Local filmmaker Justin Wheelon is having a great year, especially after one of his life goals officially became a reality June 15 in Atlanta.
He beat the competition to be recognized for his directing work, specifically in short film, winning one of the most prized and sought after awards the Southeast Emmys has to offer.
Wheelon, who grew up in Aiken, considers himself to be a lucky man, because he gets to do what he loves everyday – crafting films of all kinds.
His career is a unique one, compared with the majority of people who grew up in Aiken County, which he feels is mainly due to the limited options available locally to someone interested in filmmaking.
He managed to overcome the odds and forge his own path in a place with few options to learn his desired craft.
Over the past six years, Wheelon has received 23 nominations in the Southeast Emmys and has taken home seven.
"It's been a blessing – I couldn't be more thankful," he said.
Wheelon won three awards this year, one was for Photographer – Short Form (Cinematography) and another for Graphic Arts – Animation, which he shared with his team member Michael J. Stabile – but his third win was for one award Wheelon has had his eye on over the years, an award that always seemed to be just out of his reach – the award for Director – Short Form.
"Basically, this award is one of the hardest ones to win and not only that, it's one of the only awards they give out that's for only one person, with most of the awards going to a group of people," he said. "It just became a goal of mine to do it, you know, just one of those lofty aspirational goals. I submitted something for the category every year. I ended up getting nominated a couple times, but I just never could win."
After six years of not getting nominated or getting the nomination and losing, Wheelon finally got what he was after.
"It was really an amazing feeling, and it was wonderful getting to share the award with everyone at Oak Film Co., my team and, of course, my wife Lindsey," he said.
A compilation of film projects Wheelon directed throughout 2018 is what he submitted to win the directing award. He said he just picked out a few of his favorite projects from the past year and put them together.
While the award only has his name on it, Wheelon made it a point to have his team on stage with him when he accepted the award.
"I would have never won the award without the amazing, hard work of my team," Wheelon said. "A director is nothing without a great team of people."
The award is one of the hardest to win, Wheelon said.
"I remember that night the Southeast chapter president came up to congratulate me, and he told me it was one of the hardest awards to win," he said. "I really feel like everyone (in filmmaking) is really raising their game now, too. Everyone was really so good. It's really a good time to be a filmmaker in the South."
Several members of Wheelon's team were also nominated for awards this year.
Wheelon said he wants to use this opportunity to inspire kids to follow their dreams.
He admitted it took him a few tries to really nail down what it was he was "put here on Earth to do," but once he finally realized film was his true calling – he never looked back.
"I have to give credit to my parents for always being super supportive of me and my dreams," Wheelon said. "My parents always told me I could be whatever I wanted to be when I got older - and I believed them. I originally wanted to be professional golfer, put that plan into action, but it just did not go well. I would play my best game ever and still get killed; but I don't regret it at all, because that was my dream and I pushed it as hard as I could. It just didn't work out in the end, but I knew I would have regretted never trying, ending up as the guy sitting around kicking himself and wondering what would have happened if he had just tried."
Following his brief run at a golf career, Wheelon decided to try acting next.
"I didn't start acting until I was 19 or 20, and it was slow going," he said. "By the time I actually started picking up any traction, I was around 25. This is when I really got to thinking about how much I wish I had been able to get into acting at a younger age. This brought me to the conclusion that Aiken did not really offer anything for kids who were into film. The only thing that really was available was the Aiken Community (Theatre), which is wonderful, but only focuses on stage acting, which is much different to film acting."
Wheelon did manage to find some minor success in film, snagging some small roles.
He has worked with some well-known, critically acclaimed directors including David O. Russell, who directed movies like "The Fighter," "Silver Linings Playbook" and "American Hustle."
"I found myself on set watching those guys work, and it was just fascinating to me," Wheelon said.
After this realization, Wheelon dropped acting and started filming, anywhere and everywhere he could. He even worked for a time at a broadcast news station before getting a job with a production company.
"I did whatever I could to learn more, watching what tricks other filmmakers would use and just honed my skills," he said.
Wheelon co-founded Oak Film Co. with Chris Hitchcock and Tommy Foster. Oak Film Co., which is located in Augusta, makes an array of videos for its clients, including films, commercials, PSAs and brand videos.
In 2013, he started the Southern City Film Festival, a nonprofit event now held annually in Aiken.
"The film festival is definitely one of the ways I felt I could give Aiken something it's never had before and, at the same time, encourage education, artistic expression and acknowledge emerging filmmakers from our community and around the world," Wheelon said. "Plus, this festival is one of the top-ranked film festivals. It is in the top 100 of a list consisting of over 5,000 festivals. That just goes to show this was something Aiken needed, but just did not know it."