Shut Up And Play The Hits

Reed Morano
Last time we did one of these features looking at cinematographers, one of our commenters suggested the name Reed Morano, who we had to confess was only starting to come on to our radar. But props to 'Ink2Lens' for prescience way back in the day, because Morano is now a fixture in the indie world, and a cinematographer whose work has been consistently excellent across a diverse range of films, even as she gets busier and busier.

The 35-year-old Morano started out documenting family life as a teenager, which along with a high school interest in stills photography, led her to apply to film school at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts (she'd later return to teach as an adjunct professor of cinematography for two years). She worked as a camera assistant throughout college, before moving into grip and electrical departments after graduation, picking up her first DoP credit on Joshua Rofe's 2005 indie feature "Brooklyn Battery." This was followed up by regular TV work, on reality shows like The Learning Channel's "Cover Shot" and Court TV's "Psychic Detective," while making features like the excellent documentary "Off The Grid: Life On The Mesa."

But 2008 saw her get her breakout, thanks to Courtney Hunt's "Frozen River," starring Melissa Leo (who went on to get an Oscar nomination for the role, while the film picked up the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance that year). Shooting on HD video, Morano still says the film, lensed in upstate New York in icy temperatures, was her toughest shoot, the camera even freezing on one day (As Morano tells it, "Kate Larose and Kristian Maynard, my camera assistants that night, took the camera to a house where they massaged it until it started wroking again. Miraculously, we only lost a few hours.") But her simple naturalism -- lighting scenes 360 degrees and shooting handheld -- worked beautifully for the film, and was surely one of the reasons for its great success.

That film put her firmly on the map, and after 2011's "Yelling To The Sky," which played at Berlin, she's got five films in theaters and festivals across 2012: Elgin James' "Little Birds" which premiered at Sundance last year (and which Morano shot while seven months pregnant -- her husband, Matt, is her gaffer); So Yong Kim's "For Ellen"; Jay Gammill's "Free Samples"; Will Lovelace & Dylan Southern's LCD Soundsystem documentary "Shut Up And Play The Hits" and Rob Reiner's "The Magic Of Belle Isle," which Morano self-effacingly claims she got because she was used to working on much shorter schedules ("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").

That's certainly unfair, we think. Morano is unpretentious about her work, saying "A lot of cinematography is intuition," and explaining her philosophy by saying "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."

But the beauty of the images she delivers, from the sun-kissed vistas of "Little Birds" to the intimate, snatched insights of "Shut Up And Play The Hits," one of the best-looking concert movies we've ever seen, can be put up against anyone working. And unusually for someone who's worked predominately in the indie world, she still fights for film, although has worked on digital, saying "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."

Morano's wrapped on a couple of features that should arrive next year -- Markus Blunder's "Autumn Blood" with Sophie Lowe and Peter Stormare, and the highly promising Beat Generation murder mystery "Kill Your Darlings," with Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan and Elizabeth Olsen. And she's got even more on the way; reteaming with "Little Birds" director Elgin James on hostage thriller "Come Sundown," and lensing Deborah Kampmeir's Carson McCullers biopic "Lonely Hunter," with Jena Malone. We honestly don't know where she finds the time, but we're awfully glad she does.