Tag Archives: John Parenteau

On Hold: Making an indie web series

By John Parenteau

On Hold is an eight-episode web series, created and co-written by myself and Craig Kuehne, about a couple of guys working at a satellite company for an India-based technology firm. They have little going for themselves except each other, and that’s not saying much. Season 1 is available now, and we are in prepro on Season 2.

While I personally identify as a filmmaker, I’ve worn a wide range of hats in the entertainment industry since graduating from USC School of Cinematic Arts in the late ‘80s. As a visual effects supervisor, I’ve been involved in projects as diverse as Star Trek: Voyager and Hunger Games. I have also filled management roles at companies such as Amblin Entertainment, Ascent Media, Pixomondo and Shade VFX.

That’s me in the chair, conferring on setup.

It was with my filmmaker hat on that I recently partnered with Craig, a long-time veteran of visual effects, whose credits include Westworld and Game of Thrones. We thought it might be interesting to share our experiences as we ventured into live-action production.

It’s not unique that Craig and I want to be filmmakers. I think most industry professionals, who are not already working as directors or producers, strive to eventually reach that goal. It’s usually the reason people like us get into the business in the first place, and what many of us continue to pursue. Often we’ve become successful in another aspect of entertainment and found it difficult to break out of those “golden handcuffs.” I know Craig and I have both felt that way for years, despite having led fairly successful lives as visual effects pros.

But regardless of our successes in other roles, we still identify ourselves as filmmakers, and at some point, you just have to make the big push or let the dream go. I decided to live by my own mantra that “filmmakers make film.” Thus, On Hold was born.

Why the web series format, you might ask? With so many streaming and online platforms focused on episodic material, doing a series would show we are comfortable with the format, even if ours was a micro-version of a full series. We had, for years, talked about doing a feature film, but that type of project takes so many resources and so much coordination. It just seemed daunting in a no-budget scenario. The web series concept allows us to produce something that resembles a marketable project, essentially on little or no budget. In addition, the format is easily recreated for an equally low budget, so we knew we could do a second season of the show once we had done the first.

This is Craig, pondering a shot.

The Story
We have been friends for years, and the idea for the series came from both our friendship and  our own lives. Who hasn’t felt, as they were getting older, that maybe some of the life choices they made might not have been the best? That can be a serious topic, but we took a comedic angle, looking for the extremes. Our main characters, Jeff (Jimmy Blakeney) and Larry (Paul Vaillancourt), are subtle reflections of us (Craig is Jeff, the somewhat over-thinking, obsessive nerd, and I’m Larry, a bit of a curmudgeon, who can take himself way too seriously), but they quickly took a life of their own, as did the rest of the cast. We added in Katy (Brittney Bertier), their over-energetic intern, Connie (Kelly Keaton), Jeff’s bigger-than-life sister, and Brandon (Scott Rognlien), the creepy and not-very- bright boss. The chemistry just clicked. They say casting is key, and we certainly discovered that on this project. We were very lucky to find the actors we did, and  played off of each other perfectly.

So what does it take to do a web series? First off, writing was key. We spent a few months working out the overall storyline of the first season and then honed in on the basic outlines of each episode. We actually worked out a rough overall arc of the show itself, deciding on a four-season project, which gave us a target to aim for. It was just some basic imagery for an ultimate ending of the show, but it helped keep us focused and helped drive the structure of the early episodes. We split up writing duties, each working on alternate episodes and then sharing scripts with each other. We tried to be brutally honest; It was important that the show reflect both of our views. We spent many nights arguing over certain moments in each episode, both very passionate about the storyline.

In the end we could see we had something good, we just needed to add our talented actors to make it great.

On Hold

The Production
We shot on a Blackmagic Cinema camera, which was fairly new at that point. I wanted the flexibility of different lenses but a high-resolution and high-quality picture. I had never been thrilled with standard DSLR cameras, so I thought the Blackmagic camera would be a good option. To top it off, I could get one for free — always a deciding factor at our budget level. We ended up shooting with a single Canon zoom lens that Craig had, and for the most part it worked fine. I can’t tell you how important the “glass” you shoot with can be. If we had the budget I would have rented some nice Zeiss lenses or something equally professional, and the quality of the image reflects the lack of budget. But the beauty of the Blackmagic Cinema Camera is that it shoots such a nice image already, and at such a high resolution, that we knew we would have some flexibility in post. We recorded in Apple ProRes.

