Reed Morano - Photo by D. Kirkland
“I love looking through the viewfinder because I’m transported to another world where I just fall into the story and forget about everything else. The idea that where the camera is placed, how it moves and how the light falls in the scene can influence the audience’s emotions is what inspires me when I work. … As I begin to read a script, I start to see fragments of images in my mind and the most fascinating part of the process is figuring out how to make those pictures come to life. Finding a director’s unique vision and bringing it to fruition — really making sure that each story is told in its own organic way is difficult, but very gratifying. You can conjure up so many different reactions with the way you decide to execute a scene. A single moment on screen that you created can have a massive effect on people. That’s an incredible feeling.”
Reed Morano started out shooting short films and documentaries. Her feature film credits include Frozen River, Yelling to the Sky, Little Birds, For Ellen, The Magic of Belle Isle, Free Samples and Autumn Blood, and the documentary features Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa and Shut Up and Play the Hits. Reed was recognized as one of Variety’s 10 Cinematographers to Watch and is a recipient of the Kodak Vision Award for cinematography.
[All these films were shot on Kodak motion picture film.]
A Conversation with Reed Morano
Question: How did you first become interested in photography?
Morano: When I was a kid, my family was convinced that I would become a writer, because until high school, I would write every single day for hours on end. One day, my dad brought home one of those huge early video cameras, and showed me how to use it. My dad assigned me the task of documenting our family. At that time, I wasn’t thinking about it as a career path, but it was clear that I took to it. In high school, I started concentrating on still photography.
Q: When did it occur to you that this could be a career?
Morano: Movies were a passion for our whole family. I loved telling stories and composing and taking photographs, so film seemed to make sense. I chose to apply to film school at New York University.
Q: Were you immediately drawn to cinematography?
Morano: Upon entering film school, I thought I would concentrate on directing. However, the first time I got onto set, I couldn’t take my eyes off the director of photography. It was the most exciting job in my mind. And I found that I liked being behind the camera, and being the one who determined what the audience was going to see. From that first shoot, I made up my mind that I was going to pursue this.
Q: Were there professors or other mentors who had a big impact on you?
Morano: I was a camera assistant throughout college for a director of photography named Fred Menou. He worked with very little to no crew – often it was just me and him. He would always create such moving images with very little equipment. The first day I began working for him, he taught me basics like loading magazines in a drill sergeant manner. He would time me and make me beat the clock. But perhaps more important was his on-set demeanor. He was very focused and we moved very quickly, but at the same time, we still had fun. I admire cinematographers who can command a set like this – the strong, silent types. Those who know me will agree that I’m not so much the silent type, as I do like to make my crew laugh, but I definitely wanted to have that disposition of those cinematographers I respected. My cinematography professor at NYU, Michael Carmine, has always been very supportive of me – even to this day. He took me seriously when some others didn’t, and instilled in me the fundamentals that formed my technique. Above all, he really pushed me to follow my dream when it was not an easy task.
Q: How did you make the transition to professional work?
Morano: When I graduated, I started doing grip and electric work and built a network of contacts. I learned so much in the grip department, and was exposed to some bigger productions. Around the same time, a dear friend from college was directing his first feature, which was very low budget, and it became my first paid job as a cinematographer. We had an amazing time. Every day was a new challenge. It reinforced that I was on the right path, and loved what I was doing. After that, I was shooting a wide variety of projects just to get things going and to make a living. Eventually, I took a job on a reality show for TLC and we did about 33 episodes. All the while, I was shooting short narrative films on the side.
Q: How did that lead to Frozen River?
Morano: We were at Slamdance with a Super16 documentary I had worked on and I joked around with Matt, my husband, (who is also my gaffer) that I really needed a feature script, one with a very unique story, and a known indie actor – something that would appeal to Sundance. Magically, a few weeks later I received the script for Frozen River. It was exactly what I had wished for. It was extremely low budget, and we dragged all our friends to work on the crew, and we shot in freezing cold weather in Plattsburg, New York. To this day, it was still my most difficult shoot. But it was absolutely worth it because that job changed my career.
Q: What did that experience teach you?
Morano: Being a cinematographer is not only being an artist, but also being a manager. Everyone is pulling you in different directions. The director needs to be reassured that everything will be OK, and the gaffer doesn’t want you to cut him off before his work is finished. The producer wants it done a half hour ago. You have to have a thick skin even when things aren’t going well. You really have to keep your true emotions inside or it’s possible you will lose the respect of someone. When you’re balancing all these competing needs, you need to be the calm one who takes care of everything and brings the job home.
Q: How do you maintain that even keel in spite of the pressures?
