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Rachel Morrison on Bringing Tactility to ‘Black Panther,’ Blue vs. Green Screen, and Working with Tim & Eric

Written by on November 13, 2018 


To hear Rachel Morrison tell it, her once-in-a-lifetime whirlwind experienced earlier this year–from being the first Oscar-nominated female cinematographer, vis a vis Mudbound, to having a new movie called Black Panther open mere weeks later–was a bit much. Which isn’t to suggest she’s cagey about the process; the opposite proved true while sitting down with her at this year’s EnergaCamerimage, where she presented, an entire nine months since it premiered, Black Panther and led a discussion on what puts it a cut above the standard superhero fare.

Those watching Black Panther with a remotely attentive eye for production value will grasp the level of departmental cooperation necessary for running that operation. If you’re like me and find those complications far more fascinating than easter eggs, intimations of sequels, connections to comic books upon which it’s based–I could go on–this is an interview for you.

Are you used to presenting films on your own?


What goes into that for you? How do you do it, given the opportunity?

To me, the most interesting dialogue has been opening things up to questions. I’m more interested in what the audience would want to talk about than anything I could present. You know what I mean? I would just say, “Does anyone have any questions? Let’s see where that goes.”

You’ve described yourself as kind of a hermit.

I don’t like being in the spotlight. The experience for me this year was… I went from zero to 100 overnight. The one-two punch of the Oscar nomination—which already would have been some attention—then being the first, which was more attention, and Black Panther coming out two weeks later, I was hurled into the spotlight without any preparation for it. If anybody shows interest in our work or mentions the cinematography, you think you’ve won. We don’t get any real practice, I guess. Also, I think a lot of us are behind the camera for a reason; if we wanted to be in front of it, we’d be actors. So it’s taken a little adjusting, realizing that I’m now a somewhat public figure—as public as a DP can be.

It’s not so often that a film becomes a cultural phenomenon the way yours did. So there’s even just the fact of how many people are seeing your work on even an hourly basis.

For me, as somebody who’s always existed in a very kind of indie space, to have something that I shoot be worldwide is exciting—specifically because it’s Black Panther, which has a message behind it. I feel like there was so much to be gained in a cultural space, so I’m proud of it.


Something I appreciated about Black Panther is the room for tactility, which you don’t necessarily expect in a superhero film—the suit, how much light can play off it, and the ridges in its form being an example. I’d like to know about any particular inclinations that put that onscreen.

Well, the first thing was, I watched Civil War and was like, “Holy fuck, we can’t do that.” He wasn’t the main character in the movie, but he was wearing a matte black suit and you couldn’t see any detail in it. Knowing that we had a lot of night work, too, it was just like, “We need a new suit.” One of the first things after getting hired was saying, “So we’re not shooting that suit from Civil War, right?” I guess Marvel jokes that anytime you get your own spin-off, you get a new suit.

But we did a lot of testing. I got front-and-center, ahead of that issue as fast as I could and said, “We need sheen. If it’s called Black Panther, it can’t be a grey suit. But if it’s going to be black, we need sheen, we need texture, we need all these things to give it a three-dimensionality that the Civil War suit, quite frankly, didn’t have.” So we tested a lot of things and one of the solves was that the suit is actually quite porous, but then there’s a metallic bodysuit underneath, so you pick up an extra layer of sheen from that. But then, obviously, the sliver can’t be too bright, or it’s just going to be pinging everywhere. So we had to find a new texture for the silver and all the detail work.

What you’re saying gets at what’s most interesting about this film: you can sense the collaboration between its many departments. I’d like to know about conversations with production design, in terms of sets and props and costumes you’ll have to photograph.

They start really early on a film like that because you’re building a world together. It’s not like you’re inhabiting a location and just dressing it; it’s not like you’re building one space. You’re imagining what a fictional African country would look like, and how some of it, in a sense, would work, so there’s so much communication on a movie like that that it set a bar for what I want to do, even on smaller movies, which is: get everybody on the same page early on.

I think the key to a VFX movie working, actually, is you understand the intent. I fought to have a blue screen and not a green screen, so you know what’s outside the window and the lighting makes sense. If you’re going to figure it all out later, you have nothing to build from. The other thing is: we all emphasized doing as much in-camera as we could, which meant building sets and things people could interact with, so you kind of understand the world and the space. It gives the actors something to not only interact with, but inspire them. They understand the world they’re inhabiting, so we all got on the same page pretty fast — that way, whenever there was a blue screen out the window, we had very few sets that were full-VFX, full-composite, but just in terms of understanding what was outside the glass, we all knew what it was going to be.

And then you get involved with wardrobe, too. When I went back to make it blue screen instead of green screen, the first person I had to talk to was the costume designer and make sure that she wasn’t planning too much blue that was going to make compositing off of a blue screen problematic. Or, if it was, what shades of blue? Things like that.


Could you elaborate on the differences between blue and green screens?

