ASC Close-Up: Polly Morgan

“My favorite genre is drama, for the opportunity to create a palette that helps the audience connect with the characters in an emotional and engaging way.”

ASC Staff

When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The immersive and evocative storytelling had a profound effect on me, ignited a love of cinema, and determined that I would one day be a filmmaker.

Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
[ASC members] Vilmos Zsigmond, Conrad Hall, Vittorio Storaro, Caleb Deschanel, Bradford Young, Rachel Morrison and Hoyte van Hoytema.

What sparked your interest in photography?
My grandfather was always drawing, and that love of art was passed down to me. I studied art and art history, and that led me to the world of photography and lighting.

Where did you train and/or study?
After many years working in the industry and making short films, I completed an MFA at the American Film Institute. 

Who were your early teachers or mentors?
I first met Haris Zambarloukos, BSC, GSC, when I was a PA. He hired me as a camera trainee and was a huge influence on my career and on my decision to attend AFI. [Society member] Michael Goi became my mentor for many years. He was always there to answer any questions, and he hired me to shoot additional photography for him on American Horror Story.

What are some of your key artistic influences?
I am constantly inspired by both traditional and contemporary art. The lighting and texture that can be created on a canvas, the depth that is created on a 2D surface — I try to infuse those into my work with that same painterly quality. I have also traveled around the world, often alone and with a backpack, and those adventures have shaped me as an artist and allowed me to experience different cultures, colors, life and light, and made me the DP I am.

How did you get your first break in the business?
I managed to get a Canadian director to hire me as his assistant in Toronto, which enabled me to get on my first sets and start working as a PA. When I moved to London, the experience helped me get a job at Ridley Scott’s company.

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
After many weeks of prep and planning, shooting a scene that involved sinking a set in a tank in Long Beach, and operating underwater. Not only was it technically challenging, but totally immersive to be alone underwater with the camera and actors.

Have you made any memorable blunders?
When I was a camera loader, I mistakenly opened a magazine of exposed film outside of my changing tent. I have never felt so sick in my entire life. I had to go tell the producer and director that I had lost a whole roll of film, and the crew had to come back the next day and reshoot everything. It was Super 16, so 10 minutes worth of material.

What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
Being a successful cinematographer is not only about creating beautiful images, but also about communication, patience, organization and leadership. Filmmaking is a collaborative experience, and it’s important to be able to work well with many different personalities.

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
One of this year’s foreign movie Academy Award contenders, Capernaum, was incredibly moving. The poetic imagery perfectly captured the heartbreaking odyssey.

Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
My favorite genre is drama, for the opportunity to create a palette that helps the audience connect with the characters in an emotional and engaging way. I would, however, love to do a big action movie like a Mission: Impossible or a Bond movie. I think that would be not only creatively satisfying, but a lot of fun!

If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
Writing and taking photos for travel guides, such as Lonely Planet.

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Michael Goi, Dean Cundey and Bob Primes.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
It has given me a sense of family, of being part of a collective, all united through the same love of the craft — a supportive group that openly shares knowledge and experience. I believe that membership has helped give me validation to be hired on larger projects. As a younger woman, I think it must help convince people that I know what I am doing and can be trusted to execute a job well. 

You'll find Morgan’s personal site here.
Photo at top by Chris Cavanaugh

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