100 questions with Rachel Morrison, the first female cinematographer to receive an Academy Award nomination
By Finn Blythe | Film+TV | 23 December 2020

Top image: Still, Black Panther by Ryan Coogler (2018)

Rachel Morrison’s images always tell the truth. Whether in her early, low-budget documentaries, following adrift juvenile offenders in Rikers High (2005), or later, in her multi-million dollar entry to the Marvel universe, capturing a generation-defining performance from Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther (2018), Morrison crafts exquisite moments of real-life with shots that leave an indelible mark.

A master of visual storytelling, here, Morrison answers 100 quick-fire questions with the same level of commitment and verve she puts into her work – and it’s very much appreciated.

1. What’s the most common misconception about your job?
I suppose the most common misconception is understanding the job itself. A cinematographer uses camera and lighting to convey emotion and stories through visuals. Most people think I carry heavy machines for a living and aren’t quite sure what I do with them.

2. Have you ever had an out-of-body experience?
Do drugs count? If so, yes, many of them.

3. Which current cinematographer would you ask to shoot your next home video?
Bradford Young or Emmanuel Lubezki.

4. How does a knowledge of using film help young cinematographers?
Shooting film teaches you to be in the moment and shoot from the gut. It also has a level of precision that requires you to engage technically and not rely on monitors and vectorscopes to do the heavy lifting.

5. What’s the movie that still makes you cry?
Nearly every movie with a child protagonist still gets me. Ponette (1996), City of God (2002), the first half of Lion (2016), Ratcatcher (1999), Shoplifters (2018), Léolo (1992)… and so many more.

6. What are your thoughts on 3-D cinema?
I can’t seem to get into it to be honest. Movies are escapism and we live life in 3D. There’s something about the simplicity of 2D that ironically transports me more than 3D.

7. How can we improve the gender imbalance across the film industry?
I think it’s rapidly improving. The ‘Times Up’ movement made huge strides. But really it’s about encouraging leadership and confidence in girls at a young age and making sure the work we’re putting out is a better reflection of the world at large.

8. What’s your favourite film festival?
Sundance and Cannes have been good to me, but the festival I’ve always wanted to go to is Telluride. I feel like it is well curated and small enough to see incredible films against an amazingly scenic backdrop.

9. What made you choose film over photography?
I grew up fascinated by photojournalism and conflict photography. But two things shifted my career towards film. The first was realising that as much as a photo moved me, it never made me cry or emote the way film did. And the second was realising that film was a collaborative medium and the photography I was drawn to was a very individualist, lonely profession.

10. Which stills cameras do you use?
So many. For film, I have a Nikon FM2, a Yashica point and shoot, and an old Hassalblad. For digital, I have a Canon 5D MkIV, Fuji XT-3, and a little Lumix point and shoot.

11. Your style eludes classification, was it a conscious decision to avoid developing a signature style?
I try to let each narrative I shoot dictate my creative choices and the narratives I’ve shot are so varied that the styles vary accordingly. That said, I do think there’s a consistent focus on subjectivity as well as a naturalism to the lighting so I suppose the style I would use to describe my work is subjective naturalism.

12. How important are box-office numbers to you?
For me, it’s only relevant in that the more money a film makes, the more people have seen your blood sweat and tears on the screen. I suppose it also translates into whether you get to continue making similar films. Sadly fewer and fewer people are going to see character dramas in the theatre. This has had a huge impact on me and not for the better.

13. What was the best advice you were given while starting out?
Stay true to yourself, gut, heart, etc. And it’s all about the journey, not the destination.

14. What do you remember most about your early documentary, Rikers High (2005)?
We were shuttled on to Rikers Island as a crew and went through extensive security checks. I have a vivid memory of one of the guards showing me a display case of the various shivs/shanks that had been confiscated from the inmates. There were so many and they were all deadly. I assumed it was like a “best of” case for the year, maybe for many years… the guard laughed at me and said it was from one week. One fucking week. Holy hell. I also remember vividly that whenever the adult inmates passed the teens in the hallway we would stand to one side and you just felt such a distinctly different sense of danger. Here were these kids who were convicted of smoking pot or spray painting a wall or basically the ‘crime’ of not being white, standing shoulder to shoulder with alleged rapists and serial killers.

