Cinematography of “Where the Crawdads Sing” – interview with Polly Morgan

December 3rd, 2023

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome back Polly Morgan. In this interview, she talks about changes in technology and exhibition, the impact of Covid on the industry in the last few years, the potential impact of generative AI on the industry, connecting with her characters, and growing as an artist and as a person. Between all these and more, Polly dives deep into her work on the wonderfully crafted “Where the Crawdads Sing”.

Kirill: What big changes have you seen in your industry since we talked back in 2014?

Polly: So much has changed in the last 10 years. Digital cameras have gone through a huge evolution. We’ve got smaller, more ergonomic cameras. We have cameras that are much more sensitive to light than they were before. For example, the Sony Venus has different ISO ratings, similar to the Panasonic VariCam before it. The new camera systems are either very small like the Red Komodo and can be handheld, or if they’re larger, they can split apart. With these you have a lens mount and a lens, and then you tether off to the hard drive that is the camera body.

There’s all different types of camera systems out there now, and it’s an exciting environment. Depending on what you’re trying to achieve, you can mix and match – whether you’re looking for a small camera that you can hand hold, whether you’re looking for a large format like the Alexa 65, which is larger and more cumbersome. There’s lots of different sensor sizes and cameras, with so many options to choose from. It’s very much a filmmaker’s arena.

Following on from that, lenses have also expanded. If you look at what we had fifty years ago, there was a limited number of options for lenses. And now, just like the camera systems, you can think about whether you’re shooting large format with large format lenses, or 35mm sensor lenses, or anamorphic lenses, and everybody is almost customizing those lenses as an individual for a specific project. You can choose your unique lens, and then you can get it customized for your exact project. It’s almost like no one has ever shot with a lens exactly like that before. It’s this blossoming of tools that we have.

On top of that, there’s a lot of changes in the way that we move the camera. There are so many different camera systems from all the new gimbals that came out such as the Mōvi and the Ronin, which revolutionized everything. Lower budget filmmakers are able to do a lot more elaborate camera moves without having to pay for a Steadicam operator. Or instead of having to pay for a helicopter, you can use a drone.

The industry is constantly changing and constantly expanding with technology. And it’s all in benefit for the filmmaker. That has been has been very exciting.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as things moving too fast?

Polly: It’s the way that the world is right now. When we think about what’s happened in the last 20 years with technology, and now with the advent of AI, and the fact that AI has only become part of the conversation in the last six months, and how quickly that technology is increasing – much quicker than even the people that first established AI systems thought that would. It’s part of a larger conversation of how fast technology moves.

But ultimately the end goal is the same. We’re all trying to tell stories, and now we have more tools to tell those stories. Everyone’s responding to the advances that are happening.

Kirill: How do you define art? Is there such a thing as good art and bad art, or is it all subjective?

Polly: It’s all subjective. That is the wonderful thing about art. There are no limitations to self expression. Throughout history and the evolution of the art form, be it going from oil paints to watercolors, or whatever it is, artists express themselves. They have that need to express themselves and to be creative. There’s all different ways and formats, whether it’s live performance or videography or filmmaking or fine art or whatever it might be. If you describe yourself as an artist, you’re ruled by this burning desire to express yourself. And it can’t be classified as either good or bad.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as too many artists in the world?

Polly: I don’t think so. What’s interesting now is that we have this platform for people to share their art. When you think about fine art, think about how narrow the field was during the Renaissance or over time in general. Who would be commissioned by the rich families or the church to make art? Who were those artists that they would commission to create works of art for them? How they would show it off? How they would distribute it or publish it? It was so limited.

And you look at the earlier days of filmmaking, and you see how limited that field was with terrestrial and cable TV, and theatrical distribution. It was so closed off and very difficult to get into. We talked about this last time, and how there’s been this democratization of filmmaking. We can make films on our iPhones, and we can edit them on our iPhones ,and we can share it on YouTube or video or any platform that we want. So now there’s this huge influx of people creating stuff and self-publishing it so that people, if they want to search for it, they can. Of course, not everybody that’s creating this new “content” is creating it for art. There’s different motivations for them.

