In Owasso, Oklahoma, lies Cherokee Film Studios, dedicated to the vital mission of the Cherokee Nation Film Office: increasing the presence of Native Americans in every level of the film and television industries while creating opportunities for economic development and jobs in the Cherokee Nation. Two alumni of The University of Tulsa’s Kendall College of Arts & Sciences are diligently working to bring this vision to life.
Austin Parker (BA ’14) made the most of his time at TU by seizing numerous opportunities.
“I played the saxophone with the Sound of the Golden Hurricane, filmed for the football team, acted as floor manager for TUTV, gained invaluable experience as a work-study student at the Lorton Performance Center, represented the university at the National Student Advertising Competition and built lifelong friendships as a member of Phi Mu Alpha,” he said.
In addition to participating in campus extracurricular activities, Parker emphasized that his degree in communications has benefited his career. “The principles taught by Dr. (Mark) Brewin and others have allowed me to evoke the very best from many an interview subject, to present our brand and messaging in a way that best suits each of our audiences and to convey information to my team in an efficient and effective way,” he said.
Because Parker’s responsibilities as video production manager are many, he is lucky to have Patrick Fox, video production coordinator for Cherokee Film Studios and a TU film studies graduate, on his team.
Fox (BA ’15) said his education provided him with a solid foundation in production and afforded him firsthand experience with production equipment through rigorous coursework and his involvement with TUTV. “Dave Moncrief was probably the best professor I had at TU. He taught me all the basics of production – from rules of thirds to how to properly light an interview – and I still use those techniques in nearly every project I work on,” said Fox.
Down the line, he found Wellspring Associate Professor of Film Studies Jeff Van Hanken’s Introduction to Filmmaking course to be incredibly beneficial. “I learned how to shoot all kinds of shots in the class, and I still have the textbooks we used, so I’m always taking things I learned from these courses and applying them to the work I do today,” Fox said.
From script to screen
What specific responsibilities do Parker and Fox undertake that would necessitate such comprehensive education? Fox puts it simply: “Our collaborative team works in conjunction with different departments throughout Cherokee Nation and Cherokee Nation Businesses to help them make videos. Whether it’s a commercial, an instructional video, a short documentary, a film or anything else. We can do it all.”
Because Parker serves as the video production manager at the 9,000-square-foot studio in Owasso, his position allows him to set the standard for the content, and he does everything possible to ensure production value. Cutting-edge technology allows his team to produce quality content for the Cherokee Nation and external clients.
“In effect, we are a one-stop shop for video production with capabilities to handle everything from script development and set dec to broadcast audio mixing and live show production,” he said.
Fox gains plenty of hands-on experience as a video production coordinator. Most of his responsibilities are carried out behind the camera, whether it be filming, operating drones, assisting with lighting or setting up ideal shots. Additionally, he is actively involved with post-production duties, including editing and creating motion graphics.
Both alumni reported having many impressive projects in their repertoire. As far as favorites go, Fox shared that his team recently shot an interview with Bryan Warner, deputy chief of the Cherokee Nation at Sequoyah’s Cabin in Sallisaw to be a part of “ᏣᎳᎩ: Wherever We Are,” which is a series the team helps produce every month. Robert Lewis, a Cherokee storyteller, came to the studio to tell stories in front of a wall of high-resolution LED panels that emulated a forest environment. This same technology was utilized for one of Parker’s favorite projects, which celebrated the bicentennial anniversary of Sequoyah creating the Cherokee syllabary.
Parker also mentioned “Land of Gold,” another project that utilized the studio and LED wall. That production won a grant through the Tribeca Film Festival, making production possible, and has now been released on HBO’s streaming service Max. “A good portion of the film takes place inside the cab of an 18-wheeler semi,” Parker explained.
Because of the film’s budget, it would not have been possible to close highways and get all the shots around the country that the film required. “Our technology allowed them to park their cab in front of our LED wall and film all over the country without even moving the truck. Within five minutes, we could take the truck from the New Mexico desert in the morning to the Colorado forests at noon and to the prairies of Kansas at night,” said Parker.
Empowering Native voices
In addition to video production, the goals of Cherokee Nation Film Office are numerous. “Through sponsored classes and training,” Parker said, “we continue to grow the crew and talent bases in Oklahoma, educating individuals of all ages as to how their skills can be applied to film production.”
Cherokee Nation Film Office’s online Native Talent, Crew and Location directories allow casting and location directors to search a database of Native American actors and crew and find Native-owned locations that fit their film. The directory is so effective that it was named Film Commission Initiative of the Year at the Makers and Shakers Awards held at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA).
The office also offers an annual incentive of up to $1 million for films – a cash rebate on dollars spent within the Cherokee Nation boundaries. “Through this program,” Parker said, “we attract films that otherwise may not film within the reservation, ensuring that the economic impact of their dollars is felt by our citizens.”
Lastly, Parker noted, Cherokee Film Studios creates content that breaks the cycle of Native American misrepresentation in the media. “For numerous motives,” he said, “we have been depicted in largely an unfavorable light. Even those with good intentions may further misconceptions through inaccuracies in their projects. We are best equipped to tell our stories. We are best suited to share our culture.
“Our internal video production teams create award-winning short and long-form documentaries, fully animated and live-action narratives, and Nation-facing content for our citizens and employees. Through our work, we strive to represent our tribe with the utmost fidelity and to offer a standard for Native American representation in film.
“As a citizen, I couldn’t be happier with the direction we are headed. It is time that we represent ourselves on the screen, behind the camera, and in the writer’s room.”
Feeling inspired by Parker’s and Fox’s film career trajectory? Looking to stay connected to your alma mater? Visit the Department of Film Studies to learn more about the great things happening at TU.