“There’s something about the simplicity of 2D that ironically transports me more than 3D.”

Still, Rikers High by Victor Buhler (2005)

15. One thing you miss about your childhood?
My parents both had significant health issues so I was forced to grow up ahead of schedule in certain ways but I definitely miss the innocence and blanket optimism of my early childhood. Anything seemed possible.

16. What surprised you most about becoming a mother?
I was shocked by how instantaneously I felt a deep, deep love for and connection to my baby, who at the time was a stranger to me and by all accounts a personality-less blob. Honestly, I’m still shocked by the depth of love I feel for my kids.

17. Which film of yours are you most excited to show your kids?
Black Panther (2018), for sure.

18. From the films you’ve worked on, which performances stick with you most?
I’ve been fortunate to witness so many profoundly moving performances. A few that come to mind are Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer in Fruitvale Station (2013), Jen Aniston transforming entirely in Cake (2014), and Kristen Stewart turning herself inside out in Seberg (2019).

19. You’re directing your first feature, what can you tell me about the story?
I’m making a film about the indomitable force Claressa Shields. It’s equal parts boxing, sports film and intense drama. Basically what happens when winning isn’t enough.

20. What made you want to start directing?
When enough people you respect like Ryan Coogler, John Ridley and Rick Famuyiwa say you should direct, you start to listen. But also, it was realising that I have something to say and that I could use the credibility I’ve built up as a DP to help make stories worth telling.

21. Why do you think it’s taken so long for a woman to be recognised in the Oscar’s category for Best Cinematography?
I’ve never had a great answer for this question because no answer makes sense besides the fact that there are so few female cinematographers, so our chances are significantly lessened. But the ‘why’ there are so few is entirely illogical when women are inherently empathetic, great at multitasking and naturally visual – basically all the traits that make strong, compassionate filmmakers.

22. How do you record ideas or inspirations that strike you day- to-day?
I’ve never been great about writing in a journal because my handwriting is virtually illegible, even to me. But more and more I use my iPhone almost like a logbook keeping copious notes, logging photos and books and poetic moments that stand out to me.

23. How can taking stills on set help you?
Taking stills on set can help in a variety of different ways. When location scouting, you can photograph the space in your desired aspect ratio to determine if it translates visually in 2D – a beautiful church with a domed ceiling may be transformative in real life but can fall flat when trying to capture it for a widescreen film. While tech scouting, you can use stills to communicate with your department heads or record where the sun will be at any given time of day. When shooting film, I use stills to record lighting setups and to communicate with my colourist. And finally, behind-the- scenes stills help document my lighting setups which is useful for reference upon completion.

“…more and more I use my iPhone almost like a logbook keeping copious notes, logging photos and books and poetic moments that stand out to me.”

24. What mementos do you take when you travel on shoots?
It’s taken years to realise ‘things’ are just ‘things’ and do not make memories. I’ve all but stopped bringing home mementos to sit on a shelf or in some box largely ignored. Instead, I take photos, notes, etc. The one exception is when I see something I think my kids will like. I brought my son Wiley a stone bracelet from Kiev that he wears all the time. Once in a while, I’ll bring home a piece of local art if it speaks to me.

25. What essential lessons did starting out in documentaries teach you?
Coming up in photojournalism and documentary made me acutely aware of what ‘real’ looks and feels like. It also helped me to make decisions on the fly as an operator that supported the stakes and the subjectivity of the subject and character.

Still, Seberg by Benedict Andrews (2019)

26. What would you say to a young cinematographer who wants to break into features?
The equipment has never been more accessible to make compelling and professional-grade imagery. Seek out a young director to partner with and get resourceful and creative together.

27. How do you collaborate with other women in your industry?
I definitely try to make sure my crew is inclusive in every way. I also mentor up-and-coming female DPs, although that’s getting harder now that I have two kids who demand a lot of my time. I talk with my female peers regularly about the work- life balance and have been using various online platforms as an outlet for more global outreach.

28. Which up-and-coming cinematographer is destined for great things?
So many. I hired Katelin Arizmendi to shoot my feature because I think she has a really special eye. Zoe White, Rina Yang, Kira Kelly, Ashley Connor…

29. What was your biggest takeaway from working on a Marvel film?
No task is too big if you simply take it one step at a time.

