Film professor wins international award

Associate Professor of Digital Film Production Morgan Sandler recently won the Best Cinematography award at the Madrid International Film Festival for his contributions to the documentary film “Bella.” He is the chair of the University's communications department, which includes a program in film and television production. / photo by Kaylie Ennis
Associate Professor of Digital Film Production Morgan Sandler recently won the Best Cinematography award at the Madrid International Film Festival for his contributions to the documentary film “Bella.” He is the chair of the University’s communications department, which includes a program in film and television production. / photo by Kaylie Ennis

Abelina J. Nuñez
LV Life Editor

Morgan Sandler, associate professor of digital film and department chair of communications at the University of La Verne, won the Best Cinematography in a Documentary award at the Madrid International Film Festival this summer. 

Sandler worked as a cinematographer for the documentary “Bella.”

The film also won the Exceptional Showcase of the Arts award at the Madrid Festival.

The film is about Bella Lewitzky, a dancer and choreographer who devoted her creative life to protecting the rights of American citizens. Lewitzky’s life was discussed in the film along with her influence and impact as a California-based artist, and activist.

Sandler was asked by director Bridget Murnane if he was interested in helping to shoot the film. Throughout the seven-year process, Sandler said he realized how important civil rights and the fine arts were to Lewitzky, and that matched his interest and values, he said. 

“Civil rights and advocacy are incredibly important to me,” Sandler said. “Bella was an advocate for the LGBTQ community, for people of color, for dancers, for artists…Those are issues that are really important to me so I was honored and excited to get to be a part of the film.”

Sandler said it was incredible to see how the director and the editor wove stock footage and archival footage together with what he shot to create something beautiful. 

“I knew the film was nominated for best documentary,” Sandler said. “But I didn’t know that I was nominated for best cinematographer, and so when I was notified, I was a little bit shocked but really excited… I was definitely honored.”

Sandler had invited several of his University of La Verne students at the time he was working on the film to work with him. Some former students started working with him in 2017.

The crew filmed around Burbank and Hollywood Hills. 

Among the La Verne alumni who worked with Sandler was Jessica Velasquez, who graduated in 2019 and is now working for Warner Brothers. Velasquez was a student assistant camera and she helped set up the shots, lighting and slating the shots. 

T.J. Sanchez, who also graduated in 2019 and now works as a real estate appraiser, was a gaffer, which allowed him to place various lights and lighting modifiers in specific positions to create a look that was predetermined by Sandler and Murnane. 

Preston Parker, also a 2019 alum who is now an associate producer of “Hour of Power,” was the key grip, and he helped craft the ideal lighting for the scenes they shot by setting up lights, filtering the lights they brought in, and blocking and molding the natural light that already filled the room. 

Velasquez said Sandler was great to work with because he is passionate about cinematography. She said if Sandler asked her to come and help him with another project, she would say yes because he created a tight-knit group.

Sanchez said working on this film was his first real exposure to getting work outside of school, and he was glad for the experience and to be able to help Sandler. 

“I know if it’s something Morgan is working on or someone he is working with, there’s automatically a level of endearment and respect that I have for the project (and) the people involved,” Sanchez said.

Parker agreed.

“He’s so personable, but he’s also so passionate about his students and for him to not just teach us but be able to bring us out into the real world and give us that experience,” Parker said. “It just takes him to a whole new level of mentorship and leadership and being a teacher.”

Sandler has been a filmmaker for 20 years and has done multiple documentaries and enjoyed the process. He currently has more projects in the works, including research projects and narrative films. 

Abelina J. Nuñez can be reached at abelina.nunez@laverne.edu.  

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Abelina J. Nuñez is a junior journalism major and LV Life editor for the Campus Times. She has previous served as social media editor and staff writer.

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Kaylie Ennis is a senior photography major and a staff photographer for the Campus Times and La Verne Magazine. Originally from Washington state, she enjoys cars and nature photography.

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