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‘Lucy in the Sky’ DP Shifts Frame to Show Inner Turmoil of Natalie Portman’s Astronaut

What drew cinematographer Polly Morgan to “Lucy in the Sky” was how Noah Hawley’s script so clearly illuminated the emotional breakdown of astronaut Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman) in a way that felt very insular: The visual cues were on the page — and conveyed an unusual approach to charting the character’s journey.

“When things fall apart in our lives, what we feel inside isn’t often illustrated visually,” says Morgan, who previously worked with Hawley on Seasons 2 and 3 of FX’s “Legion” and just wrapped production on “A Quiet Place 2.” For “Lucy in the Sky,” she says she brought a subtlety to the look “that could be really evocative to the viewer.”

In the film, Lucy finds that when she comes back to Earth after a stint in space, she can’t quite remain grounded. The film is loosely based on the story of astronaut Lisa Nowak, who suffered a nervous breakdown after her 12-day journey into space on the space shuttle Discovery in 2006. 

Morgan’s visuals include a fluid camera and quiet lighting choices that amplified Lucy’s emotional state. Morgan and Hawley also used a shifting aspect ratio and soft edges as storytelling tools throughout the movie.

“When she’s feeling at ease — in outer space or at NASA — we would shoot wide screen, 2.40:1, to capture the sense of wonder in space and freedom she felt at work,” Morgan says. “But when she was on Earth and at home, we would restrict the frame back to a square 4:3 for a sense of claustrophobia. We also used a unique 8:1 aspect ratio, which is extreme widescreen, to illustrate detachment and scale in certain locations.”

Hawley took things one step further in post-production and created his own aspect ratio of smaller boxes within the frame for specific beats. The goal always was to tell a subjective story that used only Lucy’s point of view — her experience in space and coming back to Earth. They initially talked about shooting on film because of the texture and the visual quality that it provides, but ultimately chose the Panavision DXL2, which offered flexibility in its 8.2K sensor to shoot with Panavision G-series anamorphic lenses and then crop in for a 4:3 extraction.

When shooting with a modern, large-format camera, DPs often choose to use large-format lenses that cover the full sensor and hold up optically. (Most lenses are designed to cover a 35mm sensor.) Instead, Morgan chose older anamorphic lenses that barely covered the 8.2 sensor. 

“We stretched them to their capacity, exaggerating one of the main optical artifacts that you get from anamorphics: that oval distortion around the edges — a focus fall-off,” she says. “When testing the lenses, we felt that worked perfectly for Lucy’s distorted view of her life when she returned from space. What was especially great was when we cropped to 4:3, the effect became more apparent in the top and bottom, which supported the purpose of that aspect ratio. Plus, it gave a painterly feel to the image where everything wasn’t crisp; it was feminine, despite the rigid and sterile atmosphere of NASA and the coldness of space.” 

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