If there’s such a thing as a YouTube superhero, Joe Penna certainly qualifies. More commonly known as MysteryGuitarMan, Penna has been captivating viewers since the early days of the platform, when he achieved his first viral success with a Rubik’s Cube and some clever editing work in a video called “The Puzzle.” He soon surpassed that success with the even more popular “Guitar: Impossible,” going on to build a channel that today boasts more than 2.8 million subscribers. Along the way, he’s experimented with stop-motion, special effects, short films, commercial work, and just about every instrument imaginable. As huge fans of his work, we wanted to see what Penna would come up with when given access to the full Pond5 library, and the result was predictably spectacular. Check out his tribute to classic video games from Donkey Kong to Mario Kart below, then read on for more insight into the project and Penna’s personal advice for other aspiring film and video creators.
The Making of ‘Paper Video Games’
“This was a fun video, because it’s something that we’ve wanted to do for a really long time,” says Penna from his base in Los Angeles. “Working with Pond5 was awesome, because we had so many options. We needed so many different assets to recreate the video games believably that this was really the only way we could pull it off.” In fact, the number climbed so high that Penna and his team started to lose track. “We just kept getting more and more assets, but I think it was over 850,” he reveals.
And that collection was only the beginning. Once they had all of the images, they started to cut them out, setting the stage to combine stop-motion and projected video for their desired final effect. “For ‘Mario Kart,’ we actually rear projected — we had a projector underneath a Plexiglas board, and we put pieces of paper on it so that we wouldn’t have to print out so many pieces, to save as much paper as possible. We re-used a bunch of the assets for different things, and we did the projection of the video. It was an interesting way for us to try to get around exposing the video properly, with the actual cut-out papers on top of the Plexiglas.”
The games that Penna tackled cover the spectrum of fan favorites (he also paid tribute to Mario in an earlier video, which you can watch below), but surprisingly, the one he ended up being most fond of himself this time was one of the newest additions to video game culture. “I love the ‘Flappy Bird’ part,” he admits. “Mostly because I never got past the second level. So, with stop motion, I could kind of cheat and get much further.”
Of course, this isn’t Penna’s first time using Pond5 media for his many productions, although he had previously focused on the audio collection. “We use sounds from Pond5 all the time,” he says. “It’s a go-to place for some really interesting sound effects that we couldn’t find anywhere else. But this is my first time using the footage and images.” And having discovered all of the visual possibilities there, it sounds like it won’t be the last. “We saw a bunch of things that gave us ideas for other videos, which was a good way to get a lot of inspiration!”
Inspiration, Collaboration, and an Unlikely Career
As many creatives who have been practicing their craft over long periods of time, that elusive search for inspiration can often be one of the greatest challenges. “It’s something that we’ve run into a lot,” admits Penna. “Where we’re like, ‘What are we going to do?’ But with every video, you’re constantly learning one more thing. So, the videos kind of become a amalgamation of all these techniques and other things that we’ve learned throughout the ten years that we’ve been on YouTube. It’s definitely a challenge to come up with a brand new idea, but there’s plenty of inspiration out there.”
One of the keys to his ongoing success has been his willingness and desire to collaborate with, and learn, from others, while also recognizing areas for personal growth. It’s led him not just to some great ideas, but also to a great crew. “We’ve got stop-motion animators who started working with us,” he explains, “we’ve got people who really take music to the next level. I can do all of that stuff, but I love working with people who are way better than me at a specific task. So I can kind of just tell them what I’m thinking, and they do stuff that looks even better than what I’m thinking.” He laughs before adding, “I just take all the credit for it.”
Like most of the stars who rose up from YouTube’s early days, it never occurred to Penna that what he was doing when he started making videos could actually become a career. After all, at that point, it had never been done before. “I looked into being a doctor,” he reveals. “I was going to be a cardiothoracic surgeon. I was about to take my MCATs, but I started doing this YouTube thing and I realized that was my passion. But I never thought that YouTube itself was going to be a viable career option. I thought I was going to be working in film and TV, working as a PA for however many years and then move up from there.”
