Polly Morgan, ASC, BSC talked to RED about the collaborative process of filmmaking and her approach to getting “the look” for her projects. Morgan’s credits include the upcoming A Quiet Place Part II, the compelling indie Lucy in the Sky, as well as the stylized FX episodic Legion.
Question: How do you prepare for a new project?
Morgan: When I read a script, I always have ideas. But as a DP, it’s important to have the confidence to share the ideas you’re thinking with other heads of departments. Of course, I talk to the director first, and then, for example, on Legion, I worked with the set decorator to communicate the color of light I was using and how and why I wanted certain fabrics to contrast. It’s important to talk to the art and costume departments about the color palette, as there is the potential for artifacting from a costume. … On Lucy, [spoiler alert!] the last scene shows her as a beekeeper. I worked with costume to make sure the thickness of the visor was right so we could still see her eyes. It’s those multi-department conversations that make a difference, whether about textures in windows or the colors of walls. Filmmakers love to collaborate. That’s what filmmaking is all about.
Can you give an example of how you communicate those ideas?
Often, I create a look book in prep, and bounce those images back and forth with the director to figure out which ones speak to him or her. Then I use them as strong references, especially with other departments. To get to the general look and feel for a film, I rely on lens and camera tests, and more tests with the actors, and then take that footage to the post house and color them. And then those images become your main reference because those are the ones you colored yourselves.
Describe the role of the DP on bigger budget projects versus indies, based on your experience:
Tell us about working with director Noah Hawley on Legion and Lucy in the Sky.
He was showrunner on Legion, so my goal was more about learning how his brain works and how he liked to approach the story visually. We can be very experimental on that show, but we’d have “look of picture” calls with Noah to make sure we were all on the same page. Then we’d go and shoot. … When he sent me the script for Lucy, we talked through it and my ideas, and I was over the moon when he asked me to shoot it! We knew there were going to be aspect ratio changes throughout the film as a storytelling tool. We wanted to shoot in anamorphic but knew we’d be doing 4:3 pulls. We needed large format for that. So, we did tests and looked at them at the post house, ultimately choosing the DXL2 with the RED MONSTRO sensor. Then we also did extensive testing with Natalie Portman, trying different camera moves, stunts, special effects and color palettes. Those tests got us to our dailies LUT.
What is your advice for managing a look from prep to finish?
I realized early on that once production is done, the editor and director are going to sit with the material for several months and they grow to love the look of that material. When prepping, I try to figure out what the look should be, and achieve that by choosing the right camera, lenses, etc. Once I’ve chosen the format, I work on a LUT that will be the show LUT for creating dailies. I get quite involved in creating that LUT – and amplify it on set with the lighting I choose. I try to get the look as close as I want it in camera so that when I get into the DI, I’m just balancing things out and molding it as close to perfection as time allows. Using good references that you and the director are working with helps keep everyone on the same page. Ultimately, you want what you shoot to be as close to what you want it to be at the end.
How do you monitor on set?
How do you choose the right format for a project?
Each camera format offers visual differences. RED is slightly different to Alexa’s color gamut and they are both different from film. So, the conversations in prep help me choose what camera format to employ. Digital cameras are so advanced that you find yourself sometimes trying to introduce noise. To choose a camera, I look at whether it will deliver what I need in terms of (deliverable) specs, but also consider if it supports the look I’m going for; you don’t want to fight it when creating the look.
Does the final viewing platform influence your decisions?
Advice for future filmmakers
Try to shoot as much as possible. Don’t be shy or picky about what it is. The more you do the better you become and the more comfortable you become. You’ll develop your style. Then, keep working on it, and building your reel. It will lead to work. – Polly Morgan, ASC, BSC
Polly Morgan ASC BSC participated in a live, interactive interview as part of RED’s Behind the Look Virtual Cinematography Series on DATE. The above Q&A is an excerpt from that conversation.