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


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?

Sound Decisions


“Sound is 50 percent of the moviegoing experience.” –George Lucas

“The truth is, for me, it’s obvious that 70, 80 percent of a movie is sound.” –Danny Boyle

“Sound is fifty percent of a film, at least. In some scenes it’s almost a hundred percent. It’s the thing that can add so much emotion to a film. It’s a thing that can add all the mood and create a larger world. It sets the tone and it moves things. Sound is a great “pull” into a different world. And it has to work with the picture – but without it you’ve lost half the film.” –David Lynch

Regardless of percentage, sound is a crucial part of your movie; in their heyday, even silent films were screened with specific musical accompaniment. Sound is also an often neglected topic for early filmmakers. Every semester I view student projects with good cinematography, creative visuals, wise editing choices, then audio that distracts from all of these. For many filmmakers it seems as though once we finally get a clear grasp on visuals, we suddenly realize there is another world we haven’t considered. I’m not crazy enough to suggest a comprehensive guide to sound design is possible in one blog post, and I don’t have the knowledge to do it anyway, but here I will provide a few simple tips that helped introduce me to the missing half of my films…

I break the basic components of film sound into:

  • Dialogue: Characters speaking to one another, or to themselves.
  • Ambient Sound: The “background noise” – sometimes it’s simply “white noise” (that hissing sound that fills all rooms), often it adds emotion or tension (i.e. the sounds of heavy traffic and honking, rainfall, or birds chirping in spring).
  • Foley / Sound Effects: Any sound an object makes, from footsteps to car engines to lazer guns. Sometimes it’s easy to assume what sound an object would make, othertimes you may have fun inventing the sound (especially for fantasy/sci-fi).
  • Music/Score: A simple strike of a piano, or an elaborate Hanz Zimmer score – music can fill your soundscape with extra emotion. Music can be a powerful way to subconsciously influence the mood of your scene.

Although sound decisions can be made all the way through the editing stage, you should start thinking about the sound in your film early, just as you would storyboard the visuals. Here are steps you can take at each stage:


  • Research: Watch films (or scenes) with your eyes closed. Yes, it seems absurd at first. First try this with scenes you’re familiar with, then try “watching” one you haven’t seen. Listen to what exists around the dialogue. You will likely notice quick music transitions or a score that carries the whole scene. If there is no music, you will almost always hear ambient sound – even if you thought the scene was “silent.”
  • Ask: What sort of sound will your scenes require? Can sound save you production hassles and help you “sell” the scene, or will sound gathering be a hassle in itself? Imagine your elaborate dinner scene with the chaotic ambiance of a busy restaurant in the soundtrack while two characters eat in the corner. Your audience will never suspect the scene was shot after-hours or in the dressed-up corner of your apartment.
  • Ask: When will you be able to avoid capturing sound on set? It’s easy to replace the sound of an establishing shot of a sunrise, so when you’re on location you only have to focus on visuals. It’s much trickier to replace sound from a heavy dialogue scene.


  • Some sound, especially dialogue, may be recorded in production along with the picture. Even if you plan to dub your dialogue (ADR), good production sound is needed as a reference.
  • Use an external microphone (not the camera’s mic) so you can position it close to what’s most important and away from potential camera noise. This could be as simple as a boom mic or lavaliere on your talent, or as complex as a mixing board with several inputs.
  • Notify cast and crew know if you’re recording sound, with a simple “Quiet on the set!”
  • If a shot has no dialogue, but you’re recording sound anyway, position the mic towards what’s important (e.g. nearby traffic or a man’s footsteps)
  • Don’t forget to record “room tone” – a clean recording of ambient noise on set that you can use later to fill in gaps where other sounds have been removed.


