The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Donald M. Morgan
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Morgan has worked with a number of other visually sophisticated directors, including Zemeckis, for whom he photographed the Beatles-inspired period romp I Wanna Hold Your Hand and the raucous comedy Used Cars. “Zemeckis had seen me shooting Sheila Levine years earlier at Paramount — he and his writing partner, Bob Gale, used to sneak on the lot and eat off the craft-service table,” recalls Morgan. “When he got a chance to make I Wanna Hold Your Hand, which was produced by Steven Spielberg, Zemeckis was offered some big names to shoot it, but he wanted me and Spielberg approved it. I was in New York shooting the Serpico pilot when Zemeckis and Gale arrived at my hotel room, threw their script on the bed, and said, ‘This is not an interview, we want you to shoot this.’  “Zemeckis was a very visually minded director, but he never acted like he knew everything, never hesitated to ask questions, and was open to suggestions. But he didn’t just say ‘yes’ to everything either. He knew what he wanted, and I could tell he was going to become a brilliant director.”  After focusing on directing and shooting commercials for a time, Morgan returned to long-form projects in 1990 and began a reign of creative triumph that has yet to slow.  The telefilm Murder in Mississippi plunged Morgan and director Roger Young into the gripping, true story of three idealistic Civil Rights workers killed by white supremacists in 1964. The 1988 feature Mississippi Burning details the FBI’s investigation of this crime, whereas the telefilm focuses on the events leading up to it. Morgan notes that the Academy Award-winning cinematography Peter Biziou, BSC did on Mississippi Burning was a key inspiration to his approach. Shooting in and around Atlanta, Georgia, Morgan sought “a period look without being too obvious, and it’s a gritty look because we wanted to reflect the drama,” he told AC in May 1990. “I think the biggest lighting challenge was shooting from a camera car for a chase through a series of backroads. We didn’t need to light the cars because the one behind would silhouette the one in front. We just let them light each other, which gave the scene a very real feel. Then, as [the supremacists] finally caught the boys and killed them, I again let the car headlights do a lot of the lighting.” This is not to say there was not a lot of additional illumination, however: “The [murder scene] was in a very heavy forest, so we had to cable and backlight an area that was almost half a mile long. We had to do this from the ground because the brush was too thick to bring in parallels, yet we had to make it look like natural moonlight. It was tough.” The results earned Morgan Emmy and ASC awards, and also laid the foundation for his longtime collaboration and friendship with Young. “I’m grateful that Roger found a way to give me what I needed on that show. Since then, we’ve done 13 projects together.”  The 1991 period crime drama Dillinger offered Morgan the opportunity to work with Mark Harmon, who played Prohibition-era gangster John Dillinger with gusto while filming on location in Milwaukee. Encouraged by director Rupert Wainwright, Morgan employed a lot of techniques used in music videos but seldom in long-form narratives. “We’re using low-angle prisms, remote HotHeads, and crab dollies with jib arms for some of the bank robberies, where we start with a low angle, do a crane move, and suddenly go from two feet off the ground to 10 feet in the air,” Morgan told AC in October 1990. “It adds a dynamic quality to the action, and I took this job because I didn’t want to allow myself to become dated.” In a recent interview, he noted, “I loved the way a toplight would deeply shadow Mark’s eyes and leave his face like a mask, very mysterious, and I always tried to work that toplight into the robbery scenes. Well, the [ABC] executives went nuts. ‘It’s Mark Harmon, we need to see his eyes!’ they said. But we do see his eyes in other scenes, and Mark supported my approach because it helped his character, so we went with it.” The results earned Morgan another ASC Award.  Another dark chapter in American history unfolded in the 1997 telefilm Miss Evers’ Boys, which Morgan shot for Sargent. The HBO project recounts the U.S. government’s secret 1932-’72 “Tuskegee Experiment,” in which black male citizens suffering from syphilis were deliberately subjected to the ravages of the disease. “There are stories you can do in television that no one will touch as a feature because they’re not profitable — meaningful stories that say something about the human condition,” Morgan told AC in October 1997. “Joe is a very visual director, and he wanted to match this drama with a blown-out look, like the old black-and-white photographs of the period.” Seeking something short of true monochrome, Morgan employed lower-contrast Kodak Vision 320T as his main stock: “It really bites into the dark areas and allows me to light normally but see shadow detail without adding any more fill.” Super Frost and tobacco filters softened and warmed the images, suggesting the glow of candles and oil lamps that were still used by many impoverished Southerners during the 1930s.  To further enhance the look, Morgan borrowed a technique from fellow ASC member Lloyd Ahern II, who had created a period feel for another picture by filming through vintage panes of glass. “Lloyd did a great job with that, shooting a lot of stuff through old car windows. I followed his example and did a lot of that as well.” Morgan earned another Emmy for his efforts.  Morgan reteamed with Sargent on the 2003 Showtime project Out of the Ashes. Set in a Nazi death camp, the drama focuses on imprisoned Jewish doctor Gisella Perl (Christine Lahti), who struggles with moral choices while trying to survive. “We shot that show in Lithuania, where the production had built an entire exterior barracks set,” the cinematographer says. “My immediate thought was to add a green tinge to everything, inside and out. Joe asked why and I reasoned that green is a really annoying color unless it’s a bright shade. Deep, dark greens can be very unsettling, so I put a lot of those hues into the picture, adding gels to both the practicals and my lamps. It worked perfectly.”  In one horrific scene, Perl must perform an abortion on a fellow prisoner in order to prevent the Nazis from executing the woman. “Outside the building where the procedure was to be performed, there was a pile of dead bodies,” Morgan details. “I lit that area with a greenish practical and then swept across it with the warm beam of a searchlight that could be coming from a guard tower. It was spectacularly unsettling and created a sickening feeling that was exactly right for that horrible moment when Perl leads the woman into the building. As she opens the door, warm incandescent light from outside can be seen, playing off a hint of green backlight on the women. It’s very eerie.” Morgan’s work earned him Emmy and ASC nominations.


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