Cinematography of “The Truth About Emanuel” – interview with Polly Morgan

April 2nd, 2014

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, today I’m honored to welcome the cinematographer Polly Morgan. In this interview Polly talks about the evolving craft of cinematography as the technology is shifting the productions towards the purely digital end of the spectrum, the intimate collaboration process between the director and the cinematographer, the upsides of working on smaller independent productions, what happens on a movie during pre-production, shooting and post-production phases, her work on the recently released “The Truth About Emanuel“, and the future of film as a medium.

On the set of “The Truth About Emanuel” with the director Francesca Gregorini. Courtesy of Polly Morgan.

Kirill: Tell us about yourself and your path to become a cinematographer.

Polly: My name is Polly Morgan, and I am a cinematographer from UK. I spent many years working as a camera assistant, but I always knew that my ultimate goal was to shoot photography on movies. I tried to establish myself in the camera department and work my way up.

I was always captivated by film since I was a child. When I was younger I didn’t even know what a cinematographer was. It was a process. I studied art history, fell into photography and became aware of the world of a cinematographer when I was a teenager. I happened upon a movie set and I decided at that point that it was what I wanted to do.

Kirill: Jumping a little bit forward, if you look at the variety of digital cameras available on the market, do you think it’s easier for people to get into the field nowadays than it was for you back then?

Polly: Definitely. I feel there’s been a certain decentralization, an opening-up in the technology. When I started doing my own short films, I had to save up money to buy 16mm negatives and pay for processing. Everything that I wanted to shoot had to be carefully planned and organized in advance. It was such a big cost to do it on your own. At that point I wasn’t in a circle of young people who wanted to make film. I was a bit of an anomaly within my group of friends.

These days the ability to have a camera to shoot video, go out with your friends, edit it yourself, upload it yourself – it really means that you can just shoot and practice and develop and not have to worry about being constrained by money or availability of resources.

On the sets of “The Truth About Emanuel”. Courtesy of Polly Morgan.

Kirill: Do you think it’s good for your field to have a lower barrier of entry, to have much more material being shot but not always at the highest professional level necessarily?

Polly: I think it’s a great thing. At the end of the day a camera is just a tool for creating art and telling stories. It’s an exciting thing that you can be of any age and of any background if you want to express yourself and tell your story – and have the capacity to do so. But being a cinematographer is still a challenging craft to learn.

There’s still a lot of facets that are involved going beyond just getting your hands on a camera. It’s about the art of telling a story, not only how to use the camera, but how to paint emotion through lighting, to choose the right palette of cameras, lenses, movements, lighting, color. These are the things you use to tell a story, and just because it’s more accessible to shoot digital capture, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s more inspirational storytellers out there. It just means that just more people get to have the opportunity, to democratize the film-making process.

In the old days you almost had to be born into it, to be exposed to it, to work really hard for years to finally be given that opportunity to shoot film and get your hands on a 35mm camera. These days more people have the opportunity, and it’s exciting. It means there are fresh voices out there. It means independent movies can be made.

We’re all story tellers. We’re all sharing the experience of humanity that we’re involved with. The more stories there are, the better.

On the sets of “The Truth About Emanuel”. Courtesy of Polly Morgan.

Kirill: You’ve mentioned working as camera assistant at the beginning of your career. You have a variety of productions under your belt in that position, from big-budget movies like “V for Vendetta” and “Inception” to smaller ones. Was it a good experience spending those years learning from different people and productions of different scale?

Polly: I was very fortunate when I was camera assistant to work on big-budget studio movies. They were shot on 35mm, and everything was done in the old-school way. In that world being the first assistant was very different to how people work these days. I was trained in a more traditional way which I’m very grateful for. I was able to shoot on film at the start of my career, and nowadays I still am very fortunate to be able to straddle the transformation from pure film to the digital revolution.

It’s been exciting to see how the technology is opening things up. It’s a great experience working on a big budget studio movie. There’s not much difference between that and a lower budget indie one. The work is the same, the relationships are the same. You just have a smaller group of people and less time to pull it off. With a smaller group of people things don’t take as long, as everything is very contained. They’re both exciting ways to make movies.

Kirill: Now that you’re the cinematographer, does it help that you’ve went through the supporting roles in the camera department?

