Morgana McKenzie: Multifaceted Modus Operandi

Morgana McKenzie

#DirectedbyWomen team member Jacalyn Evone had the chance to connect with filmmaker Morgana McKenzie, whose versatile approach combines a range of creativity to her work. Through imaginative storytelling, topped with a determined focus on mood, color, and elements that visually stir emotions, her films spur the experience through light placement, set design and location backdrops. Adding directional ability, McKenzie offers up fictional worlds with symbolic meanings. Her films are captivating to watch and explore. Her color grading techniques appear seasoned beyond her age. Beginning her filmmaking journey at the age of 12, Morgana recently turned 18 years old this June 2017. Today, Morgana is taking on a new project, a film entitled Indomptable. She has begun the journey to raise funds through her current Kickstarter campaign. The campaign ends Friday June 30, 2017.

DBW: As a filmmaker, there is always the issue of raising funds for a project or self-funding, as many independent filmmakers do. Can you share your current project Indomptable and your goals for the future?

MM: My current project is about a young French Canadian girl who, while spending the summer with her relatives in English-speaking Ontario, discovers a supernatural entity living in their cornfield. After deciding to befriend the entity, they form a strong relationship. But, while the entity appears to be kind to Ida, it has the potential to be devastating to others.

The film will contain both English and French dialogue (with English subtitles), reflecting Ida’s challenges as a French-speaking girl in an English environment.

I had run a successful Kickstarter two years ago for Ellie, and I was able to finance Atlas World through my own savings and contributions from extended family. I didn’t want to do a Kickstarter for Atlas World, because I was worried about crowdfunding fatigue so soon after Ellie. But for my upcoming film, there is no way that I can completely pay for it out of pocket or with the generosity of family. So, I knew a Kickstarter would be needed. Running a Kickstarter is a ton of work, nearly every day of the campaign. But I knew what I was getting into.

There is sometimes a lot of pressure on young filmmakers to make their first feature. I understand that short films don’t make money, but I do think they are an incredibly valuable way to learn, find your own style, and allow yourself to make mistakes and learn from them without the risks that come with a feature. I am doing more freelance work, and that will help to pay for future projects, but I plan to keep making shorts until I have the right feature to make. I don’t want to make a feature just because I can.

A still from the August 2016 test shoot for Indomptable, with Nève Guénette as Ida
A still from the August 2016 test shoot for Indomptable, with Nève Guénette as Ida

DBW: DBW wishes you much success with your campaign. On a different note, there is purposeful attention to the visual aspects of your scenes and camera angles—a diligence that really enhances the viewing experience. What lead you to filmmaking and how does someone so young deliver such quality?

MM: Storyboarding is a must. I don’t always stick with the storyboards on the shoot, but sitting down with a scene beforehand and planning how I want it to look helps immensely. I can see how a scene works with the rest of the film if there are any visual themes I want to repeat, etc.

There’s definitely a moody style I work with too, heavily inspired by cinematographers like Reed Morano who frequently use shallow focus and shadows. I have a love of bold colours and mixing the contrast of those bold colours with dark moody shadows. In terms of composition, I really like to get in close to my subject.

I’ve had people ask me this question before, and it’s very flattering, but it’s not always purposeful. I shoot where it feels right, and tweak from there. I like to challenge myself with different angles and perspectives, but ultimately it’s what feels right to me. So I’m glad the result of what I shoot is people going “wow, that’s beautiful”, but I don’t set up a shot thinking “this will be powerful.” I just shoot.

DBW: How did you become such a skilled colorist, did you apprentice under someone? Who do you admire in terms of their color-grading skills?

MM: I started colouring out of necessity. I needed to correct or grade my work, but didn’t have the resources for someone else to do it. As I learned more about colouring through internet tutorials and articles (, I really started to love it. Especially on projects where I’m also shooting, it can influence my cinematography. I can look at an image from a perspective of how I want to frame and light it, but also how I plan to colour and accent that light in post.

