Bringing a moving image to life takes much more than having the technical skills down pat. Capturing that collection of indelible images requires another special skillset – one that isn’t necessarily taught in school. It requires an understated ability to tap into the director’s vision and the actors’ emotions to produce breathtaking visual poetry. Cinematographer Rachel Morrison’s impressive body of work has long exhibited these traits. Rachel Morrison is a monumental cinematographer whose work is illuminated with nuance.
Morrison’s distinctive and truly illuminating shooting style have often and largely been overlooked – until this year, when she has been at long last and rightfully nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for her extraordinary contribution as director of photography on director Dee Rees’ (AWFJ SPOTLIGHT November 2017) Mudbound (AWFJ Movie of the Week November 10, 2017). Morrison is not only the first woman ever to be nominated for this Academy accolade, but she’s also the first woman ever to be nominated by her peers in the American Society of Cinematographers guild. And, with her work on Black Panther, she is the first female to DP a film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
A Natural Affinity for Photography
Morrison, born April 27, 1978, has found joyful satisfaction in being behind a lens since her childhood years. She grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and studied photography while attending high school at Concord Academy, from which she graduated in 1996. She took on a double major at New York University, focusing her studies on still photography and cinematography. By the end of her NYU studies, she’d decided to concentrate on cinematography. She furthered honed her skills at the AFI Conservatory’s graduate cinematography program, graduating with a Master of Fine Arts in 2006.
Morrison spent the early part of her career primarily in Television, working on series and telefilms for a number of networks. Her cinematography on Rikers High, a the 2005 television documentary about high school education within the Rikers Island prison complex, was nominated for an Emmy Award.
Distinctive Cinematic Style
Whether or not Morrison is bringing to light fictional characters or true-life folk, she shows a restrained sensitivity to her subjects and to the material at hand. She values a humanist approach to capturing her subjects with a light touch. Though she infuses her photography with an ethereal style, substance is always first and foremost in the frame. Her camera never stands in judgment to the subjects’ actions – not even on The Hills, the transfixing MTV teen soap where back-stabbing and gossip are the main form of currency. There’s a riveting “fly-on-the-wall” quality to the way she lights and photographs scenes. It’s a genuinely a skill to never upstage an actor, the narrative’s momentum, or the director’s work. Her camera acts as a silent member of the ensemble, continually complementing and augmenting what’s at the heart of the story. She deals in nuance. That’s a prevailing quality in her work.
Morrison’s Stunning Filmography
With Any Day Now, a film that gave voice to one gay couple’s fight against the legal system, we see a maturation of her capabilities illuminating the inner-workings of the characters. Never relying on cloying techniques, nor casting any manipulative glare, Morrison’s light is effused with warmth and empathy. Her lens is the conduit between actor and audience.
When making a true-life tale like Fruitvale Station a compelling cinematic esperience, Morrison doesn’t work with a heavy hand, nor turn in a paint-by-numbers picture. She doesn’t over-emphasize the obvious. Instead of making the lighting gritty or harsh for the pivotal turn, she keeps a steady hand, playing to the nuance of prior scenes. Her skill at marrying visual subtleties with the narrative is especially evident in a film of this nature, where respect for the real-life subject is crucial.
Sound of My Voice, Cake and Dope each spotlight how Morrison harnesses soft, natural light in an unpretentious manner. There’s a tactile aesthetic to these character-driven films. However, it’s Mudbound that’s genuinely disarming. With the way Morrison captures each of the performances, the viewer practically can feel the weight of these characters’ daily struggles – and the sticky, sweaty, muggy heat of the South permeates the screen. Her eye is focused on treating their heartbreak, trials and tribulations with a compassionate edge. And it’s her attention to detail that makes for haunting imagery.
Why We Chose Her
The most recent study of Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film listed that in 2017, there were only 4% of female cinematographers working on the top grossing domestic films. With so few women in that specific industry, Morrison’s recent acclaim helps shatter the metaphorical glass ceiling, which could lead to greater inclusivity on sets down the road. Her progress in a male dominated industry is the heartening change we need going forward. It’s abundantly clear that Morrison has a very long career ahead of her, filled with many more honors, awards and personally rewarding works. She’s illuminating the AWFJ SPOTLIGHT right now.