Director's short works pack a big punch

by Daniel McCabe, BA'89

Wendy Morgan, BA’98, screwed up her courage one night in a Vancouver hip-hop club and transformed her life.

At the time, she was working as a production assistant on a string of third-rate movies, spending her days filling out tax forms for abrasive producers. Showbiz wasn’t proving to be quite as exciting as she had hoped.

Deciding to try her hand at being a director herself, she spotted Moka Only, a rising young hip-hop artist, in the club that night. Morgan nervously offered to shoot a video for him on the cheap.

The partnership proved to be fruitful. Two years later, Morgan’s video for the song “Fuel Injected,” featuring Moka and Swollen Members, netted four MuchMusic Video Awards, including one for Best Director.

Today, Morgan is recognized as one of the finest directors of videos and commercials around, someone with a unique sense of humour and a keen eye for capturing dance in a vibrant way. Her clients have included Adidas, Ford, Ikea and Toshiba. Her videos for artists like Bloc Party, C2C, Dragonette, Laura Mvula and Yael Naïm have been watched by several million YouTube viewers. Time described her video for Gnarls Barkley’s “Going On” as “a sucker punch of joy” and listed it as one of the 30 best music videos of all time.

“Production can be really tough. My job is to make it all look nice and smooth,” says Morgan. “Going On” features an energetic young dance troupe marching down a deserted Jamaican street. “What you don’t see are the 80 people hiding behind corners, because we begged them to stay out of the frame. What you don’t see is me, sitting in the back of a pickup truck [during filming], while a generator keeps blowing smoke in my face.”

Morgan makes it clear that there are projects she wouldn’t work on.

“I have zero interest in doing videos about girls in skimpy bikinis,” she says. “The ‘I’m so scandalous’ approach, hoping to titillate people – to me, that’s the most boring, most old-school approach you could imagine.

“That’s one of the reasons I enjoy working with Janelle Monáe so much,” says Morgan, who has teamed up with the six-time Grammy nominee for three videos (including “Tightrope,” which has garnered more than 12 million views on YouTube) and a CoverGirl commercial.

“She has these futuristic ideas and she really cares about sending a positive message to the world. She’s intelligent, she’s strong and she’s surrounded by a very special group of producers and collaborators. And they actually do wear their tuxedos every day.”

One thing that commercials and videos have in common is brevity. There is no time for a slow build-up. Directors have to grab eyeballs right away.

“You need an idea that’s immediately compelling,” says Morgan. “It has to be something that doesn’t feel like the same old thing, something that’s not obvious. When I watch videos, I’ll give up after 20 seconds if I’m not engaged. The challenge is always to find a way to tell a story that feels fresh to me.”

Morgan studied art history at McGill (she initially planned to be a curator). “When people ask for advice on how to get started, I tell them that the best place to learn [how to make videos] is on a set, doing it. But I also tell them that you should try to become a learned person. The things I studied at university, I’m always referencing them in my work in some way.”

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