ST. GEORGE, Utah — J. Christian Jensen was still sleeping at 5:30 a.m. last Thursday when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science announced the list of Oscar nominations.
His 20-minute documentary "White Earth" had already won a Student Academy Award, and he knew the film was on the Academy's short-list for an Oscar nod, but the St. George native wasn't honestly expecting a nomination. So he slept in.
However, his father, St. George resident Jim Jensen, was awake and watching. When the nominations came in for the documentary short subject category, "White Earth" was among them. He picked up the phone and called his son.
"I got a jolting but pleasant awakening, and he was very excited about it," Jensen said of his father's early morning call. "That's how I found out."
The rest of the day was a flurry of activity. His phone was ringing off the hook and he received more than 100 emails. He also had to go into work at Facebook, where he's on contract from time to time, in addition to teaching a class at Stanford University, his alma mater.
Just the night before, he had finished an agreement with Vimeo to launch "White Earth" online, so he also spent some time Thursday promoting the deal. Promotional work may be a bit easier now that the short film will carry those magic words: "Oscar-nominated."
Jensen said there was a period of excitement when he found out he made the short list in October. That didn't mean, however, that he could tout the academy's interest. A nomination is a different story.
"Once you get nominated, it's forever," he said.
The term, "Academy Award Nomination," can now be used on his resume and in obtaining funding for future projects. Even if he doesn't take home the award on Feb. 22, the nomination announcement was a game-changer for the young filmmaker.
"I just didn't see that one coming," he said. "To win, it would just be a cherry on top and it would certainly open some more doors. But I'm happy either way."
One door that will open soon is the chance to see his film have a theatrical release. A nomination guarantees at least a limited theatrical release for a film genre that generally doesn't see many public showings outside of film festivals.
As for festivals, "White Earth" has definitely made the rounds. It has picked up awards in New Orleans; Anchorage, Alaska; Bogota, Colombia; and Fargo, North Dakota. In September, Jensen had the chance to bring his film home to St. George for Dixie State University's DOCUTAH film festival. He took home the festival's Raven Award for short subject documentary directing.
Phil Tuckett, DOCUTAH executive director, said the festival's screening team gave it high marks so he took a look at the film right away.
"It tackled a subject matter that was right out today's headlines with the oil boom in North Dakota," Tuckett said. "It was just gorgeous the way he shot it."
It wasn't until Jensen came to the festival that Tuckett learned the filmmaker was from Southern Utah.
Tuckett said "White Earth" is the first film that has shown at DOCUTAH to garner an Oscar nomination.
"We take special pride in the fact that we recognized its quality," he said.
Jensen grew up in St. George, graduated from Snow Canyon High School in 2002 and received an associate degree from Dixie State in 2005 before he went on to Brigham Young University in Provo for his bachelor's degree and Stanford for his master's. Showing "White Earth" at DOCUTAH was exciting because it gave his family members, friends and teachers a chance to see his work on the big screen.
Jensen first got his hands on a camera at Snow Canyon High School as he shot videos during assemblies. His first time on a professional set came during his short tenure at Dixie State where he was mentored by instructors Stan Everett and Eric Young.
Everett, a retired director of the Community Education Channel and television broadcasting instructor, said he was "thrilled" to hear about the filmmaker's Oscar nomination — though he wasn't necessarily surprised to see Jensen make it to that level. He said Jensen was an "extremely creative" student.
"We're all cheering for him and we'll be watching with great anticipation," Everett said of the Academy Awards ceremony.
The influence of teachers like Everett and Young, prompted Jensen's own interest in teaching. Because they were so important to him, he wants to "pay it forward" and is hoping to pursue opportunities in teaching documentary filmmaking.
But that doesn't mean he's done making his own films. Jensen still has a goal of making a feature-length documentary. For now, though, the Oscar buzz is all about his short subject documentary.
"White Earth" was actually Jensen's thesis project for his Master of Fine Arts in documentary film and video at Stanford.
"It's a film about a North American oil boom but seen through unexpected eyes," Jensen said. "I wanted to focus particularly on the voice of children and get a sense of how they saw what was happening in this adult world around them."
As writer, director, cinematographer and producer, Jensen sought to tell the story of the oil boom in North Dakota through the words of three children and an immigrant mother. He steered clear of the politics both for and against the drilling.
"I wanted to have sort of a mosaic of voices — three children from very different backgrounds — who were there for very different reasons," he said. "My hope was that by focusing on these different stories that people from all sides of the political spectrum would be able to find a common point of empathy."
Jensen said he realizes the film tackles a complex issue but hopes the documentary will provide a nuanced way of looking at it. He also said he couldn't have made the film without the trust and support of the people of North Dakota who literally took him in and let him sleep in their homes while he filmed.
The inspiration to travel to North Dakota came from his father who had mentioned how many Southern Utah families affected by the housing crisis were flocking to the plains to find work in the oil fields. So he decided to go there and see what stories he could find.
Now that quest that began as a graduate thesis has resulted in one of the most prestigious recognitions a film can receive. Jensen is still coming to terms with what it means.
"It's a bit surreal," he said. "I was truly not expecting it. I was ecstatic to get as far as the short-listing stage, which was well beyond my expectations."
One thing is for certain: He knows where he will be on Feb. 22 and it won't be home in Palo Alto, California, where he now lives. He and his wife, Lanée, will be dressing up for the 87th Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.
Jensen said he hasn't thought much about an acceptance speech in case he wins. He's not expecting to win, but he also wasn't expecting the nomination. Yet, he did get an opportunity to practice a similar 90-second speech when "White Earth" won a Student Academy Award in June.
"I don't know fully what to expect," he said. "We're going to enjoy the ride while it lasts."
Information from: The Spectrum, http://www.thespectrum.com