Whether it has to do with a smaller screen or the traditionally formulaic nature of primetime programming or the tendency of sitcom sets to be lit up like hospital waiting rooms, television has never gotten as much respect as its cinematic forebear.
But times have changed, and the medium has grown to the point where features often pale compared with the ambition and daring of much of today’s TV fare.
After giving out career achievement honors for feature cinematography dating back to its second annual awards ceremony in 1987, the American Society of Cinematographers is also seeing things in a different light by bestowing its first-ever Career Achievement in Television Award to Donald M. Morgan.
“I think the sad part about our business is that we make such a class difference,” Morgan says. “You either do features or you do television. I hope I can influence people with that kind of thinking.”
Morgan has been alternating among features, TV and commercials dating back to the mid-’60s, but it’s his Emmy-winning work on such made-fors as “Miss Evers’ Boys,” “Geronimo” and “Murder in Mississippi,” not to mention his four ASC awards for television that inspired the ASC to establish a precedent.
It’s an honor for a man who never planned on being a cinematographer. “My dad was an animation cameraman, and I thought it was the most boring thing in the world,” he says. “So first I tried to be a professional rodeo rider. And then I tried to be a race car driver.”
Neither worked out, and Morgan got his start shooting aerial photography under Nelson Tyler (“Catch-22”). Little by little, he worked his way up, and began shooting on the ground. “I had some people that had far more faith in me than I had in myself,” he says.
Morgan has since been credited on more than 70 films, and it’s testament to his professionalism that he has worked repeatedly with such directors as John Carpenter, Roger Young and Joe Sargent.
He believes he has found success by insisting upon having a look, and he has words of wisdom for young d.p.s. “There’s a long line of people who can do mediocre photography,” he says, “but there’s a short line of people who are willing to work on the edge. I’ve always worked on the edge, and it’s paid off for me.”