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‘Mudbound’ Cinematographer Captures Look of ’40s South With Digital Cameras

Cinematographer Rachel Morrison — known for her collaborations with director Ryan Coogler on “Fruitvale Station” and the upcoming “Black Panther” — had planned to shoot on celluloid for Dee Rees’ period film “Mudbound.” But, as often happens, budget constraints forced her to rethink that approach.

“They were nice enough not to rule film out completely,” she says. “They put it in our court and told us we could cut two days from an already barely makeable schedule — or we could shoot digital.”

So Morrison went the digital route, choosing the Arri Alexa Mini camera in combination with 50-year-old anamorphic and spherical lenses.

For the anamorphics, she picked the Panavision C and D series, which are soft around the edges, giving her lots of natural vignetting. The spherical lenses had little to no coating on the front element, which minimized contrast, and they tended to flare when exposed to bright sources like windows, reminiscent of an older age in cinematography and appropriate for a film set in the 1940s.

“I feel slightly sacrilegious shooting a movie on digital that incorporated all of these celluloid-based inspirations,” she admits, “but I feel like we made the best of the situation.”

Morrison is a big fan of the still photography from the Farm Security Administration — a New Deal agency that was set up to combat rural poverty. It gave birth to images from the likes of Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks and Arthur Rothstein. “They were so tactile,” she says of the photos. “Much of my inspiration for ‘Mudbound’ came from them, and Dee had brought some references that included a very granular documentary shot by [filmmaker] Les Blank on 16mm.”

Shooting digitally allowed Morrison to use the spherical lenses at night with real candlelight and little else. “Lighting practically whenever I can when shooting period really helps with authenticity,” she says.

In all her work, says Morrison, from indie thriller “Sound of My Voice” to HBO’s “Confirmation,” she has striven for subjective naturalism. “I didn’t want ‘Mudbound’ to feel stylized in any way,” she says of the movie, which spent most of its 31 days shooting in rural Louisiana, with Rees at the helm and nearly all the department heads female.

“I don’t think I’d ever worked with a female audio mixer before,” she says. “What felt different than other films [I’ve worked on] was that there was a focus and a calmness to what we were doing, even though every day we had more to shoot than we had hours. There was no running around getting frenetic. And even in post, the editor and the composer were badass women.”

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