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'Mudbound' Cinematography: Capturing the Tone and Textures of 1940s Mississippi

"I wanted to try to make the audience feel like they were walking in the mud and dealing with the elements and burning in the sun."11/30/2017 11:45 AM Eastern
Carey Mulligan in 'Mudbound,' photo by Steve Dietl, Netflix

Director Dee Rees' film Mudbound "takes place in the 1940s and revolves around two families—one white, one black—who live on one farm, writes Adam Chitwood.  "The black family works the farm for the white family, but the stories of the characters are endlessly intertwined as they navigate racism, poverty, misogyny, and the enduring effects of slavery as World War II breaks out.

"The film is a triumph—a rich, deeply felt, and gorgeous chronicle of family life with strong parallels to some of the same issues America still faces today. And [cinematographer Rachel] Morrison's work on the movie is outstanding, bringing the 1940s South to life in a way that's so tactile you'll swear you can feel the sweet heat of a Mississippi summer on your face." To read the full interview, click here.

Morrison explains to Chris Falt that she and Rees "had a number of references. As a jumping-off point for tone, Dee referenced the artist Whitfield Lovell and specifically his portraiture on wood. We looked at The Blues According to Lightning Hopkins and other documentaries by Les Blank, which had a raw spontaneity to them and which also served as a reference for our color palette and texture. Robert Frank's The Americans was a major influence when it came to exploring the idea of the American Dream—the predominantly elusive fantasy punctuated by social hierarchy and impermanence. We set out to explore frames that were bursting at the seams contrasted by isolation.

"The look of Mudbound was hugely influenced by the work of the FSA [Farm Security Administration, created during the Depression to combat rural poverty] photographers ranging from Ben Shahn and Arthur Rothstein to Dorthea Lange and Gordon Parks. Their work in the '30s and early '40s was paramount to the design of the film and many compositional choices, but it was actually Parks' later work A Segregation Story, which he shot for Time magazine in 1956, that really influenced our use of color. I had seen this exhibit at the High museum in Atlanta and was truly blown away. The colors were subdued but not washed out and Parks maintained a deep velvety black instead of milking it out. To read the full interview, click here.  

Morrison tells Chitwood, "You have mud that is sort of a character unto itself. I mean to me, everything about this film wanted to be analog and unfortunately at the end of the day we just couldn't afford to shoot on film without losing shooting days, and we didn't have enough shooting days as it was. So ultimately we had to shoot it digitally but I was doing everything I could to breathe the analog back into it because I feel like there's a real tactile quality to a visible, palpable grain, so I did some of that in camera and some of it in post.

"The way films that are about food you want the audience to feel like they can taste it, in this case I wanted to try to make the audience feel like they were walking in the mud and dealing with the elements and burning in the sun, that kind of thing." To read the full interview, click here.

Cinematographer Rachel Morrison on Creating the Lush Realism of Mudbound

DP Rachel Morrison on Creating a Tactile Mudbound

"I really believe in using natural light, but often it takes a lot of lighting to make something look natural," Morrison tells Emily Buder. "I felt it was so important for Mudbound to retain a subjective naturalism throughout.

"I call it subjective naturalism because you can kind of exaggerate within the stakes of the story—when the stakes are high, often I'll use higher contrasts than I would if it were just a [regular] scene. But it should still feel believable.

"I feel that when the lighting gets too stylized, it takes me out of the story, unless it's a sci-fi film or something, where it's built into the nature of the world. But when the world of your film is real, I think the lighting should be a reflection of that. So I used a lot of lighting to make it look like it wasn't lit. That's kind of my approach generally." To read the full interview, click here.

How Mudbound DP Rachel Morrison Created "Natural Light" By Lighting Heavily

Mudbound: American Dream Meets American Reality

How Mudbound Created a Dark, Rainy Opening Scene in Sunny Louisiana

Cinematographer Captures Look of '40s South With Digital Cameras


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