The whole industry has been changed by the fact that it has opened up and there’s so much access to the business has been broken down. There’s a lot more work out there.

Kirill: Perhaps the flip side of removing the traditional gatekeepers is that maybe there’s so much to choose from that a lot of great things go largely unnoticed.

Polly: I’m always asking people about what they’re watching or what their experiences are at home when they’re watching stuff. The usual response is when people get a chance to sit down and have time to watch something, they spend 30-45 minutes trying to find something to watch. It’s a frustrating experience to surf all the different streaming platforms, and it is difficult to find stuff to watch.

Once you start watching a certain type of program, the algorithms then feed you more of the same, rather than maybe keeping it open. It is difficult to find stuff. Somebody just told me that when you go to the movies tab on Apple TV, it’s the same movies again and again. I remember when we used to go to DVD stores, you would walk around and see all the different titles, and you would discover new things.

It is challenging. You have independent movies that don’t have the right amount of marketing. It very much comes down to how much money the studios are going to spend on marketing a movie, and the hype and the press and everything that goes along with it. That is a major deciding factor of what we all end up watching, and what we’re aware of. And you have smaller independent companies like Anonymous Content, A24 or Neon, and they are not able to spend a lot of money on marketing and getting their material out there. So that tends to go unnoticed or is watched less.

Kirill: It was great to have the opportunity to watch “Where the Crawdads Sing” on the big screen. It is a different experience. But now that the big screens are dominated by the blockbusters and big budget franchises, it feels that movies like this one are not getting their chance to be experienced on that large screen. Is it painful for you to see them confined to smaller screens in our homes?

Polly: It’s painful in many different ways. I feel incredibly fortunate that my last three films all got theatrical distribution, from “A Quiet Place Part II” to “Where the Crawdads Sing” to “The Woman King”. They were all seen in a theater the way that the filmmakers intended them to be seen. I know a lot of people that worked on films that they thought would get the theatrical distribution, and then at the last minute the studios decided to put them on the streamers. A lot depends on the marketing budget or how much the studios were willing to spend to push the movie, and that was different on each of those projects.

As a cinematographer, you spend weeks sitting in a DI suite grading a film for theatrical distribution. Then you get half a day to create an HDR version and a 709 SDR version, and that is frustrating because that is where the film will live forever. It’s difficult because certain studios also have certain ideas about where HDR needs to sit in brightness levels. That’s why the home version can feel different to the theatrical version. It’s frustrating because once the theatrical run has finished, it will be forever seen in a way that maybe the filmmaker didn’t intend.

Kirill: How was your Covid experience? Three movies in three years is pretty good given what happened to the industry.

Polly: I finished “A Quiet Place Part II” at the end of 2019, and then we did additional photography in January of 2020. We went to New York for the premiere on March 8 of 2020, and it was supposed to come out in wide release later that month. It was pulled at the very last minute once the closures started.

I didn’t work for the whole of 2020 apart from a few small things. We bunkered down and stayed at home. And then right at the end of 2020 I had my first meeting on “Where the Crawdads Sing”, and we started working on it in February 2021. And 2021 was such a busy year for everybody, because the industry was up and running with gusto. That was the year I did “Where the Crawdads Sing” and “The Woman King” back to back.

Kirill: Is the industry is almost back to its normal self? Or maybe that some of the effects are going to be felt for long time to come?

Polly: It’s just been such an interesting time because nothing was being made for almost a year. Then in 2021 there was a big rush to make as much material as possible, and also the birth of “content” as a generic label. People are having a huge adverse reaction to that label. The work that we do isn’t just content. It’s storytelling and filmmaking, be it in episodic or movie format.

The fallback from that huge rush back into production post-Covid is one of the factors that has made the strike come to a head. Now we’re in this quiet moment again, and 2024 might be another big rush to production, but maybe there won’t be as much production because the streamers aren’t going to spend as much money or produce as much. Covid has definitely had a lasting effect on the business, and we’re going to see that effect for some time to come.

