Polly Morgan is a British-born, LA-based cinematographer who always knew she wanted to work in the movies. The youngest of five kids whose childhood was spent free-range, roaming the countryside and in the grip of a vivid imagination, she first got a glimpse of the possibilities of a life behind the camera when a documentary crew came to stay. Morgan rose the ranks from student to runner on sets to a Fulbright fellowship at the American Film Institute, working and studying her craft from the ground up. She made it to Hollywood: good jobs and recognition followed after her big break working with Wally Pfister on Inception which won an Oscar for cinematography. Known for her ability to inject emotion into her films and stills, she now works on the projects she chooses to - from TV shows such as American Horror Story Asylum and Call The Midwife, to indie films such as The Intervention, directed by Clea Duvall, to commercials and music videos.
Last year Morgan was accepted into the British Society of Cinematographers, meaning she has the much coveted BSC after her name and was tipped by Variety magazine as one of ten cinematographers to watch.
How do you describe what it is that you do?
Cinematographers are storytellers, creating visual representations of the human experience, whatever the story is. One of my jobs as an artist is to help the viewer emotionally connect to the material so they can be more invested in the story and not just be entertained on a surface level. My job is to subconsciously take the viewer on a journey that supports and enhances the writing, direction and performances – it is such a collaborative process.
As a cinematographer I feel like I belong to a secret club – a group of people that are able to look at the world in a unique way. I get to spend my days getting inspiration from the world around me and from the experiences I have, so I guess I’m always at work.
What is it about cinematography that made you want to chase it as a career?
When I was 13 a Channel 4 film crew used our farmhouse as a base camp for a documentary on composer Edward Elgar who used to roam the fields to help inspire his art. This was my first exposure to a film crew and they let me look through the eyepiece of their camera – they had a big crane and it was very exciting; it planted the seed for what I wanted to do although I still really had no idea exactly what a cinematographer was or did.
I also really loved going to the cinema as a kid. I was dyslexic and film and art always spoke to me more than the written word; I felt them as evocative and meaningful. The camera became for me a tool for making art and telling stories - cinematography is full of color, texture and contrast and so art and photography is a constant inspiration. It is a never-ending exploration and one that I feel very lucky to be so immersed in.
Your entry point into cinematography was working on set, getting inside the process at a very practical level, learning on the ground. What benefits did this give you?
When I started, movies were only shot on film and the way into the business was mainly from working your way up. There were film schools but I wasn’t really aware of them at the time and it just seemed like a world away from me. I wanted to be on set, to be part of the process. I loved it so much, working as part of a team, having a specific role, handling all the film and being challenged on a daily basis.
I learnt how to be part of a crew and met so many wonderful people. It was a priceless experience for me – all the mentors I have had and all the advice and inspiration they have shown me - and I wouldn’t be the person I am or the have the knowledge I have without it. It taught me to have respect for all the roles on set.
It was hard though, trying to find work, trying to live – a real struggle. I was broke for the majority of my life. To be earning money now doing what I love sometimes blows my mind.
Which senses are the most crucial for you in your work?
The thing about cinema is that it teaches you to look at the world in a different way. It is a special thing, opening your eyes to the details maybe everyone else doesn't see – a backlit guy on the streets of Kathmandu, getting lost in a gallery or being on a train, seeing the reflections on glass or the backlit smoke of a barbeque. Whatever it is, it is life and it is art.
Memories too – memories of my life and my experiences make up so much of who I am and they come from sensual experiences. How my mother held me as a child; being loved by a boyfriend; music I have heard. Seeing the world through the senses has become part of who I am.