At its heart, The Truth About Emanuel is a coming-of-age story. But writer-director Francesca Gregorini made sure that each layer of darkness surrounding the tale of Emanuel—brilliantly played by Kaya Scodelario—didn’t stop at the usual angst-y teenage bits that often accompany a typical coming-of-age movie. She worked eye to eye with cinematographer Polly Morgan to push the story further, going into one girl’s struggle to look inside herself and seek her own truths, while still dealing with the outside issues of her family and a mysterious new neighbor (Jessica Biel).

"Francesca is very much into the visual craft of storytelling," says Morgan, who has come up through the ranks assisting on biggies like Inception and V for Vendetta and shooting for American Horror Story. "Initially, we got really excited and tried to push for 35mm, as we’re both lovers of film. Due to budget constraints, we went digital, and the next obvious step was the ARRI ALEXA."

Morgan felt that the color rendition and the latitude range were the next best thing to 35mm, and even since shooting Emanuel, she has done side-by-side camera tests with the Sony F55, RED EPIC and the ALEXA. "It’s so interesting to see where cameras excel and where they fall short, and I feel the ALEXA shines brighter than the rest," she states. "It has a true 14-stop range and is one of the few cameras that lives up to its 800 ISO rating. I knew going into Emanuel that we had a lot of night exteriors and that we needed a camera that could really dig deep into the shadows. On top of its performance with sensitivity, it also has a soft quality to it because of the low-pass filter, which I gravitate to, as it reminds me of film negative."

The second step for Morgan in creating the visual palette for a film is choosing the right lenses. They were originally looking at anamorphics and wanted to pair them with the ALEXA Studio and its 4:3 sensor (which was just rolling off the shelves at the time in 2012). But, again, as it was a conservative budget, they decided to save on springing for the ALEXA Studio and put it back into things like Technocranes and some bigger lights.

Cinematographer Polly Morgan and director Francesca Gregorini (left to right) on one of the film’s many night exterior shoots.

"Someone had told Francesca ages ago that she should shoot with Cookes," recalls Morgan. "I asked her why, and she said simply because someone had told her that they were good lenses. So, of course, I decided to test five different sets of glass—Panavision Primos, Master Primes, Super Speeds and then vintage glass and the Cooke Panchros and the Super Baltars—and have a blind screening for her and the producers. Every single person in the blind screening chose the Primos. I was happy because I’ve always loved Panavision glass."

Gregorini, as Morgan tells it, was really into imagery that was going to dig deep and convey Emanuel’s emotional journey, which was "a refreshing and exciting challenge when compared to shooting traditional coverage," she says. They pulled references from a wide variety of sources, but their favorites were the dark and engrossing photography of Bill Henson and the ethereal poetic work of Ryan McGinley. "We gravitated to work that had real texture to it and really drew us to its subjects," Morgan adds.

For moving images, they looked at masters such as Roman Polanski for techniques of creating tension. They wanted to get people on the edge of their seats without really having them know why. "In prep, we talked a lot about what was going on emotionally with each of the characters," explains Morgan. "We dissected the script scene by scene and looked at it emotionally and then chose lighting motifs that represented that level of intensity."