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In the Light of History: Rachel Morrison on Shooting Mudbound

Rachel Morrison on the set of Mudbound, photo by Steve Dietl

With Rachel Morrison the first woman cinematographer nominated for a Best Cinematography Academy Award, we’re running today online from our current print issue David Leitner’s interview with her about shooting her nominated film, Dee Rees’s Mudbound.

When Dee Rees’s Mudbound premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, the director was returning to the fest six years after her feature debut, Pariah, launched there. The same year also marked DP Rachel Morrison’s first feature to be included in the festival, Zal Batmanglij’s Sound of My Voice, and she returned the following year with Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station; Mudbound is her eighth film to premiere at Sundance.

Adapted from Hillary Jordan’s acclaimed, best-selling novel, Mudbound traces the intertwined fates of two families in 1940s Mississippi, starting a few years before America’s entry into World War II and ending in 1946. The (black) Jacksons are sharecroppers straining to make ends meet on a farm bought by the (white) McAllans. Despite the McAllans’ struggles to cultivate their land without many resources, the power imbalance is an unspoken given: Henry (Jason Clarke), the McAllan family head, regularly calls for nonnegotiable favors from Florence (Mary J. Blige) and her husband Hap (Rob Morgan). With the bombing of Pearl Harbor, both families’ sons are called to war. Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) returns with a new sense of self-respect after having been treated, for the first time, as something other than subhuman while serving in Europe, while Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) returns a heavy drinker suffering from shell shock. Never inclined to follow social norms, Jamie befriends Ronsel, a dangerous relationship given the virulent racism around them and the very real threat of the Ku Klux Klan. Melding two families’ very different stories into one, Mudbound builds to a tragic act of violence no less shocking for its saddening, seeming inevitability.

Mudbound has been received as a perfectly of-the-moment movie from the moment of its premiere, and Morrison’s naturalistic cinematography has captured a considerable portion of the praise. Embracing the challenges of shooting in muddy exteriors and dark interiors, Morrison attains a feat of period reconstruction. Entering awards season, she traveled to Bydgoszcz, Poland, for Camerimage, the annual festival that’s also the only one devoted to cinematographers. There, she talked with David Leitner, a regular Filmmaker contributor and a DP himself, about the challenges of making Mudbound, the promise and perils of 8K and just the tiniest bit about her forthcoming collaboration with Coogler, the keenly anticipated Black Panther. Mudbound entered theatrical release on November 17 and is currently available for streaming on Netflix.

Filmmaker: You shot Fruitvale in Super 16, but Mudbound is a much larger canvas. Can you speak to that?

Morrison: We’d always planned on shooting analog because everything about Mudbound screams to be shot analog. We thought about 16mm, more for the grain than anything else. In this day and age, 35mm is so tightly made that sometimes the grain isn’t as pronounced as one would like. There are not as many film stocks to choose from as there used to be; grain used to be something you could select, along with other things. Ironically, the film stocks that remain are the ones that were designed to compete with digital, so they’re the ones that are actually most similar to digital, and they tend to have the tightest grain structure. You can attain grain by push processing and doing things like that.

We tested, and on 16mm we did love the grain structure, but it was just slightly too soft. This film is all about contrasting the epic with the intimate. The 16mm would have been quite perfect for the intimate interiors, but for the wide sweeping landscapes the perceivable resolution wasn’t sharp enough. And we could barely afford to shoot film — ultimately, we couldn’t afford to shoot film, but we definitely couldn’t afford to shoot a mixture of 16 and 35, which is what some folks have done in this scenario. So, knowing that, we budgeted 35mm, compared it to digital, and were told that if we wanted to shoot film we’d have to lose two shooting days. Those were the numbers that the producers came up with, and our schedule was so tight for what we were trying to do. On Fruitvale, Ryan and I made sacrifices in order to be able to shoot on film — we either cut a shooting day or I got rid of a grip and an electric — we did all these concessions to make the film work. For this, we were already looking at 29 days of principal photography on a much more epic undertaking, and we felt that at 27 days we weren’t going to be able to do it. Then, the challenge became to make digital look like film. Sometimes people say, “OK, if I’m going to shoot digital, I want it to look digital.” That was not how I felt. This film needed to feel and look analog, so it was all about what we could do to push and pull the digital negative to try to recreate something that had a tactile quality, that felt a little bit imperfect, that had more of a filmic quality, for lack of a better word. I rated the camera at a higher ISO than it is naturally.

