By Junsui Films | August 2012
The Cinematographer chats exclusively to Junsui Films about her progression from reality TV to features, achieving maximum results on a limited budget, and tells us all about her latest film, SOUND OF MY VOICE…
Junsui Films: Sound of My Voice started life as a potential web-series before evolving into a feature film, at what point did you join the project and what was it that attracted you to the concept?
Rachel Morrison: I was pretty much attached since its inception and watched it evolve through many different forms. I was attracted to the story first and foremost. In each form it took, it remained original, mysterious, thought-provoking and engaging.
JF: How did your experiences working in reality television, especially a show such as The Hills, help prepare you for lensing Sound of My Voice?
It’s interesting because in terms of content, the two couldn’t be further apart, but on a technical level, The Hills was the perfect training ground for my work in independent features. As camera equipment gets better and cheaper, the trend seems to be moving towards shooting with more cameras in fewer days.
What I learned from DPing The Hills was how to light for 270 degrees, so multiple cameras can cross shoot if need be, without compromising too much on the lighting. I also learned to light in broad strokes, rigging and hiding lights or incorporating them into the practical lighting, so we could improvise as needed.
All of this became relevant to the lensing of Sound of My Voice, a two-camera shoot with an ensemble cast, with very little time for principal photography. The trick is to light efficiently, but to still serve the story cinematically.
Finally, my time on The Hills really honed my skills with smaller lighting units (everything 1.2K HMI and under). This too seems to be the trend, especially when shooting on practical locations – and an invaluable tool on SOMV.
JF: Tell us a little bit about your collaborative and creative process with first time director Zal Batmanglij and co-writer and star Brit Marling; how did you guys decide upon the distinctly muted colour palette and the visually stifled styling of the film?
Honestly, these elements were really part of Zal’s vision all along – he wanted the banality of the suburban basement, devoid of much life or colour, to strike a claustrophobic chord with the audience. My job is really to support his vision. I tried to incorporate colour and contrast in Maggie’s flashbacks and in the world outside the cult, subconsciously enhancing the oppressive experience of the interiors.
JF: Tell us about your choice of camera(s) for the shoot?
I wouldn’t call it a choice – more a necessity. If budget were no object, we probably wouldn’t have gone the DSLR route, but to pull off the impossible we needed to travel slim and work with a camera sensitive in low light. There are many more options now, but at the time it was 7D or 5D. We chose the 7D because we shot a few tests and just couldn’t maintain focus handheld on the 5D. We did however use the 5D’s extra resolving power on a few occasions, for wideshots and in extreme low light.
JF: With so much of the film set in a suburban basement, how challenging was it bringing a cinematic flair to such a grounded, everyday setting?
Very! It was the ultimate challenge really – what DP wants to hear that 30 pages take place in a room with white walls (unless you’re shooting 2001: A Space Odyssey). But we looked for ways to embrace the monochromatic nature of it. I don’t generally love symmetry, but I tried to use it as a tool in the basement. The real key is embracing the face as the landscape, not the space itself.
JF: How long was the shoot and what were some of the more difficult obstacles you had to overcome with such a limited budget?
Either 16 or 18 days – something like that. Never enough! To be honest, many of the obstacles led to small victories. All my favourite scenes in the film are the ones we shot with a super pared-down crew, with natural or minimal lighting. In my mind, literally nothing beats natural light and a good location at the right time of day. That said, the biggest budgetary hurdle is always limited time. I would trade resources for time any day of the week. With enough time, one person can do the work of an army.
JF: What were your thoughts on the final image and how well did you feel it translated to the big screen?
When I saw the film at the Arclight, I was happily surprised by how well the 7d footage held up on the big screen. I definitely noticed some DSLR artefacting and a lack of dynamic colour range (especially in the skin tones). However, as a viewer I still managed to submerge myself in the experience as a whole.
Objectively, I could tell the audience was transfixed. No one was thinking about the film’s origination format. I’ve even had people ask me if I shot on film, which baffles me, but reaffirms that the goal is to speak to the audience in terms of emotion and thought-provocation, rather than colour bit-depth and resolving power.
JF: What are you currently working on?
I just finished shooting a film in Oakland called Fruitvale, starring Octavia Spencer and Michael B. Jordon, directed by the uber-talented Ryan Coogler. Next up I’m shooting a few commercials, while reading scripts in search of stories that resonate with me and that I would want to go and see.
Sound of My Voice is out now.