30. What’s the biggest thing you learned about using VFX in Black Panther?
Communication is everything. For VFX to feel believable you need to have a strong vision from conception through to final execution so that everything blends naturally.

31. What did Black Panther teach you about adapting comic books to the screen?
I learned that a film like Black Panther has far more reach than even I had imagined so it is truly the one way to deliver a message to the masses.

32. How did you want to push the language of Marvel films?
We set out to prioritise humanity over action and while both are important in a Marvel film, we really changed things up by treating the film like a single-camera subjective experience.

33. What has been the biggest risk you’ve taken in your career?
Again, so many. I took a risk when I abandoned a steady paycheck so I could pursue narrative filmmaking. I took a risk when I decided to have a baby just as my career was taking off. I took a risk when I shot a 200 million dollar film having never shot anything bigger than 15 million before and I’m taking a risk directing a feature now, just as I’ve found success and security as a cinematographer. I believe life is nothing without risk.

34. Who deserves more recognition on movie sets?
Everyone behind the camera and behind the scenes. The 1st AC, the key grip, the gaffer, the grips and electrics, the stand-ins, the ADs, the VFX supervisor…

35. What was the last photo you took?
I’m scouting my first job in this new Covid-19 reality and the last photo I took was a train passing beneath a magenta sky in Marfa, Texas.

36. You’ve worked with debuting directors on several films, how is that experience different from working with seasoned veterans?
A lot of first-time directors lack the confidence and technical savvy of a more seasoned pro. Often they know what they want but struggle to articulate it. In those scenarios, it’s my job to help support and enable them, almost to coax their vision out of their heads and onto the screen.

Still, Black Panther by Ryan Coogler (2018)

37. What links the directors you’ve most enjoyed working with?
My favorite directors to work with have a singular vision for their films and know what to prioritise when time or money is tight. These directors also share the commonality of hiring department heads whose work they like and then trusting them to do their jobs. This to me is key to a fruitful collaboration… We push and inspire one another, but always from a place of trust and respect.

38. Which film do you know every line to?
Annie (1982) from when I was a kid and Trolls (2016) because my children watch it on repeat. As an adult, I’ve never been one to watch films over and over again. In fact I don’t know that I’ve seen any of my favorite films more than three, maybe four times.

39. What change would you like to see in your industry and how can it happen?
I’m eager to see crews behind the lens and in front of the lens more closely resemble the world at large. To see real change we have to start early, encouraging confidence, leadership, and emboldening people from all walks of life to tell their stories.

40. How do you remain literate and up to date with all the latest technology?
I think you have to prioritise. For example, I don’t need to know every new LED light on the market because I have a gaffer for that. But I do need to know what types of new lights are out there and how they might best serve me as a cinematographer. Same with cameras. I don’t need to have every menu option memorised, but I need to know each camera’s strengths and weaknesses so I know which tool is best for my job.

41. How does a cinematographer know they’ve done a good job on a film?
Ha! That’s a good question. Film is a subjective medium. There are no right or wrong answers. You have to trust your instinct and if you feel good about your choices, the work will reflect that. But generally speaking, if the film works as a whole you can rest assured you’ve done your job well.

42. What problem are you currently trying to solve?
Trying to figure out how to make my feature in this new Covid-19 reality without compromising the creative.

43. What would you tell your eighteen- year-old self?
It will all be OK.

44. How important is it for you to familiarise yourself with the visual language of a place or period before starting a film?
It’s really helpful as a jumping- off point. One of our goals as visual storytellers is to transport the audience to another time, place or world, so it’s helpful to know what that world looks and feels like.

“I’m eager to see crews behind the lens and in front of the lens more closely resemble the world at large. To see real change we have to start early, encouraging confidence, leadership, and emboldening people from all walks of life to tell their stories.”

45. What’s your favourite black and white film?
The Night of the Hunter (1955).

46. Who do you hope you’ll bump into again one day?
Frances McDormand.

47. What elements of your job do you use in day-to-day life?
Empathy, compassion, leadership, multi- tasking, and image-making.

