Film professor mixes art, enthusiasm

Before coming to La Verne, Assistant Professor of Digital Film Production Morgan Sandler taught at Cal State Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Film School. He has worked on commercials, short films and a Disney Channel TV series. A native Angeleno, he has also lived in New York. / photo by Janelle Kluz
Before coming to La Verne, Assistant Professor of Communications – Digital Film Production Morgan Sandler taught at Cal State Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Film School. He has worked on commercials, short films and a Disney Channel TV series. A native Angeleno, he has also lived in New York. / photo by Janelle Kluz

Natasha Brennan
Staff Writer

From getting hypothermia on the Brooklyn Bridge to having sushi flung at him by a chimpanzee in a suit, new Assistant Professor of Communications – Digital Film Production Morgan Sandler has done it all in the film industry.

Very few people in the Hollywood scene were born and raised in the area, but growing up around the industry helped Sandler know from an early age he wanted to be a part of the process.

Sandler is currently teaching two classes on film production –  Fundamentals of Production and Intermediate Video Production – here. In his teaching, he draws on his experiences as a camera assistant, cinematographer and director.

Sandler has done film production for the Disney Channel and hip hop music videos. Most recently he has worked for the website Funny or Die.

In 2014, Sandler won the Audience Choice award at the California State University Media Arts Festival for his work on “The Ballerina,” an independent music video funded by Indiegogo.

In addition to a Master of Fine Arts from Cal State Los Angeles, Sandler holds certificates from various camera companies such as R.E.D. and Arri.

In a recent interview, Sandler discussed his life, his work in the film industry and the anticipation for his newest gig at the University.

What did you originally want to be when you grew up?
I’d say by the time I was 12, I knew I wanted to work in the film industry in some capacity. I don’t think I really understood what that meant or what my role was going to be. My dream was to be a director and I thought that’s what I would spend my life doing.

Who made you interested in film making?
I didn’t have a lot of focus until this one high school teacher encouraged me to write. She thought I was a good writer and from there I turned that into pursuing a film career.

What was your first film making experience?
When we got out of high school a couple friends and I pooled all our money and decided we were going to make a short film. When I started making movies, I became interested in being a cinematographer. That ultimately became my goal. My first job out of college was working on a feature film as a camera assistant.

Who in your field do you really admire?
My favorite cinematographer is a man named Roger Deakins. He shoots all the Coen brothers’ movies. I have two favorite directors – Wes Anderson, I love his quirky, eclectic style. My favorite film of all time is “The Royal Tenenbaums,” he did it. I love his ability to make really dynamic, unique characters. The other director is David Lynch, I really enjoy his ability to tell a story visually.

What do you think is the most interesting thing about digital film production?
The entertainment industry is so accessible to everyone now, anybody can tell their story. When I was growing up, if you wanted to make a movie you had to have money. In the 1980s, 1990s, or early 2000s you had to have money to buy film, processing and a large experienced crew. Cameras are so affordable now. You can make a movie on your iPhone. And it looks better than the $100,000 cameras did just 10 years ago.

What’s the hardest thing about doing film production?
I think so often new film makers and film students rely on the technology. They think everything is about the technology, but to me if you don’t have a strong story none of it matters. If you can’t write a good screenplay you’re not going to have an interesting film.

What advice would you give an aspiring film producer?
The biggest advice I can give any student, especially someone looking to get in the film industry, is just to have dedication and perseverance. It takes so much work to break into the film industry. Here in Los Angeles so many people want to be a part of film. The one thing I could say is if you stick with it, you’ll make it, but you have to give 110 percent and keep your heart in it.

What are your most notable works?
I’ve shot a lot of commercials for companies like Absolut Vodka. When I lived in New York I shot music videos for people like 50 Cent and Busta Rhymes. I used to shoot a show called “This is Who I Am” on the Disney Channel. Lately I’ve been shooting a lot for Funny or Die, the website.

