*Correction: The original article stated that Geoff and the Ninja would be airing soon on CBC, but it will in fact be airing on Telus Optik, first.
Jon Chuby is spearheading Picaroon Pictures, a film production studio, here in Prince George. The studio involves almost too many volunteers to count, all intensely dedicated to their craft, and is well on its way to making a name for film in Prince George.
Years ago, while their fellow high school graduates were heading off to Dry Grad, Jon Chuby and Jeremy Abbott decided to spend the evening doing something a lot more worthwhile–creating a short film. It was from this that Mad Monkey Productions was born, which would later become Picaroon Pictures.
Abbott would pursue the art of film and editing in university, but after a chance meeting with director Sam Raimi (of the original Spider-Man trilogy) at a Whistler film festival, Chuby opted to drop out of film school on Raimi’s advice and instead invest in better film equipment.
Today, Chuby practices physiotherapy here in Prince George. Somehow, he manages to work, spend time with his young family, and pursue his passion for film without driving himself insane.
While he does hope to make a name for Picaroon Pictures, Chuby does not necessarily seek to make a profit from his films. “I like to tell stories and do narrative, challenging pieces,” he says, admitting he has never been into the monetary or political aspects of the film industry. Picaroon Pictures instead focuses on the enjoyment and gratification that comes with creating something amazing as a team, and this mentality is paying off.
In 2015, Picaroon Pictures’ short Behind The Reds was an official selection and finalist of the 48 Film Project, an international competition. The team was given a set of rules to follow and a mere two days to write, film, and edit their entry. Chuby reminisced that everyone involved gave it their all to make it a success.
They also won a Canada-wide competition with their pitch for The Window, a Josh Saltsman short story, through Wattpad Presents: Strange Yarns, just this year, with the finished short film set to air soon. “That one is probably the best that we’ve made, so far. I am very proud of that one,” Chuby said. “The acting is great, everyone in it did a crazy job, and we actually built an entire room [at the PG Playhouse] for the set.” The Window shows the group’s skills with some of the more technical aspects of filmmaking.
The project that is currently taking all of Chuby’s attention is Geoff and the Ninja, a comedy series that recently won funding from Storyhive, a Telus initiative. They pitched the show to Storyhive first in 2016, and were told to try again the following year. They did, and they were selected. The final cut for the first six episodes in the series is due in April, and the series will be aired soon after.
Geoff and the Ninja was originally the brainchild of Abbott, back when both he and Chuby were in Vancouver pursuing acting. In fact, a small scene of the future series was filmed for the first time about seven years ago.
The series’ title is pretty self-explanatory: a down-on-his-luck man accepts a mysterious ninja as his roommate, and hilarity ensues as they deal with real-life problems. “When I first heard the idea I thought it was…strange,” admitted Neil Brooks, UNBC Alumni and an actor with Picaroon Pictures. Brooks is currently helping with lighting, prop-making, and various other tasks involved with creating Picaroon films. Brooks says that while the premise seems absurd, it is actually a very smart, well-written show, and that he sees it going far. “It’s allowed to be absurd,” Brooks explained; Chuby likened the series to a live-action Rick and Morty.
Although the budget for the show is tight, even with the support of Storyhive, the cast and crew are enthusiastic and the teasers, viewable on Picaroon Pictures’ Vimeo site, are extremely promising. “We have been working on the show for a long time, and I have a lot of faith in it,” Chuby said when I last spoke with him. Luck, a major factor in the film industry, according to Chuby, may also be on their side: “Right now, there are a lot of networks that are doing more pushes for more Canadian content.”
Besides Brooks, there are around sixty people working on the production of Geoff and the Ninja, including Abbott, who came back from Vancouver to star as the Ninja himself (Chuby plays Geoff in the series). For a month and a half, Chuby had four people bunking at his house. “We were shooting every day, and I would go out and leave in the morning at 6 am, film until about 12 pm, go to work, work until 6 pm, go home and film until 2 in the morning. And we did that for about a month and a half.” Chuby laughs about how his lifestyle and sleeping habits didn’t really change much after he and his wife welcomed their new baby.
Regardless of what happens after the first episodes of the series air, Chuby wants to see the show continue–at the very least, he will seek local sponsors and keep it going as a Prince George special. He hopes to be able to reach out to Adult Swim and even Netflix, who is set to make that push for Canadian content right around the time when Picaroon will have full control of selling the episodes.