As a DP, I have shot everything from PBS documentaries to music videos, commercials and EPKs (a.k.a. behind the scenes projects), and have had the luxury of working with a load of gear, sometimes with a single light. At USC Film School, my alma mater, you learn to work with what you have, so I learned early to adapt my style to the gear on hand. I ended up using a single lighting kit (a Lowell DP 3 head kit) which worked fine. Shooting comedy is always more about static angles and higher key lighting, and my limited kit made that easily accessible. I would usually lift the ambience in the room by bouncing a light off a wall or ceiling area off camera, then use bounce cards on C-stands to give some source light from the top/side, complementing but not competing with the existing fluorescents in the office. The bigger challenges were when we shot toward the windows. The bright sunlight outside, even with the blinds closed, was a challenge, but we creatively scheduled those shots for early or late in the day.

Low-budget projects are always an exercise in inventiveness and flexibility, mostly by the crew. We had a few people helping off and on, but ultimately it came down to the two of us wearing most of the hats and our associate producer, Maggie Jones, filling in the gaps. She handled the SAG paperwork, some AD tasks, ordered lunch and even operated the boom microphone. That left me shooting all but one episode, while we alternated directing episodes. We shot an episode a day, using a friend’s office on the weekends for free. We made sure we created shot lists ahead of time, so I could see what he had in mind when I shot Craig’s episodes, but also so he could act as a backup check on my list when I was directing.

The Blackmagic camera at work.

One thing about SAG — we decided to go with the guild’s new media contract for our actors. Most of them were already SAG, and while they most likely would have been fine shooting such a small project non-union, we wanted them to be comfortable with the work. We also wanted to respect the guild. Many people complain that working under SAG, especially at this level, is a hassle, but we found it to be exactly the opposite. The key is keeping up with the paperwork each day you shoot. Unless you are working incredibly long hours, or plan to abuse your talent (not a good idea regardless), it’s fairly easy to remain compliant. Maggie managed the daily paperwork and ensured we broke for lunch as per the requirements. Other than that, it was a non-issue.

The Post
Much like our writing and directing, Craig and I split editorial tasks. We both cut on Apple Final Cut Pro X (he with pleasure, me begrudgingly), and shared edits with each other. It was interesting to note differences in style. I tended to cut long, letting scenes breathe. Craig, a much better editor than I, had snappier cuts that moved quicker. This isn’t to say my way didn’t work at times, but it was a nice balance as we made comments on each other’s work. You can tell my episodes are a bit longer than his, but I learned from the experience and managed to shorten my episodes significantly.

I did learn another lesson, one called “killing your darlings.” In one episode, we had as scene where Jeff enjoyed a box of donuts, fishing through them to find the fruit-filled one he craved. The process of him licking each one and putting them back, or biting into a few and spitting out pieces, was hilarious onset, but in editorial I soon learned that too much of a good thing can be bad. Craig persuaded me to trim the scene, and I realized quickly that having one strong beat is just as good as several.

We had a variety of issues with other areas of post, but with no budget we could do little about them. Our “mix” consisted of adjusting levels in our timeline. Our DI amounted to a little color correction. While we were happy with the end result, we realized quickly that we want to make season two even better.

On Hold

The Lessons
A few things pop out as areas needing improvement. First of all, shooting a comedy series with a great group of improv comedians mandates at least two cameras. Both Craig and I, as directors, would do improv takes with the actors after getting the “scripted version,” but some of it was not usable since cutting between different improv takes from a single camera shoot is nearly impossible. We also realized the importance of a real sound mixer on set. Our single mic, mono tracks, run by our unprofessional hands, definitely needed some serious fixing in post. Simply having more experienced hands would have made our day more efficient as well.

For post, I certainly wanted to use newer tools, and we called in some favors for finishing. A confident color correction really makes the image cohesive, and even a rudimentary audio mix can remove many sound issues.

All in all, we are very proud of our first season of On Hold. Despite the technical issues and challenges, what really came together was the performances, and, ultimately, that is what people are watching. We’ve already started development on Season 2, which we will start shooting in January 2018, and we couldn’t be more excited.

The ultimate lesson we’ve learned is that producing a project like On Hold is not as hard as you might think. Sure it has its challenges, but what part of entertainment isn’t a challenge? As Tom Hanks says in A League of Their Own, “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard everyone would do it.” Well, this time, the hard work was worth it, and has inspired us to continue on. Ultimately, isn’t that the point of it all? Whether making films for millions of dollars, or no-budget web series, the point is making stuff. That’s what makes us filmmakers.