48. How much does a knowledge of editing help you in your job?
Knowledge of how a film cuts together is really helpful in production because you know when you have what you need and can move on, or if you’re missing elements like a solid transition or a specific reaction, that will help immeasurably in the edit.

49. Of your early shorts (pre-2013), which are you most proud of?
I lensed a film called Redemption Maddie (2007) about a teen mother and another called Still Life (2007) about a war photographer, both of which I am proud of.

50. Considering the real and traumatic events Fruitvale Station was based on, how did filming on location feel different to any other set?
Fruitvale Station was an incredibly profound and unique experience because we filmed in many of the actual locations where Oscar [Grant] had been. We shot at his real work, we shot on the train platform where he was killed and at the morgue where his body was taken. We even shot with Oscar’s real mother Wanda who made a cameo as the preschool teacher. So it really felt like we were channeling Oscar’s presence and blessing while we tried our best to honour him as a man whose life was cut tragically short.

51. When might a cinematographer choose to deploy real footage in a film?
I’ve found that film techniques have evolved so much that stock footage is generally only useful in context. For instance, if a character is watching a TV show that features a march from the 1960s, you can use stock footage of that march to composite on the television. But if you are trying to shoot a scene that’s set during a march in the 1960s, it’s better to just recreate the whole march than to intercut your actor into stock footage. The one exception is in a contemporary film, you can sometimes find aerials or establishing shots that will help set a scene. For instance, you might be able to find real footage of Japan at night and then cut from that shot into an interior which is designed to also be Japan at night.

52. What’s the one simple tip you’d give to people who want to take better photographs?
Henri Cartier-Bresson referred to it as ‘the decisive moment’. What makes the picture you are taking stand out from all the moments that come before or after? Is it the setting sun reflecting off a shiny object, is it a child making a face in reaction to something they have just tasted? If it speaks to you in some way – any way – then it’s worth taking the picture. If not, perhaps you just need to wait a beat longer or look for a new angle.

53. What personal rituals do you have on set?
The only ritual I have is that I put new contact lenses the first day of a shoot. Metaphorically speaking it’s because I’m trying to see the world with fresh eyes.

54. Is there a certain genre you’d like to break into?
I’ve never shot a western or sci- fi but think they both could be really cinematic. I would still want humanity at the core of the story, though.

55. How do you process a script and break it down?
Working with the director, I begin by asking whose story we’re telling and then proceed to track the emotional stakes of that character’s journey. The camera work and lighting are always a reflection of these stakes.

“I begin by asking whose story we’re telling and then proceed to track the emotional stakes of that character’s journey. The camera work and lighting are always a reflection of these stakes.”

56. Do you think about music when you’re composing a shot?
Sometimes. Most films have a certain cadence or rhythm and that rhythm can change from act to act or even scene to scene. So if you know what you’re trying to achieve with the shot it can be helpful to think of it set to music.

57. Which film do you learn more from with each viewing?
Again, I’m not one to watch films over and over again but I have learned a lot from a handful of viewings of Un prophète (2009), The Godfather (1972), Chungking Express (1994), Ratcatcher (1999), and Road to Perdition (2002) among others.

58. When are you most productive?
I’m a morning person. I can usually get the most done between 6am and 9am, especially when I’m on the road for a job and not pouring cereal or changing diapers.

59. If you could shoot a music video for any musician, who would it be?
This one is hard for me. keeps making great videos because she tells complex stories and pushes the envelope with them. I grew up watching Madonna and Michael Jackson music videos which would have been fun, although dated and not very PC anymore. I loved the magical realism of old Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze and Floria Sigismondi videos for bands like The Cure and Nine Inch Nails. I guess I’m all over the place.

60. What new skill have you picked up in the last five years?
Learning to surf has been a game-changer for me – truly transformative for both body and soul.

61. What TV are you currently watching?
I rarely get to watch TV because of my schedule and find the over-saturation of content quite intimidating. I watched Succession during the quarantine which was the first show with antagonistic protagonists that I managed to stick with, mainly because the writing and performances are so good. I also watched a bunch of docs – the Michael Jordan doc [The Last Dance], Tiger King, The Defiant Ones, LA 92, and Circus of Books.

