Rachel Morrison is a cinematographer whose known for her work in films like ‘Fruitvale’ and ‘Black Panther.’ Her work on the Netflix original film ‘Mudbound,’ earned her an Oscar nomination in 2018.
Who Is Rachel Morrison?
Rachel Morrison (born April 27, 1978) is a cinematographer whose projects include Black Panther (2018), Cake (2014), Dope (2015) and Fruitvale Station (2013). For her work on Mudbound (2017), she became the first woman in the nine decades the Academy Awards have existed to receive an Oscar nomination for cinematography (in addition, Morrison's sexuality means she is the first lesbian to be nominated in this category). She is also a member of the American Society of Cinematographers.
Morrison has done cinematography for films, documentaries and television projects. This role, which is usually credited as the director of photography, makes her responsible for the cameras, lenses and lighting used during a shoot. The DP therefore creates the look of a film or show, while serving the story and the director's vision.
Morrison has said, "I look for cinematography that is invisible to the project, that feels like it’s in service to the story but doesn’t feel so stylized that you’re noticing the cinematography itself."
Morrison's wife is Rachel Garza whom she married in 2011. They have a son, born in 2014.
Morrison received an Oscar nomination for her work on Mudbound, which was directed by Dee Rees and released by Netflix. The film, based on the novel by Hillary Jordan, is about two families — one white, one black — in the Mississippi Delta in the 1940s. It examines the trauma of war, racism and other harsh realities of the time.
While prepping for the film, Morrison was inspired by Depression-era photographers — like Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks and Arthur Rothstein — who documented images for the Farm Security Administration. Though she would've preferred to use film for the shoot, the small-scale budget made digital a more practical choice. But Morrison did what she could, such as using vintage lenses, to approximate the look of film.
As Mudbound's funding came through later than expected, the film shot in July, not January as had been planned. This meant Morrison, the rest of the crew and the cast had to cope with the intense heat and regular downpours of a Southern summer. However, Morrison feels that these elements ended up enhancing the film's visuals.
In addition to her Oscar nod, Mudbound led to Morrison being the first woman to receive a nomination in the feature category from the American Society of Cinematographers. She was also nominated by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the Broadcast Film Critics Association, and won an award from the New York Film Critics Circle.
With Black Panther, Morrison became the first woman to serve as director of photography on a Marvel Cinematic Universe film. Director Ryan Coogler pushed for her to get hired, as the two had successfully worked together on Fruitvale Station. (Coogler had also asked Morrison to be the DP for his 2015 film Creed, but she had to turn down the job as giving birth to her son would have disrupted the shooting schedule.)
Black Panther had a much bigger budget than Morrison's past projects, but she's said the size of the film didn't keep her from focusing on the emotions at the center of the story. Working for Marvel did provide greater access to cameras and equipment than she'd had before. Black Panther was also the first film on which Morrison didn't operate a camera herself, as she was in charge of much bigger crews than in the indie world and didn't want to be distracted from her managerial responsibilities.
Since its February 2018 release, Black Panther has been an enormous success at the box office. Given this, Morrison hopes other big budget films will be encouraged to hire more women.
Palo Alto, CA (2007) was the first feature on which Morrison served as director of photography. She also handled cinematography for Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie (2012) and the indie thriller Sound Of My Voice (2011).
Morrison's breakthrough project was Fruitvale Station. She and director Coogler wanted this film — which told the story of Oscar Grant's last day, before he was shot and killed by a transit cop — to seem almost like a documentary.
Other projects on which Morrison was DP include 2013's The Harvest and Little Accidents (2014). She also filled this role for HBO's Confirmation (2016), about Anita Hill's testimony during Clarence Thomas' confirmation hearings to join the Supreme Court.
In addition, Morrison has served as the DP for documentaries, such as the Emmy-nominated Rikers High (2005). She will also be the cinematographer for an upcoming documentary about the #MeToo movement.
Before making her mark in features, Morrison was DP for reality series such as The Hills and Newport Harbor: The Real Orange County. She's said reality TV gave her the chance to learn about newer cameras and types of lighting equipment, knowledge that she was able to carry over into films. In addition, the work helped pay for her student loans.
Women and Cinematography
Just four percent of the cinematographers working on 2017's top 250 films were women; this was actually down from five percent in 2016. The American Society of Cinematographers, founded in 1919, had admitted no women into its ranks until 1980.
In 2018 Morrison wrote in Time magazine, "I’ve never understood why there are so few female directors of photography. The job speaks to everything we do well: multitasking, empathy, emotion." Given the dearth of female DPs, Morrison has often been mistaken for another member of the film crew, such as a caterer or makeup artist.
Morrison has directed episodes of the TV shows American Crime and Quantico. Yet networks have been reluctant to have her work for them as a director of photography.
When Was Rachel Morrison Born?
Rachel Morrison was born on April 27, 1978.
Morrison grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts and became interested in photography at a young age. One reason for this was her mother's breast cancer diagnosis and the fact that her father also had health problems. Morrison noted in Time magazine, "Photography was a way for me to freeze time and to capture the moments that were happy and healthy."
Morrison attended Concord Academy, where she was able to study photojournalism. However, her interests ended up shifting to film; talking to the Los Angeles Times about this she said, "I think I realized there was a power to the moving image that I couldn't equal in still photography."
At New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, she pursued a double major in photography and film. Morrison then went on to get her master's degree in cinematography from the American Film Institute Conservatory.
Morrison may direct again in the future, but her focus is on cinematography. She also hopes that more women will join her in this career, and thinks her Oscar nod and the surrounding attention may provide some of the inspiration necessary for this to happen. She would be happy to be known as just a cinematographer, without the focus on being a female DP, which will likely only happen when the field reaches a more equitable gender balance.
Going forward, Morrison intends to keep doing work that means something to her. As she told CNN in 2018, "I've always looked for projects that have some messaging behind them and felt timely or relevant and important in some way and spoke to some of the injustices that are occurring in our world."