Talking with new Shade VFX NY executive producer John Parenteau

By Randi Altman

John Parenteau, who has a long history working in visual effects, has been named executive producer of Shade VFX’s New York studio. Shade VFX, which opened in Los Angeles in 2009, provides feature and television visual effects, as well as design, stereoscopic, VR and previs services. In 2014, they opened their New York office to take advantage of the state’s fairly aggressive tax incentives and all that it brings to the city.

Shade-1“As a native New Yorker, with over a decade of working as an artist there, the decision to open an office back home was an easy one,” explains owner Bryan Godwin. “With John coming on board as our New York executive producer, I feel our team is complete and poised to grow — continuing to provide feature-film-level visuals. John’s deep experience running large facilities, working with top tier tent-pole clients and access to even more potential talent convinced me that he is the right choice to helm the production efforts out east.”

Shade’s New York office is already flush with work, including Rock that Body for Sony, The OA and The Get Down for Netflix, Mosaic for HBO and Civil for TNT. Not long ago, the shop finished work on Daredevil and Jessica Jones, two of Marvel’s Netflix collaborations. As John helps grow the client list in NYC, he will be supporting NY visual effects supervisor Karl Coyner, and working directly with Shade’s LA-based EP/VP of production Lisa Maher.

John has a long history in visual effects, starting at Amblin Entertainment in the early ‘90s all the way through to his recent work with supercomputer company Silverdraft, which provides solutions for VFX, VR and more. I’ve known him for many years. In fact, I first started spelling John Parenteau’s name wrong when he was co-owner and VFX supervisor at Digital Muse back in the mid to late ‘90s — kidding, I totally know how to spell it… now.

We kept in touch over the years. His passion and love for filmmaking and visual effects has always been at the forefront of our conversations, along with his interest in writing. John even wrote some NAB blogs for me when he was managing director of Pixomondo (they won the VFX Oscar for Hugo during that time) and I was editor-in-chief of Post Magazine. We worked together again when he was managing director of Silverdraft.

“I’ve always been the kind of guy who likes a challenge, and who likes to push into new areas entertainment,” says John. “But leaving visual effects was less an issue of needing a change and more of a chance to stretch my experience into new fields. After Pixomondo, Silverdraft was a great opportunity to delve into the technology behind VFX and to help develop some unique computer systems for visual effects artists.”

Making the decision to leave the industry a couple years ago to take care of his mother was difficult, but John knew it was the right thing to do. “While moving to Oregon led me away from Hollywood, I never really left the industry; it gets under your skin, and I think it’s impossible to truly get out, even if you wanted to.”

Parenteau realized quickly that the Portland scene wasn’t a hot-bed of film and television VFX, so he took the opportunity to apply his experience in entertainment to a new market, founding marketing boutique Bigfoot Robot. “I discovered a strong need for marketing for small- to mid-sized companies, including shooting and editing content for commercials and marketing videos. But I did keep my hand in media and entertainment thanks to one of my first clients, the industry website postPerspective. Randi and I had known each other for so many years, and our new relationship helped her out technically while allowing me to stay in touch with the industry.”

John’s mom passed over a year ago, and while he was enjoying his work at Bigfoot Robot, he realized how much he missed working in visual effects. “Shade VFX had always been a company I was aware of, and one that I knShade-2ew did great work,” he says. “In returning to the industry, I was trying to avoid landing in too safe of a spot and doing something I’d already done before. That’s when Bryan Godwin and Dave Van Dyke (owner and president of Shade, respectively) contacted me about their New York office. I saw a great opportunity to help build an already successful company into something even more powerful. Bryan, Lisa and Dave have become known for producing solid work in both feature and television, and they were looking for a missing component in New York to help them grow. I felt like I could fill that role and work with a company that was fun and exciting. There’s also something romantic about living in Manhattan, I have to admit.”

And it’s not just about building Shade for John. “I’m the kind of guy who likes to become part of a community. I hope I can contribute in various ways to the success of visual effects for not only Shade but for the New York visual effects community as a whole.”

While I’ll personally miss working with John on a day-to-day basis, I’m happy for him and for Shade. They are getting a very talented artist, who also happens to be a really nice guy.

Ted Schilowitz tackles supercomputing that targets M&E

By Randi Altman

As history shows, when Ted Schilowitz finds a product he believes in, he’s all in.

Shortly after his retirement last year from Red Digital Cinema, where he had been the public face of the company since its inception, Schilowitz began talks with Silverdraft, a company known for its on-set services truck housing a supercomputer for post production needs, including rendering.

He was impressed with the technology and what it offered, but knew the strategy of the company needed to focus more on what he calls “the flattening out of the entertainment Continue reading