How ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ DP Polly Morgan Captured the Characteristics of the Marsh World

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When cinematographer Polly Morgan and director Olivia Newman were brought on to adapt Delia Owens’ bestselling novel, “Where the Crawdads Sing,” the story spoke to them on a natural level.

The Sony Pictures film of the same name, in theaters July 15, tells the tale of Kya (Daisy Edgar- Jones), a young woman raising herself in the marshes of North Carolina in the 1950s. Her journey — and her relationship to nature in particular — resonated with Morgan (“A Quiet Place Part II,” “6 Balloons”). Her own experiences growing up in West Sussex in the U.K., “in the middle of nowhere with the nearest house miles away,” seemed familiar.

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When a man Kya was once involved with is murdered, the woman known to the community of Barkley Cove as Marsh Girl be- comes the prime suspect.

In navigating how to capture the characteristics of the marsh world, Newman and Morgan relied on Owens’ words: “Marsh is not swamp. Marsh is a space of light where grass grows in water and water flows into the sky.”

With that line serving as inspiration, Morgan explains her idea behind the opening sequence: “We wanted to take people from this open world of the marsh, its light and reflective water to show the beauty that is there.” Through the flight of a heron, we follow Kya’s saga, which transports the viewer “deep into the marsh.”

The DP also used a fluid sequence that intercuts with two young boys on bikes to show marsh life. “We wanted from the beginning to take the viewer — grab them, take them down into the swamp and never let them go,” she says.

In discussing how to position the camera for the scene, Morgan and Newman decided that a drone would be the perfect tool to accomplish that fluidity. But capturing the movement of the heron proved to be a challenge. “It wasn’t just about showing the marsh. It was about taking off with the bird and show- ing its flight,” Newman says.

The atmospheric bayous of Louisiana stood in for North Carolina, with the town of Houma doubling for the fictional Barkley Cove. “Weather goes hand in hand with nature,” Morgan says, “so when we first find [Kya], she’s looking at the sun while holding a feather [blown by a light breeze. We wanted to let the viewer be lost in Kya’s experience of the world, and so we used the natural world as references for different emotional beats.”

Morgan warmly lights a hopeful moment on the beach as Kya waits for Tate (Taylor John Smith) to arrive. But when night turns to morning and Kya has been stood up, she sits on the water’s edge, her hopes dashed as an unsteady sky registers in the ripples of marsh water. “I wanted to show the coolness of the morning light and played with light and color to subtly support the performance and the emotion of what’s happening,” says the DP.

Morgan used another element to help tell Kya’s journey: Before she’s abandoned by her family, little Kya (Jojo Regina) shares an intimate moment with her mother and sisters around a welcoming fireplace. A short time later, fire takes on a different meaning as Kya watches her father burn her mother’s belongings amid raging flames in a steel drum.

Says Morgan: “It was all about thinking of ways the natural world could help highlight Kya’s journey.”

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