Polly: I’m grateful that I’ve started at the bottom and worked my way up. It takes a lot of people to make a movie, and it helps me to understand that everyone is doing a difficult and time-consuming job on the set. When I’m waiting for light or lens, I know that my assistants and my crew are working as hard as they can to help me get the job done. It definitely helped me to really respect my crew, and it taught me a lot about how things work. To be on set around such great and inspirational cinematographers helped me shape my own voice. I definitely picked up a couple of tricks and tools of the trade just by being around them. That was fantastic.

Kirill: What happens after your involvement in a production ends? How do you get on the next one? Is it word of mouth through your network, or competing against other people on larger ones?

Polly: It varies completely. I definitely work again and again with people I worked with in the past. I might work with the same director, or with the same producers on a new project who put my name in – through personal relationships I’ve built up. And also I get scripts from a variety of sources – my agents, my friends, people who’ve seen my work.

Kirill: How did it start for you on “The Truth About Emanuel”?

Polly: I got sent a script through my agent, and it was a really well-written and exciting piece of material. I met with Francesca Gregorini [the director], we sat down and had a really good meeting for a couple of hours, and she offered me the job.

Kirill: I’ve read an interview with Francesca in which she described herself as a closet cinematographer in the sense that she’s very interested in the aesthetical aspects of the production. How does that affect the collaboration between the cinematographer and the director?

Polly: It’s really exciting. When you’re working with the director who is so interested in visual narrative, who wants to really supplement the performance with the visual language, it really helps to open up the process. To be able to bounce ideas off somebody and to be able to really collaborate – that just makes the cinematography better. Pushing each other to come up with the right way to tell the story visually.

They always say that two heads are better than one. On an independent movie when resources and time and equipment is scarce, it’s difficult to get budget and time that you need to do the work. It’s great to have a director that really cares a lot about cinematography, who can help to fight with you for production so that you can spend the time to set up the camera the way you want, or you can spend a bit more money to get a piece of equipment that you might not have been able to get otherwise.

Film making is a collaborative process, and when you work with someone who really wants to get into it with you, it just makes everything better.

Kirill: When you talk about independent productions, does a smaller budget change the way you approach your job?

Polly: At the end of the day, whether it’s an independent movie or a studio one, it’s all about the script, the story that you’re trying to tell. The main difference to me is how many days we get to shoot – only a few weeks on an independent one, and much more on a studio movie. It also determines how many people you’re allowed to have on your crew and what kind of equipment you’re able to get. These three things shape how you can tell your story from the budget perspective.

Kirill: But you also have less involvement, or pressure if you will, from the producers’ side to create something that has mass appeal for a wider audience, allowing you to press deeper towards your pure artistic vision.

Polly: It’s not that independent movies are necessarily art house films and don’t appeal to the mass audience. I think the studio system is more diverse these days. You have bigger studios, but you also have smaller ones that are doing more independent-like movies. You have Coen brothers, and the director Steve McQueen doing films like “Shame” and “12 Years a Slave” – they have an indie-type feel. But it’s all about the story and the script, and that is going to help to decide how you’re going to approach it. It’s not necessarily that one is art house and the other is commercial. It’s more about the story you’re telling and the director you’re working with and you never know which films might become a hit.

What I would say is that on an independent film you’re not answering to the studio execs. So there’s freedom in that way where the only person I’m answering to is really my director, and we are doing the movie together.

There’s a reason why great cinematographers like Seamus McGarvey  or Matthew Libatique do these big movies like “Noah” or “Godzilla”, but then they also come back to smaller films like “Black Swan” or “We Need to Talk About Kevin”. There’s something, I think, that appeals more to their artistic sense where you have a bit more control, and it’s a smaller ship, and you really know that you’re going to be able to put your eye to the film from beginning to end.

I think that both types of movies are equally appealing. But you might have a bit more control with the independent productions.

Kirill: How does your interaction with heads of other departments – production designer, costume designer, etc. – progress throughout the pre-production and shooting stages?

Polly: I spend the majority of pre-production time with the director, when we come up with the visual language for the story we’re trying to tell. We’ll also bring in the production designer and the costume designer into the collaborative process, where we’re talking about color and style. We discuss how the film will progress throughout the narrative, and what the arcs of the characters are, and how we can all work together to express it visually.

