JohnTom Knight while interning for Adult Swim.

As an avid fan of animation, aspiring staff writer and film enthusiast, Cherokee Nation citizen JohnTom Knight is learning what it takes to get to the next level of the film and TV industry with practice, learning from his peers and putting his skills to the test. He interned with Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, was a finalist of the Walt Disney Writing Program and is a recent participant of the 2020 Native American Animation Lab, a testament to his determination to succeed in the film and TV industries. How did he know that he wanted to work in film and TV?

He just started doing it. 

Knight was raised in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, where he grew up watching cartoons and TV shows, and then edgier content as he got older. It was his love of theater and comedy he discovered in high school that opened the door to exploring a career in the film industry. During that time, he found he could combine skills from theater classes with his interests in writing and animation and develop scripts and animation ideas. He even sold one of his videos to Comedy Central’s “Tosh.0” in high school. Knight knew he could start honing his craft to one day showcase to industry executives.

JohnTom Knight

After high school, Knight studied Writing for Television at Columbia College Chicago. While and after attending school, he performed stand-up and sketch comedy all around Chicago at venues. His passion scored him a position as a production intern with Adult Swim, where he worked on animated TV projects, including “Squidbillies,” “12 Oz. Mouse” and “William’s Street Swap Shop.” Knight also co-write a number of original animated shorts that aired on their streams. In addition to his internship experience, he was also recently supported by CNFO, along with eight other Natives, in the 2020 Native American Animation Lab, where he had the opportunity to create a pitch for an animation series and perfect it with executives.

When one opportunity unfolds, another usually follows. Knight is moving onward and upward, using his experience to keep his creative juices flowing. He continues to pursue his ultimate dreams of being a showrunner, staff writer and working in animation. We’re following along and watching him on his path of success. We chatted with Knight to learn more about how he got to where he is and where he wants to go. He’s also dropping his top five pieces of advice we think you’ll really enjoy. We hope his words inspire you as much as they inspire us at CNFO!

CNFO: How did you get started in the film industry? 

JohnTom Knight: I always had a strong desire to work in film but didn’t really know much about making film. I knew theater, so I wrote some short plays. Then I had the chance to write some full-length ones. I saved up and bought a Canon t3i and a few lenses to film some funny ideas I had. I guess, I never really knew what I was doing – just kind of screwing around and making whatever I wanted to make and crossing my fingers I’d get paid to do it for a living someday. I sold a video I made to “Tosh.0” in high school, but it never made it to air. I would have to credit making it into the finals of the Walt Disney Writing Program as my first, sort of “official” start. That’s the point where I started to better understand the path I needed to take in order to become a writer.

Animation still from “Traveling Tuesday’s” written by JohnTom Knight and animated by Zach White.

What is your role in the film industry?

My role is whatever someone will hire me to do! Kidding – I say that as I’m working to be a staff writer for television and haven’t made it there yet. Getting back to the final round of the Walt Disney Writing Program, I began meeting and becoming connected with the other finalists and some executives. I learned a great deal of what I was lacking about making it in the film industry. I learned how to build a support system of people who came from different backgrounds but had similar goals as me. I learned what executives are looking for when reading scripts, which in turn drastically changed how I write scripts that I want executives to read. My role is and has been a student, an intern and a production assistant, and I’m working every day to become a staff writer.

What advice would you give to those looking to get into the film industry?

I could go on and on with advice since I’ve started, but to keep things at a reasonable length, here are my top five in no particular order.

  1. You can start right now from wherever you are. And that is totally OK. You don’t need to be in a major city immediately in order to start learning the fundamentals. So, stop telling yourself that (if you’re thinking it), and get started TODAY.
  2. Good ideas come from quantity. If you think you have an amazing idea for a script or a movie, just hurry up and make the bad version of it now! Film with your phone and next-door neighbor if you have to. Then you’ll think of a better idea and make a slightly less bad version of that. Before you know it, what you’re making is good! And you’re making things, which is even better!
  3. If you’re creating good content and sharing it online, it doesn’t always matter how many people are watching it. What matters most is that the right person can find it and appreciate it.
  4. Seek out the people who are doing what you want to be doing and listen to them on how to achieve goals before anyone else (including your teachers). If you don’t have access to those people, then find the next best person to help you (usually your teachers).
  5. This might seem obvious, but it never hurts to reiterate. Be nice!!!!! Today’s interns and assistants are tomorrow’s producers and executives … so just be nice to everyone (not just the people you think are important). Plus, if you’re nice to more people, you’ll usually make more friends and generally receive more opportunities to work. So it’s really a win-win all around.

JohnTom Knight and Zach White posing with the robot waiter, which is used in animations on Adult Swim.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in your career?

Nobody gets anywhere alone. Everything I’ve ever achieved in school or in my career was because of the generosity and goodwill of someone else. I never would have afforded to go to school without help from scholarships. I never would have gotten to work at [adult swim] without the help of a former classmate. (Thank you, Jocelyn!) I’d never have gotten into the Native American Animation Lab without the advice and mentorship from someone who is well versed in applying for these types of programs. In my short time, I’ve learned that most of “my” achievements are really the achievements of a community, which I will always be indebted to and grateful for. It is now my duty to do the same and help others!

What’s your career highlight?

Working at [adult swim] in their William’s Street office and getting to write some animated shorts for streaming has to be, hands down, the highlight of my career so far. Prior to COVID, there were days when I could drop by my manager’s office, and we would sit around and just think of things that made us laugh for hours at a time. Then we’d just get up and go make it. That’s a type of creative freedom that is truly tough to find at most studios I’ve encountered. I mean, you could just tell that everyone there was passionate and truly cared about what they were doing – no matter how absurd or bizarre the project may have been. I miss it every day.

Animation still from a short film written by JohnTom Knight and Zach White.

What is your highest career goal?

I would like to have the freedom to think of an idea for a series or film, make it, and be able to share it with an audience who can enjoy it – and I want to be having fun every step of the process. I suppose in a way, I could be doing that right now, just not in the scale I’m imagining here. But in all seriousness, my ultimate goal is to be a showrunner someday.

What is your vision for Native Americans in the film industry?

My vision is that there are more opportunities for us to work in the film industry and that we continue creating more of our own stuff. I’m so thrilled with the work your organization is doing right now in Oklahoma, and my hope is that we are seeing just the beginning of what will be a huge wave of Native American filmmakers and creators breaking into the mainstream. I can’t wait!
You can keep up with JohnTom Knight’s work by following his IMDB page

To read more about what he worked on during the Native American Virtual Animation Lab, CLICK HERE

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