Since graduating from the AFI Conservatory, cinematographer Polly Morgan (AFI Class of 2010) has demonstrated her visual ambition and sweeping range behind the camera. Her work spans myriad genres and formats from independent features such as THE TRUTH ABOUT EMANUEL, to the acclaimed series LEGION – for which she was nominated for an ASC Award for Best Cinematography in Television, to more recent studio projects including A QUIET PLACE PART II, WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING and her next feature THE WOMAN KING – which is set to debut at the Toronto International Film Festival.
The American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) named her an ASC Rising Star in 2012, and Variety included her on their 10 Cinematographers to Watch in 2016. She is a member of both the BSC and ASC – and serves as a co-chair on the ASC Vision Committee, which promotes the advancement of underrepresented filmmakers. AFI spoke with Polly about her experiences in the cinematography program at AFI, working on WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING in Louisiana and THE WOMAN KING in South Africa, and the importance of diversity in front of and behind the camera.
AFI: What made you want to apply to AFI, and how did your experiences in the Cinematography program shape what kind of cinematographer you wanted to be?
Polly: I started my career in London as a PA on commercials and, on one of them, met AFI Alum and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (AFI Class of 1994). He saw that I was shooting in my spare time. I started working as his trainee, and then I worked as his B Camera 2nd AC for a few years. He told me if you want to be a DP, you’ve got to go to film school. So at his suggestion, I applied to AFI, but being an international student, I couldn’t get a postgraduate student loan. I applied for a Fulbright Fellowship but didn’t get one. So I spent the next couple of years doing other small cinematography workshops, and then decided at 28 that I really needed to come to AFI. I reapplied and got the Fulbright the second time around.
I came to AFI and – not having any money – I needed to work in between my first and second years. I applied to work as an assistant to Wally Pfister (AFI Class of 1988) on the film INCEPTION. I think because I was at AFI and had worked with Haris, and because I was British and could travel with the company around Europe, I got the job! My AFI experience was twofold – it was not only the amazing things that I learned at school, but also my practical experience working alongside Wally. At the Conservatory, the cycle films were so intense. I couldn’t tell you how much I absorbed in my first year. It was like the most incredible learning curve – I think my brain exploded. Being in that high-tension environment with the time pressure on those cycle projects, it really prepared me for how to deal with people and how to achieve good working relationships in the future.
AFI: One of your recent projects is WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING, based on the critically acclaimed book by Delia Owens. How did you establish the visual look of the film, and what were some of the challenges of shooting in Louisiana which stood in as a setting for North Carolina in the novel?
Polly: WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING was particularly special because the filmmakers were all united through our love of the book. When I started chatting with Livy Newman, the director, we were on the same page visually. We had both created different decks and coincidentally had used a lot of the same references. We wanted to do justice to Delia Owens’ writing. It’s beautiful, lyrical prose, and we really wanted to draw the viewer into Kya’s love for the marshes because nature was her true love and that’s where her life unfolded. That led all of our decisions when it came to the look of the movie and using emotional and artful framing, lyrical camera movement and a soft and pretty contrast.
With an aim to creative emotive imagery, we scheduled the movie very carefully to capture the light which can be unpredictable in remote areas of Louisiana. We planned to shoot there before hurricane season and then hurricane season came early. We had to deal with a lot of rain and our sets getting flooded, and we had to waste a lot of time waiting for lightning storms to pass. All my ideas of this beautiful light went out the window, but luckily for us, when we really needed the sun to shine, or that beautiful sunset, nature provided it for us.
AFI: Shifting to your film THE WOMAN KING which is about to debut at the Toronto Film Festival, how did you first team up with director Gina Prince-Bythewood to bring the story to life?
Polly: Coming out of COVID in 2020, I had conversations with my agent about what I wanted to do in 2021. WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING was first on the agenda, but we also talked about what would be next, and she mentioned THE WOMAN KING and sent the script to me. It was such a phenomenal story – not only was it a powerful and intimate tale of incredible women, but it was based on real characters and true events and set during an important part of history. I was introduced to Gina, and we had a Zoom conversation while I was shooting WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING. We talked a few times, and then I’m very happy to say that eventually they offered me the job. Three days after I wrapped WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING, I was on a plane to South Africa to do a director’s scout.
