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Todd Silverstein via HBO

Meet Todd Silverstein: Silicon Valley’s Lead Technical Consultant

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Todd Silverstein via HBO

In 2014, the same year that Silicon Valley made its debut, Todd Silverstein was in the midst of having Vizify—the Portland, Oregon-based data visualization startup he foundedacquired by Yahoo!, who he then worked for for a while before making his way to Tumblr. If you had asked Silverstein at the time where he envisioned his career might take him over the next few years, he probably wouldn’t have predicted that he’d be sitting in the writers’ room of one of HBO’s most successful comic series. Yet, as the lead technical consultant on Silicon Valley—which will air its season finale on Sunday, June 25—that’s exactly the position Silverstein finds himself in. But just how did he get there? We spoke with Silverstein to find out.

You began working on the show this season. Had you been a fan of Silicon Valley before that?

Oh, yeah. I think one of the reasons they liked me was because I was a fan but not a super fan, so I didn’t obsess about the details. I had been particularly impressed by the show not only because it’s hilarious, but because as someone who has founded companies, the thing that drew me most to it was lots of tech references. All that stuff was spot-on: the feeling of being an entrepreneur and in over your head and fighting against wild and crazy forces beyond your control. That felt very much like a lived experience, and the thing that impressed me about the show was how accurately I think they got the human drama, which is just a huge testament to the instincts of like Mike [Judge] and Alec [Berg] and the whole writing team. Because as much as there’s humor there, there are a lot of people that I know who watch it—especially people who have been entrepreneurs—who are like, “Oh man, that nailed some of the highs and the lows, and that emotional core,” which is sort of at the center of the action.

Clearly part of your job is to make sure that the show is getting the technology right—whether it’s the terminology or functionality—but that almost seems like it would be the easier part. The more difficult part seems like it would be how to accurately gauge how a person might react to a situation in real life.

Again, I think this is a real testament to like Alec and Mike going above and beyond. I was in the writers’ room with the writers during the writing process and I think that’s for them, by design ... One of the reasons I think that they thought it was important to have someone in the writers’ room to go through it is just because it allows a lot of that back and forth where sometimes there’ll be a technology that they read about, like machine learning, and we talk about, "Hey, what’s interesting about this?" and "Why are people excited about it?", and we talk about that.

But then, almost inevitably, you very quickly roll into, "Oh I’ve got friends who are working on that," and then you can help sort of match-make a little bit … It’s just a free-flowing creative process and it can work in both directions. Sometimes they have a really hilarious situation or comedy scene and want to know, “Well, how would this actually play out?” or “What would be unique on the tech side?” And then sometimes there’s technology where I’ll be like, “Hey, everyone’s talking about this,” and then I build these little primers for them.


John P. Johnson/HBO

One of the interesting things about the show is that, as much as it’s about technology, you really don’t have to know a thing about technology to enjoy it. You don’t have to understand what a compression algorithm does to enjoy the show; there’s plenty of context for the audience to work with. The characters really fill in the blanks.

That’s one of the other individual challenges: dialing it back. Being someone who’s more steeped in the technology, you have that curse of knowledge of thinking, “Oh yeah, people know what I’m talking about,” and then you talk to the writers and you get this blank look … and they’re like, “I don’t understand what you just said there.”

Sort of like when a scientist explains a complex concept in a way that makes it seem elementary.

Yeah, and again, that’s why the writing team is so impressive, because they’re very deliberate about that. And while we want to get the tech details right, it’s not at the cost of having people be totally confused or not being able to follow the plot.

How did you get connected with the folks on the show?

[Producer] Jonathan Dotan, who had sort of been leading the charge, had to step back a little bit, and so there’s this huge network of sort of consultants and friends of the show … But a lot of the venture capital funds actually have recruiting arms, and so he actually put a call out through that network. And because I was an entrepreneur who had sold a company and had received investments, it sort of came to me through that network.

So essentially it was a friend who said, “Hey, this sounds just like you …” One of the things that they’ve done to help keep things fresh is really look for people who have worked in tech but with very different perspectives. So they were like, “Hey, we love the idea of working with someone who has more product background,” and so that really matched up very nicely with what I had been working on.

And maybe a little frightening to you as in, “Is this mimicking my life too closely?”

Yeah, it is really weird … And the thing to keep in mind is that we’re working almost a year ahead, so when the show is finally about to get something right, it’s almost a brilliant act. It reminds me of publishing, where you’re making bets on books and you know that actual books aren’t going to publish for a year, year-and-a-half.


John P. Johnson/HBO

Describe what a typical day looks like for you when you’re working on the show.

