Interview with Cameraperson Jendra Jarnagin (AUDIO)

 

Download the audio of my interview with cameraperson Jendra Jarnagin.

The Second Sight offers insight and analysis on the media and entertainment industry - an often misunderstood or mischaracterized sector of the American economic and cultural landscape in the midst of its own technological and cultural shifts - from globalization and the emerging creative economy; to digital technology and the evolving aesthetic and nature of content; to the growing technological cross fertilization between media, defense, and medicine.

My name is Alexa D. O'Brien. For the next two months, we will focus our attention towards understanding the evolving nature of the below-the-line training cycle for motion picture technicians, in the face of both digital technologies and newer end to end digital workflows; and the coming of age, so to speak, of the game generation - the older cusp of which, now in their mid thirties, having finally entered their productive years as journeymen technicians and content creators.

Jendra Jarnagin is one of a handful of New York based directors of photography who has shot with the Viper. She has over thirteen years of professional shooting and lighting experience, and her cinematography credits include numerous commercials and over thirty short films. She also worked as a lighting technician on major Hollywood films and episodic television, such as "Sex and the City" and "Law and Order". Jendra recently collaborated on the recent Alexis Krasilovsky documentary, Women Behind the Camera, featuring interviews with camerawomen from all over the world. Jendra Jarnagin, shot, field produced, and directed the projects New York interviews: including Ellen Kuras, ASC; Sandi Sissel, ASC; Lisa Rinzler; and Giselle Chamma. I am pleased to have Jendra Jarnagin for a Second Sight Podcast interview. Welcome.

Jendra Jarnagin

Thank you.

Alexa D. O'Brien

Tell me about Women Behind the Camera.

Jendra Jarnagin

Women Behind the Camera is a feature length documentary that has interviews...I think they interviewed over eighty women from all over the world. I am not sure the final count in the edit. Cinematographers, documentarians, journalists, camera operators, even some camera assistants...about their jobs in different countries and partly of course some of it deals with being a woman in that job.

Alexa D. O'Brien

What was the experience like listening to these camerawomen, because you are a camera woman yourself?

Jendra Jarnagin

Watching the documentary itself was really exciting to, I guess, identify with how international the struggles of women in a male dominated field, but also the triumphs of women and the universality of the job, gender aside, that transcended international boundaries. There are interviews from India and Afghanistan, China, you name it, it's in there. It's really a unique film in that way.

Alexa D. O'Brien

Was there anything about that project...that as you were working on it...that surprised you...that you learned...that you didn't know before?

Jendra Jarnagin

I had the opportunity to see a few rough cuts as the documentary was being shaped, so when the project was substantially longer than a feature documentary naturally gets paired down to. It was really interesting for me to see, I guess, the depth of experiences, and again, just the international side of it. I hadn't really though about that before. Being a New Yorker, I think about how things are different in L.A. and I am spending more time in L.A. and sort of feeling that out for myself, but the European women and the Asian women and everything like that, I guess, did surprise me.

Alexa D. O'Brien

What was one of the experiences that you heard in the process of either directing or shooting the interviews or in viewing the final product that you related to? Was there something that you heard from the women...that were involved...that were being interviewed...that you related to?

Jendra Jarnagin

There is one quote in particular that Ellen Kuras often says. I have seen her on different panels and different interviews; I sort of follow her career; being a sort of a role model of mine. And my favorite things that she says is that when people ask her what is it like to be a woman in a man's job, she says, "Its not a man's job, it's my job." So that has always stuck with me as a much better way to define it, and it really doesn't have to do with gender. People think that it does because of...historically or traditionally, but that is definitely changing now, and the documentary definitely shows that.

Alexa D. O'Brien

Tell me a little bit about how you chose to become a cinematographer.

Jendra Jarnagin

I was lucky enough to be invited into a gifted and talented extracurricular program in middle school and one of the choices was that we could spend one day out of school every month...one of the choices was to work at the local public access TV station. And I thought that sounded really cool. So I checked that box and started going there, and being twelve years old my options at that point for career choices were, you know, the things you hear about in elementary school, "I want to be a doctor, a lawyer, an astronaut, a fireman...when I grow up." But I walk into this TV studio and see all these interesting people doing all these really interesting jobs and I decided that day that I wanted to be a filmmaker. It took probably about three more years of learning about the process and the break down of job responsibilities for me to understand the cinematographer's role and that is when I realized that I didn't actually want to be a director, I wanted to be a cinematographer.

