Spotlight: Cinematographer Rachel Morrison, A.S.C.

While the majority of the film community rave about established cinematographers like Roger Deakins, Robert Richardson, Emmanuel Lubezki, and more, it is our desire to put a spotlight on talented female cinematographers for a change. These are world-class directors of photography (DP) who are breaking the mold and paving the way for current and future women in film. For our first DP spotlight, it would fit the bill to focus on an incredible filmmaker who is the definition of “shattering the celluloid ceiling”.

In 2017, Rachel Morrison became the first woman in history to be nominated for an Oscar in Best Cinematography. It goes without to say that this is a major milestone for female filmmakers, especially since this is an area of filmmaking that is heavily dominated by her male counterparts. It only took nearly nine decades for us to achieve this breakthrough but if you were to ask Morrison, she is “most inspired when [she] is out of [her] element.”

Before her rise to fame, it was photographs that sparked Morrison’s creativity when she was younger. She would borrow her mother’s old Olympus camera and take pictures with it. Ultimately, it was what drove her to be behind the camera. At the time, her mother was battling breast cancer and for Morrison, this was her “… way to defy mortality and freeze time.” Her mother sadly passed away when she was only 15 years old.

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In high school, Morrison continued to capture moments and started to learn more about cinematography. When she attended New York University, she loved photography and filmmaking so much that she took both as a double major. Though she originally considered becoming a photojournalist, Morrison eventually ventured fully into cinematography because it was fascinating how “you could take 24 still photographs per second and be part of telling an emotional, complete story.” After graduating from NYU, she attended the American Film Institute to pursue graduate studies in cinematography. In 2006, she completed the program with a Master of Fine Arts. When she spoke to the folks at Musicbed, she discussed how incredible of an experience it was to be a student at AFI:

“The most critical thing it gave me was confidence in my own abilities. Especially as a female DP when there are so few of us, you need to have faith that you know your s***. If you’re confident, people will treat you with respect.”

After completely her film degrees, Morrison spent some time shooting for reality TV gigs before finally chasing after narrative filmmaking. Arguably the most iconic moment of her career would be when she was picked as the cinematographer for Dee Ree’s “Mudbound” (2017). For this movie, she “expertly captured the earthy tones and textures of 1940s Mississippi despite limited resources and [the] constantly changing weather.” Her work with lighting and creating “images high in contrast and grit” ultimately resulted in her Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography, the first woman ever to have the honor. In an interview with TIME, Morrison expresses the valuable lesson she came across for accomplishing such an important feat:

“When I learned I’d become the first woman nominated for a cinematography Oscar, on the one hand I felt like it was about frigging time, and it’s unfortunate that [Ellen] Kuras and [Mandy] Walker and [Nancy] Schreiber and the women who have been trailblazing for decades didn’t get this opportunity. But on the other hand, I think it’s better late than never. We’ve gained this realization that there are still these strongholds — and if we can break down this stronghold, then we can break down another.”

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Not only was Morrison’s Academy Award nomination a significant landmark for female filmmakers, but she also became the first woman to win the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Cinematographer as well as the first woman to be nominated for the feature category of the American Society of Cinematographers Outstanding Achievement Awards.

One person who also had a major influence on Morrison’s career as a cinematographer is director Ryan Coogler. They first worked together on “Fruitvale Station” (2013) which was Coogler’s directorial debut. It was well-received when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, which resulted in Coogler offering Morrison her first big-budget job on his next movie “Creed” (2015).

Unfortunately, she was forced to decline the offer because her first child was due in the middle of production. In a few year’s time, however, they would join forces again as they tackle Marvel Studios’ “Black Panther” (2018) which made Morrison the first female cinematographer for a Marvel film. She recalls what that pressure felt like to TIME:

“Being the first in anything comes with a responsibility and a little bit of added pressure because you don’t want to screw it up. You want to set the bar high so that the floodgates open.”

On Set of Mudbound

More recently, it was announced that Morrison will be making her feature directorial debut in the near future. In June, Variety reported that she was in negotiations to helm Universal’s “Flint Strong”, which was written by Barry Jenkins. Instead of taking on the director role, however, Jenkins will be stepping aside as the film’s producer instead. This provided Morrison the opportunity to take the helm as a first-time director. Inspired by true events, “Flint Strong” follows the journey of 17-year old Claressa “T-Rex” Shields who is a Flint, Michigan native and has dreams to become the first woman in history to win an Olympic gold medal in boxing during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

During her interview with TIME, Morrison shares her own thoughts about the lack of women who serve as directors of photography and why she believes the role is perfectly molded for them:

“I’ve never understood why there are so few female directors of photography. The job speaks to everything we do well: multitasking, empathy, emotion. Cinematography is so much about instinct and intuition — you want the same range of experience going into behind the camera as what you see in front of it. Your life experience will come through the lens.”

Sources: Rachel Morrison Official Website, EWA Network, Rolling Stone, Musicbed Blog, No Film School Blog, TIME, Variety



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