Rachel Morrison created a new history by putting an end to the longest-running curse of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science of not having any female cinematographer nominated for the award for Best Cinematography, let alone winning. For her phenomenal photography in Netflix’s “Mudbound,” the Academy decided to nominate her against four other big names of the industry – Roger Deakins for “Blade Runner 2049,” Hoyte van Hoytema for “Dunkirk,” Bruno Delbonnel for “Darkest Hour” and Dan Laustsen for “The Shape of Water.”
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Official poster of the oscar nominated film Mudbound Netflix
Cinematography which essentially is concerned with the art of moving images in films, comprises all the camera-work of capturing each scene with optimum use of lights and shadows, colours and composition. This was the only left out Academy Awards technical category where the committee has never nominated a woman. And literally the other two left out categories are Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor which are meant for male actors only. This technical field’s nomination never had a woman before due to some key factors; among which the prominent one is that the field is not that big and often is occupied by the same familiar names. Just to show how often the category revolves among the same names, the example of the Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki can be given who has been nominated 8 times and won successively 3 years from 2013 to 2015 for “Gravity” (2013), “Birdman” (2014) and “The Revenant” (2015). Another reason that could be drawn is that, women were rarely seen to be engaged as cinematographers in the early times. Be that the gender biased attitude of the industry or the disinterestedness of the women in such technical fields; even now the things have not changed radically. It is just the past couple of decades when names like Maryse Alberti, Anette Haellmigk and Ellen Kuras are in the talk.
Not only that Morrison has only paved history for female cinematographers but also she has paved the path for Netflix’s debut nomination in any technical categories for Academy Awards. So, it is indeed a massive reckoning for a streaming service to reach that height. It was the beginning of last year when Netflix approached the film “Mudbound,” which was left out by the other distributors in the Sundance Film Festival because of having a serious racial issue as the subject matter. But as Morrison wanted to have the film released in the theatres, she was indecisive about whether or not to go with the streaming service. But that indecisiveness soon vaporised, as she realized that without this streaming service the film would never reach the number of audience it reached.
“It was a double-edged sword,” Morrison said. “I recognized that they were really our champions and our saviours. But of course, the D.P. in me wanted to make sure people had a chance to see it on the big screen.”
The glitter of success did not spark so fast for Morrison. Being so passionate about story-telling through visuals, Rachel Morrison took up the medium of photography at a very young age. As she found it difficult to choose between film and photography, she ended up doing double major in both at New York University and by the end of the degree, she decided to focus on cinematography. In the year of 1999, she got her first interaction to large screen industry as a camera intern in Rob Schmidt’s low budget film “Saturn.”
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At the beginning of her career, Morrison focused on the documentaries and short films. But after 9/11, the field of documentaries got dried up. She had to shift in shooting reality television shows just to get her bills cleared.
Discovering the brilliant work this veteran cinematographer produced, the director-come-screenwriter Dee Rees approached Morrison with her script for “Mudbound.” What appealed the most to Morrison was the period and setting to be recreated for the film. The film follows a story of two share-cropper families in the 1940s – one white and the other black – working in the same land in Mississippi Delta. As the film deals two continents at a time of racial tension and gender discrimination, it was Morrison’s job to assist Rees to find the affinity within the narrative of the film.
The initial plan was to shoot in January which was pushed again and again for finance and casting chaos. As the whole shooting of the film took place in only 29 days in the heated summer of the South, the lighting for achieving the desired look was a great challenge for Morrison. Among other difficulties were the sudden thunderstorms and the inconsistent daylight which caused a great trouble in creating an unvarying scene. But Morrison managed to present in the film some gorgeous landscapes with mud-streaked colours, which indeed proves her to be a great addition to the list of nominees.
Initially, Dan Laustsen, the cinematographer of “The Shape of Water” was the audience favourite for this year’s Oscars, but it fell short as there emerged an accusation of plagiarism against the film. Among the other nominees, Rachel Morrison is not only a favourite because of making history (or should we rather say, ‘her-story’) but also for her eccentric mastery of ambience and composition. But then again, a huge number of fans are waiting for the 14 times nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins to have his breakthrough this time for “Blade Runner 2049.” Whether Morrison wins the Oscar or not, her nomination is enough to encourage women to make their mark in cinematography in the days to come.