Rachel Morrison on "Black Panther" and "Mudbound"

“They’re worlds apart,” says Rachel Morrison ASC about "Mudbound" and "Black Panther." 

Feb. 20, 2018

It’s been a big year for Rachel Morrison, ASC: she became the first female cinematographer to be nominated for an Oscar for her work on Netflix’s "Mudbound," and she also shot Marvel’s hotly-anticipated "Black Panther." "They’re worlds apart," says Morrison about the two movies. She says she was drawn to "Blqck Panther" because of the strong relationship she and Ryan Coogler developed while working on the 2013 indie "Fruitvale Station." "I knew Ryan would make it special in some way, shape or form, and that it wasn’t just going to be a comic book movie," she says. "I was also excited by the challenge of it. It’s the opposite of anything I’ve ever done." 

"Black Panther" tells the story of T’Challa, who returns home to his small African nation which boasts futuristic technology, to claim the throne after the death of the king, his father. "Mudbound," more typical fare for Morrison, was directed and co-written by Dee Rees and tells the story of two families in the rural South, -- one white, one black, in the aftermath of WWII. For both movies, Morrison relied on ARRI technologies in very different ways.

Morrison says that, although Marvel’s "Black Panther" is a big movie, "on a camera level it wasn’t that different from some of the small movies that I’ve done." "That speaks much more to the way Ryan likes to work than a Marvel movie per se," she says. "It was basically a two-camera show, with a C and D camera and occasionally more." Production utilized ARRI ALEXAs from Panavision to capture the action.

The lighting was the biggest challenge on "Black Panther" and Morrison relied heavily on ARRI SkyPanels. "The magnitude of the lighting was much bigger than I’d experienced before," she says. "We had SkyPanels surrounding entire sets. We built an entire jungle on a sound stage!" She recalls her first day, shooting a flashback scene with an apartment building in the background. "We put SkyPanels in every single unit and my gaffer had a dimmer board," she says. "We would say, let’s have them watching TV, and we would program it in. We could adjust the lighting in every apartment, and that is something I had never even imagined before."

"The SkyPanel has become a really incredible tool," she adds. "I think that was something I really learned on `Black Panther,´ discovering the versatility of color and being able to wirelessly dim and wirelessly change colors. It’s really kind of amazing how shifting a blue into purple or a change in light intensity can be done off an iPad." She notes that she could also change lights during a blocking rehearsal. "It’s just the touch of a button, and you don’t have to tell the actors to clear the set while you bring in a twelve-step ladder and throw scrims on a light," she says. "If you’re going for a magic hour look, but you don’t know whether the intention is warm, sunny magic hour or a cool-dusky magic hour, you can program both looks and ask the director, do you like A or B? That’s an incredibly versatile tool."

"Black Panther" was also full of visual effects, which was on a new scale for Morrison. "Visual effects supervisor Geoff Bauman was someone who wanted to collaborate and inspire," she says. "I was incredibly fortunate. There’s a little less spontaneity with a film steeped in visual effects, because you have to understand what the complete vision is, yet bring the same instinctual human quality to the work." A number of the scenes also involved big stunts. "You have to surrender a bit of control," she says. "It really becomes an even bigger collaboration with your stunt coordinator, your stunt people and the VFX supervisor, to make a plan. It’s really about collaborative filmmaking and trying to be clear about the vision and make sure everybody’s on the same page. That’s the same for a small film to a massive film."

"Mudbound" is a complex story about racism and violence in the Jim Crow South and PTSD suffered by World War II soldiers. Jason Mitchell plays Ronsell, a black soldier who returns to Mississippi. During the war in Europe, he experienced honor and respect, back at home he is seen him as a second-class citizen. "I was really interested in `Mudbound` because that’s the photography that inspired me in the first place," says Morrison, who lists Depression-era Farm Security photographers such as Gordon Parks, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Ben Shan, and Arthur Rothstein. “`Mudbound` was a chance to honor them," she says. "Visually, it’s really every cinematographer’s dream – and it was certainly my dream, and one of the first true period films I’ve shot."

She was also inspired by documentaries by Les Blank and his "beautiful, muted color palette," she describes. "It almost feels like you just plopped the camera down and let life unfold, so that was a little bit of an inspiration as well." Morrison credits production designer David Bomba with creating the evocative world of the movie, while shooting at real locations from the era of the story. Morrison also told the story with lighting, since poor people didn’t have electric power and used candles and lanterns.

The movie was shot with ARRI ALEXA Minis, although Morrison initially considered 35mm film. "It wasn’t a big enough difference to justify the cost," says Morrison, who found the Mini was useful when shooting inside "tiny plantation homes where every inch counted." When she was in pre-production, the Mini came out with the 4:3 sensor de-squeeze mode for anamorphic and frame rates of 0.75-200 fps, as well as the Open Gate upgrade. "We largely shot anamorphic with a little bit of spherical, and [with the upgrade], the Mini was the perfect tool."

On what makes a good director, Morrison has an interesting perspective since she has directed. "He or she brings a very clear vision for the story they’re trying to tell, but is also interested in collaboration and inspiring people around them," she says. "They inspire their co-workers but are also inspired by them and are open to new ideas, receptive on set, adaptable but still with a clear kind of idea for what’s going to drive the story forward."

Being kind and generous is a bonus quality for her. "We go into these collaborations almost as you would go to war…You have to be ready and willing to take a bullet for each other," she says. "And you also want to come out as family. It’s not the first thing I look for in a director, but it’s up there."

She also has advice for young filmmakers just coming up in the business. "Be inquisitive," she says. "You’re not going to learn without asking questions. You’ll be on 10 or 15 other DPs sets before you get to your own."

"Be patient," she counsels. "This is not an industry where success comes over night. You have to build on things, be persistent and know it’s going to take some time. There is no shortage of great, talented people out there. I think you end up getting hired not because of the work you do, but because of who you are, which is unique to this industry."

Related Link: Rachel Morrison website