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Set in the post-WWII South, “Mudbound” is the story of two farming families battling both with an unforgiving landscape and the region’s deeply ingrained racism. To create the look of the film, cinematographer Rachel Morrison and director Dee Rees explored the work of the great photographers who captured the era. Morrison then worked with natural light and the landscape to craft the look of this powerful drama.
It’s one of the most gorgeously shot films to play at Sundance in years, and if the film’s yet-to-be named distributor does decide to make an awards push with the film, Rachel Morrison could be the first woman to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography. Morrison was unable to be in Park City for the “Mudbound” premiere because she’s shooting “Black Panther” with director Ryan Coogler, but IndieWire checked in with the DP on her day off to learn how she created the stunning piece of work. Here are some of her reflections on her approach to the film.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute, photo by Steve Dietl
The Starting Point
Dee and I had a number of references [when we started discussing “Mudbound”]. As a jumping off point for tone, Dee referenced the artist Whitfield Lovell and specifically his portraiture on wood. We looked at “The Blues According to Lightning Hopkins” and other documentaries by Les Blank, which had a raw spontaneity to them and which also served as a reference for our color palette and texture. Robert Frank’s “The Americans” was a major influence when it came to exploring the idea of the American Dream – the predominantly elusive fantasy punctuated by social hierarchy and impermanence. We set out to explore frames that were bursting at the seams contrasted by isolation.
And lastly, the look of “Mudbound” was hugely influenced by the work of the FSA [Farm Security Administration, created during the Depression to combat rural poverty] photographers ranging from Ben Shahn and Arthur Rothstein to Dorthea Lange and Gordon Parks. Their work in the 30s and early 40s was paramount to the design of the film and many compositional choices, but it was actually Parks’ later work “A Segregation Story,” which he shot for Time magazine in 1956, that really influenced our use of color. I had seen this exhibit at the High museum in Atlanta and was truly blown away. The colors were subdued but not washed out and Parks maintained a deep velvety black instead of milking it out.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute, photo by Steve Dietl.
It’s always a challenge to shoot a period film and not have it look like you hit the tea stain button in post. We wanted to create a world that was true to the time, but felt raw and real and not overstylized in a way that the audience can sense the theatricality.
We chose older lenses, a mix of Panavision C and D Series anamorphics as well as Vintage Super Speeds from the 60s and 70s that had inherently reduced contrast and many optical aberrations. We decided to embrace the aspherical softening around the edges because we felt that even on a subconscious level, this would help the imagery feel more like the FSA photography of the era.
We opted to shoot entirely on location in sharecropper and tenant houses from the late 1800’s, which was technically very challenging but worth its weight in gold when it comes to authenticity. And we abandoned stage makeup and touch ups in favor of visible palpable dirt and sweat.
So much of “Mudbound” is about man’s relationship to the land and to the elements. It’s about the desire for control and how powerless we are against nature. We always knew we would shoot widescreen as a means to isolate a body in the frame and to highlight our own insignificance.
We wanted the lighting to be naturalistic, largely motivated by sun and moon once the McCallan family have left the creature comforts of the city and settled into rural life. As much as I would have loved to shoot everything at magic hour, this film is about the sun beating down and what that does to ones spirits — and so we embraced harsh lighting conditions when that was called for, but also contrasted the beauty of magic hour and dusk over the fields to illustrate that the endless battle for something greater is fueled by moments of hope and inspiration.
When shooting in real spaces, the work of a cinematographer begins where location meets production design meets time-of-day. No movie light will ever look as real as the sun, so scheduling becomes truly paramount to naturalistic lighting.
We had a unique challenge on “Mudbound” in that one family had no window treatments, and another had no glass in the windows at all such that even interiors had to be scheduled in accordance with the sun. Working with Curtis Smith, our 1st AD, we would plan our day around the sun to the best of our ability so that it could stream into the homes when it was low in the sky, so that we could compete with the sun drenched fields when shooting through windows and doorways, and so that the real sun could always do as much of the heavy lifting as possible because I truly believe that in these tiny tenant homes, the audience would have felt the artifice of anything else.
Battling the Elements
Fitting to the film’s title and to absolutely no one’s surprise, the elements were the greatest challenge by far to both the look and to production as a whole. We shot “Mudbound” in the South in the summer, which meant we were working in extreme heat and humidity at all times and that it could go from glaring sun to overcast skies to pouring rain in a matter of minutes, often shifting multiple times a day. The variation in sun made it ery challenging to maintain contrast, not to mention continuity. Then you add the scripted rain and mud and lightning and it’s just plain difficult – steering condors and camera gear through the mud then covering their tracks, all to shoot the scene before the rains begin again or worse yet, before the scripted mud dries up in the glaring sun. Fitting irony, of course, that in making a film about man’s desire to conquer land and the elements, we were given a good dose of humility nearly every day.
The Plan Was To Shoot on Film
Both Dee and I set out to shoot “Mudbound” on film. Everything about this project screamed to be analog. But our budget was so tight that any added cost came at the expense of something else – shooting days, extras, production design assets etc. We did extensive tests to determine if it was worth it. We tested both anamorphic and spherical 16mm on the Arri 416 (which to this day is still my favorite camera ever designed) as well as anamorphic and spherical lenses on 35mm vs the Arri Alexa shooting Arri Raw. We were working with Fotokem locally in New Orleans and I asked our dailies colorist Illya Laney to add a grain emulation curve to the digital media, match the shots to each other, and then reduce saturation and contrast by about 15-20%.
Courtesy of Rachel Morrison
In the end, we loved the 16mm grain but it felt a bit too soft for the wide landscapes and the difference between 35mm, and the Alexa footage was just too subtle to justify the sacrifice of shooting days. I discussed this with Kodak in great detail, actually — the film stocks that are left are the ones that were designed to compete with digital (better latitude and reduced grain) but for those of us who love film as a medium, it’s much easier to make a case to the producers when we can show a very visible difference, so I would really like them to bring back some of the older stocks with a more pronounced grain and steeper contrast curve.
In the end, we shot Open Gate Arri Raw on the Alexa Mini, and I am proud of what we were able to achieve. It still feels a bit sacrilegious, but I hope the film gods (and FSA photographers) will forgive us and provide enough to go analog the next time around.