Dennis Burnett‘s taco expertise is not one of the casual consumer. Through his role as the photographer and director of photography on Mando Rayo’s and Jarod Neece’s “Austin Breakfast Tacos” (2013) and “Tacos of Texas” (2016), Dennis became well-acquainted with cuisines from Houston to El Paso, traveling all 7,000 miles with them to capture each delicious taco. Now, through his latest venture into the taco world, Dennis traveled with Mando and Jarod on the Tacos of Texas video tour for their new PBS and ITVS series, where the team interviews owners of taco restaurants and, of course, has some delicious meals along the way.
Can you tell me a little about the series?
There are 7 total episodes in the series: Austin, San Antonio, El Paso, Rio Grande Valley, Dallas, Corpus Cristi, Houston. From the Start to finish I would say [it took] a little less than a year of preproduction, production, and post.
How did you come to work with PBS on Tacos of Texas?
Our Executive Producer Mando Rayo found a digital Series open call through ITVS, but I had no idea he entered Tacos of Texas. We were actually on a separate shoot together when he found out. To say the least, it was a 4-year process which started with Mando and Jarod writing two separate books about tacos and Tacos in Texas which has now become a brand…I knew the second book was a great opportunity for us to tell these stories through videos. I rode along with the Mando and Jarod on all 7,000 miles throughout the state of Texas to capture the story visually. Once we posted a makeshift book teaser on Facebook and received over 400,000 views, we knew we were onto something.
You previously moved from Savannah, Georgia to Austin, Texas. In a series that focuses on food and location, what has this experience done for your understanding of the culture in Austin?
I have always lived in the south and had a craving for the Latin culture, especially its cuisine. Once Mando Rayo asked me to be his photographer for the first book we haven’t looked back, and have created content together for the last 5 years. I feel the true way to tell a story is to ask questions, then sit back and listen. No one knows someone’s story better than the person who lives it.
How has the transition from stills to motion been for you?
I was fortunate to have worked at my alma mater SCAD where I was one of the photographers and as still and motion technologies merged we had the resources and time to learn how to incorporate these skill sets in our everyday jobs for the college. So when I moved to Austin, I was ahead of the curve for photographers learning motion. I also always thought being a photographer you wore different types of hats and the main one would be a director. You have a crew, subject, timeline, objective as a photographer which is very similar to directing.
Can you tell me about some of the challenges and also the rewards you have experienced through this project?
One of the biggest challenges was the story arc of the show and each episode. PBS / ITVS was adamant on keeping each episode around 8 mins long. They wanted the show to be focused on a younger demographic. When we first were awarded the grant we tried to tell to much of the story in one episode. We began to edit for the show instead of editing for the shoot. Basically, we shot too much which is what you want in a doc but it lacked structure. I had to look within and decided on how I wanted to approach the next episode. I ended up bringing on a new team member who became my assistant director. With the additional vision he added, our determination to learn from our previous mistakes we were able to get back on track. We basically broke each city down to one iconic taco. For example, Houston’s iconic taco is Al pastor and we found three characters who had a unique perspective.
Every day ended up being a reward. I believe as creatives we strive to work with people we respect, love and enjoy being around. My greatest achievement was being able to hire my team to execute this project and giving a voice to those who are ignored by mass media.
How did the book affect the course of this project?
The book “Tacos of Texas” was a blueprint of the series, which made the production process easier than it would have been if the book wasn’t written. Since I was on the road before, I knew 70% of the locations so I could visualize how to approach each location with camera work, lighting, interview setups, etc. For the book, the authors created a Statewide taco council and had people elect two members per city. These individuals became our fixers/boots on the ground for the best locations/tacos.
What has the reaction been so far to the doc series?
PBS has stated it’s one of the best series through the open call they have helped produce. We have also had live screenings in Austin, Houston, and San Antonio with hundreds of people attending. Our main talent being of Mexican descent has trigged mucho support for the show. I think the Mexican American culture has been ignored in recent years even though it’s one of the fastest growing demographics in the country. People want to see people like themselves on TV, in the media, etc. Its easier for the viewer to relate and have pride in their culture.
Do you enjoy tacos?
Yes! I eat tacos three/four times a week. It is in my humble opinion that it’s the best breakfast possible. I’m a flour over corn kind of person unless we are eating barbacoa.
Camera Operator: Chase McDaniel
Co-Director: Zach Edick
Executive Producer: Sally Jo Fifer
Field Producers: Maria Real, Gerald Flores
Gaffer: Robert G. Gomez
Producers/Talent: Armando (Mando) Rayo and Jarod Neece
StoryCast Producer: Pam Torno
Vice President of Production: David Casey
See more of Dennis Burnett at dennisburnettphotography.com!
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