The American Society of Cinematographers

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Donald M. Morgan
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Donald M. Morgan, ASC reflects on the hard work and bold creative choices that recently earned him the Society’s inaugural Career Achievement in Television Award.

Race-car driver. Rodeo rider. Small-time hood. As a restless young man seeking a life of excitement, future ASC member Donald M. Morgan tried his hand at a few other “professions” before stepping behind the camera and embarking upon a career in commercials, feature films and television that has spanned more than four decades. “Fortunately, none of that other stuff worked out for me,” he reflects with a wry laugh. “But I’m where I am in life by accident, not by design.”  

Seeking to further recognize the exceptional talents working in television, the ASC this year added a new award to its lineup, Career Achievement in Television Award. There was no doubt about who would be its first recipient. “As soon as we started discussing the idea, everyone quickly agreed that Don should be the honoree,” says past Awards Committee Chair Owen Roizman, ASC. “It was absolutely unanimous, and I had the pleasure of breaking the news to Don.” Morgan recalls, “Owen invited me to lunch and started talking about how the committee was considering the creation of a career award for people who worked in TV. I told him it was a great idea. Then I noticed he had tears in his eyes, and he said, ‘Well, you’re going to be the first one to get it.’ As soon as the shock wore off, I had tears in my eyes, too.” The award was presented to Morgan last month by director and longtime friend Joseph Sargent at the 21st annual ASC Outstanding Achievement Awards.  Anyone familiar with Morgan’s wide-ranging credits was not surprised by the selection. With commercials, miniseries, telefilms and pilots to his name, he has been nominated for nine Emmys and six ASC Awards; he won both prizes for Murder in Mississippi and Geronimo, and took home additional Emmys for Miss Evers’ Boys, Out of the Ashes and Something the Lord Made, and additional ASC Awards for Dillinger and The Siege at Ruby Ridge. He has also shot 16 features, beginning in 1973 with the Western Santee. He went on to film Sidney Poitier’s caper pics Let’s Do It Again and A Piece of the Action, Robert Zemeckis’ comedies I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Used Cars, and John Carpenter’s stylish genre pieces Christine and Starman. “After I worked my way up in commercials, my career as a cinematographer started in features, but I’ve gone back and forth between [those disciplines and TV], which is unusual,” he says. “I’ve been lucky to be able do that, because each helps foster new approaches in the other, keeping things fresh.”  Morgan’s father, Max, a native of Missoula, Montana, arrived in Los Angeles with the dream of becoming a singer, “but he ended up working at the studios and labs to make a living because his career never took off,” says the son, who was born in Hollywood. “My father worked at Technicolor for a time when I was a kid, and then went to Disney to become an animation cameraman. He later worked on Snow White, Bambi and Pinocchio.” Asked if his father’s work gave him the itch to get into the business, Morgan admits, “I used to watch my dad do animation work, but I just had no interest in it. It was tedious, and he was cooped up all day. He always encouraged me to get into his work, but I was a kid. I wanted action, excitement.”  Morgan’s quest for thrills only increased with age, which led him to build the aforementioned résumé. “I finally got tired of bumming around when I was 21, and my dad helped me get a job at a lab. I didn’t like it — it was boring and dark back in the printing room — but after bouncing around for years between film labs and trying to be a race-car driver, I went to my dad and asked him to help me get a job as an animation cameraman.” After his father put in a good word for him, Morgan learned to operate an Acme camera system at a small animation house. “They thought I was some young genius at first, but the truth was that whenever I screwed something up, I just called my dad for advice! He was a legend in the business by that time. Still, I just wasn’t very good at it, so I got laid off, but then I got a tip that a guy named Nelson Tyler was looking for someone to fill a job that involved cameras and helicopters. That sounded pretty exciting, so I met with Nelson, and he invited me to come aboard and learn how to become a camera assistant.”  After a few months of unpaid servitude, Morgan got his first assignment: assisting on a commercial shoot in Philadelphia. “Since that trip in 1964, I’ve been in the film business.”  Within six months, after assisting on aerial work for films such as Catch-22, Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, Morgan started working as an aerial cameraman for Tyler Camera Systems. In time, he would lend his talents to such features as Wild Rovers, Diamonds Are Forever and The Andromeda Strain, among many others. “Nelson took all the really great jobs himself, but anything else was up for grabs, so I got a lot of work. And Nelson made it easy for me. I wasn’t a very technical guy, but he helped me wherever and however he could. I slowly became one of the top aerial cameramen, along with Nelson, Frank Holgate, Rex Metz [ASC], Jack Willoughby, John Stephens and David Butler. But as the business picked up, more guys got into it, and it became more difficult to specialize in just aerial work. So I bought an old Arri 2-C and kept it on the seat next to me in the helicopter, waiting for the opportunity to shoot something on the ground. If I saw something interesting, I’d just start filming. People started asking, ‘Where the hell did this footage come from?’ When they found out I’d shot it, I started getting opportunities to do simple second-unit stuff on the ground. [Helicopter pilot/2nd-unit director] Jim Gavin was always volunteering me for things, whether it was riding a horse and handholding a camera, or standing on the skid gears shooting back into the helicopter in midair!”  Morgan knew something about composition and camera movement from his experiences aloft, but he soon faced the challenge of learning to light what he was filming. “I knew nothing about lighting,” he confesses. “All the cinematographers I’d heard or read about had gone to college and had really interesting backgrounds and knew something about painting and art. Well, I didn’t go to college, and I never studied art. But when I finally got the chance to do some lighting — with the help of a good gaffer, of course — I got excited by it and knew I had to learn more.”  As luck would have it, Morgan soon got the education he needed. “I was watching TV, and a commercial came on for an art book featuring color prints of 100 famous paintings for $13,” he remembers. “I still have that book! It has all the Dutch masters, and did they know something about lighting. Looking through that book, I thought I could just start copying their ideas. So I did. I didn’t know the names of the lights or have the background my gaffers did, but I knew what I liked, and little by little I taught myself how to re-create what was in those paintings onstage. That book was my education, along with going to the movies, which I’d been a fan of since I was a kid.”  Although lighting was a new passion, Morgan had long been enamored of darkness. “I’d had a fascination with darkness since I was a boy walking through Hollywood at night. I’d walk down a dark alley or stairwell, and it would scare the hell out of me, but that feeling was something that pulled me in. My need for excitement outweighed my fear. So I also loved dark movies, like the old Bogart film where he’s walking down by the docks at night with just some moonlight reflected in the water.”


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