There are technical aspects of being a colourist, but the other side is visual, and as a visual artist that’s bliss for me. Working with colour, whether it’s chalk pastels or paint, has been a part of my life for so long with visual arts, so doing it with film didn’t feel that different.

DBW: How do you begin your interpretation of a scene, both in determining the camera angle, but also in the post editing process and color grading?

MM: That generally depends on what the scene—or more importantly—what the project is. I was working on a short film where the directors wanted to use green hues as much as possible. Green was a key aspect to a lead character, so in shooting, we made sure to incorporate the colour as best as possible. Sometimes it was heavily stylized and contrasty, and sometimes it was a slight tint on the whites.

Although it worked well for that project, that doesn’t mean that what I shoot will forever have slight green hues. You have to keep in mind what the project needs. What is the film about? Whose perspective is it from? What would that person see and what do they feel? What do you want the audience to feel when they watch? Slight colour and composition changes can change moods drastically, so it’s a process to explore what suits the project best.

DBW: What is more important: the cinematography or the color correction? I’ve heard it said that good color correction can have a significant impact on making bad cinematography look much better and more expensive.

MM: Well, in my opinion, you’ve heard correctly. I’ve worked on projects where the initial footage wasn’t amazing, but after a pass on colour the film is suddenly cinematic. I think it’s important however to treat both as a priority. Ideally, the cinematographer knows how the film is going to be coloured, and the colourist knows how the film will be shot. The two parties working together is essential.

When it comes to my own projects I don’t view them as different. It’s two steps in one process. Sometimes I can achieve a look better in camera, but sometimes it’s easier to achieve in colouring.

DBW: Your films are captured in beautiful surroundings, whether it is a cascade of snow as in Kurayami no Wa, Circle of Darkness or the watery world created in Atlas World. Are you influenced by the area in which you live? Do you write based on your surroundings?

MM: Although Canada’s landscapes are very beautiful, I don’t really draw from my surroundings. Atlas World was an exception to this. Location scouting happened during the writing process because the locations were such a crucial part of the story.

But in general, my films are written from visuals that I think are interesting. Whether the visual is a girl standing in a blizzard wearing a Halloween costume, or a child in pajamas trudging through watery caves, it’s the visuals that come first.

DBW: I love the mood captured in Atlas World. There were many favorite scenes for me, but details such as the placement of simple string lights and the cave lighting—very powerful. What goes into set creation?

MM: Oddly enough, I went to the Dollar Store for that stuff! I often take “some of this and some of that,” until I have a mix of items that I feel work. Obviously, I keep in mind things like cinematography and how I want the final image to look, but really I just try and find interesting elements that complement the character’s surroundings.

For the strings lights in Atlas World, I allowed myself half a day to dress the room, so I could fiddle until I achieved what I wanted. But with the caves, we planned that to the tee. Over the course of several months, I went back to the caves to do tests to solve how to shoot and light the setting, because watery caves are not a simple living room.

DBW: Your actors are members of your peer group—all young. As the director, share your process for working with the individuals in your films. For example, in Atlas World, how do you help move them to relay the characters on screen that you envision?

MM: It’s really important to me to have a relationship with my cast, but especially when my cast is between the ages of 10-14 (like on Atlas World). At that age, being ordered around by young adults can be confusing and weird, so I spent a lot of time getting to know the girls beforehand, so instead of being a scary adult, I was a friend.

We also have to constantly work with the actor’s strengths. A chunk of dialogue may have read perfectly on paper, but, if the delivery is uncomfortable for the actor, I need to be open to making changes. In most cases catering to these strengths has worked to the film’s benefit, and a more natural and believable performance occurs.

DBW: You are multifaceted, multi-talented. You produce, direct. You are a cinematographer, editor, color grader, and also skilled in make-up artistry. In We All Go The Same—the fairies, the incredible make-up. In this story, there was no dialogue, yet the music spoke volumes in complementing the visual imagery. How did this story come to you? And where did all this talent come from?

