With great attention to detail, Rachel Morrison's cinematography brought the dark realities of the Mississippi Delta and the majesty of Wakanda to life.
It's been a few years since we singled Rachel Morrison as one of the top aspiring cameramen (in 2016) when the AFI MFA graduate was hot on the heels of her first acclaimed film trio: Fruitvale Station, Cake, and Dope. Since then, she has received an Oscar nomination for best camera for her work on Mudbound (making her the first woman to receive the award).
Oh, and she was also hired by director Ryan Coogler to direct the camera for the critically acclaimed mega blockbuster Black Panther. So it's safe to say that Rachel Morrison is no longer aspiring – she has arrived.
But how has Rachel Morrison's cinematography evolved over the years? From a photographic background, to her first foray into indie filmmaking, to her recent success with some of the biggest features and franchises currently in the spotlight, let's see the trademarks, traits, and looks of Rachel Morrison's unique craft and get to know style.
A photographer's mindset
I grew up with a camera in hand. I've always felt comfortable behind the lens. And I would take the family photos. Then I would take photos of my friends. But then he was also very interested in the concept of cinematography and some kind of more complete narrative and twenty-four frames per second and the ability to tell a story not only in a static picture but also in a moving picture.
In an interview with ARRIChannel, Morrison shares a glimpse into the story of how she got her start in cinematography and how her photographic roots helped shape her eye and way of thinking.
During her visit to NYU (together with renowned cinematographer Reed Morano), Morrison found her photographic work to be the perfect introduction to storytelling at twenty-four frames per second.
You can tell this photographer's mindset by the way she captures and captures the intricate moments of her subjects in her early documentary and reality projects. These initial sensitivities to one image at a time influenced her first indie features like the hyper-real and expressive Fruitvale Station, which was her first collaboration with director Ryan Coogler.
A lens that focuses on emotions
If you look at Morrison's filmography – mostly in her early documentary work – you'll notice how much Morrison focuses not on the events or actions of a sequence or scene, but on the characters' faces and subtle emotional movements.
The video essay above (by Fandor) provides examples of the typical looks and techniques Morrison uses to shoot in a variety of styles and angles, from complex wides and POV shots to the intense, emotional close-ups that she is adored for.
Work with the best
While Morrison received plenty of awards for her early work, it was Sundance hit Mudbound – one of Netflix's earliest major indie pickups – that really got her on the map.
As you can see in the image above, director Dee Rees chose Morrison to take on the challenge of capturing the harshness that is so important to a historical drama in the rural south. Morrison's tight lenses and the emotionally motivated framing in mudbounds' tortured, desaturated looks brought the full intensity of the narrative to life.
Bring indie mainstream
One of the coolest aspects of Morrison's cinematography and style is that it actually scales quite well, as she admits in the CookeOpticsTV interview above about applying her indie sensibility to the world of Marvel blockbusters.
For Black Panther, the slate became much larger and the requirements for different coverage styles (e.g. multi-camera instead of single camera) changed.
Morrison was able to translate many of their tools and tricks for capturing emotions into comic and spectacular storytelling language. Which for her and director Ryan Coogler is certainly one of the reasons why Black Panther stands out as one of the best superhero films of all time – and the only Marvel film to have received an Oscar nomination for best picture.
Find your voice in the art of cinematography
In one of the finest examples of how their cinematography has been recognized for their emotional understanding and technical precision, Morrison was invited by The Hollywood Reporter to sit down for a panel discussion with eminent cinematographers Janusz Kaminski, Roger Deakins and Robert Elswit. Dan Laustsen and Hoyte Van Hoytema.
In a special exchange with There Will Be Blood cameraman Robert Elswit, Morrison talks about what the "lucky accidents" are when shooting celluloid, often in run-and-gun indie situations, that the best – and most memorable – recordings and sequences are trapped.
For more cameraman profiles and insights into filmmaking, see the following resources:
Cover picture above Rolling Stone.