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Jeff Morales '86 failed a Notre Dame photography class. Now he's an award-winning nature cinematographer

Author: Melanie Lux

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Inside a semi-dark audio studio on Salt Spring Island off the coast of British Columbia, Jeff Morales '86 finalizes the audio mix on his latest project, Rat City, alongside the composer and sound designer. Morales conceived and filmed the documentary and he went deep within the bowels of New York City and Vancouver to film the rodents, who are portrayed as the superheroes of evolution.

It is, he admits, a bit quirky, a signature of his work. As is his path from a University of Notre Dame major in government and international studies to Emmy Award-winning nature cinematographer and producer/director. He's in constant demand from the biggest names in nature films: National Geographic, Smithsonian Channel, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).

Funny thing is, while Morales was a student at Notre Dame, he failed one class. Photography.

Not that it mattered at the time. The Southern California native had his eye on a possible career in the foreign service. But when graduation rolled around his childhood passions — storytelling with his Super 8 camera, traveling, music and adventure — bubbled to the surface. Instead of interviews, he and a tight group of Notre Dame buddies decided to meet in Paris a year after graduation and become buskers.

“We had a band together during college called New Age Mothers and the American Dream, which we eventually shortened to New Age Mothers, that played blue grass and folk music. Here we were, four scraggly guys (Salvatore Vecchio ’86, Michael O’Keefe ’86, Brad Ray ’86, and Morales) playing hillbilly music on the Left Bank in Paris and in Rome. Some nights we blew all of our money on beer, others we saved it for rent on our apartment. It was a very Bohemian lifestyle,” Morales said. “We did this for eight months and then headed to Asia and backpacked for a year-and-a-half.”

When he eventually returned home to California, he took the United States Foreign Service exam, a rigorous test with a pass rate of less than 50%. Morales aced it and was invited to Washington, D.C. for the oral exam. Unsure of whether his political leanings jived with those of the administration at the time, he shelved a potentially lucrative career path. Instead, he volunteered to assist researchers doing field studies at Channel Islands National Park off the coast of Southern California. 

“I was basically a grunt. When you’re young, you have the luxury of living in a tent for months and eating beans out of a can. I saw it as an opportunity to keep traveling,” he said.

"I was in Australia three autumns in a row running the camp for a researcher studying bowerbirds in the Queensland rain forest. Watching him, something clicked for me: traveling, working with cameras and learning about wildlife. I loved it."

Thus began several years on the road as a research assistant to biologists. “During the spring, I worked in the Potomac Estuary tagging fish for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Summers, I worked for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska deep in brown bear and salmon country doing baseline studies. Then I was in Australia three autumns in a row running the camp for a researcher studying bowerbirds in the Queensland rain forest. He was using 30 cameras to film bird behavior,” Morales recalled.

“Watching him, something clicked for me: traveling, working with cameras and learning about wildlife. I loved it. National Geographic was the place I needed to go.”

Morales circled back to O’Keefe, his Notre Dame buddy and former band mate who was working in Washington, D.C. on Capitol Hill. O’Keefe gave him a place to crash while he pestered National Geographic for a job. 

“I had the audacity of a true knucklehead,” Morales said with a smile. “I had a great connection with the president of National Geographic’s television unit: My college roommate’s girlfriend and now wife babysat for his kids. So I called him. He wouldn’t take the call, but his assistant found it amusing and said she’d talk to me. We hit it off. When a job opened up for someone to log footage for Nat Geo film editors, I got the job.”

Although it was decidedly entry level, the job entailed reviewing documentary footage shot by the best nature cinematographers in the world. Morales was in heaven — and well positioned for future openings. When a job opened in the equipment room setting up expedition gear for film crews, he jumped on it.

Forgetting that failing grade in photography at Notre Dame, Morales worked up the courage to show some images he shot during his travels to a photo editor at the magazine. Impressed, the editor encouraged him to show his work to others and enter an in-house show of Nat Geo employees’ work.

That show changed the course of Morales’ career. He was seen as a professional photographer. “I started getting calls from people who wanted a Nat Geo photographer to shoot for them. My first gig was for a guy who sold hunting gear. He needed a photographer for a shoot in Mongolia. Of course, I said, ‘I can do that!’” 

With his photography career taking off, Morales shifted to the editorial side of Nat Geo’s film productions. When a filmmaker didn’t have enough footage for a show on bullfrogs, someone asked if he could shoot some additional footage. His answer was classic Morales: “Sure, I’ll take a crack at that.”

There was one problem. There was no budget to send Morales to Louisiana to shoot the frogs in their natural element. So he built a swamp in his basement. A guy in Louisiana shipped him some “talent” for filming.

“The bullfrogs freaked my wife out, but the kids loved it,” he said. “I spent several months with frogs and crickets and nailed the assignment!” Morales was then a Nat Geo associate producer who could shoot film.

“I feel privileged and fortunate to do this work. It never gets old. On every shoot, I can’t believe people pay me to do this.”

Morales would eventually enter — back into? — the entrepreneurial fray. In 1996, he was working with a BBC film crew on a documentary on the intertidal zone off the coast of Vancouver Island. For a year-and-a-half, he was embedded in the Bamfield Marine Sciences Center, surrounded by people doing cutting-edge science and research. Impressed with the work and casting about for a way to get stories out to the world, he had the idea of teaching scientists, academics, and students how to film their work.

