- Monday, Oct. 30, 2017
One DP got the chance to shoot for a director she greatly admired and their collaboration has yielded a Netflix feature that is very much in this season’s Oscar conversation.
Another cinematographer is in pre-pro on his sixth feature for the same director; their fifth was released this year, a Disney live-action film that sprung from a beloved animation classic back in 1991.
And our third DP also enjoyed a recent return engagement with a director who’s additionally known for his writing chops.
Here are observations and reflections from Rachel Morrison, ASC: Tobias Schliessler, ASC; and Xavier Grobet, ASC, AMC.
Rachel Morrison, ASC
The “ultimate no-brainer” is how Rachel Morrison, ASC, described her decision to lens Mudbound (Netflix). The film drew her in on multiple fronts, first and foremost for the opportunity to work with director Dee Rees who also wrote the screenplay with Virgil Williams, based on Hillary Jordan’s novel.
Morrison has long admired Rees’ work and found the story of Mudbound compelling, centered on two families—one black, the other white—in the rural American South during World War II. The white McAllen family—headed by Henry (Jason Clarke) and his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan)—moves to the Mississippi Delta from Memphis and isn’t fully ready for the harsh demands of tending to the land. Their lives intersect with a black family headed by Henry and Florence Jackson (Rob Morgan, Mary J. Blige).
While segregation, discrimination and racism stack life against the Jacksons, they persevere with great dignity. Though the McAllens do not face such race-related adversity, the two families have other struggles in common—coping with the ravages of Mother Nature, and each with loved ones who go off to war overseas and return to the battle of adjusting to everyday life on the homefront. The war vets—Jamie McAllen (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) develop a fast and at first uneasy friendship, each bearing the scars of war only to then have to return to the brutality and cruelty of the Jim Crow South.
Morrison’s cinematography captures humanity at its best and worst, as well as the two faces of Mother Nature—its onslaught which makes people feel powerless, and its beauty which evokes hope and inspiration. On the former Mother Nature score, Morrison observed, “The elements always win. We are all put in our place by the elements—rain, wind, the harsh sun. It doesn’t matter how prepared you think you are.” The DP further observed that even in a world of racial disparity, the elements “level the playing field,” impacting people no matter their race or gender. She described nature as “the great equalizer.” Morrison shot widescreen as a means of isolating people in the frame against a landscape of fields, conveying human insignificance in the face of nature.
Mudbound also piqued Morrison’s interest for the chance to depict the historical era. Archival photographs of the post Depression South commissioned by the Farm Security Administration provided key visual references for Morrison—these included images by Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks. That work, noted Morrison, was integral to the design of the movie and many of her compositional choices. And Parks’ later work for Time Magazine, including his segregation story photo essay in 1956, influenced the use of color in Mudbound.
Morrison said that she and Rees wanted to shoot Mudbound on film but budget realities necessitated they go digital. Morrison estimated that the cost of film would have translated into two less shooting days as compared to digital. They couldn’t afford to lose two precious days on an already extremely challenged shooting schedule.
Thankfully among their digital options was the ARRI ALEXA Mini, which Morrison coupled with a mix of lenses—Panavision C and D series anamorphics in addition to Vintage Super Speeds from the 1960s and ‘70’s that lent themselves to reduced contrasts, among other desired features. “We embraced the aspherical softening around the edges of the image because we felt on a subconscious level that it recalled those old Farm Security Administration photos of the era,” related Morrison. “The fact that we were shooting in authentic sharecropper and tenant houses from the late 1800s—despite being a huge challenge in its own right—only added to the authenticity.”
The alluded to challenge of shooting in those tenant shacks included having to rely primarily on the sun for natural lighting to get the most realistic, desired look. Thus shoot days were planned around the sun so it would stream into the Jackson and McAllen houses when it was low in the sky.
Morrison noted that Rees had “a very clear vision” of what they needed to accomplish and how to best do justice to the story. “That’s even more important with a story like this in that the script is not very literal and is more a combination of poetry and story. Having a director with a clear vision of what that would look like all in her head was essential. She also has a very strong sense of performance. She’s very much an actor’s director, unwavering in her commitment to the characters and story.”
Mudbound is the eighth Sundance premiere Morrison has lensed in the past seven years. Others include the Ryan Coogler-directed Fruitvale Station which won the festival’s Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award in 2013; the lauded Dope for director Rick Famuyiwa; and director Liz Garbus’ What Happened, Miss Simone? (shot by Morrison and Igor Martinovic), which earned a Best Documentary Oscar nomination as well as an Emmy nod for Outstanding Cinematography. Morrison also scored an Emmy nomination for cinematography on the strength of Showtime’s Riker’s High, a documentary about the high school within the Riker’s Island prison system.
