That time an angel showed up in my driveway

That time an angel showed up in my driveway

During the past couple of weeks, my son and I have been collaborating to create a short film for a local film fest. I wrote the screenplay, and he has been focusing on his strengths of directing, cinematography and editing.

I’ve spent most of my “extra” time this week creating props for the movie. One of the scenes involves a young couple who have just purchased a house. I was determined to create a realtor sign with the word “SOLD” on it to place in the front yard.

I didn’t have much trouble creating a realtor sign. I spray painted some old signs that we had in the garage and used my Silhouette machine to cut out the logo and wording for the fake realtor.

Then I had to figure out how to build the stand the sign would hang from. I became very stubbornly determined to make a legit stand for my sign. Unfortunately, I came up with this plan AFTER my husband, the master wood worker, had left for a long weekend of baseball.

I found two boards in our wood pile that were the right length. I didn’t know where to find the electric screwdriver, and I wasn’t sure how to use it anyway. So, I just pounded a ton of nails into the boards in both directions.

I painted the boards white and then dug a hole in our front yard to plant the sign. All was going well until the horizontal board began sagging. Within minutes, it had fallen off. I proceeded to pound more nails in every direction. I also remembered finding some Gorilla glue on my husband’s work bench, and thought maybe super glue could keep the whole thing together, for at least a few minutes required to do the scene.

With about an hour left before our actors were to arrive, you could find me in the front yard with super glue, duct tape and two big bricks I was using to try to keep the post from tipping over.

That is when God sent an angel.

At that exact moment, a truck pulled into my driveway with the name of my friend’s roofing company. Before we moved, we lived in the same neighborhood, so I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him pull up at my house. These days, he lives 20 minutes away and doesn’t normally stop by on a Friday afternoon for no reason.

It turns out, a neighbor of mine had called him to get a quote on her roof. Their appointment was actually later in the afternoon, but he finished another call early and decided to head my way.

Oh my word.

I began frantically asking him for help.


Could you possibly help me find my husband’s electric screwdriver and do something to hold this post together?

Oh and by the way, could you help me attach these hooks to hang the realtor sign?

Oh, and while you’re at it, is there something you could do about these bricks I have propping up the sign?

And… I was just planning to attach the “sold “sign with duct tape. Do you have a better idea?


About 15 minutes later, we had constructed the most legit realtor sign.

In fact, a friend pulled up in the driveway and they were heartbroken to find out we had sold our house. Two more people saw the sign driving by and reached out with concern about why we were moving.


The whole time my friend was helping me, I kept looking at him wondering if it was really him. The timing was so unbelievable that I was convinced he was an angel.

We created a lot of great memories this afternoon with our amazing cast who came to help us shoot the movie. But the story of how we built the realtor sign was definitely a highlight I won’t forget.



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Experiencing the college vibe

Experiencing the college vibe

We are only three weeks into summer, but so much has already happened that I feel like I need to make some attempt to write about it all on my blog.

We’ve had many highlights already… The boys have both been working everyday as swim instructors. Matthew has been playing a ton of baseball. Alayna spends two to three days a week at cheer camp. And Jayda has more than doubled her hours at the gym now that she is on the competitive gymnastics team.

This past week, I was preoccupied all week with the fact that Andrew was at a film camp at Taylor University, which is about four hours away in Upland, Indiana. Of the six colleges we’ve visited so far, Taylor is one of our top picks because of its amazing film program. While we’ve only visited schools that offer some variation of a degree in “film,” Taylor is one of only two colleges we have visited that has a major that specializes in creative film making, rather than leaning more toward broadcast journalism.

When we visited there this spring, our tour guides gave us some info about a one-week film camp for high school students. I asked about it, and one of the faculty members told me the camp was already full. She suggested we add Andrew’s name to a waiting list. A few weeks later I got an e-mail saying they had opened a few more spots, and Andrew could attend! I found out later they had only opened TWO additional spaces.

Sending him off to film camp was a growing experience on so many levels. All of our kids have gone away to camps for a few days or a week. But this felt so different because he was actually going to a place where he could potentially be living for the next four years. It gave me a glimpse of what it’s going to be like for him to move away and go to college.

I was a mess the first day. I missed him so much.

He was nervous when my husband dropped him off, and I spent the evening texting him with words like, “Try to enjoy the time.”

By the time the week was over, I almost felt like I was picking up a different kid than the one we sent off. He found me at the campus Chic Fil-A, and came walking up holding the promotional poster for the movie he had directed the previous week.

