From lighting The Hills to bringing Wakandan sunsets to life, Rachel Morrison is pioneering in her field.
Behind every great director is a fantastic cinematographer. Often overlooked, their work is integral to the success of a film: it’s cinematographers who are responsible for how a film looks, and who wield the power to bring the visions of your Spielbergs and Gerwigs to fully-realised life.
Rarely, however, do they find themselves in the spotlight – unless they’re 39-year-old Rachel Morrison, who recently became the first woman ever to be nominated for a cinematography Oscar.
It was Morrison’s work on Dee Rees’ critically acclaimed period drama Mudbound that earned her the nod earlier this year. But she’s now making waves for her role in creating the biggest film of 2018 thus far: Black Panther.
Although she had worked with director Ryan Coogler before on his acclaimed 2013 debut feature film, Fruitvale Station, the Marvel universe proved a new challenge for Morrison.
“Besides Garfield in the Sunday paper, that was not my world,” she said at a recent Q&A panel, reported by Vanity Fair. She spent subsequent hours watching the entire Marvel film franchise to gain a feel for what was already out there. “It was never so I could match the language,” Morrison explained. “It was so I knew what it was and […] how far we could push it.”
One major obstacle Morrison discovered was a lack of vibrancy in existing Marvel films, something she was determined to inject into Black Panther’s pan-African aesthetic.
“I watched some of the films and it was not how I wanted ours to look,” she said of the problem, which was caused by weather changes when shooting outdoor action sequences, prompting filmmakers to wash out colour in post-production to preserve continuity.
“I didn’t always win. When I didn’t, we would take out every big [light] and turn cloudy days sunny. We took the time to […] get some contrast going, which is not something they usually do.”
Morrison was also lighting predominantly black actors, requiring adjustments to ensure that skintones don’t appear overly bright or artificial. It would seem a given, but as Ava Berkofsky, director of photography on HBO’s hit series Insecure, testifies, correct techniques for lighting people of colour aren’t taught as the industry standard.
“In film school, no one ever talked about lighting nonwhite people,” Berkofsky told MIC last autumn. “There are all these general rules about lighting people of colour, like throw green light or amber light at them. It’s weird.”
“The way [to] approach dark skin tone technically is all about the skin [being] reflective. Make sure the make-up artist uses a reflective base on the skin,” Berkofsky said.“Rather than pound someone’s face with light, […] have the light reflect off them.”
It’s a skill Morrison has perfected over the course of a 19-year career that started with lighting reality stars like Lauren Conrad on MTV’s The Hills. She later began working on high-profile film projects that attracted attention for their presentation of black stories, such as Rick Famuywia’s 2015 comedy Dope and Whatever Happened Miss Simone, Netflix’s 2016 biopic of jazz icon Nina Simone.
As for the current attention she’s receiving, the Academy-Award nominee says that she hopes it will inspire other women to follow her into the field.
“For the better part of 15 years, there were no new women in the field,” she said. “So many women find this [Oscar nomination] inspiring, and [talking about it] is telling a lot of women that they can keep it up, that there is hope at the end of the tunnel. It does seem like the numbers are stronger with the next generation […] and it’s about f**king time.”
Images: Rex Features