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How I Shot That: DP Polly Morgan Explains How She Went Undercover for ‘Holy Hell’

How I Shot That: DP Polly Morgan Explains How She Went Undercover for 'Holy Hell'

Director Will Allen spent 20 years living in a cult and documented most of it with his camera.  

Now 44, he turns the camera on himself and his ex-cult members as they try to come to terms with the past. It was an unorthodox and life-changing shoot for cinematographer Polly Morgan, who found herself in Hawaii hiding in bushes trying capture the cult leader himself.  

What camera and lens did you use? Canon 7D, Canon 5D Mark III, Canon C300 Mark I, 16-35mm wide angle zoom, 24-70mm zoom, 70-200mm zoom and variety of prime lens.
Why was this the right camera kit for the job? I needed multiple cameras that were inexpensive, small and lightweight for travel and that would be unobstructive. And the 70-200mm was good for long lens photography when I was hiding in the bushes.
What was the biggest challenge in shooting this movie? How did you pull it off? Biggest challenge was not technical. It was more the context of the film and having the to travel to Hawaii to shoot undercover footage of a cult leader.

It was emotional experience to be with a group of people who had spent so much of their lives as part of the group and were coming in close proximity to him for the first time in years. The leader is a powerful and manipulative personality, so there was fear and trepidation to be close to him and his new group of cult members. The experience of working with the director Will Allen and meeting ex members of the Buddhafield had a profound effect on me and taught me a great deal and helped me grow as an individual.

Of all your training and schooling, what one experience made you the cinematographer you are today? I don’t think I can narrow it down to one. I believe all the experiences have contributed to who I am as a person and as an artist and a filmmaker, and I will always continue to grow and learn. That’s why I love the craft. We are storytellers and our own stories help shape who we are. Life inspires art. The discovery of new art or photography, music, film, theatre always inspires and encourages new exploration into the craft.
One of the most special aspects of being a cinematographer is that it has taught me to always be looking at the world around me and trying to really see the details. The reflections of light on a rainy day, the smoke from a nearby BBQ, the way somebody moves. The little things in life. It almost feels like I have had the world opened up to me in a new way, like I’m part of a secret club.

What advice would you give to an aspiring cinematographer? Is film school a good place to start? I think there are many ways to becoming a cinematographer and it is an exciting time as I believe entry into the craft has been democratized by digital acquisition. I have always felt the support and mentorship of those who careers have gone before mine. I have met DPs who have come from photography, lighting, working through the camera department, film school apprenticeships and self shooting. I chose to work my way up from being a “runner” in the UK (Production Assistant in the U.S.) and then as a clapper loader. I worked on set for seven years before eventually deciding that film school (AFI) was going to be the best path to help me achieve my goals.
Who is your favorite cinematographer, and why? Hard to say. Always new work to admire. Hoyte van Hoytema has shown real range and craftmanship in his recent work. As has Danny Cohen, whose work on “Room” I love, along with the richness of “The Danish Girl,” and my favorite film of the year is “Carol” — I’m totally infatuated with the work of Ed Lachman. Ryszard Lenczewski and his work on “Ida” and Mark Lee Ping Bin for his work on “The Assassin” also did amazing work over the last couple of years.
What new piece of equipment are you most excited about using in 2016? After Sundance, I’m going to be shooting my first anamorphic movie with vintage lenses from the 1970’s. Crystal Express anamorphic. Bizarrely, I’m most excited about that.
[Editor’s Note: The “How I Shot That” series is part of the Indiewire and Canon U.S.A. partnership at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, where we celebrated cinematography and photographed Sundance talent at the Canon Creative Studio on Main Street.]

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