Sat. Jul 4th, 2020

Interview: ‘Lucy in the Sky’ cinematographer Polly Morgan

Polly Morgan (Courtesy of Fox Searchlight)

If you haven’t had a chance to catch Noah Hawley’s Lucy in the Sky, starring Academy Award winner Natalie Portman (Black Swan), you’re missing out on some of this year’s most creative and visually innovative cinematography from DP Polly Morgan.

Born in London, Polly Morgan worked internationally as a Camera Assistant before attending the American Film Institute in 2008. After graduating, one of Morgan’s first features, The Truth About Emanuel, premiered at Sundance and garnered accolades for her cinematography at several following festivals. Morgan has since shot numerous features premiering at Sundance, SXSW and Tribeca as well as lensing productions for both U.S. and U.K. television.

Named an ASC Rising Star in 2012, Morgan has since become one of the youngest members to join the BSC and was chosen as one of Variety’s Ten Cinematographers to Watch in 2016. This summer, Morgan became a member of the ASC.

Morgan has shot Legion season 2 for FX and Strange Angel from executive producer David Lowery for CBS All Access.

I spoke with Morgan about the complicated and rewarding nature of Lucy in the Sky, the rise of female cinematographers and what she’s got coming up.

AW: What or who were your main inspirations to go into filmmaking and ultimately cinematography? 

PM: I grew up loving movies and was a big fan of Spielberg, Ridley Scott and Kubrick. I didn’t know what cinematographers were back then but as I matured, I started to become more aware of how the visuals made me feel and that was enticing. The cinematography of varied films like The Black Stallion, E.T. and Blade Runner had a real impact on me and has stayed with me to this day. When I was a production assistant in London, my main inspiration was DP Haris Zambarloukos who took me under his wing and trained me to be a camera assistant. He really encouraged me to follow my dreams to becoming a cinematographer and suggested that I go to film school to make those dreams a reality. Without him, I might not be here today.

Polly Morgan with director Noah Hawley set up a shot for LUCY IN THE SKY (Courtesy of Fox Searchlight)

AW: One of the most eclectic elements of Lucy in the Sky is the ever-changing aspect ratio throughout the film. What the was process between you and director Noah Hawley in deciding on the look and how to achieve it? Did working with him on Legion help your communication?

PM: Noah was a fan of using screen size to help tell the story in both Legion and Fargo. The shifts in frame size were part of Lucy’s story from the very beginning and were included in the first draft of the script that I read. When she had a sense of peace and felt free, that was reflected by using a 2.39 aspect ratio (widescreen) and when she felt claustrophobic and boxed in that was shown in a 4×3 (square frame).

AW: With so many visual effects sequences in Lucy in the Sky, what were the biggest challenges for you as a cinematographer to accommodate for the eventual VFX?

PM: The interactive lighting and lighting continuity was a challenge as we had not explored pre-viz in prep as Noah likes to be free to make decisions as they unfold on set. For example, in space, once we decided on the shot, I had to figure out where Lucy was in relation to the Earth, sun and moon and what part of the orbital period the Earth was in. It then became part of the conversation whether she was being lit by the sun and light bouncing off the Earth or perhaps the sun was behind the Earth and she was getting cool reflections off the moon’s surface. 

We also had a large Dry For Wet sequence at the NBL (Neutral Buoyancy Lab) at NASA. We shot Natalie on wires on a soundstage and then VFX comped in the environment around her. We did part of the work at a pool in Santa Clarita, where we submerged her and the camera followed undertone water and then we tied this practical work in with VFX and Wire work. The biggest challenge with this was again to light Natalie as if she was under the water and adjust for the depth and distance she was from any practical lights.

AW: In 2018, Rachel Morrison (Mudbound) became the first female cinematographer nominated for an Oscar in the Academy’s 90+ year history. What do you think needs to happen within the industry to foster more female inclusion in behind the camera work?

When Rachel got nominated it was a validating moment for all female filmmakers and has furthered the shift in helping get talented women hired behind the camera. It is my hope that there will be more encouragement in the near future for young women to consider cinematography as a career, bridging the gap in numbers between male and female DPs. That being said, the true inclusion will be when there is no discrimination between sex and we are no longer known as female cinematographers but just cinematographers.

AW: You recently wrapped shooting on the sequel to the blockbuster A Quiet Place. What was the most exciting part of taking on this highly anticipated film?

The most exciting part of working on the film was telling a story that had very little dialogue in the script. So much of both films are based largely on visual storytelling and that was a challenging and rewarding task.

Lucy in the Sky is in theaters now from Fox Searchlight. A Quiet Place 2 will hit theaters May 2020 from Paramount Pictures.

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