Filmmaker: The camera was an Alexa Mini.

Morrison: The choice of the Mini was twofold. Our interiors were tiny, so shaving even six inches off the back of the camera meant more places we could put it. The Mini had also just come out with an open gate [option to use every pixel of sensor] and a RAW upgrade, so we could do the same things we would be able to do with an Alexa XT. The only thing we couldn’t do in RAW open gate was slow motion, and that wasn’t really a feature in this film. For that analog look, I rated the film at anywhere between 1280 and 1600 instead of its native 800, just to bring up a tiny bit of digital noise. I didn’t want the grain to be purely as a result of digital noise, but I do find that sometimes it gives it just enough texture, almost as a jumping-off point, and I knew we could do a grain pass in post to give it that extra little bit.

Filmmaker: And did you give it a grain pass?

Morrison: We did, yeah.

Filmmaker: Do you know what type of grain?

Morrison: Most of the grain emulation formulas that you have in the DI are a result of scanning a negative — I don’t know what stop, but let’s say it was 500, pushed one stop or something — and then you attempt to take that grain and lay it over the digital. You can do it to different degrees. I wanted to be subtle. When you apply digital grain, it’s not perfectly convincing, so I try to have a light touch with it. That’s why I combine in-camera and post-camera to give it something that felt a bit more tactile. It’s definitely not the same. If money was no object, I probably would have shot film.

Filmmaker: Well, would you have shot 16mm? I saw the film at Sundance, and my recollection is it’s 2.39 Scope. Would you have shot 16mm for a Scope aspect ratio?

Morrison: When I tested, I tested anamorphic 16 and Super 16 with a 2.39 crop. But even with anamorphic 16, I think our eyes are used to how sharp things are now digitally that, when revisiting 16 — even five years after film was so commonplace — it felt really soft. The grain was awesome, but the perception of resolution and contrast was not.

Filmmaker: Speaking of resolution, you were picked up at Sundance by Netflix, and Netflix famously insists on 4K origination.

Morrison: Netflix and HBO are the same, inasmuch as the things they originate and the things they acquire have different sets of rules. So, something can get picked up by HBO that was shot 2.39 and projected 2.39, but if you’re originating for HBO they have a 16:9 mandate. Netflix has a 4K mandate when you’re originating for them, but they’ll acquire things that didn’t originate [in that]. The big DPs on Netflix tend to steer toward the Alexa, and that doesn’t quite meet their 4K standard, but because we were not originally a Netflix picture, we shot Alexa and were fine. [Alexa is capable of in-camera 4K upscaling, but Alexa open gate 3414 x 2198 native resolution falls short of 4K, as do the more commonly used 16:9 and 4:3 formats, which are 2.8K.]

Filmmaker: You shoot rather naturalistically, or it appears to be natural. In this film, you were shooting the deep South — I’m from the South, so I know those areas. What were your lighting challenges? Because you were using natural light as well, were you having to worry about where the sun was in the sky?

Morrison: Yes. I’m definitely someone who believes in lighting that feels authentic, that feels natural. Ironically, I can’t tell you how many times people have asked if it was all natural light. There was a ton of lighting that went into making it look like it was all natural light.

Filmmaker: The art of natural light.

Morrison: The art of natural light, exactly. So sometimes, yes, it’s about tracking the sun. That was fairly critical because the biggest challenge of shooting Mudbound is that we were shooting in these real plantation homes. They were tiny, didn’t have windows, the ceilings were low, there were not many places to hide lights. They’re also inherently very dark — dark wood, low ceilings. Because you don’t have windows, you can’t put an ND in front of them, so you’re basically trying to hold the inside and outside while the outside is 10 stops over. So you’re trying to find all kind of tricks to be able to bring them within range of each other. One of those is trying to chase the back light — even in an interior when you’re looking out at a certain direction, have that direction be backlit because if it’s front lit you just don’t stand a chance. Usually you have to chase the sun for your exteriors, but we had to chase the sun, schedulewise, for interiors as well. It’s not a massive film, so we only had so many big units, the 18Ks or whatnot. Everywhere that was not on camera, my gaffer Bob Bates and I were throwing light through windows and doorways and all of these things just to bring up the interiors. All with the hope that it doesn’t ever feel lit. This is the hardest I’ve ever had to work for it to feel like natural light.

