Leaping at the chance to portray ’40s America with Dee Rees’ post-war drama Mudbound, cinematographer Rachel Morrison was tasked with helping the director develop a beautifully gritty aesthetic for the film that felt appropriate for the era, developing a shooting strategy that was workable in extreme environmental conditions.
Receiving her first Oscar nomination for the film—and becoming the first female cinematographer ever to earn this recognition from the Academy—Morrison found Mudbound a natural fit, given her appreciation of Rees’ work, her interest in Farm Security Administration photography, and her enthusiasm for timely “social messaging” in cinema.
“I thought the messaging in Mudbound kind of touched on a lot of issues that we’re experiencing all over again,” the DP says, “or maybe just never went away.” Based on a novel by Hillary Jordan, Rees’ film follows two men—one black, one white—who return home to the farm from World War II and struggle to adjust back to the realities of American, racial and otherwise.
Initially, Morrison found that the project called strongly for being shot on film. “Everything about this project screamed celluloid,” she explains, “but the budgetary restraints became very real very fast.” Looking at a shooting schedule of 28 days, the decision to shoot on film would necessitate cutting two days out of the shooting schedule—“and that just seemed impossible.”
Struggling through the Louisiana summer heat, the DP would have to find a way to capture the classic feel of film through digital processes.
As she soaks in her Oscars moment, after serving on the 2018 Sundance jury, Morrison is also on the circuit promoting Black Panther, representing another big breakthrough, the first woman to shoot a Marvel blockbuster.
How did you work with Dee Rees to establish an aesthetic for the film?
We didn’t look at any narrative films, and I actually found it interestingly liberating. We looked at a lot of fine art. Dee culled together some references that she liked, which included portrait artists like Whitfield Lovell, and Robert Frank’s wife, Mary Frank, a sculptress. Also, Robert Frank’s The Americans, as kind of a metaphor for the American dream versus the American reality, which became very much a theme for us.
I brought to the table a lot of the FSA photography—Dorothea Lange, and Gordon Parks, and Arthur Rothstein and Ben Shahn. I think at my first meeting with Dee, I brought a stack of books 20 deep. Through all of that, we developed a visual language for composition—and the color, as well. We had the challenge of trying to find a color palette that felt of a time and period, but not completely washed out and lacking contrast. To me, it was really important to have the language of contrast and of blacks. So often with period films, there’s a tendency to milk up the blacks, and I think that does a disservice to the stakes of the film.
Could you expand on the thinking when it came to your color palette and the film’s visual arc?
We wanted there to be a visual distinction between everyone’s life before the farm and after the farm. I think the first quarter of the film maybe has a much richer, more saturated, more poppy palette, and also much more fluid camera movement— dolly moves and steadicam—and is not at all handheld. Then, after the farm, there’s a move to a grittier, more handheld approach to the camerawork, and the color palette sort of drains a little bit.
But we still wanted there to be a real warmth to the Jackson family. That was something we discussed, and also a visual distinction between the Jacksons and the McAllans. Their home isn’t colorful, but it’s warm. There’s newspapers on the wall, and these warm hues. They also didn’t have electricity, the Jacksons, so everything is candlelit at night, and there’s a natural warmth to that, where the McAllans had spotty electricity, but we see more color, almost a remnant of their life before the farm. There’s color, but it’s faded, and the colors are cooler in tone.
Once you recognized that you would have to shoot digitally, how did you adapt to create a look that felt right for this film?
We did a test, a comparison between digital and film where the whole point was to make the digital look like film. Sometimes I’ll do tests where I try to prove how far apart they can be, to scare everybody away from digital. But knowing there was a very real possibility of having to shoot digital, I spent the energy really trying to make the digital look like film.
We shot with the Alexa Mini, which is amazing, and raised it to 1280 or 1600 [ISO] to introduce a little bit of digital noise. Then, we did a grain pass in the dailies and the DI, and used older glass. None of our glass really was newer than maybe the ’70s, and some was older than that. The old glass has a real tendency to soften around the edges, and vignette a little. There’s a lot of optical abnormalities that actually help to give it a very analogue feel. I guess the idea was to make digital feel like analogue if we possibly could by just messing it up a bunch.
We shot with a combination of old anamorphic glass—Panavision C Series, D Series, a few B Series—and then old Super Speeds and Ultra Speeds from the ‘60s and ‘70s, which were rehoused.
What was it like shooting out on location in Louisiana, on real plantations? Did that come with a certain set of challenges?
It was incredibly difficult. It was certainly the most logistically challenging film that I’d ever worked on. We were originally set to shoot in January, and then by the time cast and financing came together, we found ourselves in July in the South, which is not a fun place to be—especially when there was no respite from it. The only shelter was our two sharecropper homes, and there were no windows, so you couldn’t air-condition them. It was actually so brutal that we had to shift our schedule.
