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Media Arts Grad Billy Knowles Takes Lessons Learned at BYU to USC

Knowles'BYU capstone film continues to play at festivals across the nation

As a history major working toward law school, Billy Knowles never imagined that he would graduate from BYU as a media arts major headed to USC's School of Cinematic Arts — one of the most prestigious and competitive film schools in the country.


Billy Knowles (second from left) on the set of BYU capstone film "Anna." (Courtesy of Billy Knowles)

Knowles took Introduction to Film from media arts professor Tom Russell at the encouragement of a friend, rekindling an interest in moviemaking that had developed in his childhood and teen years. Both Knowles'teaching assistant and Russell recommended that he apply to the media arts program, a daunting prospect that required a leap of faith.

"I was pretty nervous," Knowles said. "I knew that the program was difficult to get into, and I didn't want to have to switch majors. I thought, 'If I get in, I'm going to take it as a sign that this is what I should pursue for now.'Since then there's been more and more affirmations that this is the road I need to be on." 

One such affirmation was his decision to emphasize in directing — again at the recommendation of Russell — after heading up a documentary crew in Nepal. 

"It just felt right," said Knowles. "I loved working with my crew, and I loved the idea of telling stories about people who need their stories told."

In the fall of 2017, Knowles and producing student Cody Mondale pitched a story idea to the media arts faculty and were selected to produce one of four fiction capstones during the 2017-18 school year. 

As both the director and screenwriter of "Anna" — which follows a young pioneer girl as she searches for her father with the help of a Shoshone man — Knowles devoted roughly 60 hours a week to the capstone during pre-production. 


The cast and crew of BYU capstone film "Anna." (Courtesy of Billy Knowles)

"It's a really rewarding experience, but it's also really trying," said Knowles. "I had never directed a crew that big — I was so anxious during the first weekend of shooting, I don't think I ate. But you have to keep going, even though you feel like giving up."

Knowles saw his vision and the hard work of his crew pay off when his capstone premiered to a packed house at the Vineyard Megaplex nearly a year after his initial pitch. Since then, "Anna" has played at numerous film festivals across the nation. 

Earlier this year, Knowles was able to share his work with audiences in his own backyard when "Anna" was accepted to the 18th annual LDS Film Festival in Orem and won first place in the short film category of the competition.

"I got to meet local filmmakers and speak about why I wanted to tell this story, why it meant so much to me and how it connected to my life," said Knowles. "It's also always really rewarding to see your work on a big screen." 

Knowles is grateful for the opportunities he has had to receive feedback from his media arts professors and see different opinions and interpretations of his work at various screenings and festivals.

"The more you're able to see your work from different angles, the stronger it will be, and the stronger your moral reasoning for that work is," said Knowles. "If you have an understanding of why you chose to do certain things, you become a stronger filmmaker; you're working with a purpose versus doing something because it's cool or because Scorsese did it." 


Billy Knowles works with the cast of "Anna." (Courtesy of Billy Knowles)

As Knowles prepares to make the move to Los Angeles, he carries with him lessons learned from his experiences and faculty mentors in the BYU film program.

"I think the most important lesson I learned at BYU is that it's OK to fail," he said. "You only fail if you quit, if you just stop trying. I think it's important to glean what you can from your mishaps and your failures and move forward. Work to improve yourself and to improve what you contribute to the university. Whatever you put in, you'll get back out."

Knowles hopes to forward the progress he made at BYU throughout his graduate experience.

"I get to continue to refine and hone my craft and learn more about how I want to contribute to film," said Knowles. "I want to continue to tell stories that we generally haven't heard before and become a better filmmaker and a better person. I'm trying to constantly be progressing and improving — I think my time in the film program helped me become a lot more aware of my responsibility as a filmmaker and a good citizen."