There were several reasons why I wanted to work with blue screen instead of green. One is just that there’s nothing natural about a green screen environment. First of all, the spill from green makes no sense; it’s not something we experience in our world, so it feels very artificial. Even when good compositors do a pretty good job pulling out the green, I feel like, if you pull out too much green, things get a little magenta and it just doesn’t feel right. Whereas blue may not be the same color as the sky, but it feels a little more like the way a world could be and the spill from it feels a little bit more natural.

And then just living in that for as long as you are, green screen makes everybody a little crazy; it’s so unnatural that you start to feel the artifice, where I think blue can fade into the background a little more. Even with my lighting, I try to make something the actors can inhabit a little bit and feel they are a part of the world, and green screen screams artifice; it screams theatricality, where blue can be a little more subtle.

The blue screen work has a certain artificiality that works, but how it interacts with physical elements surprises me. For instance, the snowy landscape —


The lighting established in that space actually resembles sunlight as it would bounce off snow, which I appreciate. And it makes me wonder about the interaction between post-production and in-camera.

That sort of goes back to the thing about production design: you have to be super-communicative and consistent with your vision from beginning to end for it to be a successful collaboration. Where normally I find there’s a trilogy between me, the director, and the production designer, with this it’s a quad between me, the director, the production designer, and the VFX supervisor, because he’s the person who’s going to take a production designer’s vision and carry it through on the VFX side of things. You have to understand what the world is so you can light it.

Jabari is a perfect example: the structure was set and the outside was blue, but I knew exactly what was going… there was snow around where they find he’s still alive—that was fake snow, but snow—the other is up in the air, while he’s surrounded by mountains, but we all still understood that it was a world that was white. Then we surrounded the whole set with white. You know what you’re selling, and that helps you do it convincingly.


It doesn’t stand out as much as the astral plane, but if it’s wrong, there will be an internal response.

The astral dreams, we knew exactly what they’d look like in the finished versions. We’d been discussing aurora borealis and what the color palette was like and how fast the light would change or move. You can light to something that everybody feels like they understand. I couldn’t go study that light in an actual world, but I could certainly look at references for it. As long as VFX doesn’t go rogue—you take a world that’s meant to be aurora borealis and they make it underwater—then you should be okay.

In post, what kind of disagreements arise between you and a VFX party?

Fortunately for me, it was great. There was a real, mutual respect and dialogue. I think, with VFX—probably not unlike in-camera imagery—there’s many ways to achieve the same end, or slightly different ends. But you can take three paths and end up at the same destination, so it becomes a collective discussion of which path is the best, and why. I would say that was true for every VFX shot: “do we want to approach it like this?” At least in this, it was a very respectable, agreeable path to deciding what’s best.

I think it could’ve been a very different experience for me, in a negative way, if I came aboard and the VFX supervisor was like, “This is the path we’ll take. This is how it’s done.” It really, thankfully, was never like that. They’re doing their job well if it marries seamlessly with the in-camera work, so we all have the same incentive to achieve whatever the destination is, or really the same incentive to work really well together. If we’re at odds, then you’re going to have shots that sort of break apart because the VFX doesn’t marry well with the in-camera work.

This was a really symbiotic relationship, and I could not thing of a better foray into VFX-heavy work than this one. And I didn’t have a ton of experience going into it, but it’s really intuitive. This was not a movie where we’re chasing around a CG stick — we had no CG characters, which might have complicated things a bit — but, for the most part, it was… not self-explanatory, but, as terrified as I was going in, I quickly realized it was all just common sense.


You worked on one of the decade’s most important films, Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie. I have to ask what it was like having a big role on that set. I mean, they do seem like professionals who know what they want.


But still a fascinating experience.

Especially for me. If you know my work now, you would be even more shocked to see me on that film. It was fun. Look: I probably wouldn’t have taken it if I was offered it today, but it was an opportunity for me, at the time, to do a slightly bigger movie—it was a full union crew; kind of a notch on the bedpost—and yet, it was a blast. Comedy is not as fulfilling for me from a cinematography standpoint, so I don’t make a habit out of it, but there’s something to be said for going to set and laughing all day long and not taking yourself too seriously.

If I could weave a little more of that into my world without getting pigeonholed into that space, I probably would. Sadly, we’re an industry that loves to pigeonhole, so the second you shoot a comedy, you get offered nothing but comedies. I don’t like the respite enough to take that chance with it, but yeah: it was a blast. Absolutely ridiculous and reminds you how silly our industry is. But also really fun.

That credit will always be there, and I think it’s something of which to be proud.

I appreciate that. For a long time, I wanted to bury that and bury some of the other things I’d done—The Hills being one of them—and now, thankfully, because my career has gone where I wanted it to go, I can look back at those things and kind of laugh, the way you look back at a bad high school photo or the braces phase. If I hadn’t gotten to where I am now, I’d feel like I wouldn’t be able to sort of take it with the levity that I do. Now I’m like, “Oh, look at this funny thing that I did.”

Black Panther is now available on Netflix and home video.

Follow our complete EnergaCamerimage 2018 coverage.

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