Kirill: Going back to “The Truth About Emanuel”, most of the scenes take place inside the two family houses. Does that reflect back into the pre-production phase where you’d spend most of your time planning the shots, tracking the mood changes throughout the story and defining the lighting?

Polly: Exactly. There are practical things to be taken into account. Even though in the movie it seems that the two houses are next to each other, the exteriors and the interiors were not on the same location. So it becomes the scheduling issue to figure out Emanuel walking into the house and then she’s on a different location when she’s in the bedroom. There’s a lot of matching the two locations on film.

And then we talk with the production designer about who lives in these houses, what are they like, who are they as people, what are they about, and how we can illustrate that visually.

On the sets of “The Truth About Emanuel”. Courtesy of Polly Morgan.

Kirill: How many cameras do you have shooting any particular scene on the production of this scale, as the final editing switches between different shots of the same set?

Polly: Most of it is a single camera. If we have a day with a heavy page count, we would get a second camera BUT you would have two or even three cameras throughout the entire production on a bigger-budget movie. On an independent production though you have one camera, and you shoot a wide shot, and then you move in for a progressively closer coverage – depending on what style of shooting you and the director have planned in pre-production.

You have to do a lot of prep on independent movies. It’s important because you don’t have time to shoot coverage on everybody. You have to make sure to know who’s important in the scene, and to prioritize their coverage.

Kirill: How is this affected by the transition from film to digital, when you don’t have to change film magazines so often or have equipment that is less bulky?

Polly: Each digital camera is different as far as size and ergonomics are concerned. The Arri Alexa which is the most widely used digital camera at the moment is quite a big one relative to others on the market. I would use a smaller camera if I wanted to go into a tighter space, or if I need to run around and need a lightweight body. These days you can really choose a camera system that fits your needs.

The digital ‘mags’ can be swapped a lot quicker than lacing up a film camera with a film magazine, and you do have longer running time. A 400-foot film magazine is four minutes, and a 1000-foot film magazine is ten minutes, but with digital it’s not like you can run and run and run, because you still need to change cards. What it does mean though is that when you have a director who might want to do ten takes, or take longer takes, or keep rolling and not have to cut the cameras, to keep the momentum going – you are able to do that. You don’t have to worry about running out of film, or how much it’s going to cost to process the film. A director has more freedom in that they are able to do as many takes as they think are necessary to fit within the schedule of the day without worrying about its cost.

Kirill: In the world of shooting on film you have to wait until the raw stock from the day’s scenes is processed overnight so that other people on the production can see what you saw through the lens. How are things changing for you when everybody can see the live – or almost live – feed from your digital camera right on the sets?

Polly: Personally I never look at the monitor, as I don’t have the time while I’m operating. It hasn’t really changed for me in that way. I still expose the sensor in the same way I’d do with film negative. I set up my lighting and I very rarely go back into the dark room to look at the monitor. Of course you do have everyone else watching the monitor but I try to explain in pre-production that digital is the same as film because the idea of what you see on the monitor is what you get is false. We are shooting raw/log and the monitor will have a look applied that can be changed in post. Also the viewing conditions or how the monitor has been set up will affect how it looks regardless to how you are exposing the image.

What digital capture does do is take away sleepless nights. The film negative could have been scratched, flashed or there might have been a problem in the bath – these are all kinds of things that would keep a cinematographer awake at night. These days you shoot it and you have other people watching the monitor. If there’s a flare, or a scratch on the lens, you’re going to be able to see it on the monitor. It definitely prevents certain problems, but as far as the way that I work, it hasn’t changed anything.

Kirill: You have your initial arrangements with the lights, and the lenses, and the overall setup. And then you get on the set with the actors and you see their skin complexion, hair color, physical build. Do you ever need to scramble and change some of your setups?

Polly: Before you start shooting a film, you do camera tests with your actors. You shoot a variety of technical tests, including with make-up. So you’re very prepared going in. You know what their skin tone is like, what kind of lighting works for their bone structure, what their hair style is going to be, for the most part what color palette they’ll going to be wearing and how that’ll fit in the color palette of the set. That’s why it’s important to prepare, to take away any surprises that might cause you problems on the set. For the most part you have a foresight of what those problems might be, and you try to respond to them before they actually arise. Every minute on set is expensive.