Among Morrison’s other credits are the features Little Accidents starring Elizabeth Banks and Boyd Holbrook; Cake starring Jennifer Aniston and Anna Kendrick; Any Day Now starring Alan Cumming and Garret Dilahunt; and the HBO telefilm Confirmation, a return engagement for the DP with director Famuyiwa. A political thriller about Anita Hill’s sexual harassment testimony against then Supreme Court nominee Judge Clarence Thomas—starring Kerry Washington and Wendell Pierce in those respective roles—Confirmation earned Emmy nominations for Best Television Motion Picture, and Best Leading Actress (Washington).
Morrison’s career began in photojournalism and she subsequently earned a master’s degree in cinematography at the American Film Institute. In 2013 she was honored at the Women in Film Crystal + Lucy Awards where she received the Kodak Vision Award for Outstanding Achievements in Cinematography.
Tobias Schliessler, ASC
A live-action version of Beauty and the Beast—which had to emerge from the giant shadow cast by the beloved Disney feature animation version back in 1991—was too tempting a creative challenge to pass up, according to cinematographer Tobias Schliessler, ASC. But the real clincher was the chance to again collaborate with director Bill Condon. Beauty and the Beast is the fifth film the two have teamed on; and they’re scheduled to reunite on a sixth with Bride of Frankenstein.
The close-knit collaboration between Condon and Schliessler typically starts very early on in the filmmaking process, and Beauty and the Beast (Walt Disney Pictures) was no exception. “From the very outset, we discuss everything together—our focus, how to tell the story with camera and light,” shared Schliessler. “We work together on storyboards, pre-vis. My input means a lot to him from the very beginning of a project. In a musical there has to be a smooth transition into people singing and dancing. The camera has to be magical in a sense. It must be at the right places for the dance choreography. We sought out the best camera angles and movement for the dance sequences. And the camera has to be in rhythm with the music. We spent a lot of time in rehearsal to find the right camera movement and speed so that the audience could become part of the dancing and music.”
Looking to avoid big movie lights that could impede or slow the music and dance, Schliessler deftly used LED lighting on 80 to 90 percent of scenes in Beauty and the Beast. Schliessler could control every light through an iPad and for the first time was able to conduct in-camera color temperature lighting changes. Beauty and the Beast was among the first films to use the LED ARRI Sky Panels.
Schliessler went with the ALEXA camera in tandem with “very fast lenses.” After extensive testing, the DP opted for Leica lenses based on how they reacted to practical candles on the set.
For Schliessler the bottom line is that Beauty and the Beast was a gratifying experience. “We took an animation movie, translated it into live action and were able to make it into its own movie—with audiences embracing it like they did the animated film. Bill thoroughly understood what had to be done. He understood the material and gave it a modern feel while still making a classic movie.”
Schliessler noted that his fruitful ongoing creative collaborative relationship with Condon came into being thanks to a stroke of luck. “I had moved from Germany to Vancouver, B.C., where I shot smaller Canadian movies,” related Schliessler. “I then tried to get my foot in the door in Los Angeles by showing my reel around—back when you would lug around a three-quarter inch cassette. I had a meeting at Propaganda Films with head of production Tim Clawson. I remember him telling me he had this director, Bill Condon, who didn’t yet have a DP for his Candyman movie and he thought we might connect. The next day I met Bill and he wound up hiring me. The truth was I didn’t have the credits for that kind of movie but Bill and I just hit it off. As it turns out, I happened to walk into Propaganda on the right day, entered Tim’s office at the right moment, and got a big career break.”
From Candyman’s Farewell to the Flesh, Schliessler later went on to shoot for Condon such films as: Dreamgirls, which earned eight Oscar nominations, including two wins for Best Supporting Actress (Jennifer Hudson) and Sound Mixing; The Fifth Estate starring Benedict Cumberbatch; Mr. Holmes featuring Ian McKellen in a tour de force performance; this year’s release, Beauty and the Beast starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens; and Bride of Frankenstein which is currently in pre-pro.
