Project Highlight: “Experimental”

Our cell phone connection was going in and out. She missed half of the story I pitched.

“Mackenzie…” I spoke with staccato enunciation, “we’re going to set the piano on fire.”

Once the image was in our heads, there was no going back. Mackenzie’s music video would have her seated at the piano bench, surrounded by trees and the ethereal density of the forest. Slowly, smoke and fire would pour from the keys, reflecting the smoldering emotions in her lyrics.

I learned a great deal about old pianos on this project, specifically: they are heavy. I mean really damn heavy. Numerous Craigslist postings for “free, u haul” pianos should have been a warning sign. When I finally contacted some “Piano Movers” (yes, different from regular “movers”) I was desperate and exhausted. I explained why I needed a piano moved from one person’s driveway to a forest 20 miles away; the movers laughed. As luck would have it, they already had a “junk” piano loaded in their truck, destined for the landfill. These are the serendipitous moments filmmaking is all about.

Once we got the piano into the woods, I felt the surge of confidence and creative energy that comes with such a breakthrough. Even better – it played. It was a little out of tune, but it played. Then, the drought broke.

The rain was a gift and a curse. Shooting this video during a state-wide burn ban beneath a stand of kindling crisp cedar trees was not something I wanted to do. So the rain was welcome. But, two weeks later, the keys on the piano were useless. It could have been the rain, or the freezing winter air, but this piano was now just a hunk of wood. Pressing a key required force, it was rough, then a horribly off-key note would ring out, and there the white hunk of wood stuck. In a great twist of irony, we put a kerosene heater at full blast beneath the keyboard thinking it was too cold, but had to back off for fears that the piano would… actually catch on fire.


Realizing that the keyboard only mattered from a few camera angles, namely the closeups, we found the section of keyboard that worked best and “cheated” her fingers over to that section for the closeup.

Mackenzie is dedicated. It was a frigid winter morning; I was wearing four layers and thermal underwear. I was drinking coffee to defrost like the kids in those soup commercials. Mackenzie had to look stylish… she did not select her wardrobe for comfort. As we pulled layers of blankets from her lap and shoulders, pressed record with shivering fingers, and listened to the cacophony of de-tuned piano strings assault our eardrums and echo through the trees, I thought about how delightfully absurd our antics would look to anyone watching from the distance, and smiled.

You will be delighted to hear that the fire in this video volleys between real shots of the piano on fire and visual effects work I did in post, which kept our cast and crew safe and, actually left the piano in… not terrible shape. Current plans are to retire her deeper into the woods to become part of the Phillips’ annual haunted trail. Better than the landfill.

My cinematographer Jarod Phillips, and editor Trey Morrow, deserve so much credit for this video taking shape, as does Chris Cashon for his perfect subtle performance. But most of all, if you like the song, please check out Mackenzie Morrow’s bandcamp page to download it!

Starring Mackenzie Morrow & Chris Cashon
Music and Lyrics – Mackenzie Morrow
Music Producer – Kenny McWilliams
Director/Visual Effects – Aaron Pate
Cinematographer – Jarod Phillips
Editor – Trey Morrow
Pyrotechnicians – Drew Westmoreland, Michelle Lodise
Production Assistants – Emily Kelly, John Galloway, Michelle Lodise
Artist Support – Debbie Morrow, JT Perry
Makeup Artist – Dorothy Sanders
Special Thanks to Mark & Cheryl Phillips, Allyn & Thomas Onisto


10 Gifts for Filmmakers and Movie Lovers

The holiday season is upon us, and with that comes a surge of blog posts about finding the “perfect present.” For filmmakers, a Christmas wishlist tends to contain some pricey and potentially unattainable items (I would love for Santa to bring me a few Zeiss Prime Cine lenses… but it’s not in his budget). While a $4,000 lens is not a stocking-stuffer, there are a lot of cheap gifts filmmakers would love to receive or grab for themselves over the holidays. Whether you’re building your wish list, or buying for a friend, here are some suggestions to gear up over the holidays…

Full disclaimer: I have no stake in these products or the companies that sell them and I encourage you to shop around for the best fit. However, Amazon and Zazzle do give me a little referral bonus if you purchase something after using these links, which does not alter the item price, and in no way implies endorsement. That means if you use these links, you’ll be helping me out this holiday season, too! Maybe I can get that Zeiss lens after all…?

