Rachel Morrison’s cinematography in director Dee Rees’ Mudbound masterfully illustrates the story of two intertwined families, one black and one white, on a Mississippi farm in 1940s post WWII. The story follows the white McAllan family, Henry (Jason Clarke), his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), and his racist father Pappy (Jonathan Banks), as they attempt to work the barren landscape into a functioning cotton farm. The Jackson family, Hap (Rob Morgan), his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) and their oldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), lease and work the land for the McAllans in a gripping drama that navigates racism, poverty, misogyny and the horrors of Jim Crow laws.
Morrison and Rees knew one another from the indie festival circuit and had developed a mutual respect. When Rees presented the project to her, Morrison was particularly attracted to the script, it’s social implication and “the fact that it was a period piece.” They didn’t want to romanticize the look of the post war South with typically stylized period film golden tones or milky blacks. They went for a “less polished realism” of authentic locations; the viewer feels the brutal heat and sweat of the South in summer. Morrison explained, “The mud was a character, the weather was a character and the house was a character. We were trying to make more of a commentary about how tough times were through the characters’ experiences, and not glorify the time period, to illustrate the contrast between the American dream and it’s reality.”
Rees introduced Morrison to artist Whitfield Lovell’s portraits on wood as an initial visual reference. Swiss born Robert Frank’s portraits from The Americans were influential for their honest and unembellished view of post WWII, especially those that tell the story of racial and social inequalities; Les Blank’s documentary The Blues According to Lightning Hopkins was inspirational for it’s raw spontaneity.
Rees and Morrison specifically turned to the works of depression era FSA (Farm Security Administration) photographers, like Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Arthur Rothstein and Walker Evans, who were an inspiration for design and composition. “The subjects were unified by their circumstances,” said Morrison. “It’s equal part landscape and individual faces, each one telling an amazing story.” The drama is told through wide vistas and medium shots with plenty of space around the characters.
Morrison chose Panavision lenses from the 1970s, which created “a softness around the edges and helped reference a sense of the past, reminiscent of old photographs. They felt more tactile, more authentic, and more analog,” noted Morrison. “The glass was soft enough that we didn’t need any additional diffusion (filters).” She used the C-series, and a few D and B-series, anamorphic lenses for day exteriors, but avoided them for nights because they flare horizontally, which “I like for certain things, but I don’t like for a period film,” she added.
For night interiors and exteriors, she primarily used Ultra Speed and Super Speed spherical ‘detuned’ (coatings removed) lenses, since they were “shooting with real candles and practical lighting,” which create flares. The vintage lenses also took the sharp edge off the digital look.
They wanted to shoot on 16mm film, but it wasn’t in the budget. Their goal was to “make it look like film as much as we could.” Morrison chose the Arri Alexa Mini camera, set for Open Gate Arri Raw at a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. She performed tests to develop a LUT, and then chose “three gamma variations of the same LUT: low, medium and high contrast” to be used at different points depending on the scene. Instead of shooting at the camera’s native 800 ASA, she chose to shoot the day scenes (interior and exterior) and night interiors at 1280 ASA, and at 1600 ASA for night exteriors “to introduce a little bit of digital noise.” She also did a full grain pass during grading for the DI. Morrison laments that she “would have shot film for day and digital for night,” if the budget had allowed, because of the extra latitude and stop. “For day, you still can’t beat film!”
For color inspiration, Morrison and Rees referenced Gordon Parks’ A Segregation Story, shot in 1956 for Time magazine, where the colors were “subdued but not washed out, with deep velvety blacks. It felt period, but not washed-out,” by retaining its contrast, which supports the “contrasts between the two families to reflect their circumstances.” The visual arc of the film shifts when the McAllans move to the farm.
At the beginning of the film, “the colors are saturated and pop more,” said Morrison. “The camera is very stable and steady, and the movement is more fluid,” shot with a dolly or with Steadicam. She used the Steadicam, in particular, during Henry and Laura’s courtship. After the McAllans “show up at the farm and disrupt the Jackson’s way of life, the colors are less saturated, with more contrast, and the camera movement is more rough and tumble. I shot handheld and handheld on the dolly.” They did use a crane for select shots: “a few establishing wide shots, a tractor shot and when Ronsel leaves for war, drifting down past the McAllan’s house.” The production’s tight budget only allowed for a 30-day shooting schedule, so they carried two cameras. Morrison operated along with A-camera operator, Robert Stenger.
The visual contrast between the McAllan and Jackson families is reflected in Morrison’s lighting and color choices. The McAllans have “some electricity and windows with screens that separate them from the outside world,” and the colors are more pastel. The Jacksons’ color palette has “more earth tones, since they burned wood for fuel. They’re more connected to their environment and to each other,” highlighting the affectionate family. In contrast, the McAllans’ environment was “much more vapid and cool,” emphasizing the couple’s disconnected relationship.
Rees and Morrison wanted to embrace the realities of the unforgiving landscape by shooting in the elements, giving it a natural authenticity. The Southern humidity created a “natural, glistening quality to the skin.” Morrison continued. “There was a layer of mud on everyone: mud on the finger nails, mud on the faces. You get the sense that the mud is just pervasive.” They wanted the audience to “feel like they’re getting soaked or stuck in the mud.”
In fact, the biggest challenge on the production was the rain and actual mud. The opening scene, where the McAllan brothers are digging their father’s grave, was shot over the course of several days. They only had one rain tower for wide shots, and the sun would go in and out. “The continuity was impossible,” said Morrison. About her crew, she exclaimed, “it’s the best crew I’ve ever had!”
It was essential for Dee Rees to shoot in actual locations. Morrison found it inspiring because “you can feel the tactile qualities of the hundreds of years that have been lived in the space. But it is a compromise, and you end up with less flexibility,” especially since she used natural daylight as much as possible.
The sharecropper homes used as locations for the McAllan and Jackson families were small, with few windows and low ceilings – not enough room to hide lights to supplement candlelight or lanterns. Morrison feels that the real locations were worth the compromises needed. “There’s a lot less flexibility, but you get a lot of awesome ideas and you’re forced into these happy accidents.” They used tungsten units to supplement at night, and LiteGear LED LiteMats were used for both night and day scenes.
Morrison asked production designer, David Bomba, to “cut a couple of holes in the ceiling in both houses – not to feel like there was a skylight, but to have a way to add some fill light,” since there was generally an 8-10 stop lighting ratio between the inside and outside. The ‘skylights’ meant they had to schedule the shots according to the sun’s path throughout the day. They also used hard ND over the on-screen windows. Gaffer Bob Bates bounced Arri 18Ks and M90s through windows or skipped off muslin on the floor to help balance the interior and exterior. Morrison confessed, “It was the hardest I’ve ever had to work to make natural light look natural.”
Morrison would have liked to shoot the day exteriors in the late afternoon, but it wasn’t possible, due to time constraints. The only scene shot at magic hour was when Jamie presents a makeshift exterior shower to Laura, when she takes a shower at sunset where “the act of getting clean is so sensual for her.”
The harsh realities portrayed in Mudbound bring to life the social boundaries and prejudices of the era, in contrast to the sweeping beauty of the landscape. Rachel Morrison has just made history as the first female nominated for an Academy Award in cinematography. Her powerful photography in the film could very well land her an Oscar.