DP Rachel Morrison on Mudbound, Her Ideal Extinct Film Stock and Using Waveform Monitors
In Mudbound, a friendship between two returning soldiers – one white (Garrett Hedlund) and one black (Jason Mitchell) – sets a pair of neighboring farming families on a path to tragedy in post-World War II Mississippi. For cinematographer Rachel Morrison (Fruitvale Station, the upcoming Black Panther), filmic references for the harshness of agrarian life in the Jim Crow South were few and far between considering the Hollywood studio offerings of the era were preoccupied with propagandistic war movies and opulent musicals. Instead, Morrison looked to the Depression-era photography commissioned by the Farm Security Administration – specifically the work of Gordon Parks, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn and Dorothea Lange.
The result is strikingly high-contrast imagery that daringly creeps along the precipice of impenetrable inky shadows. Those images have elevated Morrison into the rarified air of Roger Deakins and Hoyte Van Hoytema – two of the fellow luminaries nominated alongside Morrison for the American Society of Cinematographers’ award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography. And Morrison just might hear her name as well when the Academy Award nominees are announced on January 23rd – which would make her the first woman ever nominated for a cinematography Oscar.
With Mudbound currently streaming on Netflix, Morrison spoke toFilmmaker about creating the movie’s distinctive look.
Filmmaker: In discussing the “35mm vs. 16mm vs. digital capture” camera tests that you did for Mudbound, you’ve said that the downfall of the 35mm was that the available stocks have advanced to the point where they too closely resemble digital. That made me wonder – if you could’ve Jurassic Park-ed any extinct film stocks and used them to shoot Mudbound, which would you have chosen?
Filmmaker: The film vs. digital debate typically takes the form of an aesthetic argument, but I’m interested in your thoughts on how the different formats effect the environment on set. What are the pros and cons or working in each medium?
Morrison: I do think film streamlines the process and tends to make everybody step up their game a little bit because every take counts.
- So I would say the pros of film:
- Ups everyone’s focus in the moment
- Enables intimacy and communication between director and DP
- Inherently tactile
- Eliminates having people judge off the monitor, which often leads to too many cooks in the kitchen
- Screening dailies TOGETHER
- Happy accidents
- Better handling of highlights and more natural skin tones
- Tendency to use fewer cameras or even just one, which means you can get the right eyeline and lighting without compromise
The cons of film:
- Can be cost prohibitive (depending on many factors, of course, such as how much you plan to shoot and how far the lab is, etc.)
- Labs are few and far between, so often [shooting film] involves shipping the film, which means it can be days before you see your dailies
- Not all lab technicians are as skilled these days as they once were, which can lead to inconsistencies and scratching in the processing
- You don’t get to sleep as well at night [because you don’t] know exactly what you’ve captured and you don’t know that no mags will come back scratched
The pros of digital:
- Higher ASA, so you can light with more practical lights and candles
- Camera bodies like the Alexa Mini or Red are small enough to use on a MoVI and mount in a variety of cool places
Digital aspects that are both pros and cons:
- Because media is relatively cheap, you roll more freely. This can create lazy filmmaking and too much content (con), but sometimes you get a gem of a moment that you might not have captured had you been censoring yourself (pro).
- You can see basically what you are getting [on the monitor]. It helps DPs rest well at night (pro), but also eliminates some of the “magic” of what we do and makes everyone think they are cinematographers (con). Also, [on set monitoring] can lead to too many cooks in the kitchen, because everyone has an opinion and that can cause people to focus on too many myopic details, such as a hair out of place or a wrinkle in a blouse or the curtains not being perfectly straight, instead of just focusing on the actors and performance, which is really all that matters in the end.
- More affordable often means more cameras, which is both a pro and a con. Sometimes it’s a great asset to capture two sizes of a performance (with multiple cameras in one take), but other times it leads to more compromise than it’s worth. And there’s a tendency for producers to add cameras and lose days in the shooting schedule, which will never look as good as taking your time with one camera.
Filmmaker: Mudbound has beautifully rich blacks, but I’m also interested in how you achieved the contrast in your midtones. It’s sort of the look you get when you adjust the “clarity” slider in Lightroom or the “midtone detail” setting in Resolve. How did you approach creating that look?
Morrison: I’m not very savvy in Photoshop or Lightroom, so I mainly communicate my intent to my DIT. In this case, I knew that I didn’t want the blacks to get too milked out on this film and so I made sure to expose them properly and “print down” so that we could play on the dark side but the detail would be there in the raw material if I wanted any of it back. Then in the DI, I sent [our supervising digital colorist] Joe Gawler all my references and asked him to enhance the detail whenever we needed it but not wash out the skin tones. My main reference was Gordon Park’s A Segregation Story (1956) for Life magazine.
Filmmaker: What’s your technique for determining your stop? How much do you rely on the image on a calibrated monitor versus a waveform, versus old-fashioned metering?
Morrison: I usually use my meter to light in broad strokes and then the monitor to dial things in. For example, if I know I want to expose at a T2.8 with the key side ½ stop under, I will rough in my key light to a 2/2.8split, then drop the meter and do the rest of the shaping from the monitor. On Mudbound, as I mentioned, my plan was to print down, but keep the information in the [digital] negative so my DIT Nate Borck had to keep me honest using the waveform monitor, since I was on set operating and didn’t have the IRE levels in front of me at all times.
