Intimate and Epic
Set in the West African kingdom of Dahomey in the year 1823, director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s feature The Woman King focuses on the historically inspired but fictional General Nanisca (Viola Davis) as she trains a new generation of women warriors to protect their people against the threat of the Oyo Empire and the ravages of the slave trade. "As a historical epic, the movie has a classic and timeless feel that is rich and colorful but not overly glossy," explains cinematographer Polly Morgan, ASC, BSC. "We wanted to create a beautiful yet authentic movie that was full of texture and paid homage to the history of this incredible place and these incredible women."
Principal photography took the filmmakers to South Africa, and in addition to the local Panavision office in Cape Town, Morgan found support from Panavision's Woodland Hills and London locations, assembling a package that included Panavised Alexa Mini LF cameras and expanded T Series anamorphic optics. The cinematographer recently took the time to share her reflections on the production for this illuminating Q&A.
Panavision: How would you describe the look of The Woman King?
Polly Morgan, ASC, BSC: Early in prep, Gina coined two terms that inspired the photography. 'Intimately epic' was the first, and it spoke to the fact that although the film had giant scope and dynamic action, we wanted to focus on the drama of the characters and the relationships between them. We wanted to tell the story of these strong and powerful women, showing not only their physicality but also their tenderness and vulnerability. I wanted to portray the characters as the powerful women they were, but I didn’t want to ignore their femininity or gentleness.
The second term was 'pretty gritty,' describing how we wanted our women to look beautiful but not too perfect. We wanted the audience to connect with these characters in their high and low moments, and that meant leaning into the sweat, grime and blood and creating images that could help pull the viewer back into this mostly unknown part of history.
I wanted the photography to highlight the lush nature and incredible architecture that was Dahomey in the 19th century. For this, I took inspiration from the incredible BBC documentaries I grew up with and created a look that was filmic, with a natural yet rich rendition of color. I also wanted to embrace the reality of African light while subtly controlling it to help reflect the story. In broad terms, I wanted to control and soften the light in Dahomey to help create a feeling of beauty and culture within the environment, and then in [the port city of] Ouidah to lean into the higher contrast and harder light to help reflect the brutality and ugliness of the slave trade.
How did you approach lighting the movie to support the drama of the story while respecting its period setting?
Morgan: In prep, Gina gave me a mandate to highlight the beauty of Black skin, and this has been one of the highlights of my career. I wanted the darker tones to be well exposed but not over-lit. The way that darker skin tones react to color and reflect light is absolutely exquisite, and it allowed me to work with lower light levels that felt appropriate to the time period.
With the architecture of Dahomey, I was able to have a strong play of light and shadow in the interior work, with rich color contrast between the cool daylight and warmth of firelight. For night lighting, I always take motivation from natural sources, and I worked closely with both the art and special-effects departments to make sure the sources stayed true to our extensive research of the period and that we could use the warmth and interactivity of actual firelight to light the environment and the actors' faces. I used big soft moon sources in combination with the firelight, which worked beautifully with the reflectivity of darker skin tones. This also provided color contrast and helped reinforce the focus on color in the photography.
We created lifted shadows and texture with the use of smoke motivated from the firelight in the frame. Wind was used to create energy and drama and help pick up the earth so that the atmosphere felt organic and natural within the frame.
In addition to the BBC documentaries you mentioned, did you find inspiration in any other visual references?
Morgan: We looked at historical epics such as Braveheart, Gladiator and The Last of the Mohicans; we also discussed the action in both The Revenant and Apocalypto. Braveheart was a good example of how action can flow seamlessly with emotional drama. Apocalypto was interesting due to the mix of handheld and more fluid camera systems when shooting action sequences. And we looked at The Revenant for subjectivity of the characters’ experience, using wide lenses and long takes to immerse the viewer into the characters’ journey.
For lighting, I mainly looked at artists from the Dutch Golden Age. These painters explored the use of fire and candlelight as their light source, creating dynamic and rich imagery.
What brought you to Panavision for this project?
Morgan: I’ve worked with Panavision since the start of my career, and they have supported me every step of the way. This was a challenging movie to make because of its scale and ambition yet with a relatively limited budget and quick schedule. I needed to have multiple cameras and an extensive lens package, and I knew that Panavision would work with me and get me what I needed to get the job done.
