By Ron Prince
“Like a lot of other people, I read the novel during lockdown and it gripped me on a very personal level,” declares cinematographer Polly Morgan BSC ASC about American author Delia Owens’ bestselling 2018 mystery story Where The Crawdads Sing. “I got so exited when I heard it was being adapted into a film, and knew I just had to shoot it.”
The story follows different timelines that slowly intertwine over several decades. The one depicts the life and adventures of a stoic but shy young girl, named Kya, as she grows-up isolated in the marshlands of North Carolina between 1952 and 1969. Others follow an investigation into the apparent murder of Chase Andrews, a local celebrity and Kya’s former love interest, in the fictional coastal town of Barkley Cove, where Kya becomes the prime suspect. She’s an easy target, having long been spurned and scorned by the locals as ‘The Marsh Girl’.
The novel became a runaway sensation, selling 12m copies, aided by lockdown ennui and the fact that it was a top pick in Reese Witherspoon’s popular Book Blub selection.
“I wasn’t on the original list of contenders to shoot the film… but I knew I just had to shoot it.”
The $24m, Sony Pictures movie was directed by Olivia Newman, from a novel-to-screen adaptation from Lucy Alibar, with Witherspoon amongst the producers, and Daisy Edgar-Jones starring as Kya.
Morgan’s work on the resulting film has been widely-admired for the exquisite devotion and care in capturing the poetry of the locale – the brilliant sunsets, soaring herons, the snarl of marshland waterways – bringing the story, about a character who finds solace and companionship in nature, to life on the big screen.
“The original story really resonated with me,” confides says Morgan, an AFI alumna, whose recent credits include eight episodes of FX Networks series Legion (2018), Lucy In The Sky (2019), A Quiet Place II (2020) and the upcoming The Woman King (2022).
“I grew up in West Sussex in the UK, in a valley next to a river. It was the middle of nowhere, and the nearest house was miles away. I used to spend a lot of my time alone, catching tadpoles down by the riverbank, or walking through the woods. I think it really like fostered my imagination. Kya’s story is similar to my own adolescent experience, in that she’s a young woman with a special connection to nature. She’s also a young woman who goes through a lot of trauma and conquers it, fed and sustained through her different ordeals by the power of the wilderness.
“I wasn’t on the original list of contenders to shoot the film, but kept asking my agent to get me into the room for a meeting with the producers and the director. To my agent’s credit, she found Olivia’s email address, and I wrote a long missive just explaining who I was, why I loved the book so much, and why she must meet with me.
“And lo and behold, I then spent three hours on a Zoom call with Olivia and we found ourselves united in our mutual love for the book and the vision for the movie. I then had various meetings with the studio execs, to reassure them of my vision and capabilities to shoot nature, and, after what seemed like a very long period, they offered me the job.”
Morgan says she made a visual pitch-deck, broken down into how colours would help to chart Kaya’s experience through time. “The film was always going to be soft, pretty and naturalistic, with pastel colours, and lots of majestic camera moves, inspired by the lyrical writing,” she notes.
Other visual references – featuring bountiful, soft, beautiful lighting and flares, that variously felt intimate, feminine and leant into the beauty of nature – included Days Of Heaven (1978, dir. Terrence Malick, DPs Néstor Almendros ASC & Haskell Wexler ASC), Bright Star (2007, dir. Jane Campion, DP Greig Fraser ACS ASC) and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013, dir. David Lowery, DP Bradford Young ASC).
Principal photography took place over 45 days from March 30 to June 28, 2021, in New Orleans and Houma, Louisiana, in the same sweltering locations that DP Sean Bobbitt BSC had shot 12 Years A Slave (2013, dir. Steve McQueen). Morgan says Bobbitt shared inside-knowledge with her about shooting in the tropical climate, and recommended same local key grip, Nick Leon, he had worked with.
The interiors of the jail cell and fish tackle store were shot on stages, at Second Line Stages, New Oreans, whilst the façade of the store was constructed overlooking a local bayou.
Wanting an expansive field-of-view to immerse the audience in Kya’s experience of the natural world, Morgan selected the ARRI Alexa Mini LF for the shoot, and consulted with Dan Sasaki at Panavision, LA, as regards appropriate optics. Imbibing Morgan and Newman’s desires for a lyrical and romantic feeling in the image, Sasaki and his team created a prototype set of large-format spherical lenses – since named Varials – especially for the shoot, that yielded a soft, dream-like quality to the image with low contrast.