MM: The final music video for We All Go the Same was very much inspired by the song itself. There are some very dark, almost hopeless, themes in the song that I loved. I knew I wanted to do something with fairies, so I started noodling from there.

In terms of all the different roles I played, I had worked with prosthetics a few times for school plays, but this was the first time I took a stab at professional prosthetics. Each film I do I try and find opportunities to learn new things, but that mindset was especially important when I first started filmmaking. Ottawa has limited resources for film development, especially for youth, so even though wearing multiple hats was enjoyable, often times it was a necessity. Doing this for so long was a good experience, and it allowed me to see how other departments work and feel doing their jobs.

DBW: Let’s talk about your film Ellie. What inspires your visions in terms of storytelling? There is obviously a powerful message in this film and a unique twist. Do you feel it important to include a message? Do you feel that film should offer a teachable moment or one that provides reflection and thought?

MM: With Ellie, I wanted to tell the story of a captive from a different perspective. Often times we see it from the parents, authorities, etc, but I wanted to focus in on an individual, who had been living as a captive for some time but was hoping to change that.

Although Ellie focused on a serious—and very real—topic, I don’t feel that films should always offer a teachable moment. If anything, there was no teachable moment with Ellie. The film focused on one character’s struggle and the outcome of their efforts to escape. It ends in a place that many have said is chilling or sad, because it just ends. In my opinion, films can offer entertainment. Whether that entertainment is stepping into the dark world of a captive for ten minutes, or an hour in a superhero blockbuster movie, there doesn’t need to be a teachable moment.

DBW: Your award history—Ellie as an example—includes Most Promising Young Artist, Best Young Filmmaker, Best Student Filmmaker, and the list goes on. You were age 14 when you wrote this. Add to that We All Go the Same – Radical Face was a visually perfected film. Again, at 15 years old. When you see the list of Awards, Best Music Video, Best Young Filmmaker Award, Best Short, Best Director, Cinematography, and Makeup, how do you contain yourself? Are winning awards important to you?

MM: I like to say that awards are a nice cherry on top. Although receiving recognition for the work I’ve done is really nice, I definitely do not make films for awards. I make films because filmmaking is the only thing that makes me tick. But on films where I’ve spent almost a year planning and carefully executing a project, when it is recognized with awards like this, it’s encouraging. It helps me feel that I’m at least on the right track.

DBW: How did your family respond to your awards? I imagine they are quite supportive of your success?

MM: My family is very supportive of the work I do, and I think after seeing me work for months on end on a project, they’re happy to see others enjoy the final product too.

My parents have always been incredibly supportive of my film work, and anything else I’ve chosen to do in life. As a kid, they made sure to nurture different interests I had, especially with the arts. I was raised to never be bored, and because of this nurturing environment, it gave me the confidence to try new things and experiment. That confidence later led me to try film. I have everything to thank for my parents. They are the reason I’m a filmmaker today.

DBW: Your short film Gifts was fascinating—the story concept, the added touches to the set, the close-up and water shot captures, and again the makeup applications. Plus there was a thrilling intensity to it further enhanced through the score selection. What inspired this particular story?

MM: Gifts was what I like to call my first “serious” short film. The films I made before Gifts were me running through the woods with my friends and a camcorder. There wasn’t that much planning—barely a script. I wasn’t even thinking about storyboarding. In summary, they weren’t very good. They were rejected from every film festival I entered, too, and I was crushed. But one of the festivals I entered to gave me feedback on what I could do better in the future. That was gold for me. It changed the way I looked at filmmaking, and all of a sudden film morphed from a funny hobby with my friends to a serious art I wanted to pursue.

All of that feedback I applied to Gifts. I planned. I storyboarded. I made a shot list for the first time. I put so much time and care into that film, because I wanted to take a step up.

To my excitement, Gifts went on to receive 14 awards, and quite honestly jumpstarted myself as a filmmaker.

