Carolyn Knapp finds community in content

Graham Byers holds a camera while Carolyn Knapp stands next to him observing. They are on the set of her short film "Hives," inside a car specifically.
Knapp and Byers worked closely together on the set of the short film “Hives,” which Knapp directed. (Photo courtesy of Graham Byers.)

When Carolyn “Caro” Knapp was five, her parents entered her into a mock film festival. The first film she entered followed the journey of a fairy princess played by Knapp herself. The entry would launch a series of productions that would continue throughout her elementary school career. With each work, Knapp grew more fond of story-telling, expanding the magnitude of the production by increasingly involving friends and family. By the time she entered middle school, Knapp knew she wanted to be a director.

Fast forward to 2020, Knapp embarked on another creative mission — becoming an animator. Now, in 2021 as a USC senior, she’s reaping the benefits.

Knapp’s experiences in quarantine did look a bit like everyone else’s — she fully converted from a TikTok skeptic to a video creator on the platform. She grew a quick appreciation for Olivia Rodrigo, albeit for her own, cooler reasons. And while quarantining at home in Southern California, the cinema and media studies major enlisted her brother’s help in learning animation. 

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Knapp spent most of her sophomore year video-graphing concerts for Universal Music Group’s internal creative solutions team, °1824. When quarantine upended that role, her only solution was to pivot to a medium that could be completed remotely — something that the versatile artist — painter, writer, ceramicist, filmmaker — didn’t find very difficult to do.

“I had a really strong 2D art background and a really strong film background, so it made sense to combine those things,” Knapp said. “It was a really unique opportunity because I knew that, [through °1824], I was going to get paid to try it.”

Through °1824, she took on animation projects for Fergie and — most famously — Olivia Rodrigo. She also designed Tinder billboards through her own freelance efforts.

While Knapp is most known for these larger projects, her major entry into the world of animation was through a visualizer for Maya B’s “Sink” in June 2020. The lesser-known video caught the eyes of Fergie’s team who reached out to Knapp to work on an animated visualizer for her song, “London Bridge.”

“That was really a turning point for me because that was when I started working with a lot bigger artists,” Knapp said.

One of those bigger artists was rising pop-princess Olivia Rodrigo who Knapp had the opportunity to design Spotify canvases — the looping images that play as you stream a song — for her “Sour” album. She shared the assignment with Chapman graduate Anya Salmen, her colleague at °1824.

Before Salmen joined °1824, the two contacted each other on TikTok. After a few FaceTimes, they realized just how compatible they were as creators.

“We had followed each other on Instagram before I even joined °1824. Before I was officially hired, I actually reached out to her and we FaceTimed and totally clicked,” Salmen said. “We have super similar styles. She had found me on TikTok, and I had just seen her collages and stuff.”

The pair’s styles were eerily compatible with Rodrigo’s artistic vision. It was a no-brainer that the duo would take on her projects together. 

“We had the crazy opportunity to pitch a few ideas to her management, and they ended up getting picked up,” Salmen said. “Since then we’ve been able to do a bunch of stuff with her … [Knapp] is my favorite person to work with on the team because … we work together super well.”

Salmen and Knapp’s close friend Graham Byers both attest to Knapp’s ability to complete the toughest jobs efficiently. Whether she’s with her animating partner or on-set, Knapp’s work ethic bleeds into her partners’ morale.

“The films we’ve worked on together have been so run-and-gun and so tight that it’s actually bred some really interesting work habits,” Byers, a senior majoring in film and television production, said. “I feel like I’ve become much more efficient as a director of photography because of it.”

Still, Knapp doesn’t believe in tunnel vision levels of isolation to accomplish these feats. Her work reflects her attention to the world around her, whether it’s a personal project or an assignment.

The Spotify canvases Knapp and Salmen produced are the perfect example of the pair’s roots in collage work and Knapp’s inspiration by her household items and textures around her. The canvas for “1 step forward, 3 steps back” features Knapp’s own beat-up converse. The visual artist searched through her room for a pair of high school sneakers that she then wrote on and scanned for the visuals, according to Buyers.

“I’ll scan or take photos of my clothes and different textures that I find places,” Knapp said. “I’m like, ‘Oh, that would make a good texture.’ Then I’ll cut objects and shapes and stuff out of those textures, which creates a really unique depth full style.”

Knapp stayed most true to this process for Fergie’s “London Bridge” video in which every visual was physically scanned by Knapp, resulting in the layered images we see on screen.

Shortly after the drop of the Fergie video, a work much more personal to Knapp gained recognition — her short film, “Cherry Bomb.” Principal character Georgie struggles to prove her sexuality after already coming out, and the narrative is largely inspired by Knapp’s own experiences as a freshman living in the “very heteronormative” freshman dorm, New North Residential College.

“Exiting that environment the summer after my freshman year, I had a whole other self-identity crisis,” Knapp, who identifies as bisexual, said.

After wrapping “Cherry Bomb,” Knapp decided to post a clip of the film on TikTok. The short video was embraced by thousands of LGBTQ+ people who resonated with her story.

“‘Cherry Bomb’ ended up coming out in October 2020, and I was able to promote that on TikTok using queer TikTok, which is something I never thought that I would ever get into at all,” Knapp said. “I used to be such a big TikTok hater. But that gave me a pretty good platform for [promoting the film].”

The mere ten seconds of “Cherry Bomb’s” unfinished cut was enough to launch the short into virality. The clip now has over 200,000 likes with many users returning to compliment the cinematography and lighting after watching the finished cut. 

“It wasn’t even a trailer yet. I just took the first 10 seconds,” Knapp said. “It was just myself on the green screen being like, ‘Hey, I’m a young director … this is the first 10 seconds of my short film.’ And it just started going. I don’t know how or why.”

While promotion is an important part of Knapp’s success, the quality of her projects is largely due to her work ethic, dedication to character building and collaborative spirit. 

Her narratives reflect a commitment to in-depth character study, and her on-set persona isn’t just vibrant and warm but systematic.

When asked why she got into filmmaking, she said “because of the characters.” Knapp is not just speaking of the boldened names on a screenplay. Those are important and very real to her, but her heart lies with the people she brings to set.

Whether it’s a fairytale written in childhood, a vulnerable exploration of self-identity or a pop-princess’s album work, Knapp has mastered bringing characters to life, no matter the medium. Much of it is simply about learning from the supporters championing your work, but the rest is realizing that people are not just the words they speak or the past that shapes them. They’re the community that provides a home for them, the doodles lazily drawn and redrawn in their notebooks, even the worn-out shoes in the corner of their closet. With this foundation, the jack-of-all-trades, is ready to conquer the film industry with bona fide multimedia experience.

“I’m very much an ideas-person and a [leader]. That’s where I thrive,” said Knapp. “Working alone in a room at my computer, that’s not a sustainable career for me. That’s what I’ve learned in quarantine. But I’m thankful that I’m in this place where, now, I can do both, so that in the future, I have that experience so that I can do anything and combine all the different mediums.”  

Clarification: °1824 is Universal Music Group’s internal creative solutions team.