Joe Penna had some fancy ideas about how he might simulate turbulence in the Boeing 747 passenger cabin set for his sci-fi short Beyond involving electronics and inner tubes.
But when reps from the set rental company Aero Mock-Ups came to assemble the 20-foot section of mock fuselage on Stage 1 at YouTube Space LA, they told him it was best to do it the old-fashioned, low-tech way – have crew members jostle it with two-by-fours on fulcrums.
Like so many before him, what Joe Penna really wants to do is direct movies – and he’s using his YouTube popularity to get in the door with Hollywood studios.
The 27-year-old may be a neophyte when it comes to traditional studio-bound filmmaking, but in the online video community he’s already a member of the old guard. Since launching in 2006, his YouTube channel MysteryGuitarMan has racked up more than 2.8 million subscribers and 345 million views, powered by viral sensations like “Guitar: Impossible,” which accounts for 15.6 million of those views.
Penna has done stop-motion animations covering everything from an Excel spreadsheet to his pregnant wife, Big Frame co-founder Sarah Penna. He also teamed with fellow YouTube stars Rhett & Link to create a national TV spot for Coca-Cola and McDonald’s. But, like so many before him, what he really wants to do is direct movies, and he’s using his YouTube popularity to get in the door with Hollywood studios.
“I’ve been able to use it as leverage – like the fulcrums we’re using to shake the plane,” says Brazilian-born Penna. “I’m taking meetings with them and saying, ‘I want to do it this way and this way,’ and they actually listen because they’re like, ‘Okay, this guy has an audience online, so he must know what he’s doing’ – at least in the online space.”
Hollywood is still struggling to figure out how to approach digital video, but it has begun to realize it needs to get involved in a big way, as Disney’s $500 million-plus purchase of Maker Studios demonstrated. The situation is analogous to the late ’60s and early ’70s when studio execs, panicked by a string of big-budget flops and a rising counterculture movement they didn’t understand, threw up their hands and gave young filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Dennis Hopper and Bob Rafelson the freedom to explore their creative visions on low-budget projects.
“The way that we shoot is definitely a lot different than the rest of Hollywood,” says Penna, who also hosts the syndicated Fox children’s science show Xploration Earth 2050. “It’s very low budget, and very fluid, too. There’s a script and everything, but we don’t have storyboards. I’m trying to bring my (YouTube) aesthetic to bigger projects like this, with the crazy effects and the scenes that blend into one another.”
Penna won’t say what the budget is on the largely self-financed Beyond, other than it is very small. But having come up through the digital video world, he doesn’t rely on traditional Hollywood financing models. For his 39-minute 2012 film Meridian, he took the $35,000 from Fourth Wall Studios and stretched it to its limit.
For Beyond, which will be in the 30- to 40-minute range, Penna negotiated a reduced twofer rate for crew members to work on both the film and Instant Getaway, his recent short financed by New Form Digital. He also caught a big break when YouTube Space LA decided to pay for the rental on the plane set so it could be used on other projects. He used the money saved to pay for better makeup and effects. He was also able to get expensive Panavision lenses to use on YouTube Space LA’s 6K Red camera and his own 4K Red camera.
“We’re kind of pulling out all the favors for these initial projects so that I can show how good of a job I can do,” Penna says.
Like Meridian and Instant Getaway, Beyond‘s plot hinges on time travel. It depicts the journey of an immortal man, played by Ray Trickitt (The Lord of the Rings) from 500 A.D. through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. He says one of the reasons he likes the plot device is because it gives him the opportunity to hone his filmmaking chops in a variety of situations. The 12-day shoot, which wrapped on Thursday, had him filming 60 scenes against 12 unique backdrops. In addition to the plane, these also included a monastery set on Stage 1, as well as desert locations and his own house.
“It used to be that when people asked me what I did and I told them ‘YouTube videos,’ the first response would always be, ‘Yeah, but what do you do for work?'” says Penna. “And now…people are like, ‘I’ve heard about this’ or ‘I’ve seen that there are some bigger players getting involved,’ and that adds a lot of legitimacy to the space.”
Then again, if Penna was desperate for legitimacy, he wouldn’t have abandoned his plans to become a cardiothoracic surgeon to pursue a YouTube career back when it really was all about silly cat videos.
“I was about to go into med school when I told my dad that I didn’t really like it and I wanted to try this YouTube thing. He was very excited for that,” says Penna, sarcastically.