Filmmaker: Did shooting in ARRIRAW help with overexposure issues?

Morrison: A little bit. This was the first feature that I shot RAW. There are some DPs who insist on RAW across the board. Usually, it’s a budgetary difference, and a lot of people argue that the difference to the latitude is so negligible that it’s not necessary. For the most part, I’ve gone along with that because I’ve had so much control. I had ways to mitigate clipping things and losing shadow detail and all that. On this film — I knew I wouldn’t have as much control because there was such an inherent difference between the shadow side and the highlight side — I insisted on RAW, and I think it was very helpful. Then I shot RAW again on Black Panther for compositing. The reason you need RAW, other than in the case of Mudbound, is a slight bit of difference when compositing for key.

Filmmaker: Since you mentioned Black Panther, can you describe that a little bit?

Morrison: Black Panther is a Marvel film that’s coming out in mid-February. Right after Mudbound I went to do Black Panther, which is very different than some of my past work. It’s much more effects-heavy, so compositing is keying off usually either green or blue, to then be able to create a layer of effects for the backgrounds or whatever to augment.

Filmmaker: What did you shoot Black Panther with?

Morrison: I’m not sure what I’m allowed to say yet.

Filmmaker: Can you say film or not film?

Morrison: Not film. Tested film, would have loved to shoot film, but that one is so VFX-driven that they really made a case against it.

Filmmaker: You’ve been at Camerimage how many times?

Morrison: I think this is my third time. I was here with my student thesis film in competition, which was fun. I remember being just like, “Whoa, that’s my hero! That’s my hero! That’s my hero!” You’re looking at all of these DPs that you’ve grown up in awe of getting a drink right next to you. Then, I was here with Fruitvale Station. That was probably four years ago, and now with this film.

Filmmaker: What I noticed this year is that there have been a number of seminars on 8K. I know that I went into them skeptical, but I think I’ve come out of them convinced that 8K is inevitable, at least for the capture end, for the cinematography end.

Morrison: Yeah.

Filmmaker: Have you considered 8K?

Morrison: I’ve considered 6.5K. When I had my test for Black Panther, we were going to test the DXL, which is Panavision’s take on an 8K RED sensor but with Light Iron color science. It was just barely not ready; they ultimately pulled it from our tests because they were convinced they weren’t going to have enough cameras by the time we shot, so the closest I’ve come to large-format photography was considering an ARRI 65 on Panther, which is 6.5K. Pretty much every DP I know went in [to the 8K seminars] a little skeptical. The big concern is, who wants to see that much detail? You’re suddenly seeing every pore on a person’s face. How could that possibly look good? But oftentimes, you’re capturing large but then immediately downrezzing it and intentionally softening it, in some respects. Then it feels like a medium-format camera; you would actually have a greater, more subtle latitude. There’s something that feels much softer than you’d expect because you’re gaining almost more the perception of latitude than more actual latitude. For instance, with the ARRI 6.5K camera, it’s really just three Alexa sensors built into one. [ARRI 65’s sensor is basically three open gate ARRI ALEV III sensors, 3414 x 2198 photosites each, turned on end and then stitched together to form a single massive 6560 x 3100 sensor.] So technically it’s the same sensor, just more of them, but it has a quality — if you think about Ansel Adams’ photography, which has this incredible gradation of shade and shadow detail, I think that’s the goal with what medium- and large-format capture can do. That said, I think you do have to find ways to soften the image. When we first went digital, suddenly there was a resurgence of interest in older glass and trying to find a way to take the harshness out of it. I think looking for old, low-contrast soft glass is going to happen, probably even more so, with these large-format cameras.

