From 'Mudbound' to Marvel: Oscar-nominated DP Rachel Morrison brings a vibrant palette to 'Black Panther'

Movies Features

Cinematographer Rachel Morrison first worked with director Ryan Coogler on 2013's Fruitvale Station. Their latest collaboration, Black Panther, opening Feb. 16, is one of the most anticipated movies of the year. Starring Chadwick Boseman as the Marvel Comics superhero T'Challa, it has a cast including Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker and Andy Serkis.

Morrison previously shot Mudbound, directed and co-written by Dee Rees. Released by Netflix, it is a generational drama set in the South that contrasts a black family and a white family through the Depression and World War II. For it she received the first Academy Award nomination for cinematography ever given to a woman.

Morrison spoke by phone about these two projects and her nomination. Spoilers for Black Panther follow.

Black Panther is your first blockbuster project. What was your approach?

I always start with the director's vision, and Ryan had a pretty clear vision of what he was looking for. We were really trying to figure out how to approach something that was epic in scope but also incredibly intimate and human. A lot of his references were grounded in naturalism to some extent. We looked at these beautiful, epic nature pieces like Baraka and Samsara and Planet Earth. And then we looked at dramas like The Godfather and A Prophet, which is a film Ryan always goes back to. I think he also wanted it to be a bit of a love song to Africa and African culture.

How did you work with production designer Hannah Beachler?

On movies like this it's pretty critical that we're all on the same page, and when I say "we" I mean the production designer, director, DP and the VFX supervisor. Hannah and Ryan design the world, and then I compose and light that world, and then the VFX are fleshed out to complete the world that was imagined.

This was probably much more closely than I've ever worked with a production designer. When we're developing sets for how they will be photographed, I can speak to certain challenges Hannah might not be thinking of. And it’s crucial that I understand her vision so I know what it is I'm lighting and trying to achieve.

Black Panther fits in with the Marvel Universe, but it has a much different look. How easy was it for Ryan and you to fit your personal styles into the project?

Marvel was incredibly supportive of making Ryan's movie. They really never hung over us or told us that things had to be just so.

I was very protective of the contrast in the film—I think contrast is a reflection of the emotional stakes in a scene. I like night scenes to be dark, for example. And one thing I was aware of going into this is that, whether it happens in the production or in the DI, many Marvel films did have a tendency to be bright or to go quite flat.

But I now understand why this happens. A lot of the action sequences are shot outdoors over the course of twenty-plus days. That can lead to really inconsistent weather, especially in Atlanta. So when you have a scene shot half in sunshine and half in clouds, the best way they knew how to balance it out was to kind of meet in the middle. And you end up with this slightly mushy, low-contrast look.

That was something I really tried to safeguard against. We were lucky enough to shoot two-thirds sun and one-third overcast, so I said to Maxine Gervais, our DI colorist, "Please, please, please, let's lean in to the sunny look and do everything we possibly can to make the overcast footage match the sunny footage," not just dumb everything down.

The African scenes, the skies and landscapes, have a majesty to them that takes them beyond the Marvel look.

We wanted Wakanda to feel warm, to have a golden hue to it. A lot of people think of Africa as a desert, they don't necessarily think of how lush it can be, how rich the culture can be. As far as the palette goes, we leaned into saturated colors and intense vibrant patterns and did all these things that probably many films shy away from.

You got to work on material you've never really tackled before, like the car chase through the streets of Busan.

It was an awesome opportunity for me to do a night scene in Asia. I naturally thought of Wong Kar Wai. Obviously this is nothing like a Wong Kar Wai film, but it's cool to do a car chase in that environment. We collected all of our favorite chase scenes, looked at what elements worked, and then tried to distill from that. Ranging from Bullitt and The French Connection to Drive.