The 18 students at the camp had broken into three groups, and each group created a short film during the camp. Their days also were filled with classes to learn the various elements of movie making, from writing a screen play to directing, cinematography and editing. It made me realize that up until this point, it’s been rare that Andrew has been in an environment in which he has been able to learn from instructors with skills in the specific area of film making that interests him.

When he was younger, I taught him how to edit in iMovie and then we both mastered Final Cut Pro. Back in elementary school and junior high, HE was the one who would gather groups of friends and put on his own film camp.

High school has offered him a few broadcast journalism classes and a film class. But those were taught by English teachers. While his teachers have invested a ton into his pursuits, they also have said that he knows more about video editing than they do.

Finally… he got to spend the week under the instruction of professionals in the film industry. He also got to work with current students who were able to speak into his passions and interests.

During the closing ceremony of the film camp, one or two students from each group gave a short speech about the film they had made and the process. It was so fun to see Andrew represent his group, along with another student.

When he’s at home, Andrew’s creative mind seems to always be working on his next project. He’s always telling me about ideas for a screen play. Every week, he takes off in his car to scout out a potential filming location. And he is often trying to recruit his friends to accept roles in his projects, which he creates all on his own.

It was so refreshing for him to spend a week with other students who shared his passion and interest in film making. I loved that he really got to learn more about the process from people who were farther along in their pursuits. And he got to specialize in just two areas — cinematography and directing — rather than trying to pull off every aspect of creating a film.

The camp also was so helpful to get to experience first hand what it would be like to live on a college campus. He was able to sleep in a dorm room, eat the cafeteria food and experience campus life. By the end of the week, I think we all felt better about the next stage of life for our first born. Thinking of sending him to college has been such a scary idea, but seeing him grow and flourish after just one week away made me super excited for his future!


How’s your summer going so far?



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When your mom gets overly excited about the college visits

When your mom gets overly excited about the college visits

During the last few weeks, my oldest son and I have been visiting colleges. At first, I was scared to death to start this process. I gave myself a deadline of January of his junior year to start making appointments. I pushed our start date back to February, and finally started scheduling them in March.

We’ve visited five colleges so far, ranging from a large state school with a student body of 40,000 to a small private school with 1,200 students. Since we know for sure that our son wants to study film, it has helped narrow down the list significantly. At this point, he doesn’t want to move to California, and there aren’t a ton of schools in the midwest with a great film program. Of those that do have a film major, it’s often focused more on broadcast journalism, rather than creative film making, which is his passion.

We were both pretty nervous heading into our first college visit. We spent our two-hour car ride talking about what college life would be like and the pros and cons of a big school versus a smaller one. But by the time we visited our fifth university on Friday, we both felt like we were experts at visiting colleges. We have a much better idea what we are looking for and know what questions to ask.

In fact, it’s possible that one of us might go a little overboard on asking questions during these visits. Many of the film departments are part of a communications program. And when your mom has spent most of her career working in communications, she can get a little overly enthusiastic probing innocent college professors and department heads about their programs.

Our second college visit was to a smaller private school where the head of the communications department spent an hour and a half with us one-on-one. A few days earlier, we had gone on a tour with hundreds of other prospective students at a much larger school, so we couldn’t believe that we were getting such personalized attention. At one point during our interview… um, I mean… conversation… the professor remarked that he felt kind of bad that I had stumped him three times with my questions. Oops!

We like to describe our fourth college visit as a cozy campground. We loved this small Christian college set in a quaint wooded area in the western suburbs. We arrived a few minutes late to the opening presentation, just as some guy was telling all of the prospective students to put his cell phone number in their phone and call or text him with any questions. Andrew followed instructions, labeling the contact as “Mr. UniversityName.”

We learned a little later that the guy up front was actually the president of the university! Later in the day, the parents had a private lunch while the students ate together in the cafeteria. Just by chance, Mr. UniversityName came and sat down right by me for lunch! (You can probably guess where this is going.)

We had a great talk at lunch during which I had the unique chance to ask him some very specific questions about their film program and plans for the future. He was super helpful in guiding me through their thought process and whether the school would be a good fit for our son. And I promise, I did let the other parents ask questions, as well.

I decided to take him up on his earlier invitation to send him a text message at the end of the day. He connected with me on LinkedIn, and then through a few other exchanges over e-mail, he ended up inviting me to be a guest speaker in one of his classes. 🙂

Thankfully, my son has not given up on going to college visits with his mom, who now seems to see these as much as networking opportunities for her as college visits for him.