That brings me back to the first question about making Mudbound look analog. The first thing I did was go to old glass. We ended up shooting anamorphic on this mixture of C series, the lesser-known B series and the D series, mostly because they didn’t have a full set of C series. They’re Panavision anamorphics that were originated in the 1960s and ’70s. They have a very visible softening around the edges, and to me it was very reminiscent of old photography. The only thing I didn’t love about anamorphic for this project is that anamorphic flare, that horizontal flare, which feels very contemporary to me. When I think of analog and the ‘40s, I think of very round flares, so I had this plan to mix sphericals in, initially thinking I would just swap the anamorphics for spherical to get a round flare any time I was shooting specular highlights. What I quickly realized is the other major advantage [of spherical lenses], which is that when shooting at night, the spherical glass is so much faster that I could do so much more with candlelight, using minimal, practical lighting and augmenting it with fire and things like that. So I wound up shooting probably 25 percent of the film spherical.

Filmmaker: That’s fascinating. So those shots are cropped.

Morrison: Yeah. When you shoot open gate, the spherical is actually slightly larger than a 4:3 sensor. You’re just cropping the top and bottom off. When you shoot anamorphic, you have a little extra room on your left and right, but no extra room on your top or bottom. That is one thing that’s nice in the modern day, you can toggle between settings on your digital camera quite simply.

Filmmaker: In one of the seminars here, I saw a demonstration of how David Fincher shoots at a much higher resolution — 6, 7, 8K — with Leica Summilex lenses to get as perfect an image as he can. Then he goes in and imposes an anamorphic look.

Morrison: He’s doing it all in post.

Filmmaker: Exactly. There’s a barrel distortion thrown in; there’s something that looks like or clues you into the fact that it’s supposed to look like anamorphic. Now anamorphic is just another effect? That’s kind of—

Morrison: I wasn’t at that seminar; I did hear about it. I think there are a couple of dangers with doing things that way. I think if you’re not, you know, Fincher, you’re basically empowering somebody else. You could shoot an entire film spherically and then have somebody else in post decide to make it look anamorphic when that was never your intent. With 8K, anybody but David Fincher could use that same tool for good or evil. It works for David Fincher because he has full control from beginning to end. The rest of us don’t have that. If you originate 8K, you then have producers or an editor or your VFX supervisor who can literally reimagine your frame. I actually had a DP mention that the other night: “Isn’t it great? Because if you don’t have time to shoot a close-up, you can just crop into a close-up from your medium shot.” And I’m thinking, “No. I can see a producer saying that, maybe, if it saves them a few dollars and cents. But when DPs start saying that, that makes me really nervous.” It’s an art form, and it’s nice to have an intent behind these things. Actors say, “What are you shooting? Is it my medium shot or my close-up?” The really good ones will give a different performance on a close-up than they will on a medium shot, so if you take a medium shot and crop it to a close-up, that might not be what the actor intended, either. It’s really giving a lot of control to people who are sitting behind a computer four months later. It makes me very nervous.

Filmmaker: Have you ever had an actor look up at you after you’ve done a shot to see if you like the shot?

Morrison: Oh, all the time — particularly when I’m operating, obviously, and that’s half the reason that I like to operate. There’s an intimacy from being not just the one photographing them from a DIT tent but from actually being the one behind the camera. Some directors are right there in the room, and then usually the actor will look up at the director: “Did I get it?” With directors who like to be back behind the monitor, there’s got to be somebody for actors to engage with when they are done with this moment. It’s usually me, and that’s why I operate. That’s too much responsibility for the camera operator, to be telling actors whether they nailed it or not.

Filmmaker: That was an excellent answer. Did you work out a look or a LUT beforehand?