Chuby’s dedication to the project runs so deep that his own home, besides being a bunkhouse for out-of-town actors, is also being used as the set for Geoff’s house; his family has redecorated and even bought throw-away furniture for an episode in which Geoff’s house is ransacked. The Chuby basement is home to his technical and editing equipment, and much of it is painted to be one big greenscreen, with props taking up most of the floorspace.
Perpetually working on developing films, when he has finished editing Geoff and the Ninja, Chuby will turn his attention back to Clown Alley, a 40-minute film begun in 2016 and currently awaiting music and editing.
A couple of years ago, Chuby was negotiating to have the second Wolf Cop movie come to Prince George for filming. Unfortunately, because Prince George lacks certain infrastructure and would thus render major sets and transport too costly, the plan fell through.
Chuby was tired of chasing producers, who saw Prince George as too much of a risk, for elusive funding. Frustrated, Chuby began to develop Clown Alley. “Let’s show them what we are capable of with nothing.”
The horror-comedy clown musical’s budget came from Chuby’s own pocket. Actors and crew volunteered. Props and sets were borrowed. According to Brooks, who is also involved with and stars in Clown Alley, the process has been challenging; he said that much of the movie was “filmed in really cold conditions in an alleyway in Prince George.” Temperatures sometimes reached -10 and -20 degrees Celsius. He also has vivid memories of driving home after filming overnight, exhausted, and still wearing his dishevelled clown makeup, hoping to snatch some rest before continuing the cycle the next day. Much like Chuby’s schedule around Geoff and the Ninja, the cast and crew had very little sleep while working on Clown Alley. Brooks, who works in forestry by day, was averaging about 3 hours of sleep a night for long stretches of time over a solid couple of months. Even so, Brooks said, the experience was incredibly fun and Chuby was a positive, optimistic presence throughout.
Sets for the movie were scoped out by everyone involved. An abandoned warehouse was found, which was torn down mere weeks after the crew finished filming in that location. The studio came across a bike chop-shop during filming, which slowed production a little bit, and also had to contend with the fact that they were coincidentally filming characters in obvious clown costumes around the same time the infamous clown attacks were taking place; one of their major scenes was filmed the weekend after PGSS was briefly shut down due to a clown scare. Chuby made very sure to warn the local police about their filming schedule; according to Chuby, the city of Prince George has been wonderful to work with in that aspect, and very supportive.
Even with three main projects on the go, Picaroon Pictures has multiple short films available for viewing on Vimeo. One in particular, The Jahovah Witnessed V1.1, has recently garnered a great deal of praise on Reddit. Many actors in Picaroon Picture films are recognizable as past or current members of the UNBC Musical Productions Club–Chuby in fact filmed Addams Family and Young Frankenstein for the club–as well as current UNBC students and Alumni. Local casting calls have recruited a number of talented individuals from Prince George, including some that had never acted before auditioning for roles. A great deal of people who are also deeply involved with the PG Playhouse have also been integral to the group.
There is “No way in hell” that he could have pulled off all of Picaroon’s accomplishments without the hard work of a bunch of amazing people, Chuby emphasized. Picaroon Pictures is definitely a group effort. The skill and dedication of Prince George cast and crew has surprised many people, according to both Chuby and Brooks.
On the subject of making films that appeal to audiences and producers, Chuby said “You have to be willing to fail over, and over, and over again. And they’ll reject everything you say and everything you do, and you gotta keep doing it, and eventually you make one that people like.”
Another note of wisdom from Chuby, one that will surely resonate with students struggling to write those essays and theses, and anyone trying to get that dream project started: “Any script that you write, the first draft is crap, is basically how I view it. No matter how good someone is of a writer, the first time you write it, it needs work. It is going to need a lot of work. It takes tons of drafts and rewrites to really make something pop, and get all of the arcs.”
And after 7 years in the making, with many drafts and re-writes, not to mention a great deal of time, effort, and dedication, Geoff and the Ninja will be airing on Telus Optik this year.
Chuby plans to present a showing of The Window, Geoff and the Ninja, and Clown Alley at the PG Playhouse later this summer. For now, you can find out more about Picaroon Pictures on their Facebook page or on Vimeo, or check out their bio on Storyhive.
With their current successes and more short films set to be filmed this year, Picaroon Pictures will continue to grow to become a strong presence in the film industry.