Director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s goal for The Woman King was to create a sprawling epic based on a group of all-female warriors in Africa. She tasked cinematographer Polly Morgan with capturing the beauty of the landscape and leaning into the colors of the environment, which could be a challenge for scenes taking place at night. The Woman King tells the story of the all-female Agojie warriors in the African Kingdom of Dahomey. Filming in Africa presented a challenge for the production, but the location allowed Morgan to highlight the colors and tones of the period.
DEADLINE: What were the early conversations with Prince-Bythewood about what she wanted for the cinematography?
POLLY MORGAN: I think Gina wanted to lean into the genre of historical epics and give the movie a lot of scope and really capture the beauty of the landscape and lean into the colors of the environment. We wanted to have really beautiful, natural, saturated color, highlighting the reds of the earth and the greens of the forest and jungles and capture the beautiful light and lean into flares and back light. She wanted it to be a striking movie, one that would feel iconic and could stand the test of time alongside all the other historical epics that we love and she also felt strongly about making sure that the women were captured in a beautiful way that not only showed off their physicality and all the work that they had done to prepare for the roles, but also their beauty and their vulnerability.
DEADLINE: How do you making sure that you’re properly catching that?
MORGAN: Well, not to get too technical, but I think when you are lighting a movie for a theatrical release, you really have to be conscious of the fact that a projector is half as bright as the screens that we would watch at home. And just to make sure that when you’re exposing the image you have a really thick negative, and there’s a lot of detail and information there. As a photographer, I really like to have a lot of detail in my images. I don’t like it when areas fall off into pockets of deep black and there’s nothing there. I really wanted to capture not only the beauty of these women, but also all the sort of textures and specifics of the environment, even at nighttime, so I had to make sure that I had a really good base illumination that would expose the negative.
Once I had that base illumination, I would make sure that I focused on the skin tones and I was able to model and sculpt the light and play with color contrast. At night, the ambient moonlight was a nice cool hue and then we would contrast that with the warmth of fire. We actually used real fire to light their faces, and not just modern LED tubes, which I found a lot more evocative with the lighting. You would see the flames reflected in their eyes and just that natural flicker that only an actual fire source could give you.
DEADLINE: What was it like shooting on location in Africa?
MORGAN: Luckily, I’m someone that loves a challenge because logistically to shoot in the middle of nowhere always kind of puts you outside your comfort zone, because you don’t have the resources to fall back on if something goes wrong, like if a generator fails for example. So, we just really made sure that we were very thorough in our preparation and we really prepped in advance on exactly how we wanted to execute everything, and we made sure that we had all the tools and manpower that we needed to pull it off. But, to actually shoot on location was so incredible. Not only for the cast, but for the crew to really get away from modern life and really delve deep into the story and you just feel that you were actually back there in the 19th century with these warriors.
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