“I squirreled the idea away for more than a decade. I was on a shoot of my own, and the world was a totally different place. We now had YouTube, handy cams and editing software anyone could use. I hired a boat driver for my project who was also a university professor. We shared a lot of ideas on film and teaching. This led to us teaming up on a proposal to do a course on filmmaking at the Bamfield Marine Sciences Center for aspiring scientists, most of whom were year three, four and graduate students,” Morales said. 

“It got funded and our course was a huge hit. We officially founded ScienceFilm.org in 2009.”

What began as a part-time gig quickly gained traction. Morales and his co-founder, Dr. Colin Bates expanded their target customers beyond established academic researchers and aspiring scientists to include government agencies, NGOs, and others interested in storytelling with film. The response was extremely positive as people recognized ScienceFilm.org gave them another tool in their belt when seeking funding, demonstrating the results of their research, and raising awareness of science and nature. 

“Our basic instruction drove home the importance of storytelling and narrative. We drew on pals in the industry like Salvatore Vecchio, who became an Emmy-nominated senior editor for National Geographic Television and Film and the voice of National Geographic Explorer, who’d come teach editing and narration. I would teach as well. It was a blast doing this course, but intensive. It could have easily been a full-time gig,” Morales said.

Given the popularity of film, video, and a cadre of social media platforms, it likely could have. However, the global pandemic struck and, unable to meet in person, Morales and Bates paused the business. Although nothing is firm, the co-founders plan to re-ignite ScienceFilm.org.

Fortunately, Morales had other entrepreneurial irons in the fire. In 2006, he left National Geographic and struck out on a freelance career. At the same time, he moved his family to Bowen Island in Western Canada. “Half of my friends thought I was crazy. The other half thought I was a hero. Bowen Island is a beautiful place to live; there’s no arguing that. The professional advantage was owning my projects. I could develop the story ideas for documentaries, find broadcasters a project works for, create budgets, produce, and ultimately distribute. It was definitely financially advantageous.”

The freelance life is also challenging; You eat what you kill. The lead times on nature documentaries are long, hungry-lion-without-a-wildebeest-in-sight long. There can also be a credibility gap if one is viewed as a single creative versus a production company. Fortunately for Morales, his reputation was such that he kept busy with clients like National Geographic and other big-name broadcasters.

In 2013, a friend approached him about taking over Tamarin Productions, a production company in Western Canada. There were significant pluses, so Morales purchased the business and became president. “The advantage of being a corporation is that it opens up funding as you’re perceived as more stable. Also, Tamarin had an existing corporate structure. I’d rather be in the field shooting than setting up a corporation. Ironically, being chosen for projects ultimately comes down to your track record as an individual no matter what the company name is or its past history.” 

"Nature shows are very nurturing. They feed your soul. For me, producing these films is rewarding but not in a monetary sense. I continue to do it because there are remarkable, compelling stories in nature."

With the cloak of business propriety, Morales has continued to do what he does best: tell the inspiring and often quirky stories of nature using the medium of film. He develops, pitches, and produces ideas like his current project, Rat City. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation will be the first to distribute to documentary. Morales is currently pursuing other licensing deals.

And he continues to be a hot property among others looking to hire producer-director-filmmakers. Jeff Turner, whose documentary series Island of the Sea Wolves is currently on Netflix, recently called Morales to hire him for a project. PBS called about a multi-part series on Maine. “I feel privileged and fortunate to do this work. It never gets old. On every shoot, I can’t believe people pay me to do this.”

Morales said while all his projects have been different and amazing, two stand out. Twenty years ago, he had his first producer gig on a National Geographic documentary on Japanese murder hornets. “I spent six months in the mountains of Nagano, Japan living with two huge nests of stinging insects. We used new technologies to get into the lives and the hives of the hornets. The film was nominated for three Emmy Awards, winning one.”

The second project touched Morales’ heart. “We were filming in Nairobi, Kenya at a rehab center for baby African elephants whose families had been killed by poachers. To be down on the ground with the animals, looking into their eyes — so intelligent and emotional — was remarkable. What was also remarkable was female elephants released back into the wild would come back years later with their babies. Unbelievable.”

Morales is quick to admit life as a nature cinematographer is backbreaking work. Sitting in a blind for hours waiting for something to happen is quite a slog. Being away from your family for months at a time is extremely tough. Finally, the technology changes in filmmaking and explosion of streaming platforms have made content a commodity.

“There are more people with cameras, budgets have plummeted, and projects take a long time to get rolling,” he said.

On the flip side, viewers can’t get enough of nature documentaries. “I grew up idolizing Jacques Cousteau and Marlin Perkins. They took us to places we had never seen before,” Morales said.

“Nature shows are very nurturing. They feed your soul. For me, producing these films is rewarding but not in a monetary sense. I continue to do it because there are remarkable, compelling stories in nature. It’s important that we raise awareness, foster appreciation, and protect places and animals.”

Morales warned that starting a business in a creative field is very hard to do. “I came from a privileged place, meaning that there was no pressure from my parents to get a ‘serious’ job. They encouraged me to follow my passion and go with my gut. So, to young people, go with something you are fulfilled by. More than half of the people I work with didn’t come from a film school. Like me, they clawed their way in and have a common passion for the natural world and telling stories. Above all, love what you do.”

 

Originally published by Melanie Lux at ideacenter.nd.edu on November 30, 2022.