Morrison shot Dee Rees' 'Mudbound' with Panavision C-and D-series lenses, lending the digital image a vintage appeal.
Will Rachel Morrison become the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Cinematography? We certainly think so. The cinematographer, who shot Netflix's Mudbound, directed by Dee Rees, expertly captured the earthy tones and textures of 1940s Mississippi despite limited resources and constantly changing weather. Morrison eschewed the polished, washed-out look that is characteristic of most period films. Instead, she created images high in contrast and grit—evocative, by design, of the Depression-era photographs of Dorothea Lange. As a result, Mudbound has the authentic flavor of a John Steinbeck novel.
No Film School caught up with Morrison to discuss how she created a film look with an ARRI Alexa Mini, her philosophy of "subjective naturalism," and why the simplest scenes on paper are often the most difficult to shoot.
"This was the hardest I've ever had to work to make natural light look natural."
No Film School: How did you and Dee Rees originally connect on Mudbound?
Rachel Morrison: We had known each other from the festival circuit and had a mutual respect for one another. She called me early on, probably before the project was even fully funded, and said it would be a good one to do if we wanted to start working together. I read the script and was like, "Of course." Really, between my respect for Dee and the script, which is rife with possibility—including that it was a period piece, which is such a gift—it was a very easy "yes" for me.
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=xucHiOAa8Rs
NFS: What kind conversations did you have early on about the visual language and the references you would use to shape it?
Morrison: Dee sent me some references she'd been compiling, which were a lot of fine art references and topography references. The only film reference she sent was the documentarian Les Blank's The World Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins. [She liked] the fluidity of the camera movement and the authenticity of it.
Dee really wanted to focus on the idea of the American dream versus the American reality. I responded [by] pulling a huge stack of books by Farm Security Administration photographers: Dorothea Lange, of course, and Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, Walker Evans. I think I had 15 books from that era. Those [photographers] were the jumping-off point for the color and composition.
Also, Gordon Parks did an essay for Time Life magazine in the '50s called "A Segregation Story." It was the perfect example of color for me: it felt period, but it didn't feel washed-out. The thing that I like about his work is it retained detail in the blacks. These days, there's a real trend towards milking out the blacks, especially with period films. I think you gain so much with contrast, so to milk out the blacks is really handicapping yourself in terms of storytelling.
NFS: What are some ways you worked to heighten the contrast?
Morrison: It's a combination of everything, really. Lighting is a huge part of it. When I shoot digital, I still try to think about it like choosing film stock. Sometimes, you choose multiple film stocks—one for day and one for night, or one for present-day and one for flashbacks. I like to approach digital the same way. So in our case, instead of raising the toe of the curve in the LUT, which is what a lot of people do with period films, we retain the contrast in the blacks. And then I would just light within that.
"It's often the scenes you're least expecting—the ones that look simple on paper—that are the most challenging to shoot."
NFS: How did you approach lighting the film?
Morrison: I really believe in using natural light, but often it takes a lot of lighting to make something look natural. I felt it was so important for Mudbound to retain a subjective naturalism throughout. I call it subjective naturalism because you can kind of exaggerate within the stakes of the story—when the stakes are high, often I'll use higher contrasts than I would if it were just a [regular] scene. But it should still feel believable. I feel that when the lighting gets too stylized, it takes me out of the story, unless it's a sci-fi film or something, where it's built into the nature of the world. But when the world of your film is real, I think the lighting should be a reflection of that. So I used a lot of lighting to make it look like it wasn't lit. That's kind of my approach generally.
We definitely had a bit of a different plan for before they go to the farm and after they go to the farm [in the movie's plot]. Before they get to the farm, the colors are much more poppy and saturated. Movements are much more lyrical and fluid. Very stable and steady. But after they get to the farm, [I used a grittier] color palette. A little more rough and tumble.
NFS: You were lighting within, I imagine, pretty specific constraints with the locations because you were shooting in small houses with very low roofs. How did you navigate the practicalities of lighting the sets?
Morrison: I asked the production designer, David Bomba, to cut a couple of holes in the ceilings and to create a couple of new doorways that weren't there initially, just so I would have more places to light from. I knew we weren't going to be able to do much lighting from inside the structures; we were gonna have to push light from outside as much as possible. Fortunately, David did this and made it so very believable to the space. Of course, the intention with holes in the ceiling wasn't for it feel like there were skylights in the space because that wouldn't have been authentic.