62. What’s your favourite period of cinema?
Probably 90s foreign cinema because that was when I discovered there was an alternative to mainstream media. I devoured films by Wong Kar-wai, Emir Kusturica, and Pedro Almodóvar, among others. That’s not to say it’s the best period so much as it was very influential for me and my desire to become a filmmaker.

Still, Mudbound by Dee Rees (2017)

63. What’s the most anxiety-inducing thing you do regularly?
Juggling the work-life balance. Hands down. And even more so now that I have kids.

64. What do you enjoy most about working with Ryan Coogler?
Everything. Truly. He is one of the most kind, humble, genius, funny, and collaborative people I have ever met.

65. What’s the most ingenious solution you’ve come up with on set?
I’ve used everything imaginable as bounce or as negative fill. I’ve rode a butt dolly downhill for a tracking shot. I can’t think of other specific examples but it seems like on every shoot there’s a contraption made that is both a source of great pride and great embarrassment.

66. What TV series have you returned to most?
I haven’t ever watched a TV show more than once. I plan to re-watch The Sopranos though to see if it holds up.

67. What’s the best online movie streaming website?
The Criterion Collection for curated arthouse films. Netflix for the rest.

68. When do you like to use close-ups?
I tend to shoot more medium close-ups than true close-ups. I suppose I reserve those for times when they feel entirely earned by the stakes but don’t feel melodramatic. Usually when an actor starts to cry it’s my cue to back out and give the tears some breathing room, not to push in and topple the thing over.

69. What can you get shooting outside that you can’t in a studio?
The sun! Nothing beats natural light at the right time of day i.e. magic hour. Moreover, it’s really hard to light a convincing day exterior in a studio.

70. How do you know you’ve captured the truth?
You feel it. You just know.

“Usually when an actor starts to cry it’s my cue to back out and give the tears some breathing room, not to push in and topple the thing over.”

71. What was the most memorable location you’ve shot?
I climbed Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania for a shoot. That was pretty damn memorable.

72. How will your job change in the next ten years?
As cameras evolve toward greater latitude and higher resolution, more choices are being made in post [production] which can be detrimental to our role as cinematographers. Whether it’s adjusting the composition or selecting a new point of focus, it is opening up the creative decisions and can really water down the initial intent or singular vision because it becomes a ‘directing by committee’ or ‘shoot now, find it later’ mentality.

73. How do you create trust between yourself and an actor?
First and foremost, I try to be sensitive to their process which is different for every actor. For some, I make myself invisible when they are ‘in the zone’. For others, a little nod of recognition can go a long way. Because I operate too, I am often the closest person to an actor as they are giving so much of themselves, so we can become quite close. It really just depends on their individual needs.

74. What’s your favourite time of day to shoot?
Dawn and dusk.

75. What’s the secret to keeping a film crew happy?
Every film set has a personality of its own and has good days and bad days, but it’s almost always dictated from the top down. I try my best to stay positive but the real secret to a happy crew is honest communication and a clear, concise plan. Don’t pull every light off the truck if you don’t need to use them. And if you’re going to have a particularly long day, do your best to let everyone know ahead of time. The other secret is to engage your crew creatively. Give them a stake in things so they feel heard and inspired.

Still, Fruitvale Station by Ryan Coogler (2013)

“I tend to shoot more medium close-ups than true close-ups. I suppose I reserve those for times when they feel entirely earned by the stakes but don’t feel melodramatic. “

76. What new Oscars category would you like to see?
If the Oscars weren’t already four hours long, I think it’s time to divide cinematography into two categories: one for films with VFX and one for films without (or less than 15 percent, or something). Any film that wins for Best VFX and also for Best Cinematography doesn’t make sense to me.

77. Tell me about a particular scene or shot from Mudbound (2017) you’re particularly proud of.
The opening scene in the rain was tough because we had to shoot our widest shots in real rain and then create shadow and rain outside in bright sun for the rest of the scene. It was tough but worked and I’m proud of it.

78. For Mudbound you looked at photographs by Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans (among others), what did you learn from those images?
Those photographs really informed me about the world we were creating more than they informed the cinematography per se. You have to understand authenticity to recognise the truth, so the FSA [Farm Security Administration] photography was essential to building up my comprehension and barometer for the time period. Photography can also be a great reminder that you don’t always have to move the camera to convey emotion.