There are kind of three phases to it; I would say I have three flavors of typical days: At the beginning of the season, it’s all of the writing process, so you’re with the writers in the writers’ room all day. I know a decent amount about tech, but I’m hardly an expert in everything, so sometimes there are things that come up—like, “Hey, let’s talk about hackers”—and I’m like, “Alright, yeah.” I’ve never hacked any system, and we actually have some white hat hackers who are part of the team.

So during the day I’m in the writers’ room and it is that sort of freewheeling process and a lot of talking about story and try to get the emotional truth of those stories. It’s very much both push-pull. Sometimes I’ll come into the room and it’s like, “Here’s a really interesting technology” and we’ll talk about it and they’ll be like, “Oh, could we make a story out of this?”

When Alec is running the room it’s very much like working off of whiteboards, so we sort of outline storylines and then those outlines become typed-up outlines, and then they become longer typed-up outlines, and at that point they would sort of become scripts. And then the scripts would be sort of worked through to turn up even more of the great humor that would come out of them.

Once the first couple of scripts are in the can, then you start going into the production process. So my role there was very much, “Hey, here’s a scene where Gilfoyle is on his computer.” It’s actually looking for those moments where they would need tech, and so there’s an incredibly talented production team and props department, but some of the more technical aspects they’re going to need—like what would Gilfoyle actually be typing now—what does that even look like and what would it be showing on the screen?

So I headed up a fairly sizable team of people where we would actually identify what might show up on screen, everything from whiteboard to the rest, and then we would work with that technical team and to make sure that it was accurate. So, people would write real code and again, everything gets screencast these days on Reddit and we try really hard to make sure that that stuff is real. So it’s actual code, in an actual browser, and it’s like we are actually doing all this stuff … just like you would if you were deploying it for real, and sort of working all the things up so that people either have references that they can build versions of or actual bits of code that will go on screen.

And then the third part of the job is when you finally go into shooting, you work a little bit with the actors. Particularly where there’s a particular technology they need or want that same primer themselves just to help figure out, “How am I going to play this scene?” or whatever it would be, and then dialogue and things like that. Sometimes you have a really twisted line of like someone talking about something deeply technical and in addition to wanting to understand it, they’re like, “I don’t know what some of these symbols mean. How would you intelligently say that?” So it’s very much really helping just getting the actors the additional help that they need when they’re sort of working something through, they can ask questions. It’s working through them. So, it was a really interesting, multifaceted role and it sort of evolved as you go from script to pre-production to actual production.


John P. Johnson/HBO

What’s the most rewarding part of the job for you?

Just because of my own sort of flirtation with publishing, I love spending time with the writers and just being able to see their process and even being a part of it and being able to sometimes be like, “I helped,” or “They took some of my own experience and were able to not only reflect it, but make it be 10 times funnier than it actually was in real life.” That just felt like a privilege. And it’s not only that I, personally, think it’s some of the best TV on television, but each of the individual writers were so accomplished individually.

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Odd Jobs
Meet Paul ‘Mungo’ Mungeam: Adventure Cameraman and Host of Expedition Mungo
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Animal Planet

Paul “Mungo” Mungeam has never met a corner of the world he didn’t want to explore. Over the past two decades, the renowned adventure cameraman—who has logged many hours working alongside Bear Grylls—has traveled to more than 90 countries to capture the most wonderful (and wild) places on Earth. Now, after years behind the camera, Mungo is stepping in front of it with his own Animal Planet series, Expedition Mungo, which sees the London-based adventurer reveal the truth behind the mythical creatures and legends that have been passed down from generation to generation. We caught up with Mungo to learn more about his work, and to get his take on Bigfoot.

How did you arrive at your current position as an adventure cameraman?

Through a friend, I met Simon Niblett (a renowned documentary cameraman). We got on famously. He offered me a job as his camera assistant; TV suited me and I suited it. The rest is history.

Were you aware that such an occupation existed before?

Yes, but I never dreamed that I would one day do it—I didn’t think it would ever be within my reach.

What are the key qualifications for the job?

To know your craft. There’s no substitute for experience, earned through hard work. Some go to film school, but I learned on the job, more like an apprenticeship. Humility and the right attitude will serve you better in this job than academic qualifications.

What's the biggest misconception people have about what your job entails?

They often think my job is glamorous. I guess, occasionally it can be—granted, I get paid to go to some incredible places around the world—but I work very hard. My job is creative, yet also incredibly physical and all-consuming. The locations are often not glamorous at all, but rather, extreme and regularly very uncomfortable. You have to remember, we are not there on holiday. We are there to achieve what our clients are paying us (pretty well) to deliver.

What is the most rewarding part of the job for you?