But that was a true second-unit piece, that was the one thing we didn't actually get to be physically present for. Which kind of killed Ryan and me both, because it was such a dream to shoot a car chase at night. We scouted it all, we picked the streets, we did the plans, we designed the shots. But then it was carried out by Darrin Prescott, the second-unit director, and his DP Igor Meglic.

There's also an elaborate fight scene through a casino.

Ryan had a pretty daring but crazy idea to do that entire casino sequence in one shot, which is very much his style, in line with Fruitvale Station and Creed. But we quickly realized that these other two films were entirely focused on one character, whereas in the casino we needed to know what several different people are doing at the same moment, which is a hard story to tell in one shot, without cutting amongst the different characters. So in the end, while we did shoot a “oner,” the cut uses four or five shots in that sequence.

Black Panther was a big jump for you after the modestly budgeted Mudbound.

There were two major differences between those movies. One is the scale. It’s the difference between me operating in a small room with the director and knowing every single person on the crew’s name versus not operating because there was so much more to coordinate. Not only did I not know the whole crew’s names on Panther, but I barely met everyone in my own departments! There were more rigging grips on Black Panther than the entire number of crew members on Mudbound, if not double or triple.

On a shoot like Black Panther, you definitely end up doing a bit more planning and managing—you have a rigging crew and a second-unit crew and a splinter crew, there are a lot of sets being built simultaneously and lit simultaneously. It's pretty different than running around in the mud with a camera.

The other big difference is that on Mudbound, nearly everything was in camera. We were shooting on location and you could look through the lens and see the end result.

Black Panther is less VFX-heavy than a lot of Marvel films, it's not like we had any ten-foot-tall full CG characters and we weren’t set in outer space. Wakanda is a fictional African country, but it’s still Africa, which is a continent and a world that we know and could stay grounded to.

But there are still VFX extensions and blue screen out the windows and there's a few sets which are much more of a virtual environment. It was rare that you could look through the lens and see exactly what the final image is going to look like. That took some getting used to.

What's it like not knowing what the shot will eventually look like?

It's a little nerve-wracking. That's where having done it before might have helped. Or knowing and trusting that you were going to end up with something that looked like the concept art. It's a bit of a mind-meld to light a firelight scene but not have any fire in it. Which is so different from Mudbound.

It's just a different beast. I guess more than anything it just requires trust. Communication and trust. Thankfully, Geoffrey Baumann, our VFX supervisor, was very communicative. We worked very closely together and for the most part the delivered effects looked like I imagined they would.

Some films like this do a lot of pre-viz and they shoot pretty close to what the pre-viz is. We didn't really do that so much. We used pre-viz such that if we got lost, we had something to fall back on.

It wasn't like I would go rogue and light something that we hadn't discussed ahead of time. It was all based on the prep work. We had a lot of conversations about what the world looked like, what it was going to be, what the mood and tone was, what the lighting would be.

For instance, the two fight scenes on the waterfall, I really wanted them to look and feel different from one another. One scene was a sunny day scene, it was T'Challa and M'Baku [Winston Duke]. But the other scene [T'Challa and Erik, played by Michael B. Jordan], I wanted to feel like the sun breaking through after a storm, where you have very cool shadows punctuated by warm sunlight. So I showed Ryan, Hannah and Geoff references for what I was going for and I said: Guys, can we make this work? Because it's not going to be easy for me to light this, but if you’re into this environment and tone, let’s go for it. Which is what we did and I'm really happy with it.

What's it like to suddenly be able to work with resources like that?

On the one hand, it’s like being a kid in a candy store with tools like technocranes and oculus heads. But it's also a much slower beast. You take the good with the bad. When you're working on a machine that big, you can't turn the boat very quickly. It's more like turning the Titanic.

You can't just steal shots. On Mudbound, half of my favorite shots were just moments that I grabbed because I saw something special. That doesn't work on a film like Black Panther. It all has to be planned and choreographed and tested. So it's a slower machine, but you get to do pretty amazing things.

Do you feel like you're so locked in you can't make changes?