Alexa D. O'Brien

What was it about cinematography that you found interesting?

Jendra Jarnagin

I had always loved photography and storytelling, and the visual storytelling aspect of filmmaking is what really appealed to me. It wasn't writing. It wasn't directing actors. It was interpreting the drama of the story through light and color and camera movement that really spoke to me, and I sort of considered...I kind of feel like it's my calling in life to be a cinematographer.

Alexa D. O'Brien

And do you feel drawn to any particular genre of filmmaking or are you more varied?

Jendra Jarnagin

I am varied. I guess my favorite genre would be quirky comedies. I really like independent films that present things in a new and interesting way, that are not just sort of your generic romantic comedy, or your blockbuster action film. Though I think action films have gotten more sophisticated over the last few years. I really like the 'Bourne' movies and the way that they are portrayed visually is, I guess, far more interesting to me then to some of the earlier action films, which I find to be a lot more cookie cutter.

Alexa D. O'Brien

Do you think there are differences between men and women cinematographers?

Jendra Jarnagin

I don't want to get in trouble for saying so, but I think there are. I think a lot of people, and other women that where interviewed in the documentary said, "No, that's rubbish." But, I do think that the generalizations of how women differ from me are pluses to being a cinematographer: That women are more emotional, I think makes women have the potential to be better artists; that women are more detail oriented; that women are better communicators; that they are more team builders, are all things that I think are beneficial in the role of being a cinematographer. Which isn't to say that a man can't be any or all of those things; but I do think that women are more inherently so...and that those are all real benefits.

Alexa D. O'Brien

What are some of the challengers that you face on your road to becoming a working cinematographer?

Jendra Jarnagin

It's always challenging to consistently find the kind of work that you actually want to do. Sure there are all kinds of content and all kinds of projects out there, but the more advanced you get in your career, the more selective that you want to be...that you want to take on projects that are really going to reward you creatively. So I guess the biggest challenge is choosing to be an artist who works in such a collaborative medium is that we need to be chosen for projects in order to have the opportunity to express our art. So I have found that I need to feed my own soul between projects. Sometime you take a project that is more of a 'money job', or maybe doesn't turn out as well as you thought it would, and just that...that drive for creative fulfillment...if you are relying on the projects that you get chosen to shoot can be frustrating without taking that into your own hands, and finding your own creative work to augment that.

Alexa D. O'Brien

Do you think that the culture of shooting and filmmaking is changing, or do you think it is plugging along in the way that it has been in the last twenty years?

Jendra Jarnagin

The rate at which filmmaking and the culture of filmmaking is changing is alarming. Well, I don't know if alarming is the right word. I don't know if it has a...if I really want to put that negative of a spin on it, but it is certainly more and more work to keep up with the changing technology, and to stay one step ahead be competitive, on the one hand.

One the other hand, I am interested in all of these new tools and technology. So I am finding that it is taking a lot more of my effort, and what would otherwise be free time between jobs, to just stay abreast of everything: trends, technology...and I don't really get to have time to do other things.

Even the way that we as filmmakers relate to each other...we are all just talking about the technology so much, because we are all so interested in it...that people don't seem to talk about the art as much any more. They don't talk about their creative challenges. Everyone really focuses on the technology.

On the other hand, I see the democratization of filmmaking that has gone along with the digital revolution, that there has been a devaluing of cinematographers, but of filmmakers in general. Especially with some of the marketing hype of some of the camera manufacturers...that it is portrayed and a lot of people have come to believe that anyone who can afford to buy a twenty five hundred dollar camera can go out and call themselves a shooter, or buy themselves a two thousand dollar laptop and a thousand dollar software package and call themselves an editor. People don't respect the experience, the knowledge, the talent in the same way that they use to when everything was shot on film...there was...it was all magic to people. Now a lot of people think that they can just do it themselves and they don't need to pay qualified people, or they don't understand the contribution that a real experienced professional can make to their production.

Alexa D. O'Brien

What is driving that? Is it just simply the affordability of the technology? What do you see as driving that?