Another interesting trend is around the type of movies that have been made, the advent of the superhero movie, and the fact that that became so big and popular for so long. It looks like that interest now is fading away, and that people are craving something different. It’s a cycle, this appetite for a certain type of product or the kind of movies that people will invest in. You see a lot of successful biopics in the last few years, and there’s a lot more of them in the works.

When I started out in the business, I naively thought that a lot of filmmaking was about art and about storytelling. Now, having worked on many studio movies, I see that it has to be a money making venture. It’s a business decision on what type of films people and studios want to invest their money in, and analyzing how many people are going to go and see that movie, and what the return on that investment would be.

Kirill: Does it feel sometimes almost a miracle that movies at the budget level of “Where the Crawdads Sing” are being made, that the companies you mentioned like A24, Neon or TSG still manage to stay in business?

Polly: It’s fascinating how that structure works. I definitely don’t know the ins and outs of it. Nowadays you can go to an independent theater in downtown LA, like the Alamo Draft House, buy their pass, and go and see a movie every day for two months for only $30. AMC has their own pass where you can see three movies a week for about the same price. I don’t know how theaters are staying profitable when they’ve got such great deals going on. And some studios experimented with releasing a movie theatrically and on streaming at the same time.

Whatever the ins and outs of the business are, people do love watching movies. The budget range of $20-30M is a great place to be in, and “Where the Crawdads Sing” was right in there. You have enough to be free to make your creative choices and make that movie. The more your budget increases, the harder it gets to make money back on that investment. “The Woman King” and “A Quiet Place Part II” were both in the $50-60M range, and that’s a tough place. You see a lot of vastly expensive movies that cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and movies in the $20-30M range. But there’s not as many around $60M.

Kirill: What brought you to “Where the Crawdads Sing”?

Polly: During Covid in 2020 I sat at home and I read the book, and I feel in love with it. I resonated with the material so much. She’s a young girl growing up abandoned in the wilds of the Carolinas, and she has this deep connection with nature. And although it’s not quite the same, I grew up on a farm in the wilds of West Sussex in England. It was quite remote, with hardly anybody around. I filled my days down by the river or wandering through the woods, and that’s how I connected to Kya’s story. I felt the material was poetic, and that it handled so many themes that I related to.

Then around September of that year I found out that they were going to make a movie out of it, and I pushed to try and meet with the director Olivia Newman. None of my previous work was set in a big natural environment, and the studio had a list of DPs that they wanted to meet for the movie. I don’t think that I was on that list, but my agent is quite tenacious and she managed to find me the director’s email. I wrote her a letter imploring her to meet with me – which she did. From that meeting, I had various other meetings with producers and studio execs, and then they finally offered me the job around the end of December, which was so exciting.

Kirill: Did you find it challenging to shoot Carolina in Louisiana?

Polly: Not really. We spent a lot of time looking at photos from the Carolinas and trying to make sure that we were staying to that. Lousiana’s flora and fauna are slightly different, but equally as beautiful. It felt like a good backup. We were originally going to go to North Carolina. But like for so many productions that are responsive to the tax credits, Louisiana ended up winning that battle.

Kirill: I’m not sure if it’s happy coincidence or not. When we talked about “The Truth About Emmanuel”, there were some underwater scenes – and here the whole movie is around water. Do you feel comfortable with having all this expensive equipment on the water?

Polly: I’ve done quite a lot of underwater work throughout my career. There’s a big scene on “A Quiet Place Part II” in a marina at night where Cillian Murphy ends up jumping into the water and there’s some action that happens under the water.

Every time I do something, I like to be challenged. There’s something quite exciting about exploring different genres or different material that will challenge me in a different way. So much of this film was out on the water. It’s also in remote places where you couldn’t get the gear in, or you couldn’t control the light, and you had to rely on scheduling or good luck to help you get the work done.

Kirill: Was the weather cooperating?

Polly: No, the weather did not cooperate at all. We pushed to shoot it in the spring so that we would miss the rainy season in New Orleans. And of course, the rainy season came early and we had record amounts of rainfall. All of our sets at one point were flooded, so we had to shut down for a couple of days. You have beautiful grassy environments that quickly turn to mud baths when it rains a lot.

