Rachel Morrison is now basking in her historic, breakout moment. She earned the first Oscar nomination for a female cinematographer for the poetic beauty of “Mudbound,” and now has shot the opulent-looking “Black Panther,” starring Chadwick Boseman as the first African-American superhero. It’s the most significant Marvel movie since “Iron Man,” and could have impact on Morrison’s Oscar run.
But, in reuniting with director Ryan Coogler (following their fruitful collaboration on “Fruitvale Station”), Morrison proved that her craft is more about versatility than gender. They’ve graced the MCU with an essential political consciousness and warmth to go along with smart spy fun and requisite superhero action.
“For me, the best part was spending time again with Ryan,” Morrison said. “Our approach was to really find a way to ground it, to make it of this world even though there are elements that were [fantastical]. But, unlike other Marvel films, it’s not like you’re floating in space. It’s a fictional African country [of Wakanda], but we looked at references of everything from ‘Planet Earth’ to ‘Samsara’ to ‘Baraka,’ films that are big in scope but boiled down to humanity.”
“The Godfather” Meets James Bond
As the new king of Wakanda, Boseman’s T’Challa/Black Panther must grapple with family and legacy in finding his place in the world. “The Godfather” was an obvious reference, but there’s also a nod to James Bond as well, with globetrotting spy thrills, not to mention Martin Freeman’s CIA agent Ross evoking Felix Leiter, and T’Challa’s teenage sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), giving off a hip Q vibe. There are even some “Skyfall” riffs.
Funnily enough, Morrison never discussed Bond with Coogler. “We didn’t think of that per se, but James Bond has some pretty cool things in that way,” she said. “The goal was to blend the epic with the intimate.”
But first Morrison had to learn more about making a VFX-intensive actioner, including process and management. “As a result, I took myself off of camera operating privileges,” she said. “There were going to be so many levels with second unit and plate units. It’s a very different beast. I went in somewhat intimidated by how much I didn’t know about how these massive VFX films are achieved.”
Geoffrey Baumann, the production VFX supervisor, sent Morrison side by side comparisons of before and after scenes from many of the different Marvel films to study. “So I got a sense of what originated in camera and what was done in post,” said Morrison. “And it was very intuitive once I got my head around it. The approach almost comes down to common sense: What’s the best way to achieve this scene? The thing that was harder to get used to for me was to look through the lens and not see exactly what I was gonna get.”
Courtesy of Marvel
But Morrison did some virtual camera exploration in prep, and kept having to remind the operators not to shy away from the blue screen. “The set’s cool, but this is a backlit waterfall in this direction and this is a cliff that you’re not gonna see,” she said.
Yet relative to most Marvel films, they had a minimal second unit presence. “Ryan wanted to shoot as much of his own action and everything himself,” Morrison said. “The one true second unit scene was the car chase in Busan, Korea, which kind of killed us not to shoot ourselves. We laid it all out, we scouted it, we picked the streets. It was modeled after ‘Bullitt,’ ‘The French Connection,’ and ‘Drive.’ He wanted to set it on hills so we could get the jumps, that dynamic.”
There were certainly compromises. Instead of shooting in Africa, which was logistically impractical for Marvel, they built sets in Atlanta (though they shot plates in Zambia and South Africa). And, although Morrison would’ve liked to have shot on film or the large-format Alexa 65, it wasn’t feasible, given the hectic post schedule and dealing with last-minute VFX shots. So she used the trusty Alexa.
Visually, though, “Black Panther” provided a range of looks in keeping with the scope and intimacy they were after, from the grittiness of Oakland circa ’92 to the splendor of Wakanda to the colder-looking hidden tech world. “Oakland was a call back to Ryan’s childhood, but also to sodium vapor streetlights,” said Morrison. “The grain and the feel is very reminiscent of ’90s Oakland. And that was inherently different from everything else in the film, which is either contemporary or futuristic.”
For Wakanda, Morrison achieved a lush tropical beauty, with warm sunlight. This was in sharp contrast to London and the rest of the world, which had a neutral, white sunlight. Yet it was different handling fire lit scenes without any fire or sunsets on a stage. “But then, in post, I was thrilled with how it looked,” added Morrison.
When it came to lighting two ritual fights involving T’Challa on a cliff, Morrison made sure they had different looks. The first with mountain tribesman, M’Baku (Winston Duke), occurred on a traditional sunny day, and the second with vengeful supervillain, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), took place on a cloudy day. “The biggest challenge of shooting a movie like this, especially in Atlanta, is continuity,” she said. “You can’t get consistent weather or wind.”
But Morrison persevered with a patchwork quilt of trying to get cover over everyone to then be able to light the scene. It was part of her learning curve with the MCU. “I think Marvel’s incredibly supportive of young auteurs and really let them do their thing and support their vision,” she said. “They give you a sandbox to play in, but it’s a pretty massive one.”