Kirill: Last question about “The Truth About Emanuel” and its underwater scenes. How did those go? Did you have a separate crew doing those shoots?

Polly: I did all of the underwater photography as it’s something that I did a little bit of before, something that I’ve had some experience with. I love it. There are specific people that only do underwater photography and there’s a reason why. It is a challenging experience but I love to operate, and I love to dive. It’s a very magical experience to be under the water with the action.

I’m alone in the water with my camera which is in a special housing, and everybody else is up on the side of the tank watching the monitor. It’s literally me and the actor and a safety diver.

Shooting the underwater sequence. Courtesy of Polly Morgan.

Kirill: Does the breathing equipment stand in the way between you and the camera?

Polly: No, it’s just like diving. You have a tank on your back, a wetsuit and a mask. You’re just looking through the mask like you’d do if you were snorkeling and operating off a monitor on the camera.

The key is buoyancy, which is a tricky thing. You have to have a real skill being able to be buoyant at the correct depth and to hold your position. If the camera is rolling and you’re thinking of not floating up, you’ll miss your shot.

Shooting the underwater sequence. Courtesy of Polly Morgan.

Kirill: Do you continue into the post-production phase with the director and the editor? Does that depend on the budget allocated to your involvement at that stage?

Polly: The director and the editor will go off for a couple of months to edit the movie. Once it’s completed, I’ll come in to do color correction with the director. We’ll go to a post-production house to do digital intermediate together, to finalize the color for the film, to balance everything.

Kirill: How does it feel to see the movie at that stage, with all the cuts and the music? Is it a more immersive experience for you as compared to reviewing the dailies?

Polly: That’s the exciting thing. When I’m operating, I don’t wear headphones. I can hear the actors talking and I know what they’re saying because I know the script so well. But you don’t really hear the real performance they’re giving. When I get to see the movie with sound and music, it’s really an exciting moment for me. It’s your work which you know very well, but with sound everything really comes together.

Kirill: What stays with you afterwards? If you look at the films you did a year ago, two years ago, five years ago, do you remember the good parts while the bad parts fade away from the memory?

Polly: To see a movie wrap is a sad feeling. You spend months together – it’s a very intense experience. You’re all there working together, and the people become your family. It’s always sad to say good bye, and a tremendous sense of achievement as well. Everybody works hard, and you put a bit of your soul into every movie that you make. It’s always the good memories that you take away with you. It’s always so lovely to watch a film and have the good memories come calling back.

Kirill: You did TV work for “American Horror Story” and now on “Lying for a Living”. Is it much different from feature work?

Polly: It’s almost the same as independent movies, with a lot of work to do and a little time to do it for every episode. Also the duration is different. TV might stretch for six months whereas an indie movie is shot in around 20 days.

Kirill: I’ve read quite a few interviews with directors and cinematographers talking about losing the visual qualities of the film, including grain. How is this transition to more precise digital tools is working for you?

Polly: I love film. Film is the gold standard. There’s a more organic and real feel about it. We grew up watching movies that were shot on film, and grain definitely adds a lot of texture. As far as I’m concerned, I would definitely prefer shooting on film if I can.

I don’t think film is going to disappear. It will always be around. There will always be boutique places processing negatives. You can still shoot Super 8 these days and have these little places that will process and transfer it for you.

I just think it’s going to become more of a specific choice, but it won’t go away completely. There’s still quite a few movies that shoot on film, and it’s still the only proper way to archive work. You can’t just put movies on hard drives, as in ten years time it won’t turn on, or the software won’t be there, or the disk will be degraded. And at the same time you can find film from 1920s, restore it and have it look like it was shot yesterday.

I really believe and hope there will always be a place for film. In ten years I’ll still be shooting on film, but I suppose it’ll be less available to the masses, sadly.

Kirill: When you go to a movie theater, are you able to detach from analyzing the technical aspects and just get immersed in the story?

Polly: It depends. If something takes me out of the story – a bad script or a bad visual effect – I’ll start focusing on the technical stuff and become aware of the work of the DP [director of photography]. But for the most part, if it’s a good movie, I’ll get lost in the story like everybody else.

And here I’d like to thank Polly Morgan for graciously agreeing to answer a few questions I had about her art and craft. Her latest “The Truth About Emanuel” is available for sale in both physical and digital format in the stores near you.