With Ryan Coogler’s Marvel phenomenon Black Panther, cinematographer Rachel Morrison embarked on her first blockbuster, running toward the challenge of balancing intimacy with scope. “The legacy of these [superhero] films is usually scope and spectacle, but rarely do you get a sense of humanity and intimacy in these smaller moments,” she explains. “I think our hope was to find a way to do both in one film.”
Based on a character first appearing in comics in 1966, Black Panther centers on T’Challa, the heir to the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda, which exists in secrecy, and has used its natural resources to become a technological superpower. With Coogler’s latest, of course, nothing would be simple. With little knowledge of the comic book genre, Morrison was most daunted by the enormity of the crew in front of her.
In one sense, the experience was similar to her work with Coogler in the past. “The film could have been conducted in a completely different manner, and I think Ryan really made it feel like it was a gigantic indie movie,” she reflects. “He knew as many crew names as he could possibly know; we were very much inventing things on the day, blocking with the actors, and thinking about how we were going to cover them.” At the same time, the nature of the film’s ambitions and its budget meant that the DP would have to adapt to a new way of working. “I’m always going to be in charge of Camera, Grip and Electric, but now you have a rigging department that’s as, if not more, important than your on-set department,” she explains. “So, the learning curve was really just the management. There were so many moving pieces. So much happening at once.”
While the crew featured splinter crews and a second unit component, Coogler and his DP fought hard to shoot as much action as possible themselves. “We ended up doing 80-90% of it, which is not typical. Usually the second unit is substantial; sometimes, they shoot even more than the principal unit,” she says. “I think on our film, there was nine days of true second unit, where Ryan wasn’t present. Really, we were pretty much present for everything, which is unusual for a movie this size.”
In the end, the many challenges and technical considerations Black Panther brought were all in service of one basic idea: creating a “love letter to Africa.” To Morrison, the first female cinematographer to earn an Oscar nomination, the film’s blockbuster success is indicative of exciting change to come, in the stories that are told and the people who are given a platform to tell them. “I think that to some extent, the one-dimensional perspective has gotten really stale, so now, getting to crack open all of these other points of view, it’s everything that filmmaking is set up to do. The whole point is to be able to experience another lifestyle, or another world, or another culture, or another point of view, and suddenly we’re going to get to do that in spades,” she says. “And I think we’ll find ourselves pushing technical boundaries as a result, as well.”
A title that has been discussed continuously throughout this awards season, Black Panther may have “cracked open [a] door,” Morrison feels, which will lead to better work—“certainly more diverse, but also just more unique, more rich and more fulfilling work.” As much as art imitates life, “life also tends to imitate art”—and for Morrison, the ultimate benchmark of a film’s success is the empathy it is able to foster. “I think the conversation is about, how do we build empathy for one other?” she says. “I really hope that life will start to mirror the art that is now [demonstrating] a much broader worldview.”
Meeting with Ryan Coogler about Black Panther, what was the gist of your early conversations? On narrative and aesthetic levels, what was most important to you both when it came to this film?
We wanted Wakanda to feel different than the rest of the world, and we wanted there to be an extra warmth and humanity to Wakanda that would feel in contrast to the parts of the film that are not set in Africa. We looked at a whole range of references, but the other big conversation was: On the spectrum of tech and futurism, versus tradition and reality, where do we want to fall? Because you could kind of go anywhere.
In looking at the history of Wakanda, and Afrofuturism, you could go very much in a techie, Tony Stark direction, or you could lean into and embrace a culture that, while they have all the futuristic advancements, is so committed to tradition, and the history of their own land. That’s the thing that they lead with, so that was the direction that we decided to go. We knew we wanted it to be a colorful space, but to also feel like the colors were grounded in something.
Could you flesh out a sense of the references you looked at?
It was across all mediums. From a film perspective, it wasn’t even so much superhero films. We looked at Samsara and Baraka, and we also looked at an episode of Chef’s Table, and an episode of Black Mirror. Godfather was a huge reference for Ryan, in terms of the story, [with] legacy and family and things like that. We looked at a lot of Afrofuturistic art; we looked at photography, of course, and even things like National Geographic. So, it was really a gamut to pull from.
While each film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is its own creation, these films are generally approached as a continuum. Aesthetically, was there any pressure to integrate Black Panther with the films had come before, or those that have yet to come?
I don’t know the whole history, but I think with the origin films, they tend to let the creators of those films be the authors for what the look is for that space—in our case, for Wakanda. And then future films sort riff off of what you’ve done, or just work in the spaces that you’ve created. So, I feel like we were given pretty much full freedom to make it what we wanted it to be, and not be too conscious of how it was going to play into the Avengers films, or anything like that.
What did your prep process look like, on a film of this scale?