I love leading a team. I have risen up through the ranks. I started out making numerous cups of tea and cleaning kits and cars. When I was proven faithful in the small things, I was allowed to move on to greater responsibilities. That’s the way I like my team to work. You earn your stripes and you’re as strong as your weakest team member. I now enjoy giving others the opportunity once given to me (by Simon).

What's the part you dread most?

B-roll and GVs—the shots that fill in the gaps of more interesting storytelling footage. General views are just that: vistas of your location, etc. They are very important, but I now find them so dull to film.


Animal Planet

You’ve traveled to more than 90 countries in your work as a cameraman; what’s the most dangerous predicament you’ve ever found yourself in?

There have been too many scrapes to pick one. But if you forced me, which I guess you are, I would pick a night camping with a presenter in a small, two-man tent on the saddle of a mountain pass in the Canadian Rockies. Our tent was pitched in a precarious area, very exposed, with sharp drops on either side. Our guides were useless … They had forgotten an extra tent, so slept in a mocked-up shelter. And they had not charged the satellite phone—our only communication with the outside world, in case of an emergency. We were already very vulnerable to the elements, but that night all hell let loose. The wind was like nothing I had heard before. Our ropes and tent pegs were being ripped out of the ground, so I had to keep getting up and out of the tent (in the craziest conditions) to re-secure them. We didn’t sleep a wink. I lay there thinking, ‘What can I do to make us safer?,’ but couldn’t think of one thing. We were totally at the mercy of Mother Nature.

It was a very long night. Thankfully we lived to see another day. The [pilot] that ended up risking all to rescue us said he had been out all night, helping people, as three tornadoes had blown through that mountain range in one night. That’s three tornadoes! We got lucky.

What’s the one place you’ve traveled to that surprised you the most—for good reasons or otherwise?

Due to watching movies, I always thought deserts would be somewhat romantic and just searingly hot. Having now been to a number of the world’s biggest deserts, I can say that there is very little romance about them—apart from the odd, stunning sunset/sunrise. During the day it can be how I imagine the surface of the sun being: hot! Yet, at night, it can also be incredibly cold. A change which, if you are not prepared, can easily cost you your life.

With Expedition Mungo, you’ve moved from behind the camera to in front of it. What has been the biggest challenge in doing that?

Stepping in front of the camera hasn’t been as difficult as some would think. I have spent 20-plus years working with presenters/hosts and helping them come across well, so it’s familiar territory. The secret is to be 100 percent yourself. If you try to be someone who you are not, the viewer will very quickly smell a rat. So, what you see of me on Expedition Mungo is 100 percent me; like me, or switch the channel.


Animal Planet

Your new series seeks to uncover the truth behind the many legends and mythical creatures we’ve all heard about. When planning the show, what’s the one legend you knew you had to tackle—the one that’s always been of interest to you?

There has always been so much talk of the Bigfoot/Yeti legends. To actually meet, face-to-face, a number of eyewitnesses who claim they have seen one was amazing. I was shocked by my reaction, from “cynic” to pretty much “believer.” You’ll need to watch the series Expedition Mungo to hear the stories and see the people, but they are very compelling accounts. One guy lost his power of speech for over two weeks, from fear of what he saw. He lost his job and was ousted by his community for “losing his mind.” My question is, if he was lying, why wouldn’t he just hold his hands up and say “Hey guys, I was only kidding,” and get his job and community back? Rather, he stayed true to what he saw as he swears it was real, the truth. I have to give him the benefit of the doubt. (Look out for the Argentina episode, coming soon!)

What advice would you give to someone looking to follow your career path?

Be willing to start from scratch. Put in years of hard work and learn your craft (if you try to take a short cut, beware: you will get found out). Check out the closing credits of shows that you are inspired by and note the production company who makes it; contact them to see who supplied their technical equipment. Contact the facilities company and see if there are any vacancies to work/learn there.

You need to learn about all the equipment before you’ll ever be let loose to shoot a TV show. Plus, it’s not all about equipment or filming, but also learning the etiquette of being on a filming set (where to stand and where not to stand, when to talk and when not to talk, etc.).

If you weren't doing this, what would you be doing?

I would either have made a career as an artist of some kind or I would have joined the Royal Marines Commandos.

I so wish I had five lives, as there’s far more I would love to have done. Having said that, I never take for granted how fortunate I am to have a job that I love. I wish the same for you.

Walt Disney once said, “If you can dream it, you can do it!” Why not?

Expedition Mungo airs on Animal Planet on Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT. Watch the video below for a sneak peek of tonight’s episode, in which Mungo travels to Namibia to learn about the dog-headed pig monster.

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