1. A slate/clapper

Not only does a slate make you look like you know what you’re doing, it’s also an extremely helpful tool for labeling footage and synchronizing multiple cameras in post.

2. Books

From production techniques to cinema history, any filmmaker will benefit from having vast information at their fingertips. I also think my private library dramatically improves the cool-factor of my editing workstation… here are a few I can’t live without:

3. Storyboard Dry Erase Board

This one is a shameless plug for a product I designed on Zazzle, but I think it’s a pretty practical choice. Great for sketching, but you can save them for later too by snapping photos on your mobile device. All of the 19×9 panels have small marks indicating where you should draw top and bottom crop marks for the CinemaScope aspect ratio. This one’s available in the medium size depicted here, and in a large size for really serious storyboarding.

4. Inspiration (other movies)

Although I’ve depicted a personal favorite here, James Stewart in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), there are thousands of classic films to stimulate any budding or experienced filmmaker’s creative mind.

5. Painters Tape (All colors!)

There is very little Painters’ Tape cannot do on a film set. Marking actor and prop locations, labeling gear, holding equipment together without leaving a damaging residue, and attaching things to the “set” without damaging the walls are just a few examples. If you can find more colors besides the classic blue, that’s very helpful!

6. A Big Bag o’ Clamps

I love me some clamps. Hanging a backdrop, holding a reflector in place, pinching an ill-fitting costume, the uses are endless.

7. Magazine Subscription

This one delivers monthly joy throughout the year. Magazines I’ve found extremely useful include Videomaker, Filmmaker Magazine, and American Cinematographer Magazine. Although the content and level of skill expected for readers of each varies, there’s usually great inspiration and tips in these that will apply to everyone.

8. Sun Hat

If you read my post about the surprising burning capabilities of the sun, you’ll know why a wide-brimmed sun hat is in my toolkit. This not only shields your face, ears, and nose from the discomfort and dangers of a serious burn, it also blocks the LCD and black plastic of your camera while shooting. Straw hats are made from renewable natural materials, are lightweight, and breathe really well compared to many fabrics.

9. More Memory Cards

You can really never have too many memory cards. This is a very specific area though, and you’ll want to make sure you get the brand, size, type, and speed appropriate for your filmmaker’s needs. Personally, I only buy SanDisk brand and I find anything less than 60MB/sec. will have issues with some cameras I use. If you’re buying one as a surprise, get a peek at one of your filmmaker’s best cards and take a picture.

10. Donate to their crowdfunding campaign!

When all else fails, you can always donate to your favorite filmmaker’s crowdfunding campaign (if they don’t have one going yet, you know they’re about to start one). Indigogo and Kickstarter are popular platforms for raising money online, but some filmmakers do it the old fashioned way too: begging! Just ask if there’s a project they’re trying to get off the ground and see what you can do to help. Don’t forget to twist their arm a little and get that “Producer” credit.

Have you purchased or received an affordable filmmaking tool that you’d like to share? Do you sell handmade clapboards on Etsy? Share any suggestions in the comments and I’ll add them to my list for 2016!

Happy Shopping!

Project Highlight: “Up Here”

I’m very excited and proud to share the music video “Up Here,” which I co-created with Trey Morrow, is finally released for your eyes and ears to feast on! This was so much fun to work on; Chris Paul Smith, Hayden Bishop, and Van Morrow delivered great performances, and all of our wonderful extras were a riot. If you like the song, check out Atraxia on Facebook or head to their bandcamp page to download it!

This video was shot on the Canon 60D and a few shots on the 7D. The stop-motion animation was also done on the 60D… but that may be worth a whole blog post…

Freelance Filmmaker

It has been a few months since I’ve posted, but I have an explanation for you!

