ONFILM Interview: Rachel Morrison

Published on website: September 13, 2013
Categories: ONFILM
Rachel Morrison. Photo by Douglas Kirkland

"I try to approach shooting not from a purely technical standpoint, but also from an emotional one, letting narrative inform the technique. I’m driven by the desire to capture human emotion in its raw, pure form, to decisively freeze a moment in time that might take on its own life and live forever. Great photographers can distill the human spirit to one moment, the single most poignant moment representing the lifetime of a story. There’s something really special about chance, as opposed to the rigidity of the known and the calculated. Life is random. Film echoes that randomness.”

Rachel Morrison lensed Fruitvale Station, winner of the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Awards at Sundance in 2013. She also photographed Any Day Now, which won the Audience Award at Tribeca and eight other film festivals. She earned an Emmy® nomination for the Showtime documentary Riker’s High. Her other feature credits include Palo Alto, CA; Sound of My Voice; Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie; Some Girl(s) and The Harvest. Women In Film honored Morrison with the 2013 Kodak Vision Award for her outstanding achievements in cinematography.

A Conversation with Rachel Morrison

What are your earliest memories of photography or filmmaking?
My mom was an amateur photographer and I spent the first few years with a lens trained on me. I’m in every photo until I was about 5, and at some point, I just turned the camera around. I became obsessed with the idea that I could somehow ‘freeze time.’ I thought I could defy mortality that way.

Was photography a part of your education?
Yes. I actually chose my high school based on the strength of its photo department, and a blossoming film department.

At what point did you shift your emphasis from still photography to moving pictures?
When I went to NYU, I was torn between film and photography. The photo department was much smaller and more hands-on from the get-go. At that point, I had already been processing my own film and printing my own pictures. The chemicals were intoxicating. I wanted to get right into the mix. In the film department, you had to start with theory classes. I couldn’t sit still in the classroom. I always had to have my hand on the camera. That’s why I decided to go the photo route. By the end of my time at NYU, I was more specifically interested in cinematography. For a long time I thought I could do both. I wound up double majoring in film and photo, and even after school, I was taking my photo portfolio around, trying to get photojournalism work. But as someone pointed out to me, I was a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. I knew I had to pick one. For me, that was one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make – whether to pursue photography or cinematography. I was very much interested in photojournalism, specifically war and conflict photography, as well as environmental portraiture, which require non-stop travel. I realized that it was an isolationist’s career whereas I love the collaborative nature of film and take inspiration from working with others. Needless to say, I chose cinematography.

Which still photographers inspired you and why?
There are so many – Robert Capa, Gordon Parks, W. Eugene Smith, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Sebastiao Salgado, Philip Lorca-Dicorcia, Gary Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Helen Levitt. I think the theme that is consistent in their work is the desire to capture human emotion in its raw, pure form, and to freeze a moment in time that would then take on its own life and could live forever, in some sense. Each of these photographers manages to dilute the human spirit to one frame. They capture the single most poignant moment to represent the lifetime of the story.

Which cinematographers do you hold in high regard, and why?
Again, I hardly know where to begin. Masters like Gordon Willis, Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler. There are so many contemporary cinematographers whose work I find inspiring – Stephane Fontaine, Robby Ryan, Sean Bobbit, Ellen Kuras, Rodrigo Prieto, Mandy Walker, Emmanuel Lubezki, Slawomir Idziak and my dear friend Reed Morano.

Ellen, obviously, is inspirational because in addition to having an incredible eye, she is a trailblazer and someone who has earned the respect of her peers and all the people she has collaborated with. That’s extremely important. For better or worse, being a good DP requires patience, a certain ease, and good communication skills. It is quite political and you have to ‘play well with others.’ As much as we would all like it to be purely creative, it’s really the intersection of art and politics, with a little psychology mixed in.

Willis is the master of shadow. He was so good at being very decisive about how much to show the audience and how much to hold back. His work is very intentional. I feel like he almost gave more weight to what one couldn’t see than what one could. The implication of something more than what’s right in front of you – that can actually be so more profound than spelling something out for the audience. Whether that’s holding on reaction shots or the moments between dialog, I think it’s important to let the audience fill in certain blanks. It keeps them engaged and enables the imagination. …

Prieto, Fontaine and Ryan take naturalism to a new level. I know how much work it takes sometimes to seem so effortless, but it makes all the difference. These cinematographers engage the audience on a journey through the character’s eyes. This style is perhaps the most influential to me – true subjectivity.

After NYU, you attended American Film Institute. How did that experience contribute to your career?
More than anything AFI gave me the confidence in my own vision to endure as a DP. AFI provided the base of knowledge, the chance to meet inspiring DPs, and to have lighting seminars by so many of my heroes. Bill Dill left a lasting impression on me. He is really an incredible teacher. He’s very challenging, which I like. He doesn’t let you slide under the radar. He will pick apart every last decision you make and make you own up to your thought process behind it. Once you look at it that way – what is at the heart of the story and the character at this moment – you approach shooting not from a purely technical standpoint, but from a much more emotional and narrative standpoint. I learned to let story and emotion be the factors that inform the technique.

What do you say to a director when a director asks if film is the right choice?
I think it depends on the core of the story. Digital is appropriate for certain situations, but I definitely don’t think digital is a full substitute for film – and I don’t think it ever will be. There’s something random about film that you lose when you shoot digital. It could be the unpredictable happy accidents – a mag getting flashed that is better for the shot in the end, something that you didn’t see in camera, or light kissing off the filter (“ghosting”) that winds up being beautiful. There’s a subtlety in the way that film handles light – to the curve that digital still hasn’t managed to replicate. And of course, the granularity. I’ve seen many, many attempts to emulate grain during the DI process, and it’s still very calculated. It’s a formula. With film, it’s organic. Even the batch of chemicals can be a decisive factor in how the grain structure reacts to the emulsion. You take all of these elements of chance out when you’re shooting digital. I think there’s something really special about chance, as opposed to the rigidity of the known and the calculated. If you think about it, life is random. It’s unpredictable, and here we are attempting to mimic life in as real a way as possible. Film echoes the organic chaos of life.

If the cinematographer is a combination of artist and technician, where do you fall on that continuum?
I would say I’m in the middle. I think if you go too far to one side or the other, it ends up inhibiting your job. I try to control as much optically in-camera as I can, not relying on post-effects, which is almost an old school philosophy at this point. But getting completely caught up in the technical suddenly makes you a mathematician, not an artist. It’s a delicate balance between getting close to what you want but not taking out the poetry or the dance with the actors by being married to waveform monitors and vectorscopes.

You recently shot Little Accidents for director Sara Colangelo on 35 mm film. Tell us about that experience.
The mining environment is an essential character in Little Accidents and we felt strongly that the textured and organic structure of film was the best way to do justice to the layer of grit and elbow grease that pervades. The enhanced latitude allowed us to expose for deep coal blacks, kissed by the hot afternoon sun. We sought to highlight the poetic beauty of Appalachia – coal dust suspended in the air, rich mountain greens blending with golden rust ... and we were beyond pleased each time we saw our dailies. Furthermore, by documenting modern coal country on celluloid, we were referencing a rich photographic history that extends as far back as the turn of the century. Not to mention, coal was used to make steel and to build this nation. It’s all very analog and so we felt incredibly fortunate to be able to honor the tradition. Our hope is that the audience will experience this at least on a subconscious level, which will inform the story and raise the stakes.