Making TV: Mr. Sitcom
Meet the DP who has been shaping the look of the most successful sitcoms on television for more than 25 years.
By Michael Fickes
Eight-time Emmy Award-winning cinematographer Donald Morgan, ASC has used Schneider Optics’
filters on almost every project he’s shot, including TV Land’s new Retired at 35.
Remember the Tim Allen situation comedy Home Improvement from the 1990s? One of the funniest recurring jokes of that very funny series was Wilson, the neighbor, whose face was always hidden. You could see his hat behind the fence. Sometimes you could see his body, but his head was still hidden behind some everyday object. It was always a lot of fun to see what would keep Wilson’s face a secret in each week’s show.
Meet the Director of Photography responsible for cooking up Wilson’s non-head shots in each Home Improvement show: Donald A. Morgan, ASC. “They gave me a lot of license for that,” he chuckles.
Based in Los Angeles, Morgan is one of the most prolific cinematographers in episodic television. During a 20-plus year career as a DP, he has shot four to five pilots per year and more than 1,500 television episodes.
In 1985, Morgan earned his first Emmy Award for the pilot episode of Mr. Belvedere — for outstanding lighting design in a series. Morgan received another seven Emmy Awards for his work on Home Improvement, which he lensed throughout its run. His work on Girlfriends, Baghdad CafÈ and Saved By the Bell also earned Emmy nominations.
Morgan started out as a lighting engineer in the ’70s, working on one classic after another: Maude, Good Times, One Day at a Time, Three’s Company and The Jeffersons.
He moved up to lighting director and DP on Silver Spoons, Gloria, The Facts of Life, Golden Girls, Mr. Belvedere, Home Improvement, Rita Rocks, Girlfriends and Do Not Disturb.
Morgan estimates that he has worked on about 150 different situation comedies during his career.
A fan of Vinten pedestals with pan-and-tilt heads, Morgan says they’ve “been the workhorses for as long
as I can remember.”
How to Make a Sitcom
Morgan says that sitcoms are special art forms, akin to live theater. “You do sitcoms in front of live audiences,” he notes. “They tap into the excitement of what actors do live in front of an audience. It is totally different from producing a show without an audience.”
In the sitcom world, the DP is usually a show’s common denominator. The directors typically change for every episode, and it’s up to the DP to keep the production on track. “If something gets too crazy, the DP will talk to the director about how things are usually done,” he says. “Of course, it isn’t the DP’s call. If the director really wants something out of the ordinary, then you go for it.”
But that only happens now and then. The real challenge for a sitcom DP is shooting a 40- to 50-page script in two days.
“You have to work quickly,” Morgan says. “We spend the morning of the first day blocking out all of the shots with the actors and the cameras. In the afternoon, we’ll shoot three or four scenes, enough material to be able to finish on the second day.”
On day two, the crew and cast go through the remaining scenes and shoot in front of an audience. “We do each scene about three times,” Morgan says. “Some days go better than others. We start at 11:00 am and try to keep it to a 12-hour day.”
That’s a lot of work for two days. What makes it possible to get everything done, Morgan says, is the equipment used to move the cameras and the quality and size of the crew.
Morgan was the DP for this episode of Retired at 35 in which George Segal and Jessica Walter star as divorced
empty-nesters whose son moves back home. Photo: Courtesy TV Land
Cameras, Pedestals and Crews
Morgan has seen that equipment change from dollies to pedestals over the years. In the ’70s and ’80s, for instance, a number of shows shot with four cameras on four dollies. That’s four big film cameras in those days. In the ’90s, the technology changed and the studios began to mandate digital cameras.
At first, crews shot with video cameras on dollies. More recently, the studios have cut back on budgets, and DPs have replaced dollies (and the dolly grips who move them) with pedestals that have wheels and no tracks. “On Home Improvement, we used five Ikegami cameras, four Vinten pedestals and one Jimmy Jib,” says Morgan.
Morgan is a fan of Vinten products. “Vinten pedestals with pan-and-tilt heads have been the workhorses for as long as I can remember,” he says. “The pedestals have wheels, but the weight of the camera makes them stable. There is a steering wheel that the operator can use to turn to the left or right. With a Vinten pedestal and head, an operator can pan, tilt, and move the camera all at the same time.”
Despite the loss of the dolly grip, sitcom DPs still manage sizeable crews. The number of camera operators, of course, depends upon the number of cameras, which according to Morgan varies from three to five with four being the norm. “There is a master camera that gets the whole scene, a camera to catch close ups and two more cameras that shoot reactions and maybe some close ups,” he says.
A four-camera shoot will likely require four camera operators, four assistant operators, two utility camera people and a video control technician in the control room. The electric and grip crew usually includes 10 people. All told, Morgan manages crews of 20 or more when shooting a sitcom.
It’s a tight fit on a porch swing for the four stars of Hot in Cleveland; Morgan DP’d this pilot episode.
Photo: Courtesy TV Land
Today, Morgan is a go-to DP for getting new sitcoms off the ground. He makes the pilots and the first few episodes, setting the look and tone for the show, which another DP will execute for the run of the series.
For a pilot, Morgan starts by reading the script and thinking about sets. Then he selects the cameras and lenses. “HD cameras today are like film stocks were in the film era,” he says. “Each camera is like a different film stock, and you choose lenses to give the camera — the film stock — the look you want for a show.”
Next, Morgan creates a shooting routine for three, four or five cameras, decides whether the budget will support dollies or pedestals and selects a crew.
After shooting the pilot and a few episodes of a series, he hands the process over to the show’s DP and moves on to the next pilot.
Most recently Morgan worked on two new sitcoms for TV Land: Hot in Cleveland and Retired at 35. He shot the pilots for both and several episodes for their first seasons.
In the May/June issue of Markee 2.0, Morgan will explain how he created the different looks for each show, why he selected particular cameras and lenses and how the shows take different approaches to lighting. Stay tuned.