Schliessler’s filmography extends well beyond Condon, though. The DP recently wrapped Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time for Disney and starring Chris Pine, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Reese Witherspoon. Schliessler also not too long ago lensed Peter Berg’s Boston Marathon drama Patriots Day starring Mark Wahlberg. Berg and Schliessler previously teamed on a number of films including the action drama Lone Survivor starring Wahlberg; the sci-fi thriller Battleship; Hancock starring Will Smith; the high school football drama Friday Night Lights; and The Rundown starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
Among Schliessler’s other notable credits are Tony Scott’s crime thriller The Taking of Pelham 123, and Antoine Fuqua’s Bait starring Jamie Foxx.
A native of Germany, Schliessler studied cinematography at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada. He began his career shooting documentaries, diversified into indie features, TV movies, music videos and commercials. In the latter discipline, he received AICP Show honors for his cinematography on Audi’s “Wake Up” in 2000, and Lincoln Financial’s “Doctor” the next year. Both are now part of the permanent archives of The Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Film and Video in New York. Schliessler has shot commercials over the years for Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Bank of America, Citibank, AT&T and Verizon, among other brands.
Xavier Grobet, ASC, AMC
Xavier Grobet, ASC, AMC, was attracted to Brad’s Status (Amazon Studios) for the story and the chance to again work with writer/director Mike White—two lures that are a bit of a redundancy.
“I am a big fan of Mike,” said Grobet. “Everything I’ve seen of his writing speaks to me. Since we did the TV series Enlightened (HBO) together, I experienced how universal his writing is. I fell in love with the episodes he wrote. His characters and situations are so representative of life. You can relate to his characters.”
That rang true for Grobet again in Brad’s Status which tells a story about a middle-aged man named Brad (portrayed by Ben Stiller) who can’t help but compare his life to those of his more successful friends, while touring colleges with his son (Austin Abrams). At times dad even seems to live vicariously through his son who’s a strong candidate to get into Harvard.
“What I like most about the film is that it’s not a comedy but rather a drama with a sense of humor,” said Grobet, noting that the introspective nature of the film prompted him to go with a hand-held camera. “Brad’s mind and his anxiety are a prime focus so by shooting it hand held, we create that sensibility of getting into his head.”
Grobet opted for the ALEXA coupled with Master Primes. “I like shooting with the ALEXA. It’s a quality image I respond to.” For Brad’s Status, Grobet coupled the camera with Master Primes. “They are high caliber lenses that respond well to light, helping to counterbalance the feel of hand-held work with a high quality, beautiful look and feel.”
Brad’s Status was “pretty much shot with one camera—only at certain times we’d go with two cameras to accommodate long two-actor conversations so that each actor had a little more freedom for improvising,” explained Grobet.
Additionally, Brad’s Status called for Grobet “to match Montreal for Boston. It was tricky here and there. We had to find the right spots and angles, and benefited from a high level of location scouting.”
In addition to Enlightened, Grobet worked with White on the comedy Nacho Libre, which was directed by Jared Hess. White served as one of the writers on Nacho Libre. “Mike and I have become friends,” shared Grobet. “We enjoy working together. It’s a win-win.”
Well, maybe not a total win-win. Grobet was at first hesitant to take on one of White’s requests—to appear in Brad’s Status briefly as the character Xavier, the gay spouse of Nick Pascale, one of Brad’s former college classmates/multi-millionaire friends. Brad is jealous of Nick’s success and was further slighted when he wasn’t invited to Nick’s wedding. Pascale was played by no other than White, placing him and his DP on camera together for the first time. “I had a couple of scenes as an actor in the movie and that was challenging,” related Grobet. “I was so nervous on the first take. Mike saw that and wasn’t sure I could pull it off. ‘Give me a second take and you’ll get it,’ I said. Luckily I did, in part by relaxing and being more natural.”
Grobet’s wide-ranging body of work also includes director Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls, episodes of the acclaimed HBO series Deadwood, director Rodrigo Garcia’s Mother and Child, Gil Kenan’s City of Ember, the Will Smith-starrer Focus, and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot starring Tina Fey and Margot Robbie. Before Night Falls marked Grobet’s first major splash in the American market, earning him and Guillermo Rosas an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Cinematography. Prior to that, Grobet was best known for his work for cinema in Mexico, scoring four of that country’s prestigious Ariel Awards for his lensing of: La mujer de Benjamin; Sin Remitente; De noche vienes, Esmeralda; and Sexo, pudor y lagrimas.
Brad’s Status was nominated for the Platform Prize at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Grobet’s work is no stranger to Toronto. Enough Said, a feature he shot starring Julia Louis Dreyfus and James Gandolfini in one of his last roles, was showcased as a Special Presentation at the 2013 Toronto Fest. Enough Said was directed by Nicole Holofcener.