Morano: Everyone has a breaking point, but I’m used to being up against the wall all the time. Most of the features I have shot have been around 18 days. I recently shot a feature film for Rob Reiner [ The Magic of Belle Isle] that was a 25 day shoot. I think one of the main reasons they hired me was that I told them 25 days sounded luxurious when they asked if it was possible to complete the movie in that time. I was totally confident that it was completely doable. If you are used to being under that kind of stress all the time, it does take a lot more to get you to break. You have to know that any day on the set is not going to 100% smoothly. As a cinematographer, your job is to be a problem solver.
Q: Where do you look for inspiration?
Morano: I follow the work of a lot of wonderful still photographers. I have a ton of beautiful images on my hard drive as well as a growing collection of photography books. Stills are also generally the best way for me to convey to a director what type of style I think is appropriate for their film. Occasionally, I might use stills from my own work, if it seems appropriate.
And of course, I draw inspiration from the work of other cinematographers. There are so many DPs out there whose brilliant work really inspires me to try to discover new things on my own. On every film, I always want to challenge myself to approach a scene in a new way that I’ve never done before, through lighting or camera movement. I don’t want to ever fall into any kind of routine. Luckily, this is the sort of job where you never seem to stop learning.
Q: Do you have a personal style or approach?
Morano: I think often people who meet with me are looking for a naturalistic style. Good or bad, that’s what Frozen River did for me. I love doing handheld, and I really am all about motivated light. It’s not that I’m not into super-stylized cinematography, because I actually am a huge admirer of it. But, in execution, I personally gravitate towards simplicity. If I can light a whole scene with one unit outside a window, and shoot 360, that’s what I love. My favorite challenge is finding a way to light that doesn’t interfere at all with the actors. I also like being able to go wherever I want to with the camera. I think it comes in part from necessity, and the need to move very quickly. But I also believe that less is more and it can put the focus on the story. Some of the most beautiful light I’ve seen is natural light coming through a window, hitting the floor and creating an ethereal glow on someone’s face. I am so aware of light in everyday life, and I take mental notes to remember beautiful moments like that.
Q: Does the “happy accident” play a part in your work?
Morano: Very often. One of the most important things I’ve learned about working in film, is to be prepared for anything to happen. You can shot-list every moment of a film, but when you finally get the actors on the location, you have to be ready to allow things to unfold organically. I always keep an open mind and try to stay fluid when I’m shooting, because sometimes the most compelling and truthful images come from a moment where everything comes together in a magical way, even if it wasn’t what was planned.
Q: Is shooting film important to you?
Morano: Yes, absolutely. Digital is improving, but film is so forgiving on faces, and it has more texture and depth in the overall image. When people tell me it’s expensive, I tell them I can shoot with fewer lights. To be honest, if you know what you’re doing, you can always use fewer lights. At a certain point, the whites are going to burn out, even on film. But when they burn out on digital it’s just not as pleasant. It’s hard to describe why film looks better. I always come back to the feeling it gives me. There is something about it. Digital tends to look flatter to me. I think it’s because there’s less information in the image. There is something about film that feels warmer and more real to me. It’s very hard to put into words. You just have to look at it, and it speaks for itself. Some people prefer digital because they can shoot as much as they want. That seems greedy to me. I would rather be restricted in how much I can shoot, and have it look stunning. I’m not at the point where I can insist on film yet, but all but three of my features have been shot on film. As much as I embrace every format for its innovation, film is very, very important to me.
Q: How do you keep the technical and logistical side from overwhelming the creative?
Morano: As a director of photography, you become a really good multi-tasker. I think the cinematographers who really get it are the ones who feel every aspect. They’re not just thinking about the lighting or that yellow cord in the background of their shot. The technical concerns should become almost subconscious. You know you have to fix it, but you can’t let it take over your thought process. A cinematographer should be thinking first about the story, because the story should be what motivates the whole visual aesthetic. It’s all connected, and if you are in tune with it, then you are going to be in tune with every aspect. And that makes you a good collaborator for the director.
Q: How do you adapt your approach for each project?
Morano: Reading a script for the first time always feels like I'm unwrapping a gift – I don't know what's inside. As I begin to read it, I start to see it in my mind. It's so exciting, and the most incredible part is, then I get to make those pictures I imagine come to life. I love the challenge of trying to make an image different than any I've made before. I’ve worked on many different films, with many different directors. Finding each unique vision, and bringing it to fruition – really making sure that story is told in its own organic way – is difficult, but very gratifying.
Q: What’s your favorite aspect of being a cinematographer?
Morano: I love filmmaking because I get to be transported to another world. That’s the most exciting feeling. When my eye is on the viewfinder, I don’t think about my own life. It’s not like any other job, because you become so immersed in it. You are living and breathing the story and you really become another character in the story alongside the actors. I love the idea that where the camera is placed, how it moves and how the light falls in the scene can really influence the audience's emotions. You can conjure up many different reactions with the way you execute an image, and a single moment on screen that you created can have a massive effect on people. That's an incredible feeling.