After the director’s scout, I had to come home and get myself together before moving back out there for seven months for the shoot. I worked remotely with Gina and Akin, the Production Designer to prep the movie and also the Art Director and my Gaffer on location to ensure the correct orientation of the Palace build in relation to the path of the sun during the summer months in South Africa. Gina and I watched other films as references, did Camera and lens tests and formulated a plan for capturing the battle scenes in the movie, which was a new experience for me.
AFI: How did you build a strong rapport with Gina and the incredible cast and crew on the film? What do you hope audiences take away from seeing the film?
Polly: Every single movie I work on is different. When the opportunity for THE WOMAN KING came about, I was filming in Louisiana, so I couldn’t really get into prepping with Gina before I got on location. Gina and I basically met off an airplane, and then we landed in South Africa and drove out to all these locations to talk about if they would work for this scene or that scene, or why they wouldn’t work. I had to really know the script and the scenes very well going into it. At the same time, you’re also trying to get an idea of your director– what are their sensibilities and how do they like to approach the films they’re directing. I have been a fan of Gina for a long time and was familiar with her work, including LOVE & BASKETBALL, THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES and THE OLD GUARD.
For Gina, as a Black woman, this was a really important film for her to tell. I think that’s true for all of the actors and everybody who was working on this story. The whole idea was to introduce the world to this country of Dahomey, which is now Benin in Western Africa next to Ghana, and to help them learn about the history of this very beautiful and special place. The film deals with the horrific trade of human life as well, but it’s twofold – it’s the beauty of this culture that existed in the 19th century and these powerful warriors, these females that defended their kingdom, and then it’s the connection to the slave trade and everything that came along with that. I think there was a lot of responsibility and pressure to bring this story to life for Gina. It was really amazing to be on board, and a very special experience to help her bring it to life.
AFI: Gina Prince-Bythewood called the production the most diverse crew she’s ever worked with. Can you talk about the importance of having that representation behind-the-scenes particularly when you’re bringing a story to life centered on such an incredible female warrior like General Nanisca?
Polly: From the very beginning, Gina and I talked candidly about hiring consciously and having as many people of color on set as possible. It is always important to make sure that people on set represent life outside of production. The wonderful thing about making movies in today’s world is that we’re telling a wider range of stories, and the filmmakers – the voice of those stories – are now broader in gender and race.
It’s important for us to move forward as filmmakers to have all voices represented and continue to address the balance of diversity. We want to be able to look around and see the world represented on sets and help to inspire the next generation of filmmakers. Filmmaking is an important tool to help educate people on the richness of culture and diversity, but it is not only important to foster that content but also to ensure and encourage a broader scope of voices on set.
AFI: Can you share more about any new projects, such as your upcoming indie film MARMALADE?
Polly: Yes, for MARMALADE, I went back to my very low budget, indie roots. The film was made for $1.5 million, directed by my husband – his directorial debut, and it was a lot of fun. I was inspired by DPs like Seamus McGarvey and Matty Libatique (AFI Class of 1992) who will do a bigger budget movie and then go back and do a smaller budget film. Both are fulfilling and challenging in different ways. I think I will continue to do that, flip between something that has a bigger budget and then go work on one that’s a smaller, more intimate experience.
AFI: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming cinematography Fellows and recent Alumni working as camera assistants or operators who want to make the jump to become a cinematographer?
Polly: My advice would be to take every opportunity you can to shoot, whatever it is, whatever the budget. I would just jump at every opportunity because the more times you get behind the camera, the more times that you light a scene, the more people that you meet, the more comfortable you will become, the more that you will learn and the more relationships you will build. You never know where those relationships are going to take you. And then my second piece of advice is to be patient. I graduated in 2010. There are good times and there are hard times. Just don’t give up and be patient because it’s always going to be a roller coaster. That’s what the film business is. Weather the storm and believe in yourself and just keep going.