We had the good fortune of connecting with Jessica Pantoja and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Jessica, how do you think about risk?
Even though risk is always present in every activity we perform, it has become a more prominent part of our daily lives since 2020. Going to the corner store, entering a room with other people, or even hugging a beloved one has a degree of danger these days. Working on set is no different, as the pure nature of it involves a group of people interacting with each other, often in close proximity and many times in not very spacious locations. As a Cinematographer and camera operator, I never thought I would feel safer working underwater than the usual dry sets until last year. I had one of my first jobs in COVID times after everything was reponed around August 2020. It was an underwater shoot, and I got hired to be the underwater operator and DP consultant. Even with the dangers of filming around water, the possibility of COVID-19 exposure while being surrounded by the rest of the crew felt like a more significant risk. Being underwater by myself felt way safer, and I never experienced more peace working on set than that particular day.
As an underwater Cinematographer or Operator, it is always stressful to show up to work with a new crew. So many things can go wrong and cause a fatal accident involving people both above or underwater. And we all know that the film industry has never been exempt from unexpected harmful situations, even in relatively controlled or safe environments. Working around water has always been considered a high-risk job because you are surrounded by electrical gear, using external equipment to breathe, body heat loss and by the water’s pressure and its repercussions on people’s bodies, varying depending on the location’s altitude in relation to the ocean.
People tend to think that you show up with a housing and do and behave as you typically would in a studio setup. But it is not the reality; filming underwater takes about four times longer than it does above and with way more dangers. That is why every time I work with a new team, I like to be very clear and specific about the safety protocols and equipment needed to be present at all times to keep everybody safe. And even though set’s safety is not per definition, my responsibility as the Underwater DP or Camera Operator, it usually becomes part of my job to explain that filming underwater is not AT ALL similar to working on dry sets.
That is why it feels ironic that somehow that day of August, it felt way safer practicing a dangerous activity to which I knew the risks of, then being above water surrounded by the uncertainty of a new virus, to which I had very little understanding of how to protect myself against in long potential exposures. I guess what they say back at home in Mexico is true: for us people, it is “better known bad than good to know”.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
Since a child, I’ve found value in other people’s stories and understood visuals’ power. I used documentaries and TV as educational tools. Learning about distant communities shaped my perception of the world and became an open invitation to create ways for people to connect. I came to embrace the beauty of human differences and understood conflicts lie in intolerance, feed by ignorance and fear. As a DP, I’ve dedicated my life to capturing stories for others to experience and learn, hoping to redefine positive human interactions. I’ve come a long way professionally, and I am glad I chose an “unconventional” route because along the way I have come to understand that practicing “unusual” professions is a way to reshape society by breaking preconceived borders and all sorts of stereotypes. I have also come to love all the differences that I represent as much as my individual story. I believe that my particular background has shaped my nonverbal communication skills, a powerful element that I imprint into the projects I work on, giving them a unique and deep voice.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
To me, there is nothing like food to enjoy LA. It is one of the things that, in my opinion, differentiate the city from others. I love creating itineraries around food with some culture in between. Because let’s be honest, food makes any experience better.
I based my tours on the person visiting and their particular interests, but during a weekend, I will most often bring them to downtown. Since the tour involves drinking, we usually meet at my house in Los Feliz, and walk to the metro station in Hollywood and Western. We take the Red line to Pershing Square and walk to Grand Central Market. I love getting there a bit early to be able to grab a coffee and walk around. Checking all the options as I open my appetite. Whatever the day’s culinary option is, I will pair it with a glass of wine, a beer or something. I usually chose my meal based on the weather. If it’s sunny, I go for a ceviche tostada, but I tend to gravitate toward Ramen or Chinese soup if it’s cold.
