What you see is what get. For any movie production, it’s the chief responsibility of the cinematographer. More than a camera operator, the cinematographer very often advises a director on the look of that overall production. One of the most coveted roles in cinema, being a cinematographer is an opportunity enjoyed by few, especially African-American.
Meet Donald Morgan, winner of seven prime-time Emmys, one of the most sought after cinematographers in the film industry. He recently spoke with EBONY.com to share insights about his illustrious career.
EBONY: How do you contribute to the overall process of making a film?
Donald Morgan: The director of photography collaborates with the director, production designer, wardrobe, make-up, special effects, editorial, props, all of the crafts. We field a lot of questions from the different crafts in order to have a unifying “look” that pleases the directors, producers and, in television, the network.
We also pick the film stock or, in the electronic media, the cameras. There are numerous and varied arrays of cameras that act like film stock. Then there are lenses and filters that further the nuance of the “the look” of your project. We are third in charge of the stage after the director and the associate director.
Directors of photography also have three crews in their charge: the camera department, the lighting engineers and the grip department. We hire and maintain these crews for production. I personally look after the safety on stage (after the Associate Director) for the entire cast and crew, because grip and electric are my charges. They are the folks that do all the main lighting rig and moving of the set on stage.
EBONY: Why did you pick cinematography as a career?
DM: It happened in the mid ’70s by chance. I wanted to be an architect, then I wanted to be a graphic artist “working in color separation.” Even though I thought music was my calling—my father was a famous jazz bassist, Al Morgan—I took a job in the mail room at Metromedia KTTV Los Angeles to make ends meet. After about a year I asked to be on stage.
That first call was on the lighting crew. Bling! It hit me that was my calling. A lighting consultant Tommy Shamp gave me a shot to be a lighting director after a year of being a stage electrician. Norman Lear was doing a few shows on the lot and they needed LDs. I worked on Good Times, The Jeffersons, Silver Spoons, Gloria, and even had some fun on Soul Train.
EBONY: What distinctive quality do you bring to your craft?
DM: For the most part I have worked in television “four camera shooting.” This is where we use the four cameras at once to shoot a scene. So we are able to shoot the long shot and the close-up on two different actors at the same time. Think of the geometry! The key light of one actor is the other actors’ back light. Fun stuff!
When I got into the business, “the look” was bright: 150 to 200 foot candles. And since I was doing a lot of comedies, the producers wanted the overall picture to really bright. I was picked by a really great director of photography named George “Sexy” Dibie to help him with a pilot for Mr. Belvedere. We decided to change the way TV sitcoms looked by lowering the foot-candles to 50 and asking the production designer to create large windows in the background of the main set, to let us have large light washes coming through those windows. It created depth and atmosphere and was something that was lacking in the current look at the time.
Also, George taught me to really utilize geometry to use fewer lights on the stage rig. So now the same light was used for the X-key and the backlight. Another director of photography from England taught me how to construct large light boxes to hang in the front of the entire set to help to keep the look even and to cut down on the overall lighting units on the rig.
All those changes to the look help production keep their costs down and helps to make you, the DP, more marketable. These practices from 1985 have become the norm. It also brought us our first Emmy. I enjoy bringing innovation and change to the status quo of my craft, cinematography. I love production!
EBONY: Are there any obstacles you’ve had to overcome to achieve success in your career?
DM: I think any person of color has to work harder to land the same place as my non-diverse colleagues. It is an unfortunate truth for diverse, career-minded people in modern America. One must strive to be the best of the best, because the business does not think you know what you are doing. I was lucky to be picked from the crowd at the time. Mentors opened doors for me, but I did my best to step through that door with confidence and lots of hard work.
I never stop learning, going to product conventions to learn about the newest technology. I also like to push the envelope. I was a lighting director to start. When I became a DP, I shot with video cameras for the beginning of my career. I then saw that everyone else was shooting film on four cameras with film. So I taught myself to shoot the Panavison camera with wheels for the rack and focus.
I also had to learn the different film stocks and how they transferred to video. It was tough, but I knew I had to stay ahead of the game. Sony TV gave me the opportunity to shot the first HD sitcom. From this project, we went on to reconfigure the new HD cameras to fit the sitcom environment.
EBONY: Please share some advice for others who look to follow in your path.
DM: I would stress to all of the young brothers and sisters to grab a camera and start shooting. Now! There is no time like the present. The sooner you learn how to set up a shot, the better. Then think about a bit of art history to be versed in what has gone on in public art.
There are film and television schools out there to look into once you have done your undergrad work. And here in Los Angeles, there is a great school at the local junior college call Hollywood CPR, where you get college undergrad credits for doing production shooting. But there are many ways to approach getting into the business. Now in the US there are filming hubs in Florida, Atlanta, Michigan, Arizona, New Mexico. They are always looking for new blood. So go for it. Just make sure that you have some schooling under your hat.
Strive to know as much as the boss, even if you are the plebeian. If the boss figures out you know more than the average newbie, you will move quickly through the ranks. Cream rises to the top.
Gil Robertson IV is a noted A&E and Black lifestyle journalist, author and producer. President and co-founder of the African-American Film Critics Association (AAFCA), he resides in Los Angeles and Atlanta. Follow the AAFCA on Twitter @theaafca.