As it turned out, his early success actually allowed Penna to learn as he went along, rather than having to start out at the bottom. It also helped that he was extremely open to criticism, constructive or otherwise. “Everything that I’ve learned on the film side of things is self-taught,” he says. “And mostly because of comments on YouTube saying, ‘You did this wrong, you stupid…'” he laughs. “I learned from that.”
Penna also took advantage of the network of creators that developed in those early days — others who were experimenting with the platform, such as Freddie Wong. “Finding people who are excited about the content that you want to make and working with those people is always a good option,” he explains. “That’s always how I’ve come up on YouTube, by doing collaborations with guys like Freddie Wong. He’s the one who taught me how to do 3D motion tracking. Every time that you collaborate with somebody, you’re going to learn from them. You’re going to learn together how to become a better filmmaker.”
Never Stop Learning, Growing
To this day, Penna continues to embrace that mentality, studying and growing by examining the work of his peers. “That’s the easiest way, right? If someone is doing something different than you, they’re either doing it better, so you replicate it; or they’re doing it worse, so you know what not to do. Sometimes, even now, I take jobs as an extra or things like that, just to be on set and see how that specific director works, or how that set does things differently. I’ve been on pretty awful sets, where things were kind of falling apart, and that was a great learning experience for me. You know, that wasn’t my set that was falling apart, but I can try to ascertain what happened to cause that.”
That interest in being on set also goes beyond the YouTube work Penna is most known for. More recently, he’s been branching out into directing short films, with feature-length narratives becoming the next big item on his checklist. “We’ve got two features that we’ve written and those are being packaged to mail out soon,” he says. “We’re excited about those long-form narratives and series that we’re developing now. We want to make that work for sure. They’re written, and some of them have interest from producers. Hopefully we can announce something soon.”
It isn’t just the grander scope of these projects that’s exciting to Penna, but also the direction they’re taking him in. As with everything he’s done, it’s just the latest step in the journey he started with that Rubik’s Cube back in 2007. “I kind of just got bored doing one thing only at a time,” he says. “I couldn’t just do vlogs for ten years on YouTube. I couldn’t just do stop-motion videos. I couldn’t just do musical videos. I started dabbling in all of these different things, which I think has been a good thing for my channel. You never know what you’re going to get. It’s been interesting to learn all of these different trades.
“It’s been kind of a natural progression for me to go from working by myself on my YouTube videos and then eventually hiring a small team, and now working on these really big sets. Some of the short films that we’ve made have had 60, 70 people on set. That’s always a challenge but also fun for me to try to figure out, ‘How can I utilize every single person here in the best way?'”
That approach, plus Penna’s openness to others’ ideas and contributions, is proving to be a huge asset as the scope of his work expands. “If I see that a person has the right direction and knows my vision for what I want from them or for the whole project, I’m very cool being hands off,” he says. “It’s tougher for a lot of directors. A lot of people think that a director needs to take control of every single possible little thing. To me, that’s not the right approach. Half my job is picking the right person for the job. So a production designer is going to think more and know more than I do about which colors convey a specific emotion. Or what kind of motorcycle someone should be riding and what that says about that character. Of course, my job is also much easier if I pick somebody that matches well with the team.”
One other thing Penna looks forward to with full-length films is the chance to spend more time behind the camera, rather than in front of it. “I’d be a hundred percent behind the scenes,” he says. “I’m in my own things just as necessity the vast majority of the time. Especially these two films, they feature a very limited cast. It wouldn’t make sense for me to show up in any of them. Maybe I’ll do my Hitchcock cameo that I’ve been doing in all my short films. I’m excited for the feature film that we’re working on now,” he adds. “That would be a massive project. Definitely by far the biggest that we’ve attempted. I can see how that’s going to take up a lot of my time, but that’s the next step for me.”
As for that whole superhero thing, turns out he’s already done that, too…
Want to try some video magic like Joe’s on your own? Get started with 50 free photo and video assets courtesy of MysteryGuitarMan and Pond5. For more on MysteryGuitarMan, visit his official website, and follow him on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.