“Confirmation” – DP Rachel Morrison Discusses Her Approach To Recreating A Historic Court Case
Kerry Washington plays Anita Hill in HBO’s “Confirmation.” (photo courtesy of HBO.)
By: Marjorie Galas
Cinematographer Rachel Morrison recalled the family dinner discussions that resulted after news outlets broke the story of Anita Hill’s sexual harassment testimony against US Supreme Court nominee Judge Clarence Thomas in 1991. On the set of “Confirmation,” the HBO movie exploring the historical proceedings, the DP noted crew members in their twenties had no knowledge of Hill, Thomas or the case that swept the nation nearly 25 years ago. It cemented her initial response to joining the project: the story needed to be shared with a new generation.
“This subject matter is incredibly timely. Gender and racial inequality are sadly still issues we are dealing with today,” said Morrison.
Morrison was approached to shoot the project by director Rick Famuyiwa. The pair had worked together once before, on Famuyiwa’s critically acclaimed 2015 “Dope.” While the narrative was immediately attractive to the DP, the idea of a story set primarily in a court room didn’t immediately stoke her creative nature.
“I had to wrap my head around how to make the film cinematic and experiential and not simply procedural,” said Morrison as she reflected on the subject matter from a cinematographer’s perspective.
She began examining factors that would make talking heads visually engaging. During preproduction meetings with Famuyiwa, the pair discussed a two-fold approach to handling the subject matter that further elevated the aesthetic possibilities. First, Famuyiwa wanted to ensure there was a real authenticity to the proceedings. While Kerry Washington is a stunning actress who embodies star power, it was crucial that the audience be ushered into perceiving her as Anita Hill. It was also paramount that the audience understand how the trail turned both Hill’s and Clarence Thomas’ (Wendell Pierce) lives upside down. Morrison and Famuyiwa wanted to emphasize the spectacle of the proceedings. The event was a true media circus, and they wanted the set to have that sense of an arena – or more appropriately – a boxing ring. The trial became a media spectacle featuring a black man and a black woman duking it out before an all white panel of senators, while the whole country tuned in.
Because archival footage was integrated into the story, Morrison used an old standard definition Panasonic Cameras for the SD footage to match the 1990s reduced bit depth and color space. The main unit however was shot with two Arri Alexa XTs with a slightly low contrast and reduced saturation LUT applied such that the strong colors and patterns from that era – bright fushias and the famous turquoise suit, didn’t distract from the performance.
Lighting and contrast became a metaphor for the stakes and a key asset Morrison worked with. She also focused on framing to heighten dramatic effect. Morrison notes that from the moment Anita’s story goes public, there is a sense that the world is closing in around her. To reflect this compositionally, Hill is often situated in the far right corner of the frame. She is minimized and trapped. To further illustrate the claustrophobia, Anita and Clarence were shot with anamorphic lenses that had been center cut for 16:9, while everyone else was shot with spherical lenses.
Physical light structures became a useful tool in elevating the “boxing ring” nature of the court proceedings. Morrison framed shots that included light grids that were hung around the court room.
“There was a despicable nature in the courtroom,” said Morrison. “We wanted to maximize the feeling of a spectacle, that the spotlight was inescapable and all eyes were on Anita and Clarence’s testimony.
Lighting also became a textural tool for Morrison, who refined the lighting on the actors’ faces to create visual interest and layers of intensity. With lighting cues, she defined edges and features which provided a reflection of characters’ emotional states.
“Since there weren’t actual landscapes to work with, I treated the faces as landscapes, to humanize the drama,” said Morrison.
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