Morgan Cooper's sharp eye makes for stunning cinematography.
Tosin Morohunfola has two favorite scenes from On Sight, the 2016 short film he wrote, directed and starred in that focuses on a white police officer’s interactions with black men. In the first scene, the camera moves slowly and focuses on details to make the viewer nervous as Morohunfola’s character, Will Burghardt, is pulled over for a traffic stop. Slow pans and tight shots mark the second scene, as the officer from that traffic stop stares himself down in the mirror and suits up for work before the film’s climax.
Without a vision from Morgan Cooper, the director of photography for On Sight, neither of those scenes would’ve happened.
“He is very, very, very, very, very meticulous about his shots — he just likes to get the perfect shot,” Morohunfola says. “They are the two scenes that I think Coop executed his experience and his style on the most, because they are largely wordless and they thrive on the shots and the emotions that those shots give you.”
Cooper, nicknamed “Coop” on film sets, is a 25-year-old cinematographer who lives in Kansas City’s River Market neighborhood. On Sight, his biggest narrative project at that point in his career, was a “turning point” — and it tested him physically, as he shot the film on nine cold days in February 2015.
“If you can handle this shoot, you can handle any shoot,” Cooper says. “You always see things looking back where it’s like, ‘Ah, maybe I should’ve done this, I should’ve done that,’ but that’s when I’ve got to remember: It’s jazz.”
Cooper remembers growing up listening to jazz music — his father would play Miles Davis and John Coltrane as they drove down Main Street to their apartment in Grandview. That informs his philosophy about film: Prepare like a musician would practice, but then trust your feelings, improvise and embrace the mistakes, like in a jazz concert. It’s what got him onto projects like On Sight, along with recent commercials for brands like Adidas and a TV pilot that’s in pre-production.
His hard work helped too, of course. Near the end of high school, Cooper realized he wanted to shoot films because of his interest in movies like Juice, Shaft and The Matrix, and the skills behind the way those films looked. So, he gathered all his money and stood outside on another freezing-cold day to get a Black Friday deal on his first camera.
Cooper then shot weddings, events and spec work, while making his way around film shoots in the area and offering to do whatever he could. He didn’t go to film school — only “YouTube University” — so he learned through experience instead. He says he once shot 50 weddings in a year, nearly one per weekend.
“When you’ve got to make rent, you find a way, right?” Cooper says. “That’s when you really, really have to stick with it the most, is when it seems like it’s impossible, or ‘I hate this, things aren’t really jumping off the way I thought they would.’”
Cooper stuck with it and now works as a director of photography on shoots in the Kansas City area, as well as in Los Angeles and New York City. He’s become known for having a distinct style, which he continues to develop by watching others’ work, lately films by Bradford Young (Selma) and older Spike Lee movies. That style and drive to learn led producer Johnny Starke to work with Cooper on an Adidas commercial that collaborated with the University of Kansas Jayhawks.
“Instantly, Morgan was who I thought of when I saw their clips,” Starke says. “It’s really dramatic and beautiful, and that’s really where I think Morgan’s strong point stands. … He has a really incredible understanding of lighting as well as visual storytelling, and I think that’s what makes a good director of photography. … It doesn’t feel like anybody else.”
That’s apparent from watching Cooper in his element. Working on a commercial for local clothing brand Somnium’s athletic wear, for instance, he focuses on intensity. He leads the crew in setting up until everything — lights, haze, camera focus — is perfect for the shot. Afterward, he watches what his team has captured with a critical eye. He asks for another take and a more powerful expression from the model, who’s doing a battle rope exercise in this scene. Another take and Cooper’s pleased, but then it’s time to move equipment around and create some more haze as the team prepares to shoot from another angle.
As Cooper works, his jazz influences stand out. He prepares down to the detail, but ultimately, it’s what looks and feels right in the moment that matters to him.
“Jazz. That’s my style,” Cooper says. “And it’s important to not let anyone take that away from you. … I’m proud of who I am, I’m proud of where I come from, and I’m proud of my aesthetic.”
T o see Cooper’s work, visit vimeo.com/cooperfilmskc.