Filmmaker: I put together a few frame grabs with their respective waveform readings. Would love to hear some specifics about these shots – where did you draw the line for what was “too dark?”
Morrison: Those waveform frame grabs are from the final output (as opposed to what we were looking at on set), but if I had to guess I would say there was between ¾ -to-1 ½ more stops of additional information in the RAW material to play with. [Director] Dee Rees, Joe [Gawler] and I decided to “be bold or go home” and we did play everything dark. It’s been an interesting experience for me. When projected well, I am the happiest I’ve ever been with my work. But in a screening room with a dull projector, I am horrified. It’s hard to know if I would do anything differently next time because if I went brighter overall, I would probably be less horrified in the worst case scenarios, but also less pleased with the best version. It’s an interesting conundrum.
Filmmaker: Once Netflix became the distributer and the audience became primarily television viewers, did you do a new grade on the film? I’m guessing the dynamic range and color rendition of a theatrical projector is very different from most people’s home TVs, tablets or laptops.
Morrison: Sadly, no, I didn’t get to do a new grade. Perhaps that would have been the time to brighten up across the board? But again, do you aim for the lowest common denominator or the best-case scenario [in terms of how people will view the film]? I really don’t know the answer.
Filmmaker: For lenses on Mudbound, I’ve read that you used the spherical Panavision PVintage (which have re-housed Ultra Speed glass circa mid-1970s) for nights and for shots where you didn’t want the Anamorphic horizontal flare. Then on the Anamorphic side, you mixed Panavision B, C, and D series lenses. What can you tell me about the B and D series? From what I can find online, seems like the B series is from the early 1960s and really hadn’t been used much lately before they were dusted off for The World’s End (2013). As for the D series, I did a piece on The Bad Batch for American Cinematographer and that movie used some of those lenses. The Panavision folks told me that the D series was an attempt to modify the C series into faster lenses – but the project was basically abandoned after a few 40mm and 50mm lenses were converted.
Morrison: Yeah, the Bs are fundamentally prototypes from the 1950s and 1960s for what became the C series and if I’m not mistaken they are slightly heavier than the Cs.
And the D series got faster (when they were modified), but they were pretty soft wide open so they didn’t really catch on, which is why they only exist in the 40mm and 50mm focal lengths. In all honesty, it was simply an availability thing. We actually de-tuned a few G series focal lengths in an attempt to match the Cs as well. I would have happily taken all Cs, but they are so in demand these days that we couldn’t source a complete set. We were also on a budget, so I was very lucky to get this package at all.
Filmmaker: To finish up, I’ve put together a few batches of frames that I’d like you to talk about. The first set features Jamie [Hedlund] in an aerial battle. I read that you shot some of this in actual B-25s at a World War II museum in Long Island.
Morrison: This was the one 2nd unit scene, which was photographed by Richard Rutkowski, so I didn’t shoot it. But from what I heard, we couldn’t make any adjustments to the plane itself nor mount anything or remove glass to get a more frontal angle — hence many of the shots are fairly tight and favor the back. We shot greenscreen out the windows and comped in the background planes.
Filmmaker: Next up are a few shots of Ronsel [Mitchell] detailing his experience during the war. You spent two days shooting in Budapest – which seems like a nice extravagance considering the schedule (29 days) and budget ($11 million). Which of these frames came from those Budapest days and why was it important to go all the way to Hungary?
Morrison: I think the budget was even slightly less than that, but we really wanted the film to have scope and to feel authentic. All the frames you selected as well as the final scene in the European street/stairwell were shot in Hungary with a foreign crew. Only Dee, [production designer] David Bomba and myself went to Europe. We felt that since it was such a major story point that Jamie and Ronsel had gone to war and experienced a world outside the Jim Crow South, anything we could cheat in Atlanta wouldn’t have had the same impact.
Filmmaker: How about this night interior scene, which is motivated entirely by candlelight and a sliver of moonlight through the window?
Morrison: The candlelight was achieved through a mixture of real sources (double wick candles in lanterns) and a variety of sources my gaffer Bob Bates designed to supplement those candles. I believe we had one version that was like a miniature Barger Baglite – a soft box with three incandescent sources on dimmers so that we could vary speed and intensity to mimic a flicker effect — and we also had an LED blanket light that was a soft single source version of a similar effect. I don’t remember the exact source for the moonlight, but I believe it was gelled with ½ blue and Cyan 15 and bounced into foamcore. I also think we had a softbox overhead for tone that was not set to flicker.
Filmmaker: I’ve heard you talk about how much work actually went into making Mudbound’slighting look so naturalistic. These are two frames from day interiors that are motivated by a single source — the sunlight through the windows. Can you talk about the work that went into these shots?
Morrison: Interestingly, you picked two scenes that were on the simpler side because they played high contrast and single source. The [top frame] looks like a bounced 18K through the window just out of frame and minimal, if any, fill light. For the [bottom frame], I exposed for the outside and probably used a soft source like a blanket from ¾ back on Hap [Rob Morgan, in the foreground], also just out of frame. There was also a large HMI such as an M90 backlighting the rain outside so it would be visible through the screen door. Because it was overcast, these scenes weren’t as challenging. The really tough ones were the interiors where we saw through to the outside world on a bright sunny day and had to bring up the ambient [light levels] inside in order to [match the outside exposure]. For scenes like those, we had an HMI pushing through every open door and window, gelled to match the color temperature of the outside sun.
Source: Film Maker Magazine
Author: Matt Mulcahey