by Josh Kay, Photography by Susan Ayer
Donald Harrison’s office has a bowling lane in it, at least part of a lane. The gleaming slab is from the leading edge of an old, decommissioned bowling alley and forms the top of Harrison’s elevated desk at 7 Cylinders Studio. It is the first thing he points out as I enter his bright, airy workspace in a renovated building across from the AATA bus depot in Ypsilanti.
The desk is no mere relic or hipster design statement. Bowling is woven into the fabric of Harrison’s life, including how he became a documentary filmmaker and founded 7 Cylinders, where he is lead producer and director. Along with partner David Camlin, who does much of the editing, and a cadre of contractors to help them manage the workload, Harrison creates micro-documentaries for a variety of local nonprofit and commercial clients.
Harrison’s path to filmmaking was hardly straightforward. Growing up in Southfield, his father wanted him to be a professional bowler or baseball player. Harrison still bowls, including running the Super Sweet Bowling League at Bel Mark Lanes, but bowling “was not what I felt like my calling was, even though I was pretty good and maybe could have had a little bit of success on the pro tour.” Believing that occupying the lower rungs of professional bowling was “not exactly the greatest lifestyle,” Harrison studied psychology at the University of Michigan. Initially leaning toward clinical psychology, he switched to social psychology because of an interest in how influence works and how attitudes change. He got into doctoral programs but decided that graduate school wasn’t for him, leaving him with no plan. That’s when a friend told him that he could get a work visa for the United Kingdom.
Until then, Harrison had struggled to make decisions. He’d drawn up pro-con lists, trying to reason his way through choices and getting nowhere. Tired of that approach—and tired, period, after a sleepless night—he decided to follow his intuition. He went to England, and he’s gone with his gut ever since. While there, a temp agency “started sending me out to all kinds of businesses … I ended up working in 15 different companies. It was such a good breadth of experience.” And unbeknownst to Harrison, he took his first step toward becoming a filmmaker during this time.
“I ended up getting an assignment for the company that sent all the film reels across the country for the commercials that played on TV. And then I ended up getting assigned to the British Film Institute, just by chance, and got to help coordinate their film screening series. I did not have aspirations to be a filmmaker, but being around that culture and receiving that experience—later on I realized that was definitely an influence.” Harrison also watched numerous BBC documentaries, which sowed more filmmaking seeds.
After his work visa ended, Harrison returned to Ann Arbor for a couple of months, saved up a little money, and moved to San Francisco to figure out what was next. There, he joined a company called One World Music, which did trainings that involved “taking drums and percussion out into the corporate world and teaching people how to become an in-sync ensemble.” He became “Director of Momentum,” which involved sales and marketing “and everything else. I became the IT guy, the HR guy, anything and everything that needed to happen.” By the time the dot-com crash occurred in 2001, leading to Harrison being laid off, he had accumulated over a decade of wide-ranging experiences in small businesses and knew he wanted to run his own.
Around that time, Harrison’s father called and suggested that they both go to the National Bowling Convention in Reno. And that’s when it hit him: “Yes. I should make a documentary about [the convention].” Harrison explained, “I had never made a documentary in my life. I didn’t own any equipment. But, again, having seen a lot of BBC documentaries and had the experience working at the British Film Institute, and being in the Bay Area, being around a very active documentary and experimental film culture, it was like this light bulb went off.” That light bulb lit his path to the Film Arts Foundation, where he took his first documentary filmmaking class.
Harrison never made the documentary about the National Bowling Convention, though he did borrow a camera and shot footage. “I realized that I had no idea what I was doing,” he said. “I was just brand new to filmmaking.” But he continued to take classes at the Film Arts Foundation and ended up interning there and getting a paid position. All the while, he took film classes. He still remembers his first one. “Alternative Documentary—that’s what they had available at the time—and they handed us Super 8 cameras and taught us hand processing. And the first time I saw footage I had shot projected… it was just enthralling, and I was hooked. I kept taking classes.” Harrison explains, “That was my film school. I didn’t end up with an MFA or film degree, but I estimate I took 40 to 50 classes over about five years there.”