"I asked the production designer to cut a couple of holes in the ceilings so I would have more places to light from."
For the most part, it was really about trying to balance interiors with the exteriors. Outside was much brighter than inside. As a result, we had to load up the interior with a lot more light than I normally would just to get within range of the exteriors. It was the hardest I've ever had to work to make natural light look natural. We put 18Ks through every space that wasn't on camera just to bring up the ambiance inside to be able to compete with how bright the farm was outside. If I didn't do any lighting or Hard ND, it was probably about an 8-stop difference between the outside and the inside. Maybe even closer to 10.
We did have three pieces of Hard ND, which is a thick, plastic version of ND. We would kind of jump around to the windows that needed it most. Hard ND is expensive and this was quite a low-budget film, so we picked our battles.
"Everything about Mudbound begged to be shot on film. But we were given a choice between shooting on film and losing shoot days."
NFS: What did you shoot with, in terms of cameras and lenses?
Morrison: Well, everything about Mudbound sort of begged to be shot on film. But we were given a choice between shooting on film and losing shoot days. From a budgetary standpoint, that was what our line producer came up with. We were already so tight—our schedule was under 30 days to begin with. It just felt like if we lost two days we weren't going to be able to make it.
Ultimately, we decided to go digital, but not without testing first. I rated the base ASA between 1280 and 1600 instead of the native 800 in order to get a little bit digital noise, but just a subtle amount. Then I had our colorist—even our dailies colorist—add grain. When we compared with film, we were happy with how analog we got it to feel in the end.
In a perfect world, I would have shot film for day and digital for night, because I actually thought it was really helpful to have that extra latitude and stop at night. Day, you still can't beat film.
Morrison: We shot on two ARRI Alexa Mini cameras, predominately with anamorphic lenses. They were Panavision C-series, some Ds, and actually a few B-series, of which there are only a handful in the world. It was an eclectic compilation of glass, partly because of what was available and what we could afford, and partly because we were actually looking for glass that was imperfect.
Most people want the cleanest versions of glass. I felt like [anamorphic] would help sell the analog look of the film. Most of the glass is cleaner in the center than around the edges—there's a softening around the edges, and some of the glass had various optical aberrations. It felt more tactile, more authentic, and certainly more analog. I also shot with a set of spherical glass that Panavision had rehoused. They were ultra and super speed primes that had been detuned and have medium to no coating.
"I ended up shooting mostly anamorphic during the day and mostly spherical at night."
I definitely do appreciate the more... I wouldn't say "gritty," but the "less polished" feel of the film versus other period films, which tend to be very polished. For me, a lot of period films almost stylized the period. The period wasn't a character in this film. The mud was a character, the weather was a character, the house was a character. If anything, I think we were trying to make more of a commentary about just how tough times were through experiences, and not glorify the time period.
Morrison: Initially, my idea was to use spherical glass when I was going to be shooting a hard flare because the one thing I don't love about anamorphic is that it flares horizontally. I like it for certain things, but I don't like it for a period film. That horizontal flare feels very J.J. Abrams to me. Very contemporary.
But I realized it was also really helpful to shoot with spherical at night, when we were shooting with real candles and doing a lot more practical lighting. I ended up shooting mostly anamorphic during the day and mostly spherical at night.
NFS: Can you think of a particular set-up or scene that was challenging to shoot? How did you solve the problems?
Morrison: Interestingly, one of the most challenging scenes for us is actually one that appears quite simple: the opening scene, digging the grave as the storm is coming in. The tricky thing is that we knew that we needed real rain for the wide shots. We are not a big-budget film, so I think we only had one rainmaker to cover us in a wide. The thing about Atlanta in the summer is that it rains almost every day. It literally would change weather four times over the course of the day, from sun out to full cloud coverage to pouring rain, and then back again to sun.
The continuity of that scene was impossible. I don't how many days we shot it in pieces. When it came to close-ups, we had to build a set outside with blacks on every side just to keep the ambient levels down. Then we needed to put the rain tower inside of our blacks, and the lights inside as well so we could backlight it since you can't see rain otherwise.
That scene was quite daunting. It's often the scenes you're least expecting—the ones that look simple on paper—that are the most challenging to shoot.