Raised in the Bay Area, Michele Panelli-Venetis came to L.A. with dreams of being an actress. “But I was way too pragmatic for that life,” she admits. So her natural gift for organizing a set behind the camera led her to a 30-year career as an assistant director that has included complex live-action/CGI kid flicks (Hop , Garfield , and all three Alvin and the Chipmunks features), a romance drama (Endless Love ), and even short form new media productions like Blue and Christine for the female-driven WIGS channel.
It all started when producer Kathleen Kennedy, who Panelli-Venetis had worked for on Jurassic Park (1993), recommending her for The Indian in the Cupboard (1995). “Kathy said this will be a great job for you to begin as a 1st AD, it’s only three people in a room. She neglected to mention two of them are three inches tall,” she laughs.
Directed by Frank Oz, Indian exposed Panelli-Venetis to the challenges of super-sized sets, digital animation and blue screen. All of it was good preparation for later in her career where she has specialized in what she describes as “little furry creature” films.
“We do what’s called a ‘stuffy pass,’” she explains about the genre, “where the puppet handlers will run around with a stuffed animal [in place of the CG character] to help the actor with direction and pacing.
However, things can get tricky when her fuzzy friends leave the soundstage, like on Mike Mitchell’s Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked (2011), shot onboard a real cruise ship with real passengers.
“If 50 people decided that morning they wanted to sit where we wanted to shoot, too bad,” Panelli-Venetis says. “So we brought all our extras onboard to stake out areas in advance, and get everyone on the boat excited to be part of the film.”
Panelli-Venetis was equally excited when director Rodrigo García asked her to AD the Internet series Blue, starring Julia Stiles, and Christine, starring America Ferrera. “It was one of the best experiences I ever had because you have this close ensemble who are clearly not working for the money,” she says. “Technically it’s not much different than doing a pilot. You schedule it the same way, work the set the same way, and just move a little faster than a feature.”
As the AD on Endless Love, Panelli-Venetis worked with director Shana Feste, who gave birth a few weeks after production wrapped.
“Slogging through the rainy weather and night shoots in Atlanta,” Panelli-Venetis says, “you really couldn’t complain about anything looking at Shana. That was inspiring.”