Jendra Jarnagin

It is hard to say what is driving that. I guess attitudes and change in culture need to come from somewhere. I guess that there is just such a need for content that not every kind of content has the budgets for people to even consider paying anything more than what they have to. But it has become so competitive that people are willing to give it away, and as long as that continues to happen, people don't see the need to go beyond that.

Alexa D. O'Brien

What can an experienced cinematographer like yourself bring to a project that a kid who buys a camera can't? Give me an example....draw that out for the audience, so that they know what you mean.

Jendra Jarnagin

Well I think in any job, having experience is a benefit to not having experience. To give a specific example: Going into a location and knowing how to light it instinctually, or drawing from your own experience could be a lot faster and a lot more efficient, than if someone needs to tinker around and find what they are trying to do. Also, in preproduction, an experienced person can put together a lighting package that will serve the needs of the production, without necessarily needing to order extra stuff, which they know that they are not to need because they have done it before. Also just better results that come from the confidence of having done it before, and I guess better communication and a more fulfilling creative relationship as well.

Alexa D. O'Brien

How is narrative changing...the aesthetics of narrative in terms of the movement of the camera and the way in which...I mean obviously lighting is going to be specific to the script, and what is going on and the mood that you are trying to create...but in terms of camera movement and it terms of editing, how do you think that that has changed, lets say, in the last fifteen years?

Jendra Jarnagin

Well I do want to address what you said about lighting reflecting mood. I think that lighting trends do along with the camera trends as far as reality television and documentary being a more mainstream medium than it use to be as far as having mass appeal...are definitely influencing narrative filmmaking...where people think that in order for it to feel more 'real.' or more immediate that it should be this frenetic camera movement...this shaky cam trend that you see maybe in TV shows like "The Office" or things that are trying to have a 'mock-umentary' look to them, but the lighting as well...where people don't want...or not everyone wants a beautified look, or overly glossy look that has come to be interpreted as unnatural...like to have it look more real, people will often want to do things more intentionally sloppy and non glamorized.

So I do think lighting plays into that, and of course editing...I guess we have gone beyond the MTV generation but certainly the speed at which music videos and even still commercials...the attention spans of the audience...or at least the assumed attention spans of the audience...I think people tend to not give the audience enough credit...has affected the pace of editing, the number of shot to cover a scene, that you do not see people holding on a two shot in the editing the way that they use to, or staging the action within a wide shot the way that Woody Allen is famous for...even in some degrees Hitchcock. It is just a lot more, fast paced.

Alexa D. O'Brien

Tell me about the experience of working with the Viper and how it compares to more traditional acquisition for you?

Jendra Jarnagin

By more traditional acquisition do you mean film or...?

Alexa D. O'Brien

I mean film.

Jendra Jarnagin

I come a film background, and I still love film...and I really wasn't very interested in digital when I had a choice. Certainly if a project had to be done digitally and there was something about that project that I still wanted to do I understood that the budget was an issue...when budget was the main reason to shoot something digitally.

Only since the Viper, which I would say is probably the first of the next generation of extended dynamic range cameras...did I really feel like digital was a viable choice for narrative filmmaking. Without the extra information and the tonal range that these new cameras offer, I just found that it was...that shooting on video or the older styles of HD was just too much of a compromise visually and artistically and I do think that audiences do notice that, and there was definitely...I even hears a backlash from independent films trying to sell their movies that distributors...that distributors were far less likely to be interested in something shot on digital than they were something shot on film, no matter how good the movie was.

So the Viper...I really enjoyed shooting with the Viper and I didn't feel...when I started shooting with the Viper...that is when I really started to focus on the pros of digital acquisition versus the cons, and I had one epiphany in particular where I was shooting this scene...there was a movie that I shot some additional photography for, called The Wreck. I was not the DP for principal photography, but I did the reshoots; and there was this scene where...it was the beginning of the film...and it was the introduction of one of the principal characters and we shot him in a complete and total silhouette.

I thought that that was pretty bold for an exposure standpoint, and if I had been shooting film I would have, to be honest with myself I would have put a little more exposure into his face, because I would for fear of being fired, when the dailies came back...that the producer, the director, even the actor seeing that after the fact when it was too late would be like, "What are you doing? We can't see the actor's face. It's the introduction of this character you can't do that!" But because the director and producer were on set, and we did have monitoring capabilities on set, they could see what I was doing, and they really liked it. They signed off on it on the spot and that gave me more freedom to be more bold, and it was a liberating feeling that makes me, I guess more excited to be able to continue to do that in the future shooting digitally.