We spent a lot of time working in mud, and dealing with lightning storms, and sitting in our cars patiently waiting until we were allowed to go back to work. But filmmakers are born to be resilient and flexible. It was definitely a challenge, but somehow we managed to finish the movie on schedule.

Kirill: Speaking about being resilient, how many bug bites did you get on an average day?

Polly: We all spent so much time spraying mosquito repellent on each other. The wonderful thing about Louisiana is even though they had horrible mosquitoes and chiggers, they didn’t have ticks. The ticks are the scary ones because of the Lyme disease. Back on “A Quiet Place Part II” in upstate New York, we were always having to go to the bathroom and strip down and make sure that we didn’t carry any ticks with us. I spent a couple of years shooting movies in the summer. We went to Africa to shoot “The Woman King”, and it was summer there. The summer always brings with it hot sticky weather and a lot of bugs.

Kirill: You have a lot of beautiful dawn and dusk scenes on “Where the Crawdads Sing”. If I give you two photographs, one of dusk and one of dawn, is there a reliable way to distinguish which one is which?

Polly: Dawn has more like lavender hues than dusk. Dusk tends to be much warmer. When you read up and research it, there’s more lavender purplish colors in the sky for dawn.

We rarely do dawn for dawn, because no one wants to get up that early in the morning. Usually it’s dusk for dawn. And in my perception, dusk seems to last a little bit longer than dawn does. Once the sun starts rising, it’s up quite quickly.

Kirill: Do you want clouds in there, or do you prefer clear skies?

Polly: Optimally it’s a couple of clouds so that when the sun sinks, it starts reflecting off the bottom of the clouds, which then gets you a beautiful pinkish hue. When we were scheduling “The Woman King”, we had a lot of scenes happening at sunrise and sunset. We were specific with our locations so that we could look into it. But due to the nature of where we were at the time of year, most of the time it was so cloudy, and we didn’t get any sunrise or sunset at all. That was sad. So I would take a clear sky over a cloudy sky, but optimally there’d be a few clouds.

Kirill: The sequence where Kya waits for Tate to come back home, and she falls asleep on the beach – did you pull an all-nighter?

Polly: We wanted the frame to be locked off, have Kya move to different positions within that shot, and dissolve between the successive frames. So we had to shoot it in sequence. The sequence itself goes from afternoon to sunset to night and to dawn. But when we shot it, we did afternoon, then sunset, then dusk for dawn, and then we did night.

Kirill: How shaky was that fire tower? Did the production build it or was it an existing structure?

Polly: We built two sections, one for the top of the fire tower, and another for the middle of it with some stairs. And on location we had the base that was set into the existing marsh swamp.

The top and middle pieces were shot on green screen on a racetrack parking lot. It was a massive area with two different sections of the build, and we surrounded them in green screens that were on Manitou cranes. We had a fly swatter to soften the sun, and a camera on a crane. And then we shot plates with a drone of the swamp and the marshes. All of that was comped together in VFX.

Kirill: How much VFX do we see in this movie? Are the birds that fly over the marshes in the opening sequence and behind Kya and Tate when they go to that sandy area real?

Polly: The birds are VFX. The heron at the beginning and the geese in that sequence are VFX. We also had some of the seagulls in a different sequence with Kya on the beach. And the fire tower sequence is a big VFX one.

Kirill: I loved a couple of sequences set in the middle of the marshes with these big trees with some moss hanging down the horizontal branches. Were those trees found as is, or did you do some extra work in the greenery department?

Polly: They all exist there, but we did elevate them slightly with Spanish moss. We would get the art department to hang more Spanish moss over the branches. But other than that, it’s all there.

When we first went there in February, I didn’t expect the marsh and the swamp to look so different in the seasons. I thought because it was so wet, it would always look green. But it was brown and sort of depressing in February. And then all of a sudden in spring, it all came to life and went incredibly green. What you see is nature at its finest.

Kirill: As the story switches between different time periods in Kya’s life, from when she was a little girl to the present day of the main events to her future as she gets older, there is not much visual difference in the tone of it. Some movies opt for distant visual looks to separate the timelines, but not this one. Was that an artistic decision to show that it’s still the same place and it doesn’t change much throughout the decades?