Originally, we were working days into nights, and people were dropping like flies. We ended up doing splits, because we sort of unanimously decided that we could only handle about a half day’s worth of the heat.
But the mud was real, the rain was real. The South in the summer, the pressure builds. It starts sunny and then by like two or three in the afternoon, the storm clouds roll in and it breaks open, unleashes lightning. Almost everyday, we’d have to shut down production because we couldn’t run the generator in the lightning, and we’d get a lightning storm almost every day there. Then, continuity was challenging because we started in the sun and then an hour later, cloud cover.
But even logistically, my camera trucks were stuck in the mud. We had mud on all of our gear. We had spinners on the lenses for the rain. So it was tough. But I think it really worked in our favor, ultimately—certainly for the performances. The characters live that life, and you can feel it on the screen, in their sweat. I think mud becomes a character in the film, and I’m sure that has to do with just how real the experience was for all of us.
What was your general approach to lighting? How was that influenced by the locations you were working with and the limitations that come with working on an independent film?
I believe in naturalistic lighting, which isn’t to say natural light. I think there’s sometimes a misconception that if it looks like it’s all natural light, that we just didn’t need any lights, which is not the case at all, and on this film was especially not the case. But I believe in lighting that feels motivated from somewhere. Maybe if it was a sci-fi film, we could justify much more dynamic and bizarre lighting, but in this case, we’re looking at one family that doesn’t have electricity at all—so it’s all going to be motivated by sun and moon— and another family that has minimal electricity, but it’s still largely lanterns and things like that. So it was a lot of lighting to look like the sun or the moon, or supplementing firelight or candlelight.
The challenge in this film in particular was that because there were not glass windows, you couldn’t just ND [Neutral-Density] the windows. Normally, when you’re shooting interior scenes and you also want to see outside, you just put a Neutral-Density [filter] on the window itself, and that’s how you control the balance between the inside and the outside. But because we didn’t have glass to do that to, we actually had to bring up the ambient on the inside quite a lot. We had every light off the truck pouring in through every crack that wasn’t on the screen quite frequently.
The other thing is, I asked the production designer to cut a couple extra holes in the house—a few in the ceiling—and create a new door, just to have extra spaces to light from.
Like Reed Morano of The Handmaid’s Tale, you operate your own camera. For you, what inspires this hands-on approach to filmmaking?
Part of the reason why I love to operate is because I find that so much of what we do is instinctual. It’s dancing with the actors and responding to their body language, and you feel what the right place for the camera is at any given moment. Sometimes that’s frontal, sometimes that’s a profile, sometimes that’s a silhouette, and sometimes that’s half-light. I think there’s a real intuition to that.
I operated on this film, as I’ve done on almost every film. Authenticity, to me, is something that you feel, and if it doesn’t feel authentic, you pick up on it right away. Dee was very clear about not wanting it to feel like stage makeup, everybody feeling like they were sort of caked in the dirt and the mud. Really for me, it’s just intuiting where the right place for the camera is in relation to what the emotional journey is.
Compared to the independent films you’ve shot, was Black Panther a remarkably different experience?
Any similarities, I chalk up to Ryan [Coogler] creating a set that still felt like we were making something small and intimate, even when it wasn’t. But there were obviously huge differences. I probably had 10 times more [Arri] SkyPanels for one set on Black Panther than I had on all of Mudbound. With the size and scale of the crew, and the lighting requirements and things like that, it does become a lot more logistical management. Black Panther was one of the first movies where I didn’t operate, just because I knew how involved it was going to be on other levels. It’s just a much bigger beast.
What has it meant for you to be able to break down historic barriers with your work in recent years?
It’s been a whirlwind. DPs, I think by nature, like to hide out behind the camera, out of the spotlight, so it’s definitely a new experience on every level. I never really thought about it in terms of breaking barriers or anything like that. For me, it was always just putting my head down and doing the best work that I possibly could.
But I guess I’m realizing that suddenly I’m a role model, which is exciting, just the idea that there are and will be more of us for people to look to on their way up. There’s been a dearth for so long, and hopefully it’s just the beginning. Hopefully, the floodgates start opening and you’ll start to see 20, 30, hopefully someday 60% female DPs—women in the camera department, but also cinematographers.
I think I sort of always knew I was an anomaly, but I never really thought about what that meant, or focused on it. I think that was for my own sanity. I think if you get caught up in “There aren’t that many of us,” or “It’s hard,” that could get in the way of the work. For me, it’s just always about trying to tell stories that I care about.