I worked with Panavision offices around the world, with support from Woodland Hills, London and South Africa. The support and can-do attitude of the South African office was integral to a shoot that had a constantly shifting schedule due to issues with omicron and weather.
What drew you to anamorphic for The Woman King — and more specifically, what optical characteristics did you see in the T Series that made them the right match for the project?
Morgan: We chose anamorphic lenses as the widescreen imagery felt like the perfect fit to capture the epic African landscapes and scale of the Dahomey Kingdom. The T Series were a great fit to the style of production — we were working quickly and leaning into wider focal lengths. The T Series are fast and perform well when shot wide open, which was a great help during the large night exteriors where we were shooting at 48 fps and pushing our lighting to the limit. The close focus of the lenses was also a consideration as it allowed us to move from a medium shot into a close-up without having to rely on longer lenses or diopters.
After some technical testing in prep, it became clear that Gina wanted to have the cleanest frame possible without too much falloff on the edges of frame. I worked with [Panavision's senior vice president of optical engineering and lens strategy] Dan Sasaki to not only expand the T Series to cover our Alexa Mini LF sensor but to help push the aberrations of the lenses outside of the frame. We also lowered the contrast of the lenses to add a softer feel and help capture more information in the low end during night exteriors. The lenses naturally lifted the blacks and accentuated the glowing characteristic of fire and candlelight. For the most part, we shot at T2.8/4 to embrace as much of the quality and feel of the glass as possible - we definitely pushed the lenses to the limits!
How does The Woman King compare to other projects in your career?
Morgan: This was the first time I’ve worked on material inspired by sure events, and it was such an honor — and a responsibility — to be part of bringing these characters to life and sharing this part of history with the world. This was also the first time I’ve worked on a film of this scale and with such large numbers of people both in front of and behind the camera. Gina involved me in most of her meetings with all departments, from costumes to stunts, and it was exciting to collaborate with so many people and for my opinion to be welcomed across the board. Gina has this ability to create a feeling of family both behind and in front of the camera, and we all worked together to make sure we were on the same page and our work would all fit seamlessly.
The challenge of scheduling a movie like this and working closely with the AD department was also rewarding. Everyone shared a passion for bringing the movie to life in the best way possible and was open to collaborate to make things work. We were dealing with stunt and dance choreography, with a 2nd unit, with massive set builds and large rigging departments. We all had to be in constant communication with each other to make sure issues were tackled quickly and everything would be ready for when we needed to shoot. It was a great exercise in organization and leading and managing large groups of people. It was an experience I absolutely loved, to be challenged constantly on what was happening in the moment and to always be planning and prepping for what was coming ahead.
This was also my first experience working with multiple cameras. I've often used two cameras but never three at once, or four or five! It was certainly a dance to make sure all five frames were not only well crafted but also telling the right story.
What inspired you to become a cinematographer — and what keeps you inspired today?
Morgan: I was inspired to become a cinematographer from an accumulation of events. I loved movies as a child and was encouraged to explore the arts. I’m dyslexic, and when I was younger, I found that communicating with images resonated more with me than the written word. Once I discovered photography, I realized I could tell a story with an image and not have to struggle to write one. It was a this point that I was exposed to a film crew when they used our house as a base camp and shot a feature documentary in the surrounding countryside. I was then introduced to the role of a cinematographer and decided that was my calling in life.
At school I studied art history, which subconsciously gave me my first education in lighting and composition and was some of my first inspiration in short films. Today, I still find inspiration in the arts but also simply in day-to-day life. I find that as a cinematographer, I'm able to notice the smaller moments, and those often resonate and come back to me at a later date
I work with the ASC on mentoring young cinematographers and have recently worked with the BSC as a juror on their short-film competition. The talent and drive from the next generation of cinematographers is incredibly inspiring, and I'm excited to see the future of the medium. Since the films that I grew up with, the industry has blossomed with more diverse and unique voices. I'm happy to see this continue and expand and to know that my children will be inspired by wider and more inclusive voices within film.
Images courtesy of Sony Pictures. Additional behind-the-scenes photos courtesy of Polly Morgan, ASC, BSC.