Jendra Jarnagin: An Altitude Award Winner Reaching New Heights

WiM member Tara Jenkins chats with 2022 Altitude Award Winner Jendra Jarnagin about life and cinematography.

Tara is a freelance cinematographer and Local 600 AC with her MFA from USC in Film Production. She is a writer and content creator at American Cinematographer and the ASC.

Jendra Jarnagin has lensed everything from independent features to prime-time television, with numerous shorts, web series, and commercial shoots along the way. Her thirty year journey to reach her goal of shooting episodic TV has culminated in her recent work on East New York and the upcoming season four of Emily In Paris. Jarnagin won second place at the 2022 Altitude Awards.

Jarnagin’s work as a gaffer and electrician can be seen on shows such as Sex & The City and Law & Order. As a cinematographer, some of her credits include the features Entangled, The Sixth Reel, and Asking For It, which premiered at Tribeca and was released theatrically by Paramount. She has shot ad campaigns for Maybelline, Estee Lauder, Pureology, Adidas, Canon, and Lincoln.

What was it like winning your Altitude Award?

I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know how competitive it would be or where I stood in comparison to other candidates. I was very excited to be chosen. The prizes are phenomenal, the industry support you get through participating is really great. It’s a fantastic platform for exposure.

I saw the showreels of several of the other DPs who had entered the Altitudes competition at the Women in Media booth at Cinegear and thought ‘wow’. People who I didn’t know, or only knew socially but hadn’t seen their work before, I got to see their work. Certain people’s work who I really responded to, I was able to seek out and get to know them better. I’ve recommended them for jobs after seeing their work through that platform. The competition is a remarkable avenue for participants to gain exposure.

What was the most meaningful moment for you during the Altitude Awards ceremony?

Part of being selected for the awards included getting a quote about your work from the judges. What Alan Caso, ASC had to say about me blew me away. “I think that Jendra Jarnagin is a highly developed Cinematographer who should be shooting top end Films and Television. She possesses all the attributes and talent to handle so many different looks. The question is not whether she should be shooting big shows, or why she hasn’t been shooting them – the question is when! I believe it is now without question.”

The prizes were great, and winning was great, but really that quote from someone of Alan’s esteem meant the most to me. That quote gave me a lot of confidence going into my TV series interviews that I had that same week. At the time I had yet to land my own major TV show. And “from Alan’s lips to God’s ears” that all changed less than a week later!

Where has your career taken you since winning the Altitude Awards?

I was on a panel for the Altitude Award winners at Tiffen Tech Day and (WiM Executive Director) Tema Staig was asking each of us what our one year goal was. I made a joke that my one week goal was to DP a major TV show! I said it was a one week goal because I had interviews happening for three major TV shows in a one or two week period. One of them was East New York. I had the interview while I was in Los Angeles and got the good news while I was still there, even though it was shot in New York. That was the big break that I had been waiting for, a primetime CBS show for Warner Brothers, the first season. It was very exciting to finally reach that milestone of getting my first show.

East New York was a twenty-one episode show, so that was ten months of work. It ended right before the strike so I got really lucky with my timing. I had just finished such a long run of work that I wanted a multi-month break for myself, anyway. I had just worked enough to get my health insurance and finances in a spot to weather that rough patch.

Then, I did an independent film in the fall when the SAG interim agreements were being allowed. The day after the strikes were announced to be over, I was offered Emily in Paris for season four as an alternating DP. That was really great to have so much lead time. I was told I had the job before Thanksgiving, but I didn’t start until February. It’s pretty unusual to know that far in advance that you have a job. It was a lot of peace of mind and excitement.

What drew you to cinematography in the first place?

I was introduced to filmmaking through an extracurricular program in my middle school. I started exploring, getting excited and interested in that field. Learning about filmmaking and who did what, it became clear to me that I actually wanted to become a cinematographer and not a director. I found out where my talents lay, and what I was interested in was actually not the director’s job. I didn’t know about the cinematographer’s job, until I was actually exposed to the segmentation of job duties

I went to NYU as an undergraduate. I was pretty sure that I wanted to be a DP, but I came in with the idea that I didn’t really know for sure until I had the opportunity to do it hands-on. I also wanted to try my hand at directing, to make sure that my hunch was correct. Through that experience of going to NYU, it solidified that I wanted to be a cinematographer.

I graduated film school back when we only shot on film, and there was no digital. It took a really long time to get a copy of anything that you shot, so having a reel that was competitive to get you more DP jobs was a really slow process. I needed to work for a living, and continue to work for free to continue to build my DP reel, so I went the gaffer and electrician route as an employable skill that I could actually get paid for. I did that for many years until I was able to get my cinematography reel strong enough to continuously win paid work.

By then, I was an electrician in the union. I finally got to the point where I was working more and more as a cinematographer and less as an electric and was ready to take the leap to being a full time DP. I realized I needed to put my focus on developing my cinematography career, instead of just taking the jobs that came my way. I had to put effort into curating the direction of my cinematography career, and I couldn’t really do that if I was working all the time with my side job. In 2005 I went full time as a DP, mostly doing independent films. I eventually got into commercials as a parallel track.

How do you feel that going the electrician and gaffer route has informed your work as a cinematographer?