We visited our fifth college on Friday, and I think I made some big improvements in not asking too many questions or texting any college presidents. In fact, we sat by ourselves at both breakfast and lunch, and we were a little disappointed that no one from the school even came by to say, “Hi.”

We attended a class in which a group of students was giving a presentation on the history of the Internet. They boringly recited the timeline of the Internet, which I didn’t even realize was invented the same year I was born. Their presentation felt more like a timeline of significant events in my life, rather than an explanation of something that happened long ago before the students were born. I resisted the urge to raise my hand during the Q and A session to quiz them on net neutrality, the deep web or their views on government regulation of the Internet.

Finally, we went to an open house in which the head of the film department gave a presentation on their mission, classes and opportunities. She was going through a slide show, pointing out students who have gone on to find careers in film. In one slide, she was telling us about the opportunity for students to spend a semester in Hollywood. She showed us a photo of the guy who organizes the program, and casually mentioned that his name is Andrew Neil. My son’s name is Andrew Neal.

“Wait? What?” I asked. There were only two other students in the presentation so she knew everyone’s name. “Oh, yes,” she laughed. “His name really is Andrew Neil.”

It was a freakish moment in which I was trying to decide if this was a sign from God or just an odd coincidence. Or maybe it was just a reminder for a crazy mom about who the college visits are really for. 🙂

Anyway, that will go down as one of the many funny memories that we’ve had the last few weeks traveling all over the place visiting colleges together. I can’t say that I’m ready to let my baby go off to college. But we are getting one step closer to tackling what feels like the most daunting challenge we have faced so far as parents. And instead of it feeling super scary, I’m starting to get excited for him about what lies ahead!

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Ten years of making movies at the age of 17

Ten years of making movies at the age of 17

Our oldest son was 7 years old when he was infected with the film-making bug.

He recruited his younger brother and sister as actors, and asked me to shoot them making a movie. I’m sure it’s something that kids in lots of homes have done at that age.  I showed him some basic editing skills in iMovie, added sound effects and some special effects, and he had his first movie, “Dr. Cortex’s Magic Plan.”

It was a crazy screen play that involved inspiration from Narnia, a plan to destroy the world and lots of random costumes.

For the next few years, I served as my son’s video editor and producer as he came up with script ideas, recruited actors and begged me to point the camera in his direction.

By the time he was in fifth grade, his grandparents had given him a flip camera so he could shoot his movies without having to wait for his mom to fit it into her schedule. Any kid that has been a friend of Andrew’s over the last decade has been recruited at some point to become an actor in one of his films.

At age 10, he filmed his first series, “Old Grandpa.” Then, he and his brother created the characters, “CJ Watermelon and Bub Franklin.” Many of his projects have involved some kind of music video element, starting with “Turkey in the Straw”, our first attempt at using a green screen when he was about 9, and my all-time favorite, “Thanks, Mom.”

Over the years, my role has diminished from movie editor to editing consultant to the person who asks my son for editing advice. We both started with iMovie, then graduated to Final Cut Pro. The summer after fifth grade, he invited groups of friends to come over, assigned them roles, filmed their movies and then conducted a class to show them how to use iMovie. A few summers ago, he mowed lawns weekly, then spent all of his savings on special effects packages.

In the past ten years, this kid has created 76 movie projects of his own. Not bad for someone who is 17.

These are the kinds of things I think about when I sit and watch his latest short film being played on a screen at the local high school as part of the annual Film Fest. These moments are the compilations of years of investing in a child’s interests, offering advice and supporting every new idea and endeavor. I think about all of the times he’s come running in the door, exclaiming, “Mom! I have an idea for a movie!” It’s been amazing to see a kid so passionate about something, and then invest so much time and energy into pursuing what he loves.

Sometimes, he has irritated people with his style of using cinematography to create a film that looks deadly serious, only to find out he was being sarcastic the whole time, as in the short film devoted to a man’s obsession with “Pudding” or the guy who wouldn’t die in his western “Bulletproof.” There’s no hiding the humor in his series devoted to making fun of his crazy younger brother in the series, “Day in the Life of Matt” or his take on “The Office,” played out in his own series, “Picnic.”

He doesn’t shy away from talking about his faith in projects like this one. He has created public service announcements for his school and event advertisements for his church youth group.

He was so blessed his sophomore year of high school to get to take two broadcast journalism classes with a teacher who really invested in his interest. This teacher started a Film Fest at the school to give students a format to display their creative work. He learned a lot from his entry last year, which ended up taking second place.

This year, Andrew asked two friends he met from participating in school plays to be the actors in his short film. His actors are hilarious, and he had so much fun working with them on his entry, which had to fall into the theme of “friendship.”

