Rachel Morrison’s Oscar nomination for Mudbound is one more welcome crack in the glass ceiling, and it builds on the work of pathfinding cinematographers like Ellen Kuras, ASC; Brianne Murphy, ASC; Amelia Vincent, ASC; and Nancy Schreiber, ASC. On a more personal level, Morrison has been working towards that breakthrough her entire life. The daughter of an enthusiastic amateur still photographer, she turned the camera around early and became obsessed with the ability to freeze time. At NYU, she split time between cinematography and photo-journalism but eventually realised that she relished the collaborative nature of motion picture production, and went on to study at AFI. The recognition for Mudbound was especially affirming since her devotion to photography was informed by still masters of the single image like Robert Capa, Gordon Parks, Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein and Walker Evans, whose work was also a source of inspiration for that film, which is set in the post-WWII south.
“They were the reason that I got behind the camera in the first place,” says Morrison. “It was the power of what was achieved through documentary photography, and the direct result of these incredibly moving and potent and emotional photographs that are a real testament to the power of imagery.”
Now Morrison has executed a flawless following act. Black Panther, a major hit, is the first film of its size and scale that’s redefining the idea of cinematography's male-dominated industry. The reviews have been ecstatic, and the box office take is approaching three-quarters of a billion dollars after roughly two weeks in release. Black Panther reteamed Morrison with director Ryan Coogler and presented a technically more complex challenge. The superhero saga was shot mainly with ARRI ALEXA XT cameras in Open Gate RAW format cropped to a 2.39:1 aspect ratio and the lenses were spherical Panavision Primos.
“We wanted it to feel grounded in something real, rather than in fantasyland,” says Morrison of the film’s look. “In a way, it’s a love story, a love poem to Africa. Our references were really big, humanist portrayals of earth, like Baraka and Samsara. We wanted to find a way to blend something you’d see on the Nature Channel with something you’d see in a Marvel film.”
Baraka and Samsara are both wordless visual feasts directed and photographed by Ron Fricke using large format film and state-of-the-art 8K scanning to produce breathtakingly rich and deep imagery. Strictly speaking, they’re documentaries, but the combination of stunning imagery, time-lapse and slow-motion photography and incantatory music is uniquely cinematic.
Morrison also cites The Dark Knight, shot in 65mm and IMAX film gauges by Wally Pfister, ASC, as a model for maintaining humanism on a large-scale canvas. Another crucial ingredient was the personal, subjective camera that buoyed her previous collaborations with Coogler, like Fruitvale Station.
“We thoroughly tested everything, including IMAX,” says Morrison. “But honestly, the main reason we went with digital was the expedited post schedule. Ryan wanted to stay away from the largest sensors because he didn’t want shallow depth of field. He wanted to see and feel the texture of everything, including the backgrounds. With the raw format, we were able to capture all the colour information and resolution that we needed.”
Marvel strongly recommends a standard workflow developed over the course of many projects centered on the Codex Vault. The result is a rock-solid, dependable procedure that allows the filmmakers to focus on the creative aspects of the project, in spite of some very high technology under the hood.
“I found that the VFX component is actually quite intuitive,” says Morrison. “The software and technology have gotten so good that you can roto almost as easily as compositing against green or blue screen. I remember when you had to light a chroma screen to within a tenth of a stop across the entire screen. Now, if it’s green or blue, they can composite. And that is liberating for us as well as for the actors.
Still, I’m used to doing everything in camera,” she says. “Here, you’re combining the real with the imagined. This is the first time I had to light a scene driven by firelight without any fire. It couldn’t be any more different from Mudbound.”
Digital imaging technician Nicholas Kay was focused on keeping the cameras balanced and ready to go, as well as on keeping track of continuity.
“We shot ten-hour days, so we were going as fast as possible at all times,” says Kay. “Rachel would tell me what stop to maintain for certain scenes and lenses, and I would work to maintain that over the course of scenes. It was a privilege to have her trust in me to help maintain exposure throughout the course of the job.”
I’VE BEEN RECOMMENDING CODEX SINCE 2008, & I STILL DO
LogC came off the camera, but the camera crew worked in ACEScct 1.0.3. The Log C initially went through an input transform (IDT) to ACEScct colour space, where CDL grading was done in scene linear space. A corrective LMT, essentially an ACES-scaled LUT, was applied before the ACEScct image was transformed via RRT and ODT to Rec 709 viewing space. The footage was downloaded on Codex Vaults, and storage sleds were shared with near-set SHED personnel, who worked on the dailies pipeline, which continued in ACEScct. Élodie Ichter and Fergus Hally of SHED Atlanta handled dailies using a custom ACES workflow LUT. Final colour was done at Technicolor in Los Angeles with Maxine Gervais in 4K resolution on a FilmLight Baselight system.
“The Codex workflow has always been very helpful and reliable to use,” says Kay. “I’ve been recommending Codex since 2008, and I still do. Working with Rachel was awesome – she kept me on my toes. At the time ACEScct was brand new, and we were one of the first jobs to use it. I think it was a great choice for the African-American palette and grading on Black Panther.”
Morrison is quick to credit her team with helping to make the shoot smooth. “I didn’t have to think about how things were working behind the scenes,” she says. “That’s thanks to some of the best crew in the business. I’m very much looking forward to the next adventure.”
Codex related product and workflows
Images courtesy of their respective owners.