When you watch a film shot by Rachel Morrison, you easily feel transported to another world. Except, that’s just it: you haven't been. The strength of her cinematography is and has always been what makes you feel as if you’re in the midst of daily life, with all the wonder and blazing color that implies, along with what Morrison once called its “banality.” Morrison is the first woman to ever receive an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography—being heralded for her work on Dee Rees' Mudbound—and in honor of that, Nelson Carvajal has put together a video essay that shows her wide-ranging skills. If you look carefully, you’ll find a lot to emulate.
As she has noted elsewhere regarding the Mudbound shoot,"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." For the tans and grays on display in the late-1940s rural setting, Morrison chose to take viewers back in time. making it harder to look away from her intense tableaux.
On Fruitvale Station: "Ultimately we decided that the visible grain trumped the depth of field. It was also a benefit to have a camera that was very small and easy to maneuver with. We knew that we wanted it to be largely hand-held, to have an exploratory approach with a single camera, close to the actors, moving through space as they do." Those actors stand out. At times you can feel the material in their clothes or smell the sweat on their skin. In a film like Fruitvale Station, the closer the viewer's experience is to the experience of the onscreen figures, the better.
Morrison's frame is not a busy one. In the shots Carvajal has spliced together with his usual aplomb, notice how the movement often comes to us in the form of one figure or object, moving in a vast canvas: a wagon, a robot, a woman in a building ledge, etc.. The relationship between the figure and everything that surrounds it is always the same. When watching these films, you enter Morrison's cinematography at the same time that it enters you. A tough standard to match, but a rewarding one to study.
Mudbound is currently available to stream on Netflix.