by Stacey Osbeck
Back in film school, when they train your eye toward the aesthetics, I began to realize even my dreams had ‘lighting’ to set the tone, that our minds have an innate sense for it. Upon waking, I’d remember a nightmare full of darkness and deep shadows. One time I became lucid, aware I was dreaming while still within the dream, and felt so elated. Whatever lay ahead could only be wonderful as everything was so bright.
Fellini said cinema uses the language of dreams. However, often in our nightly reverie there’s no director to pull together a cohesive whole. No script, the storyline makes no sense. Sometimes no wardrobe (we’ve all had the naked dream). But there’s still lighting and framing of the visual information we take in. Somehow, even in the movies-of-our-minds there’s still a cinematographer.
In the early days of film, the cinematographer’s (also called the Director of Photography or D.P.) and director’s job was one in the same. Advancements in cameras, lenses, filters and lighting technology eventually made it wiser to separate the roles so the D.P. could specialize. The two positions still work tightly hand-in-hand today. New directors often rely heavily on the D.P. to understand continuity and flow of shots. More seasoned directors convey the look they want, then give the cinematographer leeway to achieve it on their own.
People often assume D.P means the cameraman. That’s a bit of an oversimplification. As head of both the lighting and camera crews, the D.P has countless visual decisions that need to be made: Is the film’s tone dark and sinister or a bright fun romp? Should establishment of place be conveyed through wide sweeping shots or close-ups on the details? If there’s a river scene, do we want to see the ripples of reflected sunlight glistening on the surface, or use a polarizing filter on the lens to see the trout and minnows beneath? So to say cameraman is actually not fully correct if for nothing else it implies the position must be held by a man.
She’s had a penchant throughout her career for handheld camerawork. Giving a documentary vibe like these things really happened, you’re really here. Despite her cinematic leanings, each film has its own distinct look: The alternating sickly to cool lighting, devoid of warmth, in Cake, a film about chronic pain and pulling your life together (starring a wonderfully bitchy Jennifer Aniston). The shallow depth of field (where our subject is in focus but whatever rests in the foreground or background is not) of Little Accidents, as a reflection of the storyline where memories of a coal mine collapse become hazy. Flat, even lighting in the cult scenes of Sound of My Voice offer no shadows and nowhere to hide. Marvel’s Black Panther release is on the way and we’ll see how she showcases a superhero then. As for now, Morrison’s work on Mudbound is probably her most commercial and most accomplished. (Editor's note: this piece was originally written and published in our March 2018 print issue).
Mudbound displays the talents of a person who’s cut her teeth on many different films and honed her craft. Much of the movie takes place in 1940s rural Mississippi. One of the simplest and yet most hauntingly memorable shots is of a family of fieldworkers trudging out into the mud before dawn, silhouetted by a thin strip of encroaching light bordered between the cloud cover above and the tree line below. That shot sets the stage for much of the story. It also opened my eyes to an aspect of country life I never considered before—the amount of darkness. If you’re in the business of planting and harvesting crops and there’s even a hint of sunlight, there’s work to be done. Real life happens when it’s dark. By lantern or candlelight, they eat with their families, tell stories, make love, dream. These are the moments that much of the movie takes place in. The recurrent dim candlelight added to the narrative, giving a fuller picture of their world.
In the Oscar race, Morrison is up against heavy hitter Roger Deakins, who with 14 nominations and still no golden statuette, many are hoping that this year, finally, he won’t have to go home empty-handed. Which is fine. Being nominated alone can open so many new and exciting doors to an already established career. And win or lose I’m sure we’ll be seeing much more on the horizon from Rachel Morrison.