Rachel Morrison is having a pretty big moment.
Her work on “Mudbound” earned her an Oscar nomination for best cinematography. She happens to be the first woman ever nominated in that category. The stunning World War II-era saga follows two Mississippi families, one white, one black, with visuals so rich, beautiful and evocative that many shots could be framed as individual works of art.
Just days after Morrison wrapped work on the Dee Rees-directed film that would earn her the Academy nomination, she hopped on a plane to South Africa for her next big project, “Black Panther.” Maybe you’ve heard of it? The critically acclaimed Marvel movie by writer-director Ryan Coogler has already shattered every box-office expectation.
For Morrison — who last joined Coogler on 2013’s “Fruitvale Station” — working on a superhero flick with a multimillion-dollar budget was unlike anything she’d done before. On “Mudbound,” her camera, electric and grip departments had around 15 crew members. On “Black Panther,” they numbered around 500. “That’s how different a scale it was,” she said.
Still, she says her work has been consistent. She looks for films that she’d want to see in a theater and that have a message behind them.
“Our world, especially now, is a little too messed up for just pure entertainment for entertainment’s sake,” Morrison said. “The best kind of entertainment is the kind that also makes you question something or think outside the box or live another life. Those are the stories that I’m drawn to.”
Below is a conversation with her, edited and condensed for clarity.
How has your life changed in the past couple of months?
There’s definitely a lot of media attention, and I’ve always been a behind-the-scenes, behind-the-camera and out-of-the-spotlight kind of person. That’s all completely new and not the most comfortable for me, but I’m working on it. I’m realizing that I’ve become a role model and then that visibility is giving a lot of women the courage to keep going, or the courage to get started, or it feels like a light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve had a number of women tell me how meaningful it is to them, and that’s been really amazing. That’s been the best thing to come from this, realizing that hopefully this will get more women behind the camera, and hopefully the success of “Black Panther” will serve as an example to get more studios to hire women. That’s how we keep going. You can only shoot small movies and documentaries for so long if you want to have a family that you support; eventually, you need to get let into the big leagues.
What’s the value of having greater representation among the below-the-line crew [as opposed to above-the-line crew, which includes actors, screenwriters and directors]?
It gives a broader, more full world. When every story is being filtered through a white male storyteller, not just in the role of director but as most department heads, it becomes inherently a little bit skewed and not as well-rounded as films that have representation on every level. As artists, we can’t help but infuse our art with our own experience, so your experience becomes informative. For me, I know what it’s like to be a mother, I know what it’s like to be a wife — I bring something to the table that not every male does. Just as Ryan [Coogler] can tell you what it’s like to be black, and I don’t have that experience. I think part of the reason “Panther” works so well is Ryan really surrounded himself with people from all walks of life.
With “Mudbound,” what inspirations did you draw upon in creating the visuals?
We looked mostly at two-dimensional references. It was actually one of the first films that we didn’t look at other features, except for a documentary called “The [Blues] Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins,” which we looked at as a reference for color and authenticity in the camerawork. Dee [Rees] introduced me to an artist named Whitfield Lovell, who did this incredible portraiture on wood that became a motif for the Jackson family. It’s very warm, earthy tones.
We also looked at Robert Frank’s “The Americans.” So much of our film was about the American Dream versus the American reality, and these frames that were bursting at the seams, contrasted with frames that felt very isolated. And then I really looked at the work of the Farm Security Administration photographers. That was what I grew up on and were incredibly influential in my even getting behind the camera in the first place, so for me it was really meaningful to try to do some justice to them in “Mudbound.” Gordon Parks and Dorothea Lange and Ben Shahn and Walker Evans and Arthur Rothstein. Most of that photography is black and white, so obviously I had to make my own way with the color palette, but just in terms of some of the compositions and design elements.
How do you feel about “Mudbound” being primarily experienced by most people in their homes on television through Netflix, rather than in theaters?
It’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I’m incredibly grateful to Netflix because they came in when nobody else was. The fact that movie’s getting seen at all is really a testament to Netflix. At the end of the day, a story, especially a powerful one, will transcend the means in which it’s consumed. … So, first and foremost, I’m just glad the movie’s getting seen at all and that it has the reach that it has, largely thanks to Netflix.
Certainly there are some benefits from being seen on a larger scale, but I think it’s about the captive audience more than anything else. I’m as guilty as anyone when I watch a movie at home, especially movies that are even the slightest bit slow, which “Mudbound” is, to its benefit. Those type of movies, I tend to wander a little bit. I look at my phone, I go to the refrigerator, and as soon as you dissociate, even for a second, it loses some of the impact than when you’re captive to it. The theatrical experience is also a communal one. When people saw “Fruitvale” in the theater, there was not a dry eye at the end of the movie, and you would look to your neighbor and have this shared moment together that had a real weight behind it. “Mudbound” benefits from that as well when you’re in a theater environment. I wish more people could have seen it on the big screen, but I am really grateful that they get to see it at all.
