Co-producer of the most-watched television drama in the world. Investor and board member of a forward-thinking electric vehicle company. Biodiesel and environmental proponent. Social justice advocate. Philip A. Conserva '95 is well-equipped to answer the question, "What can you do with a liberal arts degree?"
An English major, Conserva is now co-producer of CBS's ground-breaking and award-winning show "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation." The forensic crime drama - recognized as the most popular dramatic series internationally - recently won the International Television Audience Award for a Drama TV Series. It has become such an icon that its influence can be seen here at Roanoke College, where one of the core Intellectual Inquiry courses, "Chemistry and Crime," models itself after the show, complete with fingerprinting assignments.
"I think it's very cool to hear that the school is offering some of the fun involved in forensics," Conserva said when he learned of the course.
Conserva has been with "CSI:" since its inception in 2000, after spending four years at the series "Chicago Hope" and one season with "Wasteland." He is proud of what "CSI:" has accomplished since then and of the innovative concept of the show, a pioneer in the forensic crime drama genre.
"We're really proud that we brought a new level to prime-time TV," Conserva says. "The significance of 'CSI:' is that the forensic investigators are in the foreground of the screen. This also brings the value of science to the storytelling process, therefore letting it do some talking. People are interested in what happens before, during and after a crime. 'CSI:' takes the audience to each event."
A Pivotal Internship
So how did the Suffield, Conn., native, who grew up on a farm, find himself headed straight for Los Angeles after graduation? To put it simply: a great internship. While at Roanoke, he signed up for a communications concentration because, he says, "I wanted to leave the school with a skill set that would enable me to talk to anyone." The concentration required that he complete an internship.
He credits his advisor, Dr. Anita Turpin, for encouraging him to try something new, and it was during his junior year that he decided he wanted to be a producer. His uncle, producer/director James C. Hart, helped him find a position alongside the production assistants on the medical drama "Chicago Hope" during the summer of 1994.
The internship was scheduled to last three weeks. Just a few days before it ended, Conserva was driving through the 20th Century Fox lot delivering scripts. Outