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DP Rachel Morrison on Black Panther, Scaling Up for Marvel and 10-Hour Days

Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther

I’ve never interviewed a cinematographer who thought they had enough time or enough money — not once, no matter how big or how small the movie. With Black Panther, Rachel Morrison moved from the indie world to the gilded soundstages of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” a land of $150 million budgets and 100-day shooting schedules.

So did the recent Oscar nominee feel like she had everything she needed?

“No, not even close,” laughs Morrison, who earned the Marvel gig after her work on Fruitvale Station, Dope and Mudbound. “I had the naive expectation that once you get to that level nobody says ‘no., that there’s this endless supply of time and money. I learned pretty quickly that couldn’t be further from the truth. We were actually stretched pretty thin. A lot of the money went into the design elements. Next thing you know there’s not quite enough money to light the set. But it’s the difference between begging for one extra SkyPanel [on a small budget movie] and begging for an extra 50.”

Considering the movie’s box office success, Marvel will probably toss in a few more SkyPanels for the sequel. A welcome break from the overstuffed Avengers team-ups, Black Panther unfolds largely in the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda. Powered by the metal Vibranium, Wakanda’s technology has far surpassed that of the rest of the world’s, but the kingdom has remained sequestered, hidden behind a cloaking device. The crux of the film’s conflict is whether the Wakandans should share their resources with oppressed and impoverished people across the globe. New king T’Challa (aka the Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman) wants to remain hidden. Antagonist Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) wants to share Wakanda’s wealth, knowledge and weapons.

With the film still atop the box office after four weeks in release, Morrison spoke to Filmmaker about the making of Black Panther.

Filmmaker: When somebody moves up from the indie world to the blockbuster world, I usually ask them how that affects their job. But I’m interested in how doing Black Panther affected you on a personal level. I work on small movies – things that shoot for five or six weeks. Even those condensed schedules can be brutal, especially as someone who has a kid. Just as a human being, how hard is it on your life to have a shooting schedule that’s as long as a big franchise movie requires?

Morrison: Black Panther was actually quite quick by Marvel standards. It was something like 72 days, where most of their films are well over 100 days. The biggest adjustment was that we shot 10-hour days (instead of the standard 12-hour days). It was tricky for me as a DP, but amazing as a mom. I went from barely seeing my son at all throughout Mudbound to actually getting home in time to tuck him into bed at night on Black Panther because of the 10-hour day, which I’m now a huge proponent of. Marvel’s reasoning is that they have such extensive costume and make-up work that by the time you get everybody disrobed and made-down for lunch and then make them back up after lunch, you’ve lost two hours anyway and you lose momentum. So their ideology was to just work straight through. That’s challenging at times because you don’t have your lunch break to reassess or make a new plan, but it was really incredible as a human being.

Filmmaker: And you had very little downtime between wrapping Mudbound and starting prep on Black Panther. I read it was something like two weeks.

Morrison: It was actually less. I went from Mudbound almost straight into a scout for Black Panther. We spent two weeks in South Africa and South Korea. We ended up having 10 weeks of continuous prep on Panther, which is three times as much as I’ve had on pretty much every other film I’ve ever done. But you also need it on a film like Panther, because so much is planning and building and constructing and getting on the same page conceptually. It’s not the same as just finding locations and making them work for you.

Filmmaker: Anything specific from that scouting trip to South Africa that influenced the look of the movie?

Morrison: I think [director] Ryan Coogler, [production designer] Hannah Beachler and myself took a lot of visual inspiration from that trip. We also shot all of our plates in South Africa and Zambia, so some of the wides were actually shot there. I think the whole film is kind of a testament to the things that we saw in person. For instance, the color and the shading of the rocks and earth was very influential for the colors we used for the fight scenes by the waterfall.

Filmmaker: I read that you had to go back and discover all of the other Marvel movies. Did you power through them all in one long, multi-day binge session?

Morrison: It was more like over the course of a month, maybe even more than that. I would watch them on airplanes. I watched a couple of them on my way to South Africa for the scout and watched a couple more on the way back. In conjunction with that, our VFX supervisor Geoffrey Baumann gave me before-and-after comps [from other Marvel films] so I could understand what elements were done in camera and what was done with VFX. That was really helpful as somebody who hadn’t done extensive VFX work before.

Filmmaker: Did you have a favorite Marvel movie?

Morrison: I was partial to the original Captain America.

Filmmaker: Really? That’s like my least favorite one.

Morrison: Maybe it was the second one, but I like the Captain America movies. I like Iron Man too and Matty [Libatique’s] work on those movies. I had a bit of a harder time with the Thors. When they start to float in a netherworld I get lost.

Filmmaker: Tell me about going with the Arri Alexa. You tested the Alexa 65 and were going to test Panavision’s Millennium DXL, but that ended up not happening.

Morrison: Panavision wasn’t ready for us [to test the Millennium DXL]. It was just before they felt like they would have enough production support. So the day of our test they said “Sorry, we just can’t pull it off.” But we tested just about everything else. We tested IMAX, spherical 35mm, anamorphic 35mm, spherical Alexa, anamorphic Alexa, Red 8K and the Alexa 65. I think Ryan and I, as much as we dreamt of shooting on film, probably knew on some level that it just wasn’t a reality for this type of movie.

Filmmaker: Just because of the VFX component?

Morrison: Well, really what it came down to was the scheduling of it. You’re so down to the wire with the deliverables, partly because Marvel backs into their release dates. When you originate on film, if you change a VFX shot out, which happens all the time, you have to go back to the original negative and rescan that shot at a higher resolution than any of your dailies would’ve been at. There’s just not time on the back-end for that. In retrospect, I understand that now having been through the post process. We were changing things down to the night before the movie was delivered. Maybe even hours before the movie was delivered.

Filmmaker: So why not the Alexa 65?

Morrison: That was really a Ryan choice. I actually think that camera gives you a beautiful and lush image, but Ryan didn’t want that shallow depth of field look. He wanted you to be able to see the patterns in the costumes, to see the detail in the production design. He wanted those details to feel tangible and not have everything sort of fall off into the implied world. It was a similar reason for not shooting anamorphic. I love anamorphic and have used it on a lot of films. Ryan hadn’t shot anamorphic before and he just felt like with so many other firsts on Black Panther, he wanted to go with spherical lenses because he really understands those optics and how certain lenses make you feel. I felt like I should defer to him on that rather than try to pressure him into something he wasn’t comfortable with. And plenty of beautiful movies have been shot spherical on the Alexa.

Filmmaker: Did you get an army of cameras to play with?

Morrison: With a lot of the origin movies, because they are untested, you have a little smaller plot to play in. We kind of felt like the little brother or sister to the Avengers. I think they had something like 12 Arri 65 cameras and then we had two Alexas. But at the end of the day it sort of worked out perfectly, because I think if it was up to Ryan, he would’ve shot single camera. So as big of a movie as Black Panther was, it was really a two-camera show, which I think worked in our favor certainly in terms of having tight eyelines and things like that.

Filmmaker: And what did you prefer about the Panavision Primos?

Morrison: That was something I pushed back a little bit on with Ryan. He was very comfortable with the Cooke S4s and I’m a huge fan of them as well, but the one thing that irked me a little bit about them is that their flare is so recognizable. It’s kind of a hexagon and we had a whole theme of circles in this movie. Basically when we’re in America or London — anywhere, really, that wasn’t Wakanda — the design theme was linear, but when we were in Wakanda, it was circular. And the Primos have such a beautiful round bokeh as opposed to the hexagon of the Cookes. With the Primos, the flares are warm and rich and by comparison the Cookes flare a little cooler, a little more neutral. So that was what tipped us in favor of the Primos.

Filmmaker: Did you have any favorite new toys that came along with the bigger budget?

Morrison: There were two big ones. I had a Technocrane and an Oculus head for almost the whole show and there’s pretty much no camera move you can’t do with that combination of tools. So that was fun and exciting. We were able to do things like using a MoVi to take a camera on and off a crane [in the middle of a shot].

Then the other thing was that I’d never had such an involved and complete fixtures department. That whole department is a new philosophy to me where you’re building the lighting into the sets and, in conjunction with that, working with a console operator. I’d done a little bit of work on commercials where we had a console operator and we had one for many of the days on Mudbound but it was smallish rigs. We were mainly using the console operator to create things like firelight effects on Mudbound.

On Black Panther, everything was run through a dimmer board. We were creating totally different looks. As an example, the two astral plane dream scenes were originally conceived to both look the same, with that aurora borealis sky. But with the flip of a button I could audition for Ryan a more sunny, daylight look for the second dream and he ended up liking that.

Filmmaker: How much did you miss operating on Black Panther?

Morrison: It was hard for me to give up, but it was definitely the right choice and I never for a moment regretted it. There was just way too much to manage and too many things happening at the same time for me to be focusing on landing a tricky shot. But operating is something I’ve done my entire life and it’s a big part of how I became a cinematographer. To give that up was not easy to do, but thankfully [A camera operator] Scotty [Sakamoto] is a master. The other thing is I really excel at handheld, but I certainly don’t have the training on a Technocrane. I don’t do Steadicam. So there were a lot of shots that Scotty was the better choice for regardless.

Filmmaker: What’s your role in shots that are completely visual effects?

Morrison: We only had a few shots that were entirely VFX in the whole movie. I could probably count them on one hand and they tended to be establishing wide shots. Most of the time we shot [the practical elements] first and then the VFX establishing shots were created around what we’d shot. The first time I saw one of those wide [VFX] shots it was the Hall of Kings and they had made it with deep fog. We’d always talked about sunlight piercing through a couple of the holes in the stones and that was what motivated my light [when we shot that scene on set]. That light doesn’t make any sense if there’s a deep fog, so they went back and they re-envisioned it. I always felt like my opinion was respected and vice-versa. We really tried to keep open lines of communication from design all the way through to post.

Another VFX shot was the night shot leading into the jungle scene early in the movie. If you were to [practically] shoot a night overhead in a jungle with no light besides the moon, you probably couldn’t realistically see anything. That shot was prevised and really the final shot was just a flushed out version of the previs. So in that case I was lighting on set to a VFX shot that I already knew what it was going to look like.

Filmmaker: There are so many specific scenes I’d love to dig into, but we’re running short on time. Let’s finish up with one shot – tell me about the long take during the fight scene in the South Korean casino. In reality it’s several shots stitched together, but that’s a fun bit with the camera leaping around to different floors of the casino.

Morrison: Originally that entire scene [once the action begins] was going to be one shot. Then we quickly realized that the challenge with this film – unlike [Coogler’s] Fruitvale Station or Creed, which both had pretty extensive oners – was that we weren’t just telling one story. In that casino you needed to know where all of the players were in relation to each other and what each of them was doing. We couldn’t just follow one character. So ultimately we cut the scene up, but, yes, there is still a long oner in there. That was all Ryan’s concept. Those oners have almost become a signature for him.

The nice thing about a Marvel film is that you have the luxury of 3D printing your set. You can make a little model and then you move action figures around to help plan. We also had the luxury of building the set already knowing we wanted to do this oner. That was a pretty cool experience and I probably won’t ever to get repeat anything exactly like it again.

Matt Mulcahey works as a DIT in the Midwest. He also writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.

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