It is vital for this tour not to eat much each time, as more food always follows. However, a walk to the Disney Concert Hall and a potential visit to The Broad or MOCA before a quick visit to The Last Book Store or fashion district is a must. From there, the appetite should be back open involving some day drinking. So we set the direction towards the Arts District, crossing through Little Tokyo and making our first pit stop at Wurstküche to grab a german style sausage and a beer. From there, a quick walk around the neighborhood to appreciate the street art, visit the countless petite galleries, stores and grab an ice cream at Salt & Straw. The final stop for art appreciation would be Hauser & Wirth followed by a quick visit to feed the chickens in the common area. Depending on the group, we either stay at Manuela to drab a cocktail and dinner, go to one of the nearby Breweries, or do some wine tasting at a local store called Pour Haus Wine Bar. After that, most usually, a hot shower and a movie in bed is the best way to end the day. Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
Mentors and people who were willing to share their knowledge with me were essential for my professional growth and personal journey. Without all of them, I couldn’t have found my way here. Twelve years ago, there were minimal possibilities or ways for a young woman from my hometown in Mexico to become a Director of Photography. There was no brazed path I could follow, so I had to set my own path. Finding people along the way and learning from them, moving forward one step at a time. My professors were individuals, and I am lucky I got to meet incredible filmmakers at all production levels who were also unique humans and admirable people.
My first film experience and mentor was DP Felipe Perez Burchard. He very kindly and patiently taught me the most basic stuff from the craft and gave me my first chance to work on set and meet people. As I learned and grew, he was always willing to advise me and give the best words of encouragement. I can confidently say that he was an instrumental piece of my professional story. Thanks to him, I also met RAM, the Camera department manager at EFD (the biggest house rental in Latin America). Back then, they did not hire women to work as technicians / 2nd camera assistants due to the stigma about female strength and endurance. I did not take no for an answer, but he was the one who finally gave me a chance and took the bullet as some of my then coworkers were not happy to have me there and train me. It was not easy to earn the respect of the more than 300 men working around me, but RAM always encouraged me not to let my spirit be broken and to be adamant about quitting. With his support, I created the short film with which I applied to The American Film Institute and from where I graduated in 2016 with an MFA in Cinematography.
Since then, I have met many beautiful filmmakers and collaborators, some of whom have supported me not only as a creative professional but as an immigrant. Many other artists based in LA understand how complicated the working visa process is and that it could not be possible for most without a strong support system. I am lucky to have found mine in a community of admirable people who create amazing stories and are committed to creating a better world. Some of them are Sarah Ullam and Mara Tasker (One Vote at a Time), Constanza and Domenica Castro (271 Films), Asher Luzzatto, Emily Davenport, DP Kalilah Robinson and Adam Lisagor (Sandwich Video). It has been equally important for my professional and personal growth to count on the constant support and honest encouragement of my colleagues and crew members who advised me and pushed my potential forward and who have become my American family and friends: Jeremy Chang, Reynolds Barney, Rosita Lama Muvdi, Bo You Niou, Favienne Howsepian, Jacky Vresics, Jorge Garcia, Stanislav Bondarenko, Frances Chen, Nina Ham, Kara Johnson, Clarisa Garcia Fresco, Mary Ma, Mohamed Alaali, Camilo Godoy and Andres Solorzano.
As I have mentioned before, working as an underwater filmmaker is nothing but complicated. Water and documentary have always been my biggest passion. All the steps that I have taken to become a filmmaker have the ultimate goal of becoming a full-time nature filmmaker with a twist of art. I dream of capturing the strong bond between humans and nature, focussing mainly on water. After AFI I took the first steps towards this goal and got certified as Underwater Cinematographer by NAUI. But as with anything else, individuality achieves little. Through the kind advice and knowledge sharing of people, I have found the chance to master the craft while also learning about safety and problem-solving. For that, I think it is imperative to mention the team at Hollywood Divers, especially Hall Wells and Vance Burberry, who many times in the past have shared their diving and underwater cinematography advice and experience. Their impeccable work has been instrumental in pushing my underwater career safely forward. Equally, I would like to give a shout-out to Gil Willow and the folks at CSLA rentals, who always find ways to accommodate my crazy needs and awkward ideas most amazingly and professionally.
I do love this opportunity to mention my appreciation for some of the people who have impacted my professional life, as I have consistently recognized that we individuals, regardless of the potential, could find it hard to thrive without community support. And as cliche as it may sound, truly my most powerful support system is my family. Without them, I definitely couldn’t have found the strength to pursue my professional dreams, which unexpectedly have developed in a ride of self-discovery and identification. For that, I am eternally grateful to them.