It started with boots on the ground in Africa—originally, with the hope to shoot some, if not all the film there. Obviously that didn’t come to fruition, but so much of what we saw then became the fabric from which we drew inspiration. And at times, it’s also literally the place that we used, in some of the compositing that was done. But first, we were just exploring various parts of Africa together, and discussing what felt right for Wakanda. Once we understood that there were going to be these different tribes, we talked about where those cultures came into play. Then, once we were on the ground in prep in Atlanta, it was really just putting one foot in front of the other, in terms of, which scenes do we shoot first? How do we want to approach them? It’s very much like it would be on any smaller film, just on a much larger scale.
I like to shot list, but I’m not a big fan of storyboards, and I don’t think Ryan really is either. Some of those films get very heavily pre-vized with the idea that you’re going to shoot this thing that you’ve already designed, and that isn’t really the way either of us want to work. We pre-vized the action sequences so that we had a guideline if we needed it, but if anything, it was more like a safety net. If we found ourselves blocked, we’d refer to this thing that we created, and that’s even how we like to work with a shot list. You set up the rules so that you can break them, but you at least know what they are, even on a subconscious level. When I shot list, it’s never to be married to that shot list on the day; it’s just to refresh your memory about what your intention was. It’s the one time when you have the space and peace and quiet to think about how you’re going to make something that mirrors the stakes of the film, and you make these notes to yourself. Then, on the day, if you see something better, or if another idea sparks and feels like it’s the right way to go, we completely abandon our shot list regularly.
But the process was getting on the same page with what our intentions were for every scene, and then for every character. It starts at the macro, and then you work your way into the micro. So, whose emotional journey is this scene reflective of? And how do we want the camerawork to mirror their stakes? And you can get even more specific from there.
In terms of camera selection, what was your first impulse here?
Interestingly, my initial gut was to go big, which was the Arri 65—or if it had been film, it would have been 5 perf, or IMAX—and Ryan was the one who encouraged me to think about it differently. Effectively, the bigger the sensor is for any given camera, the more shallow the depth of field is, inherently. Part of what makes that imagery so beautiful and luscious is that you have your plane of focus, but then everything else falls off and becomes almost implied or peripheral. But what Ryan said is, “I want to see Wakanda. I want to see the details in the fabric, and the beadwork, and the facial expressions. I don’t want it all to fall off, and become a poetic interpretation of itself. I want it to feel real, and feel like you’re present to it.” So, we actually pulled away from the large sensor camera and went for the standard 35[mm]-sensor camera. If I’m going to shoot digital, the Alexa is the camera that I feel is the most naturalistic—and at the end of the day, if it came down to naturalism versus spectacle, we wanted it to lean into naturalism. So, the Alexa was a very “natural” choice for natural skin tones, once we made the decision to shoot digital.
Black Panther had you shooting a mix of exteriors and elaborate soundstage sets. What was your technique in achieving naturalism with your lighting?
It’s a balance, right? No cinema light is ever going to look as good as the sun at the right time of day, so any time you can plan for that, that’s going to trump anything you can take off the truck. But that said, when you have a movie this big, it’s rare that you can complete a scene in two hours. So, continuity becomes a factor where sometimes it wouldn’t on a smaller film. There are things that you have to light because you’re shooting them over the course of 10 days, but you can chase the sun a good amount, too. I was very grateful to Lisa Satriano, our 1st AD, who basically charted all of our battle sequences out on The Great Mound. We were chasing the sun—chasing the backlight, effectively—but we would shoot up the hill in the morning, and shoot down the hills in the afternoon. And we did that on repeat for however many days, as opposed to block shooting everything. The way that we did it was much more time consuming. It’s a harder way to shoot, but I think it really benefits the look of the film. Everybody had to be on the same page, to be willing to put in the extra effort to make it work in a way that would be most beautiful for the light.
But naturalism, to me, exists within the ability to take creative liberties. For me anyway, the camera and the lighting are always a reflection of the stakes. When the stakes are high, you can take much more cinematic liberties and feel like it’s still naturalistic. It’s like a heightened naturalism.
What was it like, tackling massive sets like Warrior Falls?
It was the most amazing opportunity that I may never see again. With the underground casino in Busan, we literally built the space around an action sequence, and the camera moves that we wanted to do. We did some cable cam and things like that, which, you know, who gets to do that? That’s as far as it gets from Fruitvale, where we were shooting in Ryan’s aunt’s house, and I was wedged between a pantry and a stove, trying not to catch fire, because that was the location we had.
With Warrior Falls, it was a different set of challenges, because as much as it was crafted to some extent for camera, you also logistically had to be able to recycle God knows how many tons of water. There was only so big you could actually make it, and in my case, the biggest challenge was just the weather. This is an example of where when you’re shooting something over the course of six to 10 days, and the wind or the sun doesn’t cooperate, and you have to find a way to make the scene look consistent, even though half the days were sunny and half the days were cloudy. Warrior Falls was actually the single biggest challenge for me, and I don’t know if I would have done it any differently. I just know it was the hardest my grips have ever had to work, probably on anything. It was no easy feat, but I don’t know any other way we could have done it, other than to shoot in a more consistent-weather place, like Los Angeles. Now, I really understand why movies were made here. Of course, because of taxes and things that’s not the case anymore, but in the South, you never get the same weather twice in a row.
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