You can change anything, and Marvel's sort of known for it. But the more you change, the less "right" it feels. If I light a scene to be sunny and suddenly it turns to overcast, it's not going to feel right.

Thankfully, that didn't really happen, with one or two small changes, little silly things. Like in N'Jobu's apartment, when Killmonger goes back to see his father in a dream state, we had talked about the ceiling being missing and the sky being an aurora borealis, so I lit for that. But in the end they kept the ceiling and put the aurora outside the window. Little things like that, I wished I had known because I would have lit it a little bit differently. But thankfully, they weren't reimaging entire ideas in the post.

What's it feel like to receive an Oscar nomination?

It's been surreal. I feel like I'm living an out-of-body experience. It's something you dream of and aspire to, but don't actually think will happen in your lifetime.

I'm one part floating on cloud nine and the other part kind of wanting to hide under a rock. We're behind-the-scenes people. I'm behind the camera for a reason. The sudden influx of media attention has been startling. It takes me way outside my comfort zone.

It must be especially satisfying to be recognized for what was such a difficult shoot.

Not just for myself, but the crew. We worked so hard on that film. I think the crew would probably say it was one of the hardest shoots they'd ever done. We had gear stuck in the mud, caked in mud, we had people passing out from heat exhaustion.

I think the thing that kept everybody coming back to work was the hope that we were making something special. The payoff is that all that hard work wasn't in vain. First and foremost, the movie's getting seen, and second, it's being appreciated. I imagine it's kind of the way the crew felt on The Revenant. Not that Mudbound has that kind of acclaim. But can you imagine if nobody saw that film after a year and a half of freezing your asses off?

Do you feel your nomination might open doors for others?

I hope more than anything it encourages more women to become cinematographers. And to stick it out. It's one thing to be in the camera department, or to shoot a little bit as a hobby. Obviously, those are great stepping stones. But to become a full-fledged DP is not an overnight thing. You have to be patient and persistent and keep believing in yourself against all odds. I hope that this nomination says that it's a career worth having and that you can go all the way to the top with it.

For me, personally, I hope between Mudbound and Black Panther, now there won't be any scripts that I'm not at least eligible for, you know what I mean? I hope that I start to make it on the studio "list" that I've always heard about but I've never been on. Where directors get a list of the 20 DPs they are allowed to hire. That may be silly, but it would be nice to know that now nothing's off limits for me.

And furthermore, I do sincerely hope that cracking the budget ceiling helps other women get calls for bigger studio films. It’s so crazy that there are plenty of female DPs shooting documentaries and small indies, but the number drops off significantly when bigger budgets are involved. That really needs to change.

Do you still have to fight to be considered for projects?

Not because I'm female. I don't think it's about being a woman. I think there are so few solid dramas being made anymore that it's competitive, even near the top.

When you look at the handful of films that make it to awards seasons, you realize that there just aren’t as many dramas being made anymore. But that's all I've been particularly interested in. Sure, I'd love to shoot a sci-fi film or a western. But I'm not really interested in comedy or horror or rom-coms, and I'm not particularly interested in television. So much of the great drama has gone to TV, but as a DP it becomes quite repetitive to shoot fourteen episodes of the same show. As amazing as "Breaking Bad" or "Game of Thrones" or "Mad Men" look, I don't know that I would want to repeat the same visuals over and over. The pilot or a mini-series, sure, but not five seasons of the same show.

Thankfully, there’s a lot of great content being made at the indie level, which has always been my bread and butter, but once you have a family to support, especially if you're like me and you're supporting them on a single income, it's much harder to do those one- or two-million-dollar films. So while it’s amazing that I’m even being considered, now I’m up against legends like Roger Deakins and Hoyte Van Hoytema and Bradford Young and Robert Elswit for the very small handful of feature dramas with a budget big enough to support a family and/or a technocrane. And that have enough time in the day to try something complicated and creatively challenging.