  • ADR: Re-dubbing dialogue is a common practice in Hollywood, but it’s not for the faint of heart. This tricky process requires matching the natural feel of your location, authenticity of your talent’s performance, and the timing to match their lips on screen.
  • Foley: Adding or enhancing sounds that would’ve occurred naturally, but aren’t captured in your raw footage with enough intensity, is called “Foley.” You may record your own sounds, or pull from outside sources. I often pull from, and post sounds to for others to enjoy.
  • Music: This topic could use its own post, but for the time being let me note that a shift in music indicates a shift in the scene. This shift can be from one type of music to another, from music to silence, or from silence to music. Larry Jordan and Norman Hollyn do a fantastic job explaining music as a transition in this lecture:

I’ve reached the maximum length I’m comfortable with for a post, but this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. You may have noticed, I didn’t touch on equipment in this post… yes, I am intentionally avoiding that topic. My hope for the independent filmmaker is that this launches a new quest to discover the world of sound and its impact on the films you watch, and the films you create.

Sites I like:

Download/Upload Sound Effects:

Royalty-free music:


I also recommend browsing; although organization there can be confusing, there are some great public domain resources in audio as well as other media.

New Template: Prop & Equipment List

Two of my biggest fears on a film shoot are leaving props or equipment on location when we pack up, or forgetting to bring something in the first place. If you have an elaborate shooting day ahead with a lot to keep track of, then this Prop & Equipment list is for you.

Prop and Equipment List

Download my Prop and Equipment List

The purpose of this list is pretty self-explanatory. If you’ve ever made a packing list for a vacation, you’ll know what to do with this template. I’ve included space for equipment, wardrobe items, makeup, props, as well as food and beverage, but you can modify this template in MS Excel as needed. To the left of every item, there are two check-boxes – one for packing-in and one for packing-out. Familiarize your crew with the items on the list, and make enough copies of this sheet to share with everyone who helps you pack up the equipment. If you have a lot of extra hands on set, put someone in charge of checking off each item as it goes back to your vehicle.

Some expendable items, such as food and drink, may not need to be packed up when you’re through, but in many cases you may be responsible for packing out the trash associated with these items. Ensuring you take everything home with you is a great way to maintain your inventory and your relationship with the owner of your shooting location.

I’ve added this template to the Templates and Freebies page, where you’ll also find storyboard templates and other production essentials.

New Template: Shot List

If you’ve ever found yourself on set loosing track of progress, wondering if you shot everything you came to shoot, or just altogether forgetting where you are, you need a shot list. Even with a shot list on hand, I can get lost.

Shot List

“Wait… what are we shooting?”

A shot list is the organizational counterpart to the storyboard; this list contains everything to be shot that day, with details like type of shot, what’s in the shot, and of course a little box to place your check-mark when you’ve knocked it out. Your shot number will probably correspond with a marked script or storyboard panel, but it could also just indicate a letter or number for that specific day. When you review your footage later and someone calls out “Shot 81-b… Action!” at the beginning of the clip, you’ll know which shot it is. My friend Zach drew a new check mark for every take, so later I was able to see that a shot had one, two, or eight takes before we moved on. This helps a lot in the editing room when you need to label your footage (i.e. 81b (1).mov, 81b (2).mov, etc.). That’s why Zach is the man.

Download my Shot List Template

To really speed up your production, list all of your shots then rearrange them in order of convenience. Certain shots have to be taken first, some right at sunset; sometimes an actor’s availability or costume requirements means clumping their shots together. I always move my cutaways and prop shots to the end, so if there’s a delay at any point on set I know to skim to the bottom of the page and shoot some stuff that doesn’t require actors.

A shot list goes great with a storyboard, but either can be used by itself if your time is limited. My advice is to have both with a pen and clipboard on set at all times. But be warned: shot lists tend to sneak off and find their way onto a surface in your shot. My student film production probably had a shot list, script page, or storyboard in every other scene, sitting suspiciously close to a slice of pizza and can of beer in the background.

I’ve added this template to the Templates and Freebies page, where I also have storyboard templates and other production essentials.