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‘Mudbound’s’ Morrison Uses Still Photography Skills

DP Rachel Morrison’s rich, naturalistic imagery lends “Mudbound” a palpable sense of time and place: post-war Mississippi. Her peers in the Academy and at the American Society of Cinematographers recognized her work with nominations. For Morrison, in many ways it was the closing of a circle: The iconic 1930s and ’40s imagery of Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks and Arthur Rothstein and other Farm Security Administration photographers first piqued her interest in childhood, and those same images served as an important reference and inspiration on “Mudbound.”

“It’s incredibly fitting,” she says. “I have the FSA photographers to thank for getting me into photography, and now I have them to thank for helping me land in this historic position. What was achieved through documentary photography is a real testament to the power of imagery. Those photographs changed the landscape of the government moving forward. They taught me that photography can distill the human spirit, capture human emotion in its raw, pure form, and freeze a moment in time that can then take on its own life.”

In high school, Morrison studied photojournalism, and she double-majored in photography and film at NYU. A master’s degree at the American Film Institute soon followed. Choosing to follow a motion picture path was a difficult decision, and her work today is still informed by her still photographer’s eye and mindset.

“I’ve always liked very photorealistic photography, even in a very lit and collaborative film world,” she says. “I try to see what is at the heart of the story and the character at a given moment, and let story and emotion be the factors that inform the technique. That’s almost an old-school philosophy at this point.”

Morrison and director Dee Rees chose to shoot “Mudbound” on a combination of spherical and anamorphic lenses, a creative decision made possible in part by digital camera and post techniques.

The camera was an Arri Alexa Mini, which helped in tight practical locations. The Louisiana mud and Deep South summer heat made the shoot arduous, but were integral to the honest, lived-in feel that connected with audiences.

“We really lived the location as we shot the story,” she says. “I think that’s one reason why you can feel it when you see the film. I really wanted it to feel analog, and I used every trick in the book to achieve that, starting with older glass.”

Morrison’s next project, the Marvel superhero tale “Black Panther,” called for a completely different approach, but her fundamental focus on instinct and honesty remains. Along with director Ryan Coogler, with whom she also made “Fruitvale Station,” Morrison envisioned a look that is more “poppy” and saturated, but still natural.

“We wanted it to feel grounded in something real, not in fantasyland,” she says. “Our references were films like ‘Samsara’ and ‘Baraka’ — big, humanistic portrayals of Earth, like something you’d see on the Nature Channel crossed with a Marvel film.”

The superhero movie, starring Chadwick Boseman and Michael Jordan, received rave reviews leading up to its Feb. 16 release.

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