The Varials also came with the benefit, in combination with the camera, of making a lightweight package that could be used effectively on cranes, with a DJI Ronin or on a drone for sweeping camera moves. As a note of interest, the Varials were later used by Tommy Maddox Upshaw ASC as part of his visual creation of The Man Who Fell To Earth TV series.
“Dan and the crew at Panavison did a great job in making sure the bokeh shapes, fall-off and edge-distortion of the Varial lenses had an Anamorphic feel,” says Morgan. “Each of the lenses in the set had their own personality, and shooting large format brought tangible, dimensional depth to the image, especially as regards the portraiture. I stayed on the wider end of the spectrum, and frequently used the 28mm and 40mm. The 28mm had a dreamy quality and the 40mm worked wonderfully for close-ups with dramatic fall-off.”
“Shooting large format brought tangible depth to the image, especially as regards the portraiture”
During the camera testing period, Morgan worked with colourist Natasha Leonnet at Company 3 in LA, who also completed the final grade, to develop a LUT that would, “help to prettify the images still further. The contrast was very soft, and there were no really rich, deep blacks within the image.”
“Although the film is told in flashbacks across different eras – the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s – I didn’t feel it was the right choice to treat them differently to one another,” says Morgan, “and much better to let the costume, hair, make-up, props and set dressing do the time travelling.
“That said, I did bring a slightly different feel to the courtroom sequences, in that they have a richer contrast, and Phedon Papamichael ACS GSC’s work on The Trial Of Chicago 7, was a gorgeous inspiration in that respect.”
Whilst Morgan loves to operate, the logistics were such that she preferred to delegate the camera elsewhere, and she called-on the talents of none other than Mitch Dubin SOC, with whom she had previously worked on Legion and Lucy In The Sky, assisted by 1st AC Bryan DeLorenzo on focus.
“Mitch is an absolute legend,” she remarks, “Thanks to him and Bryan, every frame is exquisite, and we owe so much of the film’s beauty to them.”
Along with key grip ‘extraordinaire’ Nick Leon, and dolly grip Gerald “G” Autin, Morgan’s crew also included Grayson Austin on B-camera/Steadicam. After the production had wrapped, Jimi Whitaker ASC came in to shoot additional photography as Morgan was in South Africa working on The Woman King.
Morgan started production with gaffer Paul Olinde, but when he was taken-ill during the first and last week, Dan Riffel, her gaffer on A Quiet Place II, proved a worthy substitute. The lighting package was supplied by MBS in New Orleans.
“It’s so gorgeous to shoot in Louisiana and New Orleans, and it’s hard not to film something that looks pretty,” says Morgan. “But we definitely had our work cut out with the weather. We scheduled production in order to miss the hurricane season, but it came early and we were constantly rained-out. On one occasion we had to shut down for three days because every single one of our sets was flooded, and all we could do was sit in our cars, watch the lightning and witness our locations become mud pits.
“Despite the downpours, we worked hard on the lighting and stuck to our original plan to keep things looking sunny and develop veiling flares from the backlight, and I think that comes through in the final film.”
As for the logistical challenges, Morgan says, “I’d never done anything like this film before, and what was exciting to me was how we were going pull off such things as the water work, amid the heat, all sort of bugs and lots of alligators.
“On-screen you see a young woman alone in her tiny wooden boat, but what you don’t see is the armada we needed to make these shots – two camera barges with cranes, a DIT support boat, a hair and make-up boat, a video village boat, a craft services vessel that would come over to deliver food and drinks. There was even a Porta-Potty boat for people to relieve themselves. It was unbearably-hot and sweltering on the water, and Nick Leon proved adept in building solid overheads on the different vessels to provide us with shade.”
The focus, during the final DI grade, was chiefly on making sure the original naturalistic visual intent was preserved through the multitude of HDR and SDR deliverables.
“My highlights on the HDR pass only sat at 150nits, which was perfect for coherence between the HDR and SDR passes,” says Morgan, “and Natasha did a great job in seeing that the look we envisioned at the start was carried all the way through.
“We would have loved to have filmed this movie on celluloid, but that wasn’t on the cards. During the DI, Olivia and I fought tooth and nail with Sony, successfully so, to put a bit of film grain on the image in the DI, just to break up the clean-look of digital image and to make things more cinematic.
“Throughout the whole production, we kept in our minds some words from the original book… ‘Marsh is not swamp. Marsh is a space of light where grass grows in water and water flows into the sky,’… and I am very happy with how things turned out.”