Polly: We talked about the material in the courtroom and what happens when we’re flashing back to her life, whether it’s as a child or whether it’s as a young woman. We discussed whether we should approach that differently, or maybe use different lenses. Eventually, we felt that we didn’t need to be heavily handed with the approach, that it would be clear on its own.

We use certain transitions that went from the present day of her being in the prison cell or in the courtroom to the earlier days. We used framing and camera movement to blend from one time to the other, and it felt a naturalistic approach. It wasn’t overly stylized. I felt that if we had done anything heavy handed with color or lens choices, that it would maybe feel a bit more forced. So we let it play out.

Kirill: The movie is based on the book, and the book sets the timeframe for the storyline. But if I take out the Greyhound bus and a couple of items in that grocery store, it feels like it’s almost not anchored to any particular time. It feels like it might happen today, in 2023.

Polly: Some of the costume choices were made to not necessarily be period correct, and that lends a bit of a timeless feel to it. Some of the female costumes are definitely from that time period, and when you go into town and you see the cars, you see that it’s around the ’50s and the ’60s. But when you’re out in nature, it is definitely timeless.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as a favorite set or scene or sequence for you personally?

Polly: That would be the waiting scene on the beach. We dealt with so much terrible weather, and the one place that I really needed the sun to come out was on that beach. And it played ball. It was beautiful weather there.

Another one is the montage of Tate and Kya falling love. He’s sitting on the beach, and she runs past him, and she goes into the water, and she swims, and then he joins her and they kiss underwater, and then they come up, and then they’re lying together on the beach. That’s a beautiful and evocative sequence with lots of natural light. That’s their love story.

I also enjoyed the fire scene on the beach with Chase, where we wanted the firelight do the work and light the scene as much as possible, and let everything else fall away. Then they go into town as she leaves the security and the comfort of her marsh, and she loses her virginity in a not particularly pleasant way. We played with the use of color which we hadn’t seen in the film before, and that interesting. That was a fun sequence to do.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as your favorite color?

Polly: My favorite color changes on a daily basis. Today it’s gray. Some people wouldn’t say it’s that much of a color, but I find it quite a calming thing.

Kirill: Do you worry about the rise of generative AI and how it might reshape some parts of your industry, or perhaps human creativity in general?

Polly: Like with all new technology, people can be intimidated by it and nervous about it. No matter what we think about AI, it’s going to have a place in our future. It’s definitely going to have a place in the writing of scripts. I think it’s going to have a place with the filming of scripts. But I feel that it’s just going to be another tool in the toolbox. Sometimes it will be applicable, and we’ll use it like we would anything else. And sometimes it won’t be the right tool for the job.

A lot of people are already using ChatGPT to support their writing, be it for a quick fix, or a way to get out of writer’s block. I’ve spoken to a lot of writers that have used it for a while to support their work, but I don’t think it will ever take over the industry.

Sadly, some jobs might fall away in the process. But I don’t see it as an “intelligence” that can create something new. It’s a way to reproduce what’s already out there, to take images and collate them and make something new. If you’re a graphic designer or a concept artist, those fields can have AI producing material quickly. But I think it’s going to be an evolution of the industry in the way that the industry has evolved before. I understand and agree that we certainly need limitations of how much of it can be used. But it’d not going to go away. It’s something that we’ll all end up adopting, and it will be a part of our work. Hopefully, it’ll be another tool, and we’ll continue using all the other tools that we have available to us.

Kirill: When you were talking about the weather not cooperating, or wanting that cloud in the sky. Maybe it’s going to be somebody typing in “give me a heron flying over the Carolina marshes”, and you don’t need a whole VFX department anymore.

Polly: That heron sequence did take a lot of work to produce. We had to do overhead scouts with drones to figure out what the environment looked like from above. We had to wait for the right time of day. We had to work with the drone operators to make sure that the shot was exactly what they needed it to be in order for the comp of the heron to work. We needed to go to North Carolina in order to get the beach, because we were in Louisiana, and we couldn’t shoot the beach in Louisiana. That was expensive. There were three different environments that were comped together in order to get that opening sequence. And then the time and the effort to put the bird in. Maybe it will end up being a sequence that is built by AI.