79. What’s the best thing about shooting in New Orleans?
I fell in love with NOLA. I was blown away by the sense of pride, perseverance, community, history, music, art and food. It’s a really special place. I also had a phenomenal local crew.

80. What did you learn from working with Dee Rees [Mudbound director]?
Dee has a very clear vision and a ton of conviction. She really never waivers, which is impressive to behold. I also learned a lot from her rehearsal process which was both extensive and bold and I think really helped her sculpt the performances beautifully.

81. Are you a perfectionist?
Honestly, no. I tell myself it’s because there’s an authenticity and beauty in imperfection, but who knows – it’s just never been my way.

82. How do you communicate with a director to develop a film’s look?
You start by looking at art together, watching films, listening to music. Then you walk through the technical aspects and create a language for the film.

83. What does a healthy relationship between a director and cinematographer look like?
It’s really built on respect. You don’t always have to agree and in fact, I believe you get the best results when you challenge and inspire one another, but you want to share a similar vision for the look of the film. Most importantly, both director and DP approach the creative collaboration from a place of respect and trust.

84. Do you have a favourite lens?
I tend to like lenses between a 27mm and 40mm in 35mm spherical equivalent. 40-42mm is the focal length of the human eye but that doesn’t account for our ability to take things in on the peripheral, hence wider lenses resonate as very subjective and relatable.

85. Which film in the last decade blew you away visually?
Ida (2013) for its simplicity – i.e. cinematography executed entirely in camera – and Blade Runner 2049 (2017) for the craftsmanship of the VFX and cinematography combo.

Still, Mudbound by Dee Rees (2017)

86. How do you cope with moments of self-doubt?
I try to change the subject in my mind, change the dial if you will. I also turn to self-help books like Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly (2012).

87. Do you ever draw your own storyboards?
No, I can’t even draw a proper stick figure.

88. What can a cinematographer see that a director can’t?
The director is usually so busy tending to a million different details that there just isn’t enough time in the day to focus entirely on camera and lighting. The cinematographer can be far more myopic and detail-orientated. But also the hope is that years of experience make the DP a bit more sensitive to light and camera cadence.

89. What attracts you to a project?
Story, story, story. Does it move me? Is it original? Does it add to the social consciousness in some way? Is there an audience for it? Then, who are the people involved? And lastly, is there a budget to support what’s on the page?

90. What’s your form of meditation?

91. What’s the biggest threat to your industry right now?
Well, the obvious immediate threat is Covid-19 ravishing the ability to create and to gather crowds. I think we will lose a good portion of theatres worldwide and as new generations are raised without ever experiencing the collective consciousness of the shared cinematic experience, it will go extinct. I am devastated by that thought.

92. What keeps you going on sets?
The collaboration. I love engaging with other people around a common goal, whether it’s lighting a set or telling a complete story.

93. What do people not know about Massachusetts?
We’re not bad drivers, you are. But seriously, I think people don’t realise how vastly diverse the landscape in Massachusetts is, from beautiful coastal towns and picturesque Autumns inland, to bustling cityscapes and a truly extensive and historic working class.

94. What do you enjoy about shooting in LA?
The consistency of the weather and light. Nine months of the year you can basically predict exactly how your days will shake out and plan accordingly. Very few other places are like that.

95. What keepsakes do you have from your films?
I have some slates and chair backs, gifts from producers or cast. Michael B. Jordan gave me a pair of Ray Bans after Fruitvale which I keep also metaphorically because the whole film transformed the way I see.

“Michael B. Jordan gave me a pair of Ray Bans after Fruitvale which I keep also metaphorically because the whole film transformed the way I see.”

96. What’s the best car chase scene of all time?
Tie between The French Connection (1972) and Bullitt (1968).

97. Do you dream about films?
I rarely remember my dreams, actually. I wish I did.

98. What’s one of Michael B. Jordan’s best qualities?
He is remarkably grounded and present and kind.

99. Are there any great essays on cinematography you can recommend?
Not essays per se but the forums on [Roger] Deakins’ website are basically a masterclass in cinematography.

100. Have you ever practiced an acceptance speech in the mirror?
Nope. I prefer to take half a Xanax and wing it.

Originally published in HEROINE 13.

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