May 20, 2021
FIRST LOOK SPOTLIGHT: Tara Jenkins
Tara Jenkins, from Phoenix, Arizona, is a 2021 graduate of the MFA program in Film and Television Production. She is the recipient of the First Look Faculty Award in Cinematography.
What’s your First Look project about and what drew you to the subject?
Our project, Spokespeople, explores bicycle culture in Los Angeles and what has contributed to the lack of accessibility in the city today. I was drawn to the subject by the environmental and justice related aspects of cycling culture. As a commuter in LA, I often had been frustrated sitting in my car in traffic for hours. Before the film, I had not been on a bicycle in years. The film completely changed me and turned me into a cyclist. I built a bicycle at the Bicycle Kitchen during production and took up riding in order to understand our subjects better, but it stuck with me long after filming wrapped. I still talk to some of our subjects on Strava today, and they inspire me to keep cycling.
What was challenging about making it and what was most enjoyable?
One of the challenges as a filmmaker to making Spokespeople was the delicacy of some of the subject matter. We all definitely felt the responsibility of telling the story in the best way possible, since one aspect of what we were dealing with was the stories of friends and family of those who had died in cycling accidents. For all of us, I think this really weighed on us and made us strive to create a space for those voices. Another, more technical challenge, was creating a film that allowed the audience to experience what it was like to be on a bicycle. For us, that meant experimenting with GoPros attached to bike frames and helmets and also, for me as cinematographer, meant that I was pulled in a bicycle cart at times with the C300 to try and capture moving shots. What was most enjoyable and exciting about the experience was that we never knew where the film would take us. We went from bicycle races in Carson to downtown LA courthouses, and everywhere in between. The bicycling community in LA is huge and diverse and getting to experience that and try and capture it was very rewarding.
Collaboration is extremely important in filmmaking. Who were your key collaborators on
this project and what did you learn from your work together?
Our crew was relatively small, and collaboration between all of us was key. Finding the story as we went and being open to where it took us was integral. I feel very privileged to have gotten to work with a really amazing group of people. Ryan Mekenian’s passion as a director and interest in exploring every avenue we could gave us space as a crew to really creatively work. Our producers Daniel Sheahan and Stephen Tonti were relentless in their support and in their great ideas. I knew I could always count on Gwen Howard to be right by my side, getting the best sound she could and also looking out for me as I shot. Bryce Ferendo and Sebastian Vignau very much brought the film together in the edit, somehow weaving together our footage into a cohesive whole. I learnt a lot about communication and trust working with this crew, and I very much admire all of them. I think they are all extremely talented and, even more importantly, they all have good hearts.
Why did you choose the School of Cinematic Arts and your division and/or track?
I chose the School of Cinematic Arts because of the well-rounded education I knew I was going to receive in all the aspects of filmmaking. I came into the school knowing I loved directing and writing. Through the experience of having to rotate in 508 and experience other roles on set, I found my love for cinematography. I had been intimidated by the technology behind the camera, but I found that I could master it, and that I wanted to pursue that mastery.
What have you learned about yourself as a creator from being at the School, and how has that prepared you so far for the career you want?
I have learnt at USC to stick to my guns, to really know my vision and what I am going for and to trust that. You get a lot of wonderful advice and constructive criticism going through the program that will really help you grow. But it is possible to get lost in that. I learnt how important it is to believe in yourself and the art you want to make. You have to be open to those that will assist you in improving that vision, but you can’t doubt that you have a worthwhile vision in the first place.
What advice do you have for prospective students looking to apply to SCA?
My advice would be to be true to yourself and what you want to create. If you want to grow and explore the avenues that filmmaking can take you down, USC is a great place to figure out where you fit into that puzzle. Create as much as you can and don’t wait for anyone to give you permission to do so. Don’t wait until you are at USC to start that journey. What I admire more about my cohort is that everyone makes opportunities for themselves. They are constantly striving to improve themselves and their work. That is the phenomenal environment that USC provides.