Alexa D. O'Brien

What opportunities, aesthetically, practically, in whatever way, do you see happening in the next ten years lets say with this new technology?

Jendra Jarnagin

Well the new technology is exciting to me from a...you know, I always like learning new things...and there is a lot out there right now and I think that 2007 is sort of a figure of the sea change that digital acquisition became a reality as far as what filmmakers and cinematographers wanted it to be....instead of the tools that we are being made to use reluctantly.

So I am excited about were things are going, even where things are at now, that they weren't even a year ago, and I don't know if I have been thinking about how its artistically exciting more than the technologically exciting. I am a technical person and I have been thinking about it from the technical angle, but I am just taking the opportunity to learn as much as I can about all these new cameras as they hit the market or if possible, even before they hit the market to sort of position myself as on the cutting edge of these kind of things, and hopefully that will help edge me out of some of my competitors when I am interviewing for jobs.

So I guess I have been thinking of it more of a career strategy standpoint and not so much an artistic standpoint...I still love 35mm film. I still think that the organic quality speaks to our soul in a way that electronic doesn't. But just like with digital still cameras I do see that the writing is on the wall...that the image quality is approaching close enough...that that isn't the biggest factor, that that the pros outweigh the cons in terms of convenience, immediate viewing and even cost, though of course these fancy new cameras are not exactly cheap right now.

Alexa D. O'Brien

There is definitely a difference between high-end digital and 35mm film, in my opinion. How would you describe it for yourself?

Jendra Jarnagin

It is definitely hard to define and hard to verbalize how film is different than even the best digital. All of the specifics that cinematographers have been defining over the years have been addresses in newer and newer cameras. I thought that digital couldn't look as good as it does today, and it does. We saw the 35mm frame size and depth of field characteristics with new cameras, such as the Genesis, the D-20, the Dalsa. The highlight detail was the worst thing about video and then that has been solved with all the new next generation extended dynamic range cameras.

Though we have pinpointed these things and they are being addressed better than any of us, well maybe somebody knew, but better than most of us thought would even be possible, there is still something about film; and I really don't know how to describe it, other than that it is organic...that it is beautiful . The subtleties of the color...maybe that is the only thing that I can still pinpoint as the subtlety of film, but I don't know, as we are being bombarded by more and more digital content, I don't know that the viewer will continue to see of feel the difference.

I think I feel right now film buffs, connoisseurs, people who love to go to the cinema: they can tell. They may be not able to articulate it, but they can tell. But as we have our big home entertainment systems and people are watching everything on DVD, and even television shows have gotten so good that more and more people are watching television shows instead of movies all the time. I don't know that, you know that that is going to continue to matter to the viewer. The only way that the viewer gets to speak their opinion is with their pocketbooks. So if people are still seeing digitally shot films in the same numbers in the same number of films shot on film then the studios aren't going to care.

Alexa D. O'Brien

Tell me what you are going to be working on in the near future.

Jendra Jarnagin

My next project, I am really excited about. Its a short film, a kung fu action Film in 3D. It's called "Heavy Metal Ninjas in 3D". I think the title says it all. Of course shooting 3D is an opportunity that does not come around very often, so I am very excited about that. I am waiting to here about a feature...I don't have the job yet so I can't speak about it, and I don't want to jinx it either. I am also talking to someone right now about doing a documentary in New Orleans.

Alexa D. O'Brien

Awesome...well I really appreciate your time Jendra.

Jendra Jarnagin

Thank you very much....apleasure talking to you.

Alexa D. O'Brien

Thank you. To find out more about Jendra Jarnagin visit her website at http://www.floatingcamera.com. To find out more about Women Behind the Camera visit http://www.womenbehindthecamera.com/ Until next time, this is Alexa D. O'Brien for The Second Sight.

Alexa O'Brien Alexa O'Brien researches and writes about national security. Her work has been published in VICE News, The Cairo Review of Global Affairs, Guardian UK, Salon, The Daily Beast, and featured on the BBC, PBS Frontline, On The Media, Democracy Now!, and Public Radio International. In 2013, she was shortlisted for the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in the UK and listed in The Verge 50..