Morrison: Yeah. With this film in particular, it was all about film emulation, so we started with a LUT. I wanted to find that balance between something that did feel like a period film but didn’t feel like a digital period film, that didn’t feel like we hit the magic period button — I keep referring to it as the tea-stain look. So we did a little bit of desaturation in the LUT, a little bit of lowering the contrast, but it was also about putting a little bit of blues into the blacks. My impression of older photography is that in the blacks, their underexposure wasn’t a negative [thing], and you see a little blue through the blacks, maybe putting a little bit of warmth into the highlights. We tested and found a LUT that we felt was a good jumping-off point, and then I did my best to light everything else in-camera given this one LUT. I tinted through a couple of different curves all through the LUT and also had a medium-contrast version, a slightly lower-contrast version and a slightly higher-contrast version of it, just so that I had a little bit more control on the day. This is where DPs have two very different schools of thought. Some people really try to do as little on the day as possible and maybe send notes to a colorist and let them do the work. I try to do as much in-camera as I can, and I also try to get the dailies as close to the final look of the film as I possibly can. I have seen far too many times the idea of “dailies love,” where the director, the editor and then, ultimately, the producer — anybody who’s looking at rough cuts of the film — gets so used to the look that you set in the dailies that, even if you always talked about making a scene green later, they become very averse to that idea. I’ve always tried to do what I could to really get there in-camera.

Filmmaker: Did you and Dee Rees figure out the look of the film and the LUT together?

Morrison: She approached me with a bunch of visual references.

Filmmaker: Which were?

Morrison: She liked the documentary The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, by Les Blank. She likes some of the camera movement, but really the authenticity, I think, that she felt from it, and in some way the color palette. There’s a fine artist named Whitfield Lovell, specifically some portraiture he’d done on wood, which I think she really liked as a reference for the Jackson family — now that you’ve seen the film, that’s in the wood tones and this earthy warmth. Robert Frank’s The Americans and the idea of the American Dream, which is very much a motif of the film, and contrasting frames where characters feel very isolated, with frames where they’re bursting at the seams.

Immediately when I read the script, I thought of Farm Security Administration (FSA) photography, which has been such an influence for me forever. I think that’s why I got into photography: I fell in love with the WPA and FSA photography. I brought in a stack of books 15 high: Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks, of course. I was in Atlanta when I was first sent the script, and there was an exhibit at the High Museum of Gordon Parks’s Segregation Story — which is actually after the film is set, from the ’50s. I was blown away by his color work, and one of the things that I liked so much is that the blacks were so black. There was a richness to them. Often with period films, and also just in general, I’ve seen “the Harris Savides look.” I think he was a genius, but everybody’s doing this milked-out black look, and I really didn’t want that for the film. Black is our contrast; black is our stakes. To take black out of the equation would have been, to me, a huge disservice. So, it was trying to find a color palette that felt muted but where the blacks still felt black and like they had different degrees of black. I saw that exhibit and was like, “Oh, this is it,” so that was a jumping-off point for color.

Filmmaker: All of your hard work shows. I know that part of the country intimately, and I was so excited at Sundance because I was finally seeing a deep South that looked like the deep South. The faces looked like faces from the deep South. You mentioned Robert Frank: Some of the faces in the film could have been pulled out of a Robert Frank photograph. I was in the back, clapping.

One last question. We’re here at Camerimage. You haven’t had a screening of Mudbound here yet, right?

Morrison: No, that’s tonight.

Filmmaker: So that’s the big screening here tonight. What do you expect the audience to be like in this part of Poland?

Morrison: I don’t know! One of the things I’ve always found the most interesting about this festival is that you really get a sense of how different the European sensibility is. There are films that I find just abhorrent, and they’re applauding like it’s the best thing they’ve ever seen. And then films that I think are works of genius, they’re not in full agreement. Obviously, there are some films where there’s a real commonality. So I never know quite what to expect, and I hope this will be one of those ones that transcends people’s personal experiences, and that it’s as liked and appreciated by a European or international audience as it seems to have been in the United States. But you just never know. I’m also more nervous going into this screening because these are my peers, my heroes, people whose opinions I value the most. So I’d be nervous regardless, but I think there’s also an extra element of the unknown because you realize that people’s perceptions of things based on their own experience can really be quite different. I saw a film last night that I thought was violent beyond belief, just unsparingly, offensively violent. And, you know, people love it here. (laughs) I’m like, “OK, to each their own.”

To read more about Morrison and her work on Mudbound, read Matt Mulcahey’s interview, covering different material, here.

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