“Black Panther” is the second time you’re working with Ryan Coogler. What’s the dynamic between you two, and what’s it’s like to work on his set?
Ryan is the single most incredible human being I’ve ever met. He really is just a special person and friend, filmmaker obviously, but more than anything, he’s just a special man.
We had a shorthand for “Fruitvale” that we got to develop further on “Panther.” This movie was very different than our tiny, sub-$1-million film that we had done together, but I know the way he thinks. I consider him like family. There’s a psychology to filmmaking, and you become each other’s support network. You’re collaborators, but not just in terms of the technical, also in terms of the emotional. He’s also somebody who really likes to open things up across all departments. He’ll ask the set decorator what she thinks of a performance. He’s just incredibly collaborative and inclusive with everybody on his sets, which I think is the thing that really inspires people to give their best. They feel like they’re really part of something, and not just in service of their own small piece of the pie.
Working within the Marvel universe seems to be really different from your previous projects. Did you have to work within a different set of aesthetic constraints, and in what ways was it actually similar?
It couldn’t be any more different than anything that I’d done before, mostly to do with the fact that there’s so much VFX [visual effects] and action involved.
Ryan wanted many of the same things that we looked to do in “Mudbound.” We wanted to contrast epic with intimate, and humanity was at the core of both of them. There were similarities in that way, and maybe that’s what was different about “Black Panther” than some Marvel movies. We knew it was going to be as made in these smaller moments — in a conversation between a father and a son or a boyfriend and a girlfriend — as in the big action pieces.
The other similarity is Ryan treats everything like we’re making a small independent movie. Even on something that big of a scale, we shot relatively single-camera. We always had two and sometimes we had more, but some of those movies have 10 cameras, and that wasn’t our approach. Our approach was very much to shoot as if there was only one camera and try to get really good eye lines and make it feel very experiential.
But when you do something like “Black Panther,” it’s so much more managerial. You’re running a shooting crew, a splinter crew, a second unit crew, a rigging crew — these massive sets you’re lighting, so you’re always having to stay one step ahead of the curve. There’s a lot more that just goes into both the planning and the construction of it all. “Mudbound” was sort of a scrappy little production with me operating [the camera] and running around in the mud. And with “Black Panther,” I didn’t operate for the first time because I knew that there was so much else to be done that if I got too focused on landing a perfect shot, I was going to miss all my other responsibilities on the job.
Recently a conversation that’s entered the mainstream consciousness — and maybe regular moviegoers aren’t used to thinking about lighting — is about how filmmakers light people of color. Do you have any thoughts on this, including how you’ve thought about this in your own work?
I don’t believe that all black people get lit the same or should be lit the same way. I’ve seen articles where people sort of talk about how to light people of color, and to me, the first thing I say is, people have such different skin tonalities. And that’s true for the Caucasian race, too; some people go ruddy, some people go pale, some people are shiny, some people are reflective, some people absorb light. I think you study your actors in your film and you study what works for them, and then you approach each scene — for me, I always start with the actor that’s the trickiest, and that’s not even necessarily the trickiest in every scene. Martin Freeman was one of the trickier actors to light in “Panther.” Often I would start with him and then back out from there. It’s figuring out who needs what and trying to give each actor what they need, and I don’t think it is about that there’s a certain way to light people of color. I actually really think that’s a disservice to the craft.
Any advice you’d give to budding cinematographers or young people who want to pursue this?
Make really conscious choices, make films that you would want to go see and that you would be proud of, even if that means making one film a year instead of three. At least you’ll be able to look back on your body of work and feel like it was all worthwhile. It’s hard sometimes. The first studio films I was offered were probably 10 times the budget of anything I’d shot before, but they were just so not me, romantic comedies and things like that. I had to stay the course and pass even though there’s obviously something enticing about a huge pay bump, and having crew and having gear and all these things.
This job also requires patience and persistence. Very few people in the film industry, but certainly below-the-line, get to succeed overnight, and probably that’s especially true of women and many people of color. We tend to have to prove ourselves over and over again before we get the chance to do something that we haven’t done before. So you have to be prepared to go the long haul and not expect that you’re going to be an overnight success.
To that end, the most important thing above all else is that you enjoy the journey and that it’s not about the destination, because it could take a very long time to get where you’re going. But as long as you love going to work every day, then it doesn’t feel like a job, and 15 years can go by in the blink of an eye.