Eye Piece: DP Rachel Morrison Goes Underground on Little Accidents

Little Accidents was a cinematographer’s dream to shoot. I have always been fascinated with Appalachia – the beauty and infinite possibility of its vast landscape contrasted with deep poverty and isolation. It is a land steeped in tradition, much of it analog, and so it was really important to both the director and I to shoot on film.

With a little help from Arri CSC and Kodak, we managed to cobble together the resources to shoot 2 perf 35mm. The visible grain and grit was important to us as it seemed to echo the coal dust in the air. There is an inherent humanity to film and its tactile nature.

But one challenge film presents is that it is not nearly as sensitive to light as the newer, faster digital cameras. For an indie movie, without all the time, man-power, and lighting tools that a larger budget would provide, this can make night scenes difficult and one has to be extra resourceful. Choosing locations is a critical component and for night exteriors, the location must have a good amount of natural light to at least motivate the supplemental film lighting. One example in Little Accidents is the gas station scene where Amos and Diane meet for the first time.

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We chose a gas station that had overhead lighting, a convenience store, and trailers in the back, and then my team and I supplemented each of these with added exterior and interior fixtures as well as side and edge lighting for our characters.

But in the case of the coal mine scenes, this simply was not possible. We were extremely fortunate that we were allowed to shoot in a real, working coal mine, but there were tons of parameters and guidelines in order to be able to do so. We could only take a very paired down crew underground, we had to wear steel toed boots, helmets, and goggles at all times, and really couldn’t do much to alter the spaces that we filmed.

Much to my chagrin, practical lighting underground was almost non-existent. Our scenes required that we travel long distances, more than we had gear to light, and even if we had had the tools, there were only a few spots with power and we couldn’t bring a generator into the mine because the coal dust in the air is highly flammable.

So what to do?

Fortunately, the director, Sara Colangelo, was not scared of the dark. She embraced and even encouraged it. After all, that’s quite natural for miners underground – they can see that which is illuminated by the light from their headlamps and not much else.

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In the first underground scene, Amos enters the mine in a mantrip, a trolley that rides along track many miles underground to wherever the miners are working that day. The scene necessitated Amos in a front mantrip with another behind him and there was no way to bring crew independent of these two trolleys. So we rigged the camera to the very front of the mantrip, much like a hood mount on a car and I had to dress up as a miner and pull my own focus (which was a first) from the back trolley as we descended into the earth. For lighting, we rigged a bounce on the front of the mantrip and used a combination of the headlights and the miner’s headlamps to illuminate the bounce at different times as they scanned across the space.

The result is that we go from the blinding white light of the outside world to a dark unknown and while there is a warm familiarity between Amos and his men, the contrast in lighting seems to foreshadow the impending doom. It all worked very well.

Then, much later in the film, Amos and Owen explore the mine portal by foot. They start with blinding light but descend into complete darkness with only their headlamps and the occasional practical light to guide them.

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Because they were moving the whole time, we couldn’t rig a bounce but my gaffer, Kyle Warmack, lead them with a battery powered bi-color lite panel, dialed for roughly 4400 Kelvin, dimmed way down and bounced into the cave walls or the dirt in the ground to supplement what was happening naturally from their headlamps.

I also encouraged the actors to use their headlamps to light each other and thereby bounce reflective light onto themselves. Sara and I picked key moments for this – a rare opportunity to use very specific lighting cue to highlight important character beats. The result is a dance between light and shadow, leaving as much for the audience to imagine than that which is spelled out. And to me, this is the raw power of filmmaking – that which is implied, but full of possibility. MM

Little Accidents opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, January 16.

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