DBW: Which of your films are you most proud of? Is there one in particular that stands out as a personal accomplishment?

MM: Definitely Gifts. I like to describe it as my first “serious” short film because it was the first time I looked at film as an art rather than a hobby. I was 14 and suddenly had an intense need to make this film, and it was a huge accomplishment for me at the time.

It did exceedingly well in festivals, and I was awarded “Best Emerging Female Filmmaker” at the National Film Festival for Talented Youth (NFFTY) in Seattle. It took me by complete surprise. Being accepted to the festival was on its own an honour, especially considering I had been rejected the year before. It was the first award I ever won. I put that small acrylic award beside my bed when I got home, and it’s still there today.

DBW: What is the difference in the application applied to a short film compared to the commercial projects you have worked on? Is the same energy applied to both or is there a different expectation between the two?

MM: They are definitely different. Narrative work is more artful, and commercial work often times can be very corporate. It’s finishing a project within the time you have and under the guidelines of what the client wants. The quality still needs to be there, but often times it’s not an artistic endeavor.

DBW: What was one of the funniest moments on set?

MM: I’ve had the pleasure of working with some not only talented but ridiculously hilarious crew on projects. Picking one holy grail funny moment is definitely hard.

That being said, if I HAD to pick one, it would be when I was shooting We All Go the Same. We were shooting in the woods with a bunch of actors in full fairy tale character costume and makeup. The actor I had playing the wolf needed to take a bathroom break, so he ventured off into the trees to find a spot. Somewhere along the way, he realized he was completely lost, in full werewolf prosthetics, half covered in fake blood, and all near a family hiking trail. He had an interesting time getting back.

Still image from We All Go the Same
Still image from We All Go the Same

DBW: Your film is edited, titled, the music is added and you are submitting it to film festivals. Do you consider it finished? Can you really move forward or do you look at it and wonder yet what you might have done differently?

MM: The film is “done” for me when it finishes it’s festival circuit, usually about a year after I initially start submitting. The film might be complete after post, but it still lives throughout the festival circuit for some time, and I get to experience it in a different way through the festival. It’s fun to see a film have its own life, apart from me. Hearing people’s thoughts on the film, good and bad; it’s interesting to see how a film is received, especially in comparison to my previous works.

I can’t help but look at my own work and mostly see the flaws, or maybe a shot that we didn’t get or that I cut in the edit because it didn’t live up to my hopes. But once all of a festival run is over, there’s a weird moment where I realize “I think that’s it.” Though by that time I’m usually well into pre-production for my next project anyway, and, while I do learn from each experience, I can’t afford the time to reflect too much on the past.

DBW: I know how I watch movies. While I enjoy a great story line, I am also looking at the edits, listening to the sound, looking at the color, and taking in all the technical aspects of the film, spotting anything out of place immediately. Are all these things in your head as well? How do you watch other people’s work?

MM: Surprisingly, I don’t watch films very critically. It is still easy for me to get wrapped up in a film as a viewer, not a filmmaker, so I don’t get bothered by an awkward cut or a continuity error. Making films has not spoiled my enjoyment of films at all. When I get distracted watching a film, it is usually because of good things, not errors, like a really beautifully framed shot or great lighting.

DBW: Have you changed since you began your filmmaking journey, possibly in how you view the world through the lens? How do you want others to see you?

MM: I definitely have a firmer style, and I have a better sense of what works and what won’t. But overall I’m still the same person who wanted to make films at the age of 12. I still try to challenge myself to take more risks, be bolder. If part of me isn’t a bit scared about my next project, then I know I’m not pushing hard enough.

As for how I want people to see me; I just want to create entertaining and visually interesting films. I’m not looking to tell a message for every project. Dark visuals, tense storytelling—that excites me, and I want viewers to be excited by that too when they watch my work.

Morgana McKenzie
Morgana McKenzie

Visit Morgana McKenzie’s Kickstarter campaign for her current project Wild (Indomptable) here.