Yet documentary filmmaking is a hard road. “I kept hearing from documentary people that if you scraped out a living, you’d be doing incredibly well,” Harrison said. “‘Run away! Turn back! Don’t do what I do. This is just a tragic path to follow.’ I kept hearing this in different forms and just kept not caring, knowing that I love documentary film. It was the core of what I’m interested in, a way to understand the world we live in. Fortunately, there are different paths where this interest can lead you, whether it’s running a film festival, or starting one, or working at news and television stations, or what I’m doing now, which is carving out a niche and making a lot of micro-documentaries for organizations to tell their story.”
Those organizations include: the Huron River Watershed Council, Ann Arbor District Library, Arbor Teas, Civ City, Roos Roast Coffee, and various divisions of the University of Michigan. Harrison connects deeply to each organization, exploring what story they want to tell, what their intended audience is, and how they can best reach it. He helps his clients think through not only what will be in the video but also what platforms the organization has available or might want to use. The videos themselves combine luminous cinematography with sharp editing and loads of creative touches, such as animated elements. Sometimes, the scripts are written by important stakeholders in the organization, such as the teenagers who wrote the script for a piece about the Adolescent Health Initiative at U-M.
“We’re fortunate that the people who are drawn to us, and vice versa, tend to be people that have values that we care about,” Harrison said. “[We] feel excited about trying to help them figure out how to use video to reach their audience.” For 7 Cylinders, that means working with organizations that are trying to make the world a better place, whether by ensuring clean water and thriving ecosystems, creating community, or enhancing health care for vulnerable populations.
Harrison is also involved in political activism and thinks hard about how best to reach people and encourage action. “The question that I’m very much chewing on actively is what is the platform for this [activism] work, and how sustainable is the kind of work I’m doing? How do I bring other people in who do what I do? Is there a way to create a platform, a channel, some type of structure?” It’s not just a matter of posting videos on YouTube or Facebook. Millions of people and groups do that, but attracting viewers and holding their attention requires vision and strategy. Harrison is mulling over approaches and partnerships that might help him create and disseminate videos about political participation, social justice, and societal change.
Long involved in the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti communities, Harrison ran the Ann Arbor Film Festival for four years, working to stabilize the organization when it was struggling and get it to its 50th anniversary. An Ypsilanti resident, Harrison recently helped create the Ypsi Experimental Space, or YES, which he describes as “a small theater that we have also turned into a micro-cinema, space for art exhibitions, and a variety of creative, experimental, non-commercial activities.” YES doesn’t have a website, set hours, or even a formal organizational structure, but it maintains a Facebook page where people can learn about upcoming events.
Harrison also continues to make films for himself, including a feature-length documentary about Ann Arbor’s Community High School that is now being edited. The spark for this project was his meeting with a Community High alum who, back in eighth grade, started the line to register fully two weeks before the enrollment date. Harrison said, “I just found it hard to wrap my head around camping out for two weeks to go to a high school when you have what’s regarded as very good public high schools already.” He started to think the story would make a good short film. Now, not only are there at least 100 hours of footage to sort through, but 7 Cylinders has an agreement with the Ann Arbor District Library to host an online archive as a companion to the film. One of Harrison’s driving questions is “why aren’t there more of these schools if there’s something really special happening there?” He hopes the film can “get at the 45 year progression of the place and really understand what is the philosophy, the model, the underpinnings of how they do school differently there.” And, through that, audiences can also reflect on the cultural, educational, and sociopolitical changes that have occurred over that time. “I think one of the beauties of documentaries is that you can understand the world in a new way.”
Harrison also reflects on what lies ahead for himself and 7 Cylinders. “I think there’s an important film for me at some point… on the relationship of fathers and sons, especially how that can get out of balance when there’s a father’s dream and vision for the son being what [the father] wanted to be and not so much what that kid should or wants to be.” As for the company, Harrison said, “We’re at a point where we’re doing really well, we’re very busy, and we’re feeling great about the kinds of projects we’re doing.” He is interested in growing 7 Cylinders, but carefully. “Growth can sometimes mean that you are changing the nature of what you do and what you have to do, depending on how you do it. So, I’m thinking about ways to grow that are scalable, organic, and really retain the quality and spirit of what we’re doing—the mission of why I do this.” Harrison remains driven by the questions that interested him in social psychology in the first place: “Why is the world the way it is? And how do we try to make it better? How do we push some levers and buttons to do that? And obviously video, increasingly so, is being seen as one of those ways.”
You can contact Donald through his website at https://7cylinders.com, or connect with him on Twitter, www.twitter.com/7cylinders or @7cylinders.