Donald Harrison

Independent Filmmaker/Video Producer
Owner, 7 Cylinders Studio
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Donald Harrison is an Ann Arbor-based independent filmmaker and video producer.  He is the founder and owner of 7 Cylinders Studio, a video production and optimization agency that helps clients reach the audiences they want to engage and educate. The agency serves businesses, educational and government institutions, non-profits, and individuals aspiring to share their stories more widely and creatively with video.  Some of Donald’s recent projects include working with the
U-M Institute for the Humanities, U-M Health System, Leon Speakers, Ann Arbor District Library, RoosRoast, WonderFool Productions, and Illuminatus. He also served as the Executive Director of the Ann Arbor Film Festival for four years. Donald resides in Ann Arbor.

Photo of Donald Harrison by Amanda Scotese

Amanda Scotese


Book: The Man Who Fell In Love With The Moon by Tom Spanbauer

Film: Living in Oblivion

Destination: Istanbul

Motto: Be curious.


How did you get your start in filmmaking and video production?

I didn’t realize I was becoming a filmmaker until well down that road. I’d studied social psychology at U-M and thought I wanted to be some kind of social change agent or business consultant, but ideas for documentary films kept popping into my mind. So I decided to take some classes at Film Arts Foundation, a non-profit in San Francisco where I lived at the time. Despite hearing repeatedly how making documentaries was a long, tough road, I was absolutely hooked. That was 2001 and I’ve been working in film and video ever since.

What led to the creation of 7 Cylinders Studio in 2006?

I moved back to Michigan after 10 years in San Francisco to pursue creative projects and get more directly involved in a great community. 7 Cylinders Studio integrated my creative and business interests; and it combined my experiences from the west coast and growing up in the Midwest. For four years, 7 Cylinders was mostly running on idle while I ran the Ann Arbor Film Festival. Now it’s my full-time gig and firing on all cylinders (and, yes, I like to spin the metaphor wheel).

Is there a project you’ve taken on that has presented the greatest learning curve?

The video I created for the U-M Museum of Art Many Voices project – I See Faces in All Places [] challenged me conceptually, collaboratively, and technically. Inspired by Tyree Guyton’s painting, “Ups and Downs” at UMMA, I aspired to create a video that stretched expectations of what is usually seen in the “canvas” of a video art work. As part of this project I constructed an interactive video booth [with maker Robert Marshall], collaborated with The Heidelberg Project in Detroit, and captured over 100 video portraits of people at events. The complexity and style of motion graphics I wanted led to months of intensive, detail work. I also composed an original soundtrack, wrote a Dr. Seuss-inspired rhyme, and recorded the voices of half a dozen kids. The entire project took more than a year to complete, but I feel it landed successfully in a surreal realm of the imagination.

What are you always aiming for when you begin a project?

I identify as an archer and set a bulls-eye in my sights when starting out on a project. That bulls-eye, though, can often become a moving target as a project progresses. So I listen and learn a lot at the outset to make sure I’m aiming in the right direction. Ultimately I believe the best creative projects share some truth and reveal some unexpected insight into the essence of whatever the subject might be. I also believe in keeping the process playful with my clients and collaborators. It helps everyone stay open to feedback, find the best ideas, and want to work together again.

Is there a particular approach or technique to shooting film/video content that you are most drawn to?

I’m most drawn to the tradition of cinema verité documentary (e.g., Dark Days, American Movie, Crumb, Gimme Shelter). I love how the medium of film and video can so dynamically explore the angles and essence of a subject. Recently, however, I’ve been mixing in more staged techniques and effects, such as chroma key (green screen), scripted voiceovers, attributed samples, collage, motion graphics, and animation.  That’s one of the reasons I love to collaborate with others. It helps me expand my palette with ways to consider the approach to a creative endeavor.

What part of the process, from concept to completion, do you enjoy most?

Tough question. I’m a process person. I love brainstorming and the excitement of setting ideas in motion. I’m charged by the physical challenge and in-the-moment awareness of production work. I find the editing process akin to tinkering with a time machine; it can be an almost alchemical process. And of course, the completion of the process — sharing and talking about movies — is why we make them in the first place.

How do you define creativity?

When you look beyond the traditional arts, we’re all constantly creative. Our subconscious, our dreams, our strange non-linear brains are incredibly, actively creative. I believe we would be healthier, happier individuals if we cultivated norms that encouraged us to explore our imaginations and pursue ideas that often didn’t need to make sense or make money.

When you’re not working, what do you like to do?

I make and watch movies a lot so sometimes I lose track of when it’s work or making art or play. But I’m also into sports with spinning — ping pong, bowling, disc golf, tennis, juggling — and exercise that’s transporting such as swimming, biking, running, and hiking.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Pay attention to what you’re drawn to and how you spend your time when no one’s watching or asking anything of you.

Is there a book or film that has changed you?

Most books I read and films I watch have affected me. That’s why I’m usually careful to consider my choices as a consumer. Several books I read in school — Siddhartha, Man’s Search for Meaning, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X — all influenced the foundation of how I view the world.

What drives you these days?

I’m fired up these days to create great strategies for producing video series, channels, and campaigns that reach their intended audiences. I’m also excited to continue to develop interactive projects with my video art crew, Vodo Jumato, and collaborating on my new FUSE mobile microcinema screening series.