On a non-filmmaking note, I have gotten married, taken a couple trips, moved, worked extensively on house renovation and gardening tasks, and relaxed (sparingly) inbetween. However, those items are beyond the focus of this blog, so in the world of filmmaking…

I have also left my full-time job to devote my energy to freelancing full-time; my transition was motivated by personal goals to challenge myself, to work with a diverse group of clients, and above all, to create. This move required a lot of my time and creativity, especially in updating my portfolio and reels at to provide clear examples of my work. All of this has kept me away from this blog, but I’m back!

So, what does this mean for you?

First, I hope to continue to find time to post here, but I may begin to talk more about specific projects. This should make for more interesting and useful information!

Second, I am available to collaborate. If I have your contact information, I can reach out to you when I need extra cast/crew or when my plate is too full to accept a potential gig. I hope you’ll reach out to me as well.

Third, I am available for hire. We form a tight network in this small community, and I am grateful for all of the referrals, job leads, and creative opportunities my friends have sent my way over the years. Please get in touch with me, or share my information anytime I might be an asset to someone else.

I have worked from a P.A. to a camera operator; no role is too big or small. I am primarily advertising my skills in commercial video production, live event recording, cinematography, camera operation, visual effects, animation/motion graphics, photo editing/restoration/manipulation, and video editing.

I look forward to working together with new people. Contact me through my website for questions about my availability and rates, or just to chat. If you’re a crew-member near the upstate of South Carolina, send me your contact information, availability, skillset, and proficiency. A link to your portfolio or reels would be excellent.

Get Books, Make Movies


Today I’m updating my resources page to include a few more book suggestions. With the vast amount of information online for filmmakers, it’s likely rare that most reach for a book before searching the web. Maybe you visit a blog (*cough* “Filmmaking: Unedited” *cough*) or scour YouTube for tutorials. The challenge with all of this information is to pick out the best stuff, to curate it, and make sure you’re learning the right information in a timely manner. Then we have to keep from getting distracted. Worst of all, sometimes we go back months later looking for that really helpful tutorial or post and can’t find it (one reason I keep a list of websites on my resources page.) These are a few areas where I really love books. In addition to making your editing workstation look pretty legitimate, keeping a truly helpful book on hand is a great way to focus, to track the information you absorb, and to curate your own collection of learning resources.

Of course, book choices can be overwhelming too. With all of the free information we’re now accustomed to, it’s hard for a filmmaker to commit to buying a book without knowing whether the purchase will be worth the cash. Some of these I bought for college and continue to reference, some I discovered on my own, but all of these are staples on my bookshelf and I can recommend them to you:

  • Voice and Vision by Mick Hurbis-Cherrier
    • This is my never-leave-home-without-it guide to every step of the filmmaking process. Whether you’re shooting a fictional story or a documentary, need help with writing your script or lighting a dramatic scene, this book has it all. On top of that, it’s one of the few books from college I’m not trying desperately to sell on Amazon. Because it’s a more recently published book, the anecdotes and tips are relevant to filmmakers working on digital formats with small equipment loads.
  • The Independent Filmmaker’s Law and Business Guide by Jon M. Garon
    • Even the smallest scale film projects should consider or be aware of legal issues related to location shooting, copyright infringement, and actor release forms. For the more advanced, Garon touches on business structures and taxes, getting music rights, and handling ownership of your film when the time comes to distribute or sell.
  • 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die by Steven Jay Schneider
    • If you’ve ever wondered where to begin, this is it. A chronological collection of 1,001 film essays describing each film’s back story, cultural impact, influences, and innovations, Schneider’s carefully curated list is as much fun to “check off” as the movies are to watch.
  • Color Correction Handbook by Alexis Van Hurkman
    • After weeks and hours of online research I finally turned to an actual book to teach myself the dark art of color correction. I spent a summer teaching myself the craft, and Van Hurkman’s book was the best written and most thorough of anything I found.
  • Painting With Light by John Alton
    • Originally released in 1949, this thorough guide from one of Hollywood’s master cinematographers is the first book of its kind to be published. While some of the camera technology is outdated, the basic principles of shooting are the same now as they were when Alton wrote his informative, and occasionally humorous, guide to lighting and cinematography. This one can be rare to find at a good price, but you might check a library near you to borrow it.

Now get a book, and make a movie!

What books have you found to be really helpful as a filmmaker?