Knoxville is becoming a center for online video production. DIY, HGTV art director tells why

Search online for "farmhouse Christmas" or "dollar store Halloween craft" and chances are you will see a video or how-to photos art-directed by North Knoxville resident Jill Tennant.

After taking the communications route in college, Jill Tennant soon grew bored at her broadcasting desk job in Washington. “I didn’t like the office job, so I opened an antique and gift store in Old North Knoxville in 2007,” she said. “It was a bit before its time and I had to have another job at the same time to support that business.”

While Tennant loved changing out the window display and buying merchandise, she decided to close the shop and focus her knack for decorating on her own home.

“I had a friend who was a producer at Scripps and was the first one to start making social media videos,” she said. “I would spot her doing projects around the yard and was fascinated.”

Tennant was expecting her first child at the time but asked if she could shadow her friend at work and in return offered the use of her house to shoot videos.

Soon Tennant was working nonstop as a prop stylist on several social media series including videos for Facebook, Instagram and the HGTV website. “We did all kinds of series, ‘Way to grow’ and ‘Easy does it’ featuring projects anyone could do, covering the gamut of holidays, gardening and home makeovers,” she said.

Most of the social media content is used for branding purposes, and Tennant said the budgets are usually tight unless there are sponsors. The social media landscape has changed, but content on Facebook, followed by YouTube and TikTok, gets the most views.

A willingness to try just about everything regardless of whether it is in her wheelhouse, coming in under budget and on deadline, has allowed Tennant to grow into an art director role.

“Pulling it altogether and being organized is the bulk of the job,” Tennant said. “Other stylists might be much better decorators, but you need to be organized or you can’t do it. It looks so glamorous, there is not a day that goes by that I don’t feel lucky; in a million years I couldn’t imagine a better job.”

Behind every image are days of shopping, loading and unloading props, a one-day photo shoot, followed by a ton of returns and paperwork. “They are long 10-, 15-hour days. It is a lot of effort for a one-second clip,” added Tennant.

One of the coolest and most challenging jobs was the Kelsea Ballerini video shot in and around Fountain City. Tennant was brought on board as an art director. “It was a huge crew, tons of locations and props; it was a great challenge,” she said. “I learned a lot about what I can do and branched out from these smaller decorating projects.”

Few people will notice all Tennant’s painstaking little details. “One scene was supposed to be Kelsea’s childhood bedroom, so I found and printed photos of her as a child and hung them on the wall,” Tennant said. “All of the details come together to make the nostalgia.”

2020 affected Tennant’s work. “I was used to working with 10-20 people in a crew. (In 2020) I shot ‘HGTV Handmade’ videos on my phone at home and it gave me an entirely new respect for the lighting and camera crews,” she said.

“I looked for more work outside Discovery Inc. Luckily, Knoxville has a lot of production companies that people may not know about, murder mystery shows and working on national campaigns. Talented people are leaving the bigger cities. We are in this hidden gem of productions.”

Tennant’s work can be found all over social media, in magazines, print and television advertisements.

“I just finished a campaign for Pepper Palace and worked on TikTok videos for Boar’s Head and Bush beans,” she said.

“One thing we did earlier this year that was fun, different and timely was a whole series of COVID vaccine commercials and billboards. Every job I say, ‘Who would have thought that this is what I would be doing?’”

Last week, Tennant had to make a laundry room look dirty for a washer/dryer service company. “It is not necessarily walking in and doing something beautiful,” she said.

For those looking to enter the industry, Tennant suggests seeking out production assistant roles or internships. “People are always looking for good production assistants, that person who does a lot of jobs that don’t sound glamorous. That is a great way to learn the ins and outs of all jobs.”

"Chopped" and other Food Network shows have started shooting in Knoxville. “I think we will continue to see more productions being made here,” Tennant said.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Ali James

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Published October 22, 2021