Both years of the film fest, another student has walked away with first place. Although the students are heavily judged by professionals in the industry on the writing of their screen play and plot development, the other student has taken her script from the Internet both years. The organizers of the event have given her permission to submit a film that isn’t an original work, but we are hoping that at some point, they will consider creating a separate category for films that weren’t actually written by the students.

Anyway, that disparity has taken some of the joy out of the Film Fest competition. It’s probably hard to imagine how much time and energy go into creating a story, filming it, working with actors and then all of the editing and production. We can rest in the way Andrew handles himself with so much dignity and humility. We’ve encouraged our son to learn from the judge’s comments and enjoy the reaction of a room full of people, laughing along with his original work.

These days, I often find myself in a bit of a role reversal from back in the days of Dr. Cortex, Old Grandpa and CJ Watermelon. I’m always in need of video producers to help me create content at my job, and often end up begging my son to work one of my projects into his schedule.

As he wraps up his junior year of high school and we visit colleges this spring, we are starting to really figure out what it could look like to help our child turn a lifelong passion into a college major or a career. I think I just needed to take a few moments to look back at how far he’s come over the last 10 years. The Film Fest wrapped up a stressful week that also included four days of high school baseball tryouts for our other son, who is a freshman. (Hopefully, I’ll write about that soon, too!… He made it!!!)

Thank you to everyone who has shared in this journey with us, and thanks for reading! Leave me a comment to say, “hello!”

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The movie class

When I was a kid, one of my favorite activities was to sit in front of my cassette player with my brother or possibly a few cousins or friends and record a “show.” Our little talk show would include plenty of banter, a few songs, some jokes and me giggling so hard you could barely hear what I was trying to say.

Yesterday, I got to relive my childhood 2011 style.

Our 10-year-old has loved making up “shows” for as long as he could talk. He definitely seemed to be making up stories in his mind even before that.

About a year ago, we purchase a computer just for our home schooling work and gave him free access to iMovie. I showed him how to find the tutorials on the Apple web site and let him go to work. I decided not to even try to teach him what I knew. I wanted him to teach himself.

Since then, he has made dozens of little movies. If he can’t convince his siblings or neighbors to participate, he cuts out characters from coloring sheets — Angry Birds, Sonic, Mario Brothers — and films them with different voices. He has even been known to FILM the other kids playing the Wii and make a movie from it. (AHHH!!!)

As his obsession with iMovie has grown, he came up with the idea to teach an iMovie class to his friends. I was completely in support, especially when I saw how much he was learning from planning the class.

He had to decide what he would teach. He made a brochure to advertise it. He talked to his friends and their parents to recruit students. He planned out the whole day. He wrote a script for a movie. He wrote a speech to introduce the class. He made notecards. He practiced. He cooked muffins for the snack.

He had his trial run of his four-hour class on Friday with five friends (plus his brother and sister). He really did a good job keeping the kids organized, explaining their parts, getting them to practice the movie and then teaching them iMovie. It was a long day and had it’s challenges, but it was a lot of fun. He is hoping he can teach more classes in the future.

We only ran into a couple of snafus, but one turned out to be a huge blessing. I convinced him we should incorporate the “green screen,” which we had only used one time before to make a movie. I didn’t take time to iron the big pieces of green fabric we use for our green screen, and that created some challenges in making the movie look good.

Then, about five minutes into the editing segment, our iMovie crashed. Fortunately, I had set up another work station with my computer for the kids to use, and I quickly started importing the video on the other computer to get everything working.

While the kids were taking a break, I started frantically searching for the installation disk for iMovie that came with the computer. Little did I know that the computer I bought several months ago actually came with the installation disk for iMovie ’11, even though only version 10 was installed.

In the midst of all of the chaos of making homemade mac ‘n cheese for nine children, helping my son keep everyone interested in the class rather than a game of freeze tag and trying to take care of the toddler, you should have seen me geeking out on the new version of iMovie.

Not only does it have cool new “themes” for our movies, but it has a really slick and simple format to make movie trailers.

After everyone left, my son and I spent the next few hours sitting next to each other at separate computers creating the movie trailers of our dreams. On one computer, he was living the life of a creative 10-year-old I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams. On the other computer, I got to sit back and relax like I once did in front of my old cassette player — but this time 2011 style.

And so, I leave you with the links to our movie trailer as well as his final production, which he did on his own. The trailer was a lot of fun to make. But it was even more fun to hang out with my son and learn something new together.

The trailer:

Old Grandpa’s Vacation:


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