Sick Talent

Micah Atkinson was nearly bedridden with illness when he discovered his multiple talents as a writer, director, and actor for film.

Micah Atkinson, Sick Talent Watkins College of Art

By Ron Wagner

Had it not been for a twist of fate, Micah Atkinson might never have discovered his talent for filmmaking. For that he’s thankful. He could have done without the side of cruel, however.

“I got into film in high school because I got hit with some pretty serious health issues,” Atkinson says, and pretty serious may actually be an understatement for the effects of a sudden and mysterious immune system disorder that left him debilitated and in constant pain for most of his teen years.

A serious soccer player who loved the outdoors, Atkinson was forced to give up most physical activity almost overnight when his body’s defenses began taking aim at what they were supposed to be defending—and that was only the beginning.

“I developed various forms of what were diagnosed as eczemas,” Atkinson says. “I turned kind of into a leper for a little bit. My skin was falling off. My joints were breaking apart. I couldn’t walk or move my fingers or do anything without my skin just breaking … leaving me with all of these open cuts and sores.”

Cuts and sores that were prone to getting infected. Adding insult to injury, his digestive system was also targeted and doctors couldn’t pinpoint the cause of any of it. “I was immobile. Anything I did just made it all worse, and that was all on top of the food stuff,” Atkinson remembers. “I also was getting really sick, not being able to eat anything, keep anything down.”

Micah is without question one of the most talented, most insightful filmmakers I have had the privilege of working with.

Needless to say, it was a dark time in his life—until he saw the light at the end of the lens of his grandfather’s ancient VHS camera. Intrigued, his aimless recordings soon evolved into shooting a music video with his sister and friends. Atkinson didn’t realize it at the time, but his future had changed forever.

“Knowing my sister at the time, it was probably something by Miley Cyrus. That’s the only way she’d agree to do it,” Atkinson laughs. “They were awful because it was a tape recorder. I would literally start it and stop it with music, and I would change the set or change the costume and hit record again and then change the set and change the costume and edit in camera. So, it didn’t flow very well.”

The result improved quickly, however, with practice and the acquisition of a digital camera. Before long, serious musicians were asking him to make serious videos for them, and the high quality of his productions played a large part in Atkinson being accepted into the prestigious Tennessee Governor’s School for the Arts.

“Micah is without question one of the most talented, most insightful young filmmakers that I have had the privilege of working with throughout my career, and I spent nearly 30 years off and on in Hollywood,” says Sam Dalton, who taught Atkinson at the Governor’s School. “I always used to say, you’ve got a great eye, Micah, and in the movie business having a great eye translates into having a great eye for camera movement, for what’s in the camera, what is the shot … Micah’s a master at that stuff.”

Micah Atkinson

Dalton wasn’t alone in his estimation. Atkinson landed scholarship money so significant that he was able to attend Watkins virtually for free because of his videos. In pretty much any other situation, that would have been the best news someone could get. This time, however, it was merely a strong second because Atkinson’s health was improving as fast as his prospects.

Through what he describes as a three-year process of elimination coupled with the help of steroid injections, doctors, chiropractors, and natural healers, Atkinson was nearly himself again physically by the time he got to college.

“I had to get to a place that I could maintain without any injections, and I did,” he says. “That happened when I was 18, so it’s been a few years. Every now then I’ll have little rebounds, and I’ll have to go back and get another shot or go on some crazy diet just to do one of those complete sweeps, but in the last year or so I’ve been pretty much without symptoms.”

Free to focus on his work, his talent became readily identifiable at Watkins. “He’s very visual, which obviously is a strong suit to have when you’re a filmmaker,” says Richard Gershman, chair of the Watkins film school. “His use of imagery is very strong. His films have tended to not be traditional and straight narrative. He likes to play around as well and make pieces that are sometimes non-linear or that are more, let’s say, expressionistic … You can always count on him to have an interesting piece to look at, and you can certainly appreciate the strength of his ideas, which is also the key to being a strong artist moving on.”

And move on is what Atkinson must do, like all recent graduates thrust into the real world. He has options: from real estate video marketing that has already proven lucrative on a freelance basis to returning to his roots. “In terms of fulfilling the artistic side, I am going to pursue working with Warner Music in Nashville on music videos. We had a class where we worked with the creative team from Warner Nashville, and they showed decent interest in what I was doing,” Atkinson says. “And then I have my own projects I will be pursuing, and anybody who has a hand in the arts, that’s how they have to work.”

More than anything, he wants to stay healthy and maybe one day even come to appreciate what happened. “I have started playing soccer again, and I have started going on hikes and doing things outside. So, I’m not as bitter now. I’m able to do things I haven’t been able to do for the past few years. It’s a daily reminder of how thankful I am.”