Austin Parenti, Director of Digital Media Arts at The King’s Academy in West Palm Beach, FL built the school’s virtual production program from the ground up starting with a single Blackmagic URSA Mini 4K digital film camera. He now has up to 200+ students enrolled in the program and is teaching virtual production to kids as young as 6th grade.
PH: Can you tell us about the inception of The King’s Academy's Digital Media Arts program and what motivated you to build a world-class program?
Austin Parenti: I was earning a Bachelor's in Cinema Arts at Palm Beach Atlantic University with the intention of joining the film industry immediately after graduation. While there, I met extraordinary professors who changed my life, teaching me to value virtue, honor, and truthfulness. I decided toward the end of my junior year that I wanted to stay in academia, to "give back" and maybe grant that sort of life-changing mentorship to the next generation.
In 2018, graduated and immediately began work at The King's Academy as an IT Specialist. A year later, I was moved into a film faculty position and truly began building the program. I found early on that my passion for film making and desire to tell quality stories was still very present in my heart. My mentor David Snyder who formerly ran the nationally acclaimed theater program at The King's Academy, taught me that students learn best by doing. Basically, he taught me that the medieval tradition of master-apprenticeship was still the best way to go—at least as far as the arts are concerned. Students need to see the master at work, join the master at work, then depart and make their own work.
This was and continues to be the definitive difference between the TKA experience and other schools I see. At our school, our faculty are day-in-day-out trying to tell their next best story. Students quickly catch that same wind and through careful study and apprenticeship are soon ready to tell quality stories of their own. Why build a world-class program? Why settle for anything less?! I guess I'm just a perfectionist. For the sake of my students and my own artistic and professional ambitions, nothing short of world-class is satisfactory.
PH: Can you elaborate on how this studio has enhanced the learning experience for your students?
Austin Parenti: Prior to the building of our new studio, we were using a former classroom converted into a studio. The 36'x17' room had low ceilings and barely enough room for a crew of five. Regardless, we packed sometimes twenty students in there who were eager to be a part of what we were creating. The new studio enhances our learning experiences first by granting us a larger space to play. More students are able to join these productions and learn about these sophisticated industry-standard techniques. Second, it grants us the space to tell stories on a larger scale. More characters, multi-story sets, and practical effects are now possible.
PH: It's impressive that students as young as sixth grade are engaging in virtual production. How do you tailor the curriculum to accommodate different age groups and skill levels?
Austin Parenti: When teaching sixth grade, it's important to keep things simple and exciting. You want to engage them so they'll return for the upper-level classes and not intimidate them with the odds and ends of virtual production. We show them what is possible and greatly involve them in the brainstorming phase of what the virtual environment should look like. Usually I'll pilot in Unreal and build the level live as they watch so they get an idea of what goes into it without having to navigate the interface for themselves (though some are eager to try!).
PH: The Digital Media Arts program has embraced cutting-edge production technologies. Could you share some specific examples of these technologies and how they are integrated into your curriculum?
Austin Parenti: Our primary assets are two LED Volumes, composed of APG Media's Infiled x HyperPixel tiles. These are integrated into our advanced film classes. Students are taught how to turn the walls on and off, how to operate the processors to increase brightness, saturation, and contrast, and how to design virtual sets to use in their projects. Students then pitch to an admin panel original short film concepts for the semester's productions. If their project plans to rely on virtual production, they must include concept art and other strategies on how they will actualize their vision.
Our other incredible assets include Blackmagic URSA Mini Pro 12K cameras for both studios. Our films are shot in stunning 12K and rendered in 8K, guaranteeing their longevity while providing flexibility for reframing a shot in DaVinci Resolve Studio. We also use Blackmagic URSA Broadcast G2 cameras for our sports broadcasts, ensuring students have a seamless learning curve when moving from the studio to the field.
PH: With an LED volume setup in place, students are gaining experience in virtual production. Can you describe a project that truly highlights the capabilities of this setup and the skills your students have developed as a result?
