001. I had the opportunity to study at The Performance Studio Workshop, where I had my 1-year training in the whole area of theater. I trained as an actor, dancer, lighting designer, and as a costumier. I also was trained as an administrative person in the theater industry. So, plus or minus, I have everything in bulk.
How did you get started in the Nigerian film industry and what has been your experience so far?
The first TV project I ever worked on was Gidi Up Season 2 (2014), where Jade Osiberu gave me the opportunity to work as the gaffer on the set. And yeah, it was a big risk for her to take but I did very well on that project. I would gladly say Gidi Up Season 2 (2014) was my breakout story into the film industry.
Honestly, after Gidi Up 2 (2014), it’s been an awesome journey for me. A very interesting one. The series, for me, has paved the way and has actually given me the opportunity to work with every other production company back here in Lagos, and I saw myself move from one space to a much bigger space. I’ve also had the opportunity to pull off a team of able-bodied guys that are ready to work. And I’ve been working with them on every project I’ve been on ever since 2014. It’s been a wonderful experience and a great journey so far.
What are the things that inform and guide your creative process?
For me, I would say timing is very key. Most of the time, when we get script far ahead, we have enough time to go through it over and over. We’re also able to discuss and analyze the budget well with the DP and the director. This helps me during my creative process.
It gives me those ideas and allows me to talk with them while also giving space for us to go through references that they might have so that we can put things together for the project. So, for me basically, it’s time and good communication with my D.O.P. and my director.
What kind of training would be required to do what you do?
Oh, my answer would be very different from a lot of people! I would say school is very important. But, on the other hand, I am one of those that learnt on the job. And it took a lot of dedication and a lot of patience, and a lot of focus to get to where I am today.
For every individual who feels that they want to get into this space, you could go to school to learn the basics, but if you can’t afford to go to school for the basics, get yourself into a rental company first. A rental company will help you learn some basics and will help you know one or two things first. Then, the next step is to find yourself working with a trending lighting designer, and that’s it, you will get to where you want to get to. Trust me.
What departments/crew members do you work closely with, as a gaffer and lighting designer?
This is a straight question. So, the closest crew member that I work with on set is the cinematographer. He is my best friend, he is my go-to person, he is always the first person for me to talk to, and the next person I want to see when I stand back or look forward.
Also, in every process of achieving a look or feel on a film set, after a director’s brief with the DP, the DP needs the gaffer to put the idea in place in terms of how the light will help bring the scene alive.
What are some of the notable challenges you’ve faced so far, and how have you gone about them?
Honestly, every production has its own challenges. For some, it might be location or budget. For some, it might be the process of getting the right equipment that requires you to deliver the set-up at a particular time. And like I said, location. Sometimes the location manager could have sorted out every necessary thing that’s meant to be in place before we get there to shoot, only for you to get there and find out some touts are already there trying to stress you guys or trying to destroy equipment. You’ll now have to find a way to fight to secure your equipment or get things back. Yeah, we’ve been facing something like that for a while now.
Another thing I want to talk about is the working schedule for the crew. Crew members really work hard on all these projects, and I think I’m an advocate of the fact that we need to get proper rest so we can refresh, in order to get back to the set healthier and stronger the following day.
What inspired you to start your company, One House Lighting Crew?
What inspired me is my experience from years back, while working with my boss and mentor, Tayo Oyawusi (TAFFY). He’s always been an amazing brother to me; every member of the team was always like his brother. He pulled us together, and never made anyone feel like one person is more superior to another person. He made us all feel like we were all working as a team, and we all must achieve this dream together. So that gave me the mental state to have it at the back of my mind that someday, I’m going to own a company and I’m going to make everybody feel as one. That’s where the One House Lighting Crew idea came from.
What’s the best part of your job?
The best part is when I see a finished set-up and see how beautiful the picture is. It gives me joy.
Based on your wide experience and many accolades, what would you describe as the aim of good lighting in theater and cinema?
Performing arts can light up an evening. Behind each of these fantastic performances that you watch, there are so many tiny details that hold that show together like glue. Like honestly, no matter the type of performance, lighting in theater is needed. It is the pillar that drives performance from an idea to an inspired function. It is one of these technical lifebloods of theater that takes a lot more than flipping the switch, you understand? To talk more about it, if you watch most of our movies these days, there are lots of details in the form of lighting that help us actualize many of these directors’ ideas.
Just to round it up, the aim of good lighting in theater and cinema is generally to communicate the mood and atmosphere and to help in telling the story.
What advice would you give to aspiring lighting designers in the Nigerian film industry, and Africa in general?
I have just a few words: don’t rush into it, be ready to learn and be patient. Because it takes a very dedicated person to get into the space and, for you to learn all these things, you’re going to need to be a little bit focused. Once you’re focused, you’re patient, and you’re ready to learn, you’re definitely going to climb very high.
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