Creative work can take many forms — and Rick Morrone is engaged with most of them. A UM-Dearborn instructional learning assistant who graduated from the College of Arts, Sciences and Letters in 2011, people around campus may know Morrone as the guy who assists faculty in the Journalism and Media Production Program with technical aspects of their courses — including editing, filming, recording and general creative input for students — or from the extra-credit workshops he conducts outside of class.
What fewer folks may realize is that Morrone is a working musician, actor and video producer with his own home studio — creative endeavors that reinforce, and are reinforced by, his work with UM-Dearborn. "It is my duty to the department to continue to stay sharp and learn new things to bring into the classroom, and I can't always achieve that during my work hours. I need to absorb that from the field and bring it back," Morrone explains.
"The same goes for the opposite scenario,” he continues. “Sometimes I sit in on lectures and I learn things that I didn't know before from our different professors, or learn different ways of thinking outside the box and achieving production techniques that I try to apply in my own projects. It's like I'm going back to school every day as well. So they are mutually beneficial to one another and that's why I really love my job."
Morrone's passion for creative work began with the moving image. "I figured out video stuff because I was very inspired by my dad, who always had a camcorder at home," he says. "Having a camera in the house was what inspired me to pick it up, go to CVS, buy my own VHS, and make little movies with my cousins. That's kind of how it all started."
As his passion for filmmaking grew, Morrone’s decision about what to study in school became clear cut. "What have I always loved doing? I was always the guy making the music videos for the bands when we were kids, anybody with a garage band, I'll set up a camera, cut it and they can put it on their website or MySpace or whatever," he reflects.
Ad man to entrepreneur
After graduating from UM-Dearborn, Morrone worked as a producer for a broadcast advertising agency for five years, creating commercials for TV, radio and the web. He remembers being shocked the first time he was given a $10,000 budget and thinking: "I could do a feature film for 10 grand." But he was told this was a low-budget ad campaign, and found that, in fact, many of the music tracks he negotiated licenses to use cost "$10K on the low end." This inspired Morrone to team up with his best friend and musical collaborator since age 10, Garret Schmittling, to begin building their own library of original music for licensing to clients, as well as creating custom tracks for film scores, video games and more.
Morrone left the agency to grow his freelance business, which he'd been nurturing as a gigging musician and event DJ since he was 18. Morrone also found success acting in commercials and voiceovers, all of which led him to create a home studio to professionalize his recording work. The studio, which Morrone says is partly modeled on what he had used at UM-Dearborn, features space and equipment for the breadth of his creative work, including a green screen room for recording video, an editing suite, a soundproof room for album recording, a T-shirt press for band merch and "a nice arcade and bar area for the bandmates when we want to hang."
"Between the studio and constant entertainment work coming my way with music and DJing, it helps me sew together a decent living along with my 9-to-5 at U of M," he says. "Gears are always turning."
Sharing expertise with the next generation
Now at UM-Dearborn for five years, Morrone remembers first interviewing for the position with his former professors. "I was like, yeah, do you remember me? Did you like me?" he jokes. "I'm better now." Morrone is thankful for the experience he gained producing and editing video in an incredibly fast-paced ad-world environment — skills he can now pass on to students.
"Working with students is super rewarding," Morrone says. "To see the light bulbs go off, and then you see the stuff that they create throughout the semester. It's really inspiring."
He notes that the rapid evolution of technology has created some disconnect between his own experience studying video production and the perspective students hold today, particularly in understanding the hows and whys of digital file organization. But there are constants as well. "There's the theory of strong, good shot composition and editing techniques, storytelling techniques. That part of everything has stayed true in the philosophy of the department," he says.
Morrone's seven-piece funk band Strictly Fine has just released an album, featuring guest appearances by a number of Detroit-area musicians, including members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. "We're funky and we're silly. We're soulful and sweet," Morrone says of his group. “On one hand, we can sound like R&B Motown love songs that are beautiful and nicely arranged, with cool horn parts. And on the other end, we could be like Parliament Funkadelic and sing silly lyrics."
He also works often with other local artists, playing bass or drums on their songs or producing their albums, thanks to the community he and Schmittling have built up over more than a decade hosting a Monday open mic night in Dearborn Heights. While still a student-athlete playing basketball at UM-Dearborn, Morrone met local hip hop artist and teammate Steve Banks, who performs as This Life. We Lead. They collaborated on a few albums, and one song was later used in the HBO documentary series “Hard Knocks” in an episode about the Detroit Lions. "We made this track in 2013, a hip hop dance track," Morrone says. "And here it is, playing during a montage while the Lions are working out."
Morrone's biggest on-screen role was watched by millions of viewers and also has a connection to Detroit's football team. "I got to be knocked out with a dodgeball by Barry Sanders," he explains. "That was my biggest commercial. It premiered on Monday Night Football and aired every game every single week, every single commercial break."
In January, Morrone attended the debut of “Fielding Dreams: A Celebration of Baseball Scouts,” a documentary by retired Communication Clinical Professor Jim Gilmore, Morrone’s former professor, at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Morrone and Schmittling produced the musical score for the film, which explores the lives of baseball scouts responsible for finding the next great talent.
"Cooperstown was awesome in all senses," Morrone says of the experience. "It was a great accomplishment after putting together this documentary after four years, to pat each other on the back and say, 'job well done.'"
Article by Shaun Manning