Cinematography is lighting, and I think you really need to understand lighting to be a good cinematographer. I think a lot of people are intimidated by the technology, or how much they don’t know in terms of leading a crew and speaking the language and having the competence, the communication and understanding of who does what. I have consistently recommended to all aspiring DPs, and especially women, to come up through the electric department.

Getting to understand lighting from the inside out, in a hands-on kind of way lets you really understand how to be efficient and work with your crews, as well as get a lot of creative ideas. Every crew you work on, every gaffer you work with, every DP you work with, every director you work with, every location is different… It all adds to your cumulative bank of ideas and experience that you can bring to your own work as a cinematographer. As a camera assistant or operator, you aren’t getting the whole scope of departmental collaboration and understanding that you get working on bigger sets in the lighting department. So, to my mind, lighting is by far the best training ground for becoming a cinematographer.

What was your journey like transitioning into television?

I tried for a really long time to get a television series, as independent films became fewer and farther between and budgets got smaller. I had already done a lot with a pretty small budget, and bigger budget independent films were so few that it was hard to move my career forward. I started to set my sights on episodic television. That was a very hard nut to crack. In the television world, no one wants to give you your first TV show. Most DPs who got their big break in TV, come in through the operator position on a show where they were already operating.

With this knowledge in mind, I wondered if I needed to go the camera operator route. I already had a solid independent film career going as a cinematographer. It felt like a big sidestep to let go of the momentum I had in the independent world to operate on something full time, long term, with the hope that the show will actually get renewed and I will get bumped up to cinematographer.

It seemed like a very big commitment for a small likelihood of a payoff. So, I never chose to go that direction. But, it took me way longer than I thought it would. It probably took eight years of focused efforts to try and get a TV show. I was interviewing for TV pretty consistently, making it to the top two or three candidates for several well-known shows for about three years in a row. I would make it to the final rounds and get really close over and over again. I talked to a bunch of my TV colleagues who encouraged me by saying that it might not look like you have much to show for it, but it’s a step in the process of getting there. You just keep doing that until one of them picks you. It finally happened for me like two days after I won the Altitude Award.

The process to get where you want to be as a cinematographer can take such a long time. Do you have any words of advice for people earlier on in their journey?

You need to be really committed to it and be in it for the long haul. You have to know you might not ever hit it big. Can you be satisfied with what your life is like in the present while you are on that road? It’s the whole thing about life being about the journey and not about the destination. I had a lot of ups and downs and there were several years, especially as I was getting older, where I kept feeling like I hadn’t ‘made it’ and the older I got the more it looked like that may never happen. I had to ask if I was ok with this being what my life is, what my career is. I had to make peace with that while still having ambitions to grow and strive to succeed at an even higher level.

Here is a bit of practical advice I don’t hear spoken enough about: as a freelancer, I think it’s really important to live beneath your means financially. We’re going to have ebbs and flows in our work, even when it isn’t as dire as it is on an industry – wide level right now. People get into the trap when they are working a lot and making a lot of money that they think they’ve made it and they’re set. They get themselves into a high overhead situation. I think it’s far wiser for your long – term career health to put the majority of your paycheck into savings in order to cushion the times that you’re not making that money. That then empowers you to make decisions in your career that are not completely based on finances.

I’ve shot independent films where I’ve hardly made any money. I’ve done freebie shorts or spec commercials that I chose to do because of the artistic opportunity. You can’t invest in yourself in that way if you don’t have the savings to cover you and allow for things like that. Those are the choices that we really need to be able to make to get our career in the direction that we want it to go, rather than being at the mercy of whatever comes up or will make you enough money to survive.

Your growth as a filmmaker is like the analogy of the iceberg: you only see the tip, but everything that is underneath the water you had to build for your own personal journey and struggle. No one sees that but there is so much personal development, coaching, therapy, finding your own support structures and fumbling about in the dark to figure out what works for you: self-care, balance, curating community… All these things in the personal growth side of things don’t get talked about enough. People with normal jobs have supervisors and get quarterly or annual reviews. They get feedback about how they are doing, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. They get opportunities for leadership training. We need to seek all of that out for ourselves.

Leadership, communication, confidence, your voice as an artist– all of these soft skills are a huge part of what I see as the difference between the people who succeed at the highest levels and the people who are struggling. I feel like I got my hard skills, my lighting knowledge, my camera know-how, in a solid place a long time ago. I felt I could compare myself and say that I was at the top of my field with that knowledge in those areas for the last fifteen years. So then, what can I keep developing to become a better cinematographer?

What advice to young filmmakers, particularly women, would you give?

Perseverance was the key to my personal success. It took me thirty years. I didn’t get my big break until I was 48. I wouldn’t have gotten it if I had given up, but there are no guarantees that you will get it. You have to create a life for yourself that you personally are satisfied with and forge a path to get to create the kind of work that you can be proud of, even when it’s small. All of us, as ambitious freelancers, are always wanting something bigger, but so much of that is out of your control. What can you do with your own work and for your own satisfaction? It’s a big question that takes a lot of personal growth and self development. In order to not give up and make it through all the ups and downs, you have to cultivate a strong belief in yourself, and a great support system through friends, mentors and community. And you also have to really be in love with the process and not just the results.

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