by Anne Dion
Morgana McKenzie remembers the moment she realized her passion for film, “In grade six I made a short graduation video for my classmates as a farewell gift. It wasn’t much, but I took clips of my friends throughout the year on my small pocket camera I had for field trips, cut it on iMovie, and gave it out on DVD’s when we all parted ways. I had a ton of fun doing it. That summer, I saw J.J. Abrams’ film Super 8 while on vacation. Some of the teens in the film were making a short film, and that idea was so cool to me. It sparked something, and I decided I’d give it a whirl, making my first short on a summer afternoon with friends and a camcorder.” The story of Morgana’s burgeoning roots in filmmaking is much the same as many others in the industry. It is what happened after that grade six film - her rapid advancement in filmmaking - that makes Morgana McKenzie anything but standard. For in the few short years following, Morgana has achieved what others older than she still hope to accomplish, before even leaving High School.
At 16, the young, Ottawa-born filmmaker is already wearing the well-fitting shoes of director, editor, and cinematographer. Hers is the final word on virtually everything both behind and in front of the camera. As if there was any doubt of their impressive quality, McKenzie’s creations are fast favourites of film festivals such as NFFTY (National Film Festival for Talented Youth), Longleaf Film Festival, and CineYouth. As her filmmaking accelerated, McKenzie was part of SAW Video’s Jumpstart Mentorship Program starting in 2014, and in the following year won the OIVA (Ottawa Independent Video Awards) award for Best Director Under 25.
After discovering her interest in grade 6, McKenzie’s work grew as she did, gaining substance as she gained maturity. Her first narrative, made shortly after her beginnings with a camcorder, she calls MIRROR, following it up with what she calls her fist “serious” short film, GIFTS. However, no launch into filmmaking is without it’s uphill climbs. “It’s a tough ball game, and getting rejected is a part of that. I had my first short I ever made rejected from almost every festival except for one. I was crushed, but continued to apply the advice and feedback I received to my next projects. I got better, and starting with GIFTS my shorts began getting accepted into youth festivals such as NFFTY and CineYouth.” To be specific, GIFTS was accepted to 25 festivals worldwide and has won 9 awards. That was in 2014. Since then, the ambitious teen has made a dark thriller called Kurayami no Wa which was selected for four film festivals and won two awards. The same year she released the narrative music video called We All Go the Same set to the Radical Face song of the same name, selected for eighteen festivals and winning five awards. Her next film, Ellie, is currently being filmed, and is tipped to triumph in the same upward trajectory Morgana has launched herself on.
Examining McKenzie’s work from an outside perspective, one cannot escape wondering simply how such a feat is possible for one so young. I asked Morgana what the most difficult part of her experience making films has been, and her answer betrays a wisdom and self-awareness beyond her years: “Film is fun, but it’s difficult. Given that my film work isn’t related to my school, it’s hard to balance school alongside film. I find the most difficult part of film is being confident with your ideas and your work. Everyone is critical of their own work, but it’s a matter of being able to be critical but still be proud. As a youth filmmaker, it is very easy to feel like the work you’re doing is only good because you’re youth. You have to tell yourself that your ideas are just as good as anyone else’s. Spending time worrying about whether you’ll “make it” or “be successful” is worthless. Just stop thinking, and do it.”
Though each of McKenzie’s short films are unique, they all subscribe to a recurrently dark and gritty undertone, and she admits to being attracted to the thriller genre. “I like creating suspense and making the viewer wonder what will happen next. Anytime someone says to me, “my heart was pounding, I want to see more”, I feel like I’ve succeeded. I also feel like the more scary genres can sometimes just be all blood and gore. I’d like to be able to change that through beauty in cinematography and production design. It doesn’t always need to be mindless teens running through a corn field covered in blood.”
Morgana’s advice for young filmmakers wishing to follow in her footsteps shares a similar resonance to a Nike commercial, “I always say the same thing to people who ask this, which is just do it. Start small of course, because you can’t expect your first short to be award winning. Read books, research the things you don’t know, try again when you fail, and last but not least, watch films. You’ll learn a lot from just watching, especially if you’re watching with a filmmaker's eye.”
Morgana’s newest short film, Ellie, adheres once again to her signature gritty undertone and is currently being filmed. “I wrote my newest project, Ellie, last summer under mentorship from Emmy award winning script writer and mentor John Jacobsen, as a part of a camp called Prodigy Camp. I am now shooting this film in the third week of August as my short for this year. It’s a dark short about a captive teenage boy’s attempt to escape an isolated country house and it’s owner. I currently have a Kickstarter running, and aimed to raise $3,000, which in five days was successfully funded. I now have a stretch goal of $5,000 to further raise funds for sound design and treating my crew with something special.”
In the production of previous works, McKenzie credits the help of SAW Video. Having applied for and received a grant from the organization, McKenzie describes the benefits offered to filmmakers such as herself through the Jumpstart Mentorship Program “I was able to access a lot of equipment that I never used before, gain feedback from mentors, and be able to take workshops.”
The nature of Morgana’s and my meeting echoes the atmosphere of the filmmaking community in Ottawa: cosily small but vibrantly friendly. As it turns out, she and I attended the same elementary school, only a few years apart; and the main actress in GIFTS, Laura Gray, is the younger sister of an old friend of mine. As the intern at SAW Video, writing about Morgana McKenzie has been not only inspiring and a pleasure, but a personal exploration of Ottawa as a “small world”.
With such an enviable career so fresh out of the gate, I think I speak for everyone when I say that Morgana McKenzie’s trajectory will be one to watch closely. Her success, which has started out explosive, I predict to soon be nuclear. Her outlook on filmmaking remains appropriately optimistic, telling me that “[t]here are so many rewarding aspects to film. It’s always crazy seeing what was once just an idea or a scribble on a sticky note come to life on a screen, sometimes even better than you would have imagined. […] Film started out as something fun for me to explore and do, but quickly unfolded into something that I knew I needed to continue with. I don’t see myself stopping anytime soon.” With the spotlight now on this young filmmaker, we wait with baited breath to receive what she will come up with next.
*Anne Dion is an Undergraduate student studying Cultural Studies at McGill University Montreal, volunteering with SAW Video in 2015.
#1 (applying makeup to a fairy) Charlene Burnside Photography
#2 (crowded Photo Booth) NFFTY 2015