Austin Parenti: To put our first LED Volume to the test, we started production on a Star Wars fan series entitled Gray Trials. Star Wars gives us the storytelling potential to basically visit every biome and environment imaginable in one series. Hundreds of thousands of views later, we learned Star Wars fans love our series! We've continued to produce episodes since April 2022 and will wrap the show officially in November in our bigger production space.
PH: The annual production of short films and virtual projects is notable. How do these projects contribute to the students' overall understanding of filmmaking and digital media arts?
Austin Parenti: We make sure to select projects that will vary student's experiences. Some projects are strategically chosen because they require intense virtual production knowledge. Others we choose for the opposite reason—because they will get us out of the studio and into a real-world environment with real-world problems like weather and sunlight. By the end of a student's career with us, he/she has shot studio, location, interior, exterior, day, night, rain, shine, truly every possible shooting environment, guaranteeing their comfort on a professional set, no matter the circumstance.
PH: The Digital Media Arts program appears to bridge the gap between education and real-world careers. How do you prepare your students for potential careers in filmmaking, post-production, and television?
Austin Parenti: We model each of our productions after the industry, following union laws and best set practices and procedures. We've had SAG actors come to set and tell us there's no difference between working in Miami/Atlanta and working with us. We've also had many actors tell us that we offer a more professional shooting environment than many of their previous productions! That's always a high compliment, indeed.
PH: Could you share some insights into the challenges and rewards you've experienced while pioneering a virtual production program within a K-12 school setting?
Austin Parenti: The greatest challenge is certainly the lack of teaching content on the internet for these technologies. When trying to learn how to use a sound recorder, you can find a hundred tutorials on YouTube. But when trying to figure out how exactly to sync and genlock four machines and an URSA 12K to a three-display LED Volume, you're lucky if you find a reddit post even remotely relating to the problem. The reward is, when we inevitably do figure it out, it was our own grit and determination that got us there!
PH: Can you share how (and why) you utilized Blackmagic URSA Mini Pro 12K digital film camera for the new virtual production studio?
Austin Parenti: The camera offer a cinematic image with amazing color science at a fraction of the cost of their competitors! What the Blackmagic Design team achieves with each software and hardware iteration is nothing short of incredible, disrupting the industry in a totally positive way for smaller production houses like ours that can't afford ARRI or RED without a sizable grant. But even if we did get that grant, I'd rather put the money toward lighting and rigging because that's how satisfied I am with the image Blackmagic Design delivers. The URSA 12K features two SDI outs, one of which is used as a reference for syncing with our display in a process called Genlocking. Once we saw that feature and its image quality, it was an easy decision.
PH: Can you dive into the studio's full capabilities?
Austin Parenti: The primary studio uses APG Media's Infiled x Hyperpixel tiles plus Mosys StarTracking to motion track the camera and apply its positioning data to the volume. Additionally, we can use Mosys's other technologies to track and motion-capture actors to create fully animated characters in our films.
PH: Technology and media are rapidly evolving fields. How do you ensure that your curriculum remains up-to-date and relevant to prepare students for the dynamic landscape of digital media?
Austin Parenti: Our hope is to start attending trade shows that will enable us to understand new evolutions in digital arts in a cost-effective way.
PH: What advice would you give to other educators or institutions that are considering establishing similar digital media arts programs?
Austin Parenti: I would tell other educators to stop teaching and start producing! The arts don't thrive in PowerPoint. The sooner educators can lead their students as masters of their craft in producing beautiful, quality stories, the sooner I think they'll see their institutions flourish.
PH: Looking forward, what are your aspirations for the growth and development of The King’s Academy's Digital Media Arts program?
Right now, our film studies track is creating extraordinary projects. I'm excited to see our newer tracks like Game Design and Sports Broadcasting excel as they acquire new technologies and experience in teaching and producing.
Austin Parenti is a writer/director based in West Palm Beach, Florida. He earned a B.A. in Cinema Arts from Palm Beach Atlantic University in 2018 and an M.F.A. in Film/Production from Asbury University in 2021. He serves as the Director of Digital Media Arts at The King's Academy High School, producing feature-length content every summer with world-class faculty, students, and facilities.