The multimedia artist and director Jennifer Juniper Stratford carved a niche in the Los Angeles music, art, and film scenes not only with her extraordinary levels of enthusiasm but also her ability to be adaptable and resourceful. Stratford has turned Hollywood’s trash into her own personal filmmaking treasures, frankensteining Telefantasy Studios from masses of old-school media equipment procured from the junkyards of L.A. JJ, as her friends call her, has a knack for adding flair and fantasy to her comedic sci-fi and music videos—Beach House’s “The Traveller” and Seth Bogart’s “Eating Makeup” are sprinkles on the sundae of her vast body of work. As a behind-the-scenes sorcerer, Jennifer Juniper provides a platform for artistic personas in her community while creating a universe of her own magic-making. I recently talked with her about the ways determination can help you ascend limitations and travel to the far-out places of your imagination.
SUNNI JOHNSON: How did you get involved in filmmaking?
JENNIFER JUNIPER STRATFORD: When I was in junior high school, the [Los Angeles Unified School District] teachers went on strike, and the students were left unattended. I snuck into the film classroom and stole a Super 8 camera. In hindsight, I’m not proud of this, but that’s when I started directing. I set up a miniature movie studio between my sister’s and my beds and made movies starring my Barbie dolls.
Did your early DIY approach influence your style in later years?
Definitely. I grew up in the heyday of cable television and video stores, and my mother put no restrictions on my TV watching—she encouraged it. By the time I was 12 years old, I knew about B-movies, video art, music videos, and outsider filmmaking. That’s why I stole the camera to begin with. I wanted to build my own Hollywood.
You grew up in Los Angeles?
Yes, I grew up in Hollywood proper. And not the glamorous Hollywood.
How was your Hollywood different from what people might imagine it would be like?
I imagine most girls grow up with unreal expectations of their body image, but in the town of Hollywood it triples. The pressure to be Hollywood-beautiful or to have cool parents in the industry made me feel unloved and unwanted. Perhaps as a protection, my early instincts were to reject the A list and move toward the avant-garde. Their world was full of female leads who were warriors, directors, and weirdo artists. My early instincts were probably wiser than the adult me. My younger self is often the voice of reason.
Your work definitely amps a powerful femme aesthetic while exploring subject matter often related to sci-fi and fantasy.
I never set out to be a “female filmmaker” or try to achieve a certain aesthetic or subject matter. What you see on screen is my subconscious and the byproduct of my media consumption.
Tell us more about your early project Dungeon Majesty.
Dungeon Majesty began when three of my girlfriends and I got together and decided that our offscreen Dungeons & Dragons campaign was worthy of broadcast. We were all struggling filmmakers recently out of school and had that burning desire to create something rad. Plus we were tired of the stigma that women didn’t play Dungeons & Dragons! Together we created a public access program that took off, and through that Telefantasy Studios began.
Did this setting help you develop your skills as a filmmaker?
In addition to being the cast, we also took on all the production and post-production duties—meaning building sets, stop-motion monsters, and optical laser effects, plus the editing and even [making] our costumes. We learned to work as a team and to collaborate and really just had a blast making it. Some people form bands but we formed a production company. After eight years or so, though, making television shows in our spare time became too much, and we all just wanted to spend time being friends.
It’s difficult to have a major project lose its pieces.
It was very hard for me to let go, so I started searching and digging deep into what is that makes me want to trade my well-being in for making mutant television. I started researching the history of video art and felt a serious kinship with the intentions of many of the video artists in the ’70s and ’80s. Suddenly the idea of the television signal was a wide-open concept, and I was freed of my terrestrial ties to what television is supposed to be.
What other limitations did you come across trying to work independently?
I was also super broke! My student loans were squeezing me hardcore; I could hardly pay the rent, let alone rent the latest [high-definition] camera. I discovered analog video is my native language.
Did your location influence that transition as well?
In 2009, Los Angeles dismantled public access [cable]. We were left without the production facilities we relied on. I moved into a studio apartment above a garage, and that’s when I started to try and create a place to fill that void. Digital was coming into play, and I rejected it because it was out of reach budget-wise, and I hated the aesthetic. At the time, production companies were going digital and throwing analog video gear in the trash, so I started picking up cameras, mixers, and all the tools we were using at the public access studio and started to build out my own media empire. This stuff all got thrown in the junkyards, and I was picking it up and putting back into action. Basically, I became a technomancer—a wizard that reanimates dead technology.
Your style has a somewhat retro-futuristic feel that’s super well done, even beyond using older equipment.
I’m not fond of the term retro because I’m not nostalgic. I’m not trying to emulate a bygone era. I’m using this stuff because it’s the medium of my choosing, and I feel that it has a very important place in our future. But I get it. Practically all my gear is from the ’80s, and it ignites those synapses in people.
The name Telefantasy is very fitting.
“Telefantasy” gets its name from an unusual type of television serial, usually containing elements of sci-fi, horror, the supernatural, mythology, and surrealism, and it often uses practical and video effects. These shows were also known to have imaginative engineers behind them, but working on a shoestring budget. Experimental production techniques and soundtracks were encouraged and supported.
You’ve described your medium as “multidimensional” media art…
What I mean by multidimensional is that I am able to reach into many dimensions—the past, present, and future—and through different planes of existence, bring you videos and images that represent the combination and message of all of those realms.
You’ve done a ton of music videos since Dungeon Majesty and are working on a new series, correct?
Yes! I recently finished a new TV series called Future Ladies of Wrestling, aka F.L.O.W. Interspecies wrestlers, both good and bad, compete for the title of Ultimate Multi-Universal Warrior. The program includes avant-garde wrestling matches, hype videos, skits, and comedy. It features a dazzling cast of characters that are sure to win the hearts of mutants everywhere. Season One features ten amazing wrestlers played by performance artists from around Los Angeles that I admire and saw a spark of wrestler in. After I asked if they wanted to be in it, nearly all of them told me that they had always had a secret desire to be a wrestler.
What advice would you give to young filmmakers?
Stick to your vision and believe in perseverance. Form alliances with other artists and know there is room for everyone at the top. The underground is just as good as the top! ♦
Sunni Johnson is a writer, photographer, musician, zine-maker, and curator with a focus on queer and feminist themes. She loves pastry and lives in Atlanta.