Blacksburg producer filming children’s TV series in our backyard

Photos courtesy of Penny P’s Backyard
Blacksburg’s Chris Valluzzo (fourth from left, back row) is producing a television pilot that includes recent site work at the historic Yellow Sulphur Springs Resort near Blacksburg. The show is titled Penny P’s Backyard. Valluzzo is pictured with crew members and actors from the show.

By Marty Gordon

Some of the area’s most historic locations are about to be part of a new children’s television series. Blacksburg’s Chris Valluzzo is producing and directing Penny P’s Backyard. which follows a child named Penny P and three other friends as they explore the world around them.  On-site filming includes a lot of work at the Yellow Sulphur Springs Resort near Blacksburg.

Valluzzo said he wanted to produce a fictional show about the area, and thus arose Penny P.

“I knew the people who owned Yellow Sulphur Springs, so I started with that.  I then took my love of science and Appalachian folk culture and tried to figure out if there was a connection.  Lo and behold there are dozens,” he said.

Penny P’s Backyard is a series about a girl and her three friends who make videos and animations of the world around them.  “It’s a show about kids making a show, and their show is about science and folk culture,” Valluzzo said.

The primary characters are Penny P-Kylie Miller, Nelly Ruby Provo, Ramp Isaac Hadden and Sadie Izzie Valluzzo.  They are all kids Valluzzo knew prior to the filming including Izzie, his daughter. Christiansburg native and longtime actor Bo Keister was recently added to play Penny’s father.  Darren Van Dyke is the production’s director of photography.

Valuzzo works full time in the Virginia Tech video department and has produced several projects over the past 10 years as an ongoing hobby.  Penny P’s Backyard is one of those projects. He initially thought up the idea four years ago.

Director Chris Valluzzo discusses a scene from Penny P’s Backyard with crew members.

Penny P’s Backyard will focus on how science and nature influence or show up in Southwest Virginia art, music and culture. Local residents will recognize scenes from downtown Christiansburg and Blacksburg and other locations like Marion and Wytheville. Valluzzo said these locations provide for a rich pool of re-occurring or one-off characters interacting with the core four.

The main hotel of the Yellow Resort Spring healing resort was built in 1810, and the lush environment of the 50-acre property serves as the home to Penny P and her family. The mid-1800s row cottages serve as apartments for graduate students and traveling artists.

Through Penny P’s short films, documentaries and animations, the primary narrative themes of the wonderment that exists at the intersection of science, nature and folk art of all shades will be portrayed.

For instance, in a conversation between a geologist and geo-physicist about how the Appalachian Mountains formed, topics like heat, pressure and the bending and folding of earth are explored.

This relates directly to folk art in the sense that  potters and blacksmiths use heat and pressure to bend or mold their work.

Another example of the intersection of science, nature and folk art occurs when an entomologist discusses common water skippers found in streams and how varying surface tensions combine with pressure to affect their mobility on water. This is related to an Appalachian dancing doll and  how different speeds, frequencies and pressure on the doll’s dancing plank affect the limbs of the dancing doll.

Other examples in the series include basket weavers and bird nests; light refraction/the color spectrum and glass blowing; and microbiology and canning fruits and vegetables.
In each episode, the four children are given a project assignment from film club mentor Vanover.

This assignment, driven by Penny’s love of natural science and folk life, spurs an adventure as the quartet searches for the project’s subject matter in and around Penny P’s backyard, the small town she calls home, and the adjacent university where her mother works as Dean of Natural Sciences and the Environment. Penny P’s father is a local woodworker and musician.

The production also incorporates something close to Valluzzo’s heart, the use of renewable energy.  As part of a partnership with Blacksburg’s Solar Connexion everything associated with the production of  Penny P’s is powered by the sun.

In the spring of 2017, while in the gear storage closet at his job at Tech, Valluzzo noticed that all of the field production gear had rechargeable batteries that filled up only a handful of power strips. Batteries for cameras, sound equipment, camera stabilizer, drones and new LED field lights were all being charged. Valluzzo asked himself what if rechargeable batteries for everything could be portable.

“This will be the first television show in history to be produced using 100% renewable energy,” Valluzzo said.

For example, Valluzzo gets his costumes from the YMCA or Goodwill and donates them back when they’re done;  When shooting is complete, the various parts of the sets are broken down and donated to Habitat for Humanity. All of the production’s debris, including compostable plates and cutlery, is composted and donated to a community garden.

A proof of the concept pilot has been completed, and Valluzzo hopes to pitch the show to studios and networks such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Disney and PBS next summer.

To help fund the pilot episode, Valluzzo has launched a crowdsourcing effort. “Donating to the campaign is the best way to see additional work we’ve done,” he said. “The pitch video gives everyone a really good idea of where we’re heading.”

The funding campaign has a $10,000 goal. Those interested in donating to the campaign should go to www.indiegogo.com/projects/penny-p-s-backyard.

More information on Penny P’s Backyard can be found at www.facebook.com/PennyPBackyard.