What is one of your favorite memories from working in the film industry?
We were shooting a music video for “Grey’s Anatomy” on the Brooklyn Bridge in the middle of a blizzard. It was freezing. They sprayed the road with a fire hydrant and they sprayed all of us on accident. It froze over instantly. They were trying to make the road wet, but we all got soaked and it froze over on our coats. We all ended up getting hypothermia. In retrospect it’s a fun story, but at the time it was awful.

What’s the weirdest thing that’s happened to you on set?
We were shooting one of those Superbowl commercials with the chimps that were on like five or six years ago. One of the chimps was supposed to be the head of a TV network, so he was dressed in a suit. He was supposed to look like a wealthy executive so he had a plate of sushi in front of him. I was behind the camera and he didn’t like me so he kept throwing it at me. I still love chimpanzees, they’re one of my favorite animals. Just not in a suit. He could’ve thrown something worse than sushi at me. Maybe it was a good thing he was wearing that suit.

Other than being a professor, how do you spend your free time?
I spend most of my free time with my wife, Jillian, and my daughters Stella, who’s 6, and Eleanor, who’s 3. Right now I’m coaching Stella’s tee-ball team. Every now and then they’ll come down to a set. My daughters are both obsessed with it. They’ve been on a few shoots. They love getting behind the camera with me. Stella is getting into photography, she has her own camera and loves to take pictures. She says a lot that she wants to become a film maker or a professor. I told her she can do both.

Do you have any hobbies?
I play golf terribly. I’m a big baseball fan, I love the Dodgers. Photography is my main hobby, I like to shoot anything that has an interesting landscape. The beach is always a nice landscape or the desert. We like to travel so I always take my camera with me. We just got back from Hawaii an we’re going to Greece next year. I shoot on Leicas, I have digital and a film Leica. I’ll also shoot on my Hasselblad, the kind where you look through the top. I collect cameras. I actually have a couple older ones I plan on bringing here and putting out on the shelf as display pieces.

Where do you develop your film?
I develop my own film, I do it in my kitchen. It’s gotten so much easier, they make these little tanks for the chemicals and you don’t have to be in a dark room. I develop it and scan it myself. It’s a lot more fun that way, a lot cheaper and it’s actually pretty easy.

How did you begin teaching?
Ten years ago I taught my first class. When I moved from New York to Los Angeles I didn’t know anybody out here so I taught one class at the Los Angeles Film School. My biggest fear in life is public speaking, I hate public speaking. I had almost a full blown panic attack while I was beginning teaching that class. I called my wife panicking like ‘I can’t do this,’ and she said ‘You have to go back in, just relax.’ I did and I started to really enjoy teaching. I knew from that moment on that’s what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Film really has become almost secondary to me. Being a professor has become my passion.

What brought you to ULV?
I was teaching at Cal State Los Angeles previously. I live in Redlands and I was looking for something closer to home, but what made me decide to take the job at La Verne was the sense of community. As soon as I came on campus and saw the sense of pride the students and the faculty have, I was simply hooked. I was offered another job the week before at another university and had accepted it because I hadn’t heard back from La Verne. As soon as La Verne called I called the other college back and told them I was declining and I accepted the position here.

How are you enjoying ULV so far?
I absolutely love it here, it’s incredible. The whole community has been so welcoming. Dean Potter’s been amazing. I was pleasantly surprised to see the quality of the students, everybody is really passionate about what they’re doing and excited to be here. For me, being on the tenure track is an incredible thing. I’m so excited because I’m looking to be a part of the La Verne community for the rest of my teaching career, this is where I want to be.

What’s your teaching style?
I was an awful student in high school. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I always sympathize with the students who are still trying to figure out what their path is. My teaching style is incredibly laid back. I like to have fun in the classroom. I spent too many years in school with professors talking at me to ever subject my students to that. I like to be interactive and have a conversation. It’s not chemistry, this is an art form. More than anything, what we’re talking about is interpretative. I’ve always found if students are laughing and having a good time they’re a lot more engaged. My teaching philosophy has always been that students will rise to the instructor’s level of enthusiasm. If you’re excited about your subject the students will get excited about your subject as well. If you couldn’t care less and you’re dry and boring the students will probably reflect that.

Natasha Brennan can be reached at

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