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The Natural World


Based on the best-selling mystery novel of the same name, the feature Where the Crawdads Sing tells the story of Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones), a young woman who grew up isolated in the North Carolina marshes and is implicated in a murder. Directed by Olivia Newman, the movie was shot by cinematographer Polly Morgan, ASC, BSC, whose long history of working with Panavision goes back to her days as a production assistant in London. Panavision recently spoke with Morgan about her collaboration with Newman and their choice of optics for the feature.

Panavision: What attracted you to Where the Crawdads Sing?

Polly Morgan, ASC, BSC: I read the book during the pandemic in the summer of 2020. I was pregnant, and when I read about this young girl growing up alone in nature, it really resonated with me and my experience as a child. I grew up in remote English countryside, in a valley next to a river. The country road that led to our farmhouse was a mile long, completely off the beaten track. I would spend lots of my time down by the riverbanks and walking through the woods alone. I deeply connected with Kya's story, her love of nature and her resilience to succeed no matter what life threw at her.

How did you become involved in shooting the movie?

Morgan: After I had my son in October [2020], my agent told me they were going to make the book into a movie. She tried for a long time to get me an interview with the director, but I wasnt on the list of DPs that the studio were looking at. With no other option, I wrote Livi a letter, expressing how much I loved the book, what it meant to me and how much I would love to work together to bring the story to life.

After she got my letter, we arranged a Zoom call and then talked for hours. I had made a pitch deck showing inspirations and ideas for the visuals, and we were on exactly the same page. In fact, she showed me the book she created when meeting for the job, and they were very similar.

After my meeting with Livi, I had to then go through a series of meetings with producers and studio execs. I think there was some trepidation because they didnt see much nature work in the material that I had shot before; in this business, unless you've already proven that you can do something, people are nervous that you cant do it. Luckily, they responded to the deck I had put together, and when I discussed our plans with camera movement, they felt more at ease.

When I got to the call to say I had been offered the job, I was overwhelmed. I was so excited to get to work with Livi and thrilled that I was going to be able to create the imagery I had imagined when reading the book.

Can you describe the pitch deck you made?

Morgan: I organized the book based on themes of color and how different colors and contrast would play within Kya's life. I highlighted the difference in contrast and color in the present-day courtroom and jail with the time periods of the 1950s, '60s and '70s, from Kya's childhood, and through her life as a young woman. My references were based on bringing the natural world into the viewers experience in a subjective way to connect them emotionally to the story. I used references from [the movies of] Terrence Malick, Jane Campion and David Lowery, images that focused on the play of light and quiet details. The concept was to make a commercial movie that was still artful and had a balance of scope and intimacy.

How would you describe the look that you and Olivia Newman wanted for the movie?

Morgan: I suppose its cinematic naturalism. The look is very soft and pretty. We embraced a pastel color palette and created a neutral LUT that was very true to the colors created by the production and costume designers. There is so much green in the frame, so we stayed away from any warmth that would add yellow and make the greens feel digital and artificial.

My approach to lighting was to always make sure that we had details in the shadows, with no deep, rich blacks. The landscape at night can very quickly fall into nothing, so I hid fixtures deep in the background to ensure there was always detail in the image and that the contrast would remain soft all the way through post.

Livi and I had a very clear idea of how we wanted to move the camera and frame the image. We wanted to do things to make it more unique to us, like certain angles that spoke emotionally to Kyas internal state. We played with focus and various modes of camera support. The words in the book are so lyrical, and we wanted the camera movement to reflect that. We employed Steadicam and various arms to move the camera as well as keeping a remote head on the dolly and always moving with the action on dance floor or track. Handheld was also employed for the more intimate and emotional scenes.

You ended up using a new set of Panavision prototype large-format spherical lenses for the movie. What made you choose those lenses for the look you wanted?

Morgan: Dan Sasaki [Panavision's senior vice president of optical engineering and lens strategy] reached out to me during Covid, and we talked about an independent movie I was going to do that was about a female running out in the countryside. I knew I wouldn't be able to control the light, so I was looking for lenses that were going to be softer so the natural light wouldn't be so harsh on the actor's face. He mentioned some prototypes that he was building and said they might work really well.

I never shot that movie, as I was having my baby by the time it went, but when I spoke to Livi, we talked about lenses, and I knew that Dan's glass would be a great fit. I knew I wanted to shoot the movie in large format to embrace a more expansive field of view, and I also knew that anamorphic lenses would counteract that.

I took Livi out to Panavision in Woodland Hills to chat with Dan. We looked at a variety of l
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