Rachel Morrison Interview: ‘Black Panther’ cinematographer
Rachel Morrison needed a crash course on the Marvel Cinematic Universe before she started work on “Black Panther.”
“I got the cheat sheet of where I should start [watching the previous films], but I tried to watch everything by the time we had to shoot,” she shared at Gold Derby’s Meet the Experts: Cinematographers panel, moderated by this author (watch above). “It was a totally new language for me. I didn’t even know how to read a comic book. It’s left and right, up and down. It is a different language. Superhero films in general were just not something I grew up with, so I had to learn the rules in order to hopefully break the rules.”
Morrison, who became the first Oscar-nominated female DP earlier this year for “Mudbound” (2017), reunited with her “Fruitvale Station” (2013) director Ryan Coogler on “Black Panther.” Together, they introduced fans to Wakanda with a color palette never before seen in any MCU film: lush, vibrant and practically bursting off the screen.
“We spent a lot of time in Africa before we shot. That became a huge reference for us. If anything, I’d like to believe that Wakanda is a love letter to Africa,” Morrison said. “We wanted the light there to feel very different than the light anywhere else in the film and what that would look like. Our approach was a warm afternoon sunlight. I said to someone the other day, ‘If we could sort of Terrence Malick all of Wakanda, that’s what we would’ve loved to do.’ I think the main thing was that it felt different.”
She adapted that approach to switch up one outdoor scene in particular. During T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Killmonger’s (Michael B. Jordan) waterfall fight, the skies were gray but still bright, symbolizing what was unfolding in the scene: Killmonger usurping T’Challa for the Wakandan crown. “I was looking at references of what it looks like when the sun comes out after a storm and you have these deep gray blue clouds, but also warm light,” Morrison said. “[It was] the juxtaposition of those color contrasts basically, and how to achieve that with a certain amount of pairing of natural light and VFX.”
Morrison, who hopes to return for “Black Panther 2,” which is in early stages of development, also reflected on her historic Oscar nomination. She’s still “getting used to” being a role model, but has been using her increased visibility to advocate for working moms and pregnant women. She’s most heartened by the efforts to put more women behind the camera since her Oscar breakthrough.
“I think the change is really palpable, really evident and exciting. I’m seeing more and more women in the camera department, I’m seeing more female grips and electrics,” she said. “I’m seeing more women getting the chance to make the leap from smaller films to bigger films. For me, it took I think seven Sundance films before I got a small studio movie. It’s nice to see women out there and people of color who shoot a small movie and get a chance to do something bigger, which is what we saw so many of our counterparts getting to do.”