At the time of writing, the two featured videos on Joe Penna’s two channels are a revisited version of an older “stop motion music video” and a scooter obstacle course, but don’t let the simplicity of these videos fool you.
With over 2.6 million subscribers, 350 million views, and seven years under his belt, many have seen Penna’s work but know him best as his YouTube persona, MysteryGuitarMan — a creator defined by his special effects mastery and musical talents. His animation, stop motion, visual effects demos, short films, and more have entertained both audiences and Penna himself as he continuously pushes the special effects boundaries.
One of his shorts, “Guitar: Impossible,” which Penna himself described as “Over 1,000 cuts. Six hours of guitar tabbing. One hour of shooting. God knows how much editing” proved to be a breakout hit for the creator (over 14 million views to date) and has been featured as part of a collection in the Guggenheim Museum. But Penna is best known for always pushing boundaries and many would call him a genius. (He actually dropped out of medical school to pursue a YouTube career.)
And whether you’re watching a recreation of the entire first level of Super Mario Brothers on Super Nintendo through stop motion or Penna’s guitar music video created entirely though coloring excel pixels, the point is clear — this guy’s got talent.
More importantly, Penna’s videos belie several key traits to understanding his work: Keep working. Don’t be afraid to look back. Always improve.
With a wicked successful career on YouTube behind him, Penna has been seeking to do exactly that — improve and reach for work more focused on his true passion and the natural evolution of his talents: directing.
Diving into Directing
“Directing is more of a natural next step in my career,” said the MysteryGuitarMan himself. In the process of furthering his craft and expanding his sights to the directorial world, Penna has already whetted his director’s palette on the recent three-part web series created in partnership with Fourth Wall Studios, “Meridian” — a thriller that premiered in November 2012.
Penna decidedly took on “Meridian” as a chance to further develop his creative efforts and test his hand at being in the director’s chair. Take one look at “Meridian” and you’ll see that Penna’s vision for content is most certainly a product of having been born and bred on YouTube — taking interactivity and immersive storylines into play supported by a traditional entertainment backbone and highlighting his special effects-influenced editing style. “My biggest career highlight to date is definitely ‘Meridian’” said Penna. And “Meridian” frontman, Orlando Jones, best known for his role in “Drumline,” found Penna to be a “really interesting filmmaker and…director,” as he noted during an interview with “What’s Trending” host Shira Lazar.
Penna is catching the sights of other Hollywood types as well. Not only has the YouTube star signed with prominent entertainment and sports agency Creative Artists Agency (CAA), which represents power-house directors like James Cameron, Christopher Nolan and Steven Spielberg, but well-known producers like Matt Weaver (Rock of Ages) are also lining up to work with him.
In a USA Today interview about Penna’s directorial debut on “Meridian,” Weaver sang Penna’s praises: “He’s incredibly talented, and I love how he mixes the technical with music and comedy,” he says. “I’d cut him a check for $80 million tomorrow to direct it,” he says.
Other brands have taken Weaver’s sentiment as their own and funded branded videos by Penna. Wonderful Pistachios, Build.com, even the Magic Piano app have all recently enlisted Penna’s skills in bringing high-talent branded entertainment featuring their products to a pre-existing, and growing, audience.
But bigger budgets are certainly something Penna has to look forward to as he edges his way into Hollywood and a ongoing desire for YouTube creators which often have to bootstrap production. “It was a big challenge for me to figure out how to pull [“Meridian”] off with the low budget we had,” the director riffed about the challenges of web content.
When talking of career moves, Penna has his sights fixed on all platforms and all formats, and is already in talks to do a movie or a web series in the near future. “I currently have few concepts I’m developing and I am also open to any scripts that might pique my interest,” he says. “I am definitely interested in directing traditional projects,” adds Penna, “[It] is a conversation I am having right now with the people that share my vision and have the resources to make it happen.”
With the allure of larger projects on the horizon, Penna remains surprised at his burgeoning career’s humble beginnings, “When I first started making YouTube videos, I never thought I’d be doing it for a living. Now that I am, I want to further my craft.”
For now though, the talented workhorse behind the mysterious sunglasses continues to split his time between new YouTube videos — across two channels — while also looking out for new projects to showcase his directorial talent keeping his YouTube following in mind. “I don’t see YouTube as a stepping stone, but more of a place where I can have the creative freedom to do whatever I want. I want to be able to transition the audience with me into the long-form content,” says the aspiring director adding that “the right opportunity, while involving my digital audience, is the best way to do it.”
That loyalty to his pre-existing audience is something that categorizes his work and the philosophy he holds towards it. So, don’t fear, Penna isn’t planning an exit from YouTube any time soon. In fact, all of the talk about the future, of a career as a director, and Penna is the first to bring it back to YouTube.
“I definitely think keeping up what I’ve created and cultivated on YouTube is a priority for me” he said. But when asked where Penna saw himself in five years, he replied succinctly, “By then, I definitely want a couple features under my belt. Perhaps a web or TV series. All of it tying back to some YouTube content, though.”
Penna’s certainly heading in the right direction toward a cross-over career from YouTube creator to “below the line” talent status by leveraging his native platform — Penna recently directed YouTube singer Kady Z’s music video “Crashing Down Rap Mix.”
And while “Penna’s stock in Hollywood right now is probably worth around $4,” as Weaver noted in the USA Today article, we’ve got out bets that MysteryGuitarMan will be sitting pretty in that director’s chair and possibly rolling out the red carpet near future. And “a year from now, after he comes up with the perfect script, it’s going to $100, and I hope to be there with him.” So do we, Mr. Weaver, so do we.