What is interesting is that you have artists who are all human beings. We’re creating stuff, and it’s always going to have a few flaws. It will have an organic feel to it. We’re working with human error. We’re working with the natural world. We’re working with various different things that give a soul and a heart to it.

The important thing in my work is to help the viewer emote and get immersed into the film that they’re watching. If you’re watching a sequence generated by AI, it might not have those flaws embedded in it, or it wouldn’t necessarily have that soul or that emotion. And maybe that wouldn’t work for the viewer. It wouldn’t be right for the film. It’s going to be this balance of where it does fit in and how we do use it. Maybe it’s not within the actual production, but more in the prep process of reference images, or creating environments that don’t exist and then making them within AI and then building them on set. It’s going to be something that evolves over the next couple of years of how it finds its place.

Kirill: You mentioned that you connected with the main character when you were reading the book. Do you in general want to find a little bit of yourself in characters that you are shooting?

Polly: I always want to find something within the characters that I can relate to when I first read them on the page. Kya is abandoned by her family, and not that my family abandoned me, but as many families are, it wasn’t the simplest of environments. I sought solace away from them within nature, and that’s where Kya finds her solace. So, I definitely saw myself in her.

She’s such a wonderful female character. She’s so smart and unique. She’s tenacious, as she had to become strong and tough. She took care of herself, and she rose to the occasion of what she needed to do to transform herself in order to survive. I’d like to think that I’ve done the same, in a way. I’ve sort done what I’ve needed to do in order to realize my dream of becoming cinematographer, moving to Los Angeles, being far away from everything I knew, being strong and rising to the occasion.

Kirill: Do you find that the more life experiences you have, the better you become at being a storyteller, or maybe you see yourself approaching these stories in a different way?

Polly: I’ve recently become a mother, and that requires great patience. As I’ve matured and I’ve spent more time on set handling the challenges and needs of what it is to be a filmmaker, you learn the importance of being patient and calm. It’s like being a strong oak in the wind. No matter how hard the wind blows, you’re not going to sway in the wind. You’re staying strong.

Whatever a project can throw at me, I feel like I could pretty much handle anything. Nothing phases me, in a way. I’ve experienced so many things go wrong, whether it’s the weather or losing an actor or losing the light or whatever it is that cinematographers deal with all the time. I’m able to respond to those challenges in a much calmer manner.

Communication plays such a massive role in what we do. Learning to communicate what you need or what you want is key. I’m dealing now with bigger crews and lots of different departments, and I need to be able to communicate and illustrate to them what I want and how I want it to be done. I’m able to do that a lot easier now and to be clear about what I want to happen.

Kirill: If you had a time machine, and you could go back in time to when you started in the field, and you could give yourself a piece of advice, what would that advice be?

Polly: I would say that you have to be ready and be prepared for the roller coaster that is working in production. You might get to shoot something, and then you might not shoot something for three months, and then you might shoot something else. It’s this ability to enjoy the ups of working, and being employed, and feeling fulfilled creatively. And then when you’re on the downswing and you don’t work for a couple of months, to try and enjoy that time because a job will come – but you don’t know when it is.

It might be at the beginning of your career as you’re trying to build up the work, or if it’s a forced break because of Covid or the strikes, or having a baby – there’s going to be this unpredictable experience that you have as a filmmaker of being really busy and not having time for anything, and then not being busy. It’s the work-life balance of trying to make sure that you can satisfy everything. Self care is important. You need to make time for yourself and take care of yourself.

I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to be working on the types of films that I’m working on. There’s all different types of productions that are happening out there, and I’m so grateful that I’m getting to shoot movies that are seen theatrically.

It’s a tough business emotionally. There’s a lot of rejection. There’s a lot of joy. Be the tree. Enjoy the sunlight when it comes, but know that a storm will come too. You have to be strong and weather through it.

And here I’d like to thank Polly Morgan for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of production design, and for sharing the supporting materials. “Where the Crawdads Sing” is available on a variety of digital platforms. Finally, if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.