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Reed Morano Feted By Women in Film

Born in Omaha, Nebraska but raised primarily in New York and on the east coast, cinematographer Reed Morano chose to attend NYU, one of the top film schools in the country. Her application included still photos from her photography collection and samples of her writing. After school, she entered the indie scene, shooting shorts and features. One of her recent films, “Little Birds,” premiered at Sundance, and since then, she has been lauded as one of Variety’s Top 10 Cinematographers to Watch. On June 16, 2011, she will receive the coveted Kodak Vision Award from Women in Film at the annual Crystal + Lucy awards. We spoke with Reed about the trajectory of her career, and how she got there.

Q: What was your route to becoming a cinematographer?

RM: When it was time to apply to college, I decided to go to film school because during my childhood, I was shooting a lot of photography and writing. Since I was not only telling stories, but also telling stories through pictures, it made sense to study film.

Q: When and where were you when you were first introduced to Panavision?

RM: One of my mentors, Michael Carmine, who teaches at NYU, encouraged me to spend some time at Panavision learning the cameras while I was in school. The first time I was able to work with a Panavision camera was on a film called “Close to Home.” It was a project I shot as a DP a year after I graduated, using a Panavision Platinum.

Q: What was it that influenced your decision to become a cinematographer?

RM: The first movie I remember being aware of the cinematography was “Raising Arizona,” how the lenses, framing and camera movement enhanced the story. I have always found myself attracted to beautiful light and interesting compositions.

When I was young, my dad brought home one of the first home video cameras and sort of pushed me into becoming our family documentarian. I think that is where my affinity for capturing life through a viewfinder must have started. Ultimately, the idea of being able to escape and lose myself in a new world every time I go to “work” was too appealing to ignore.

Q: How long have you been using the same crew in terms of gaffer, AC, key grip?

RM: I’ve been using the same gaffer, Matt Walker, for about six years. I have an amazing crew in NY that I’ve worked with for many years; Adam Lukens and Rusty Bennett (who have both gaffed and keyed for me) and Brandon Taylor, my key grip. I have wonderful NY-based ACs who havebeen with me for six years or so, Waris Supanpong and Kate Larose, and also my LA ACs, Kevin Akers and Joe Segura. Luckily for me, we’ve all stuck together.

Q: What is your decision-making process between shooting film vs. digital? Do you have a different approach with the different formats?

RM: Usually, I’ll go into a meeting with the intention of trying to feel out the situation and shoot film if it’s right for the project. I don’t think it’s ever inappropriate to shoot film; unfortunately, it’s often a budgetary decision to shoot digital over film, rather than an aesthetic one. It should be based on the kind of visual approach the director wants to take. There is a job I’m attached to, a period piece in the 80s, and being a period piece, people would probably expect us to shoot on film. But, we’ve discussed the aesthetic of shooting digital to make the audience feel like they’re “in it” alongside the characters. As a cinematographer, your style may shine through in every film, but each time you start a job, you have to embrace that there will be a new set of ideas and you have to do what’s right for that particular story.

Q: How much of that decision is related to your artistic take on the script vs. that of the director?

RM: I’ve worked with some pretty amazing directors, and one of the most gratifying things is when we’re on the exact same page about the look from the first meeting. It’s easy to accomplish what you want on a project when both the DP and the director are like-minded. It’s a powerful partnership and in order for it to work, you have to work as a team on everything. There are a couple of films I just did, where we knew we just had to shoot on film. With “Little Birds,” we wanted it to look like the photography of William Eggleston, and we had also referenced John Ford westerns, so film was a no brainer. The director, Elgin James, and I did not rest until we were shooting it on film. It was the same on another feature I shot, called “Yelling to the Sky.” The director, Victoria Mahoney, and I both knew we wanted to shoot film but were told only Super 16was possible, and we were lucky enough that with our combined persistence, it turned into a 35mm project.

Q: When shooting “Little Birds,” what can you tell us about how you designed your lighting to photograph key actors?

RM: The shoot was 18 days, which was really ambitious. We shot half of it in the Salton Sea and the other half was all over Los Angeles. There were so many locations, and many big scenes with a lot of characters. I always tried to design the lighting so it was 360°; so the camera could shoot anywhere. We had so little time to tweak the lighting in between shots. It had to work from almost every angle, yet still have depth and contrast. For example, in our motel location, we even used the building itself to help us push light deep into the room. We bounced our HMIs off the lip of the roof and that enabled me to shoot 360° without ever seeing a light. Having limited time and resources forces you to get creative. In terms of my approach to lighting in “Little Birds,” I like it when things look beautiful but don’t look lit; the more organic it looks, the more emotionally connected to the movie I am. The goal I have with every film I do is to try to light in a way so that the actors have the freedom to move where they need to move and don’t have to worry about marks, but the light still falls in just the right way.

Little Birds, Photograph by Justin Hoit


Q: What drew you to this project?

RM: It’s a coming-of-age story and there were definitely aspects of the characters that I could relate to. The director, James, wrote those two 15-year-old girls so authentically and he really nailed that fine line between when you are still a little girl but in your mind you’re almost a woman. It’s a really special fleeting moment and he captured it brilliantly in the story. As a bonus, it was a visual feast because of the Salton Sea and the rough LA locations.

Q: Are there any particular scenes in “Little Birds” you can talk about where you really pushed the envelope with lighting?

RM: I think we definitely had a night of shooting where we pushed the envelope. Due to the restrictive nature of the schedule being only 18 days, it turned out we were forced to shoot 90% of our LA night exteriors in one night. We found a bunch of locations really close together and with our limited crew and gear; we managed to be one step ahead, all night, moving our lights from the first setup to the third setup while we were shooting our second setup of the evening. Obviously, this is typical of an indie shoot, but this night was particularly ambitious since it was six massive lighting setups, each involving multiple menace arms and a couple Condors and our crew was fairly small.

Q: Do you have any favorite Panavision lenses? If so, why?

RM: I often use Panavision Ultra Speeds because I love fast primes, but I also prefer older glass. I would say my most frequently used lens for hand-held work is the 35mm. My favorite Panavision tool is their hand-held rig. I think I did my best hand-held work on “Little Birds” even though I was seven months pregnant. It’s a very well-balanced system. It’s so basic: the center bar that goes across really helps stabilize the camera.

Q: Out of all the projects that you have shot, what was your favorite? ​And why?

RM: I don’t have a favorite, because I have really incredible memories from each of them, even my most difficult shoots. And when it’s over, I’m simultaneously relieved and sad.

Q: If you had a chance to sit down with any cinematographer, past or present, who would that be?

RM: I would have to say Conrad Hall, ASC, mainly because although I did get a chance to meet him before he passed away, I never got to ask him any questions. Then there’s Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, Roger Deakins, ASC, Ellen Kuras, ASC and Lance Acord, just to name a few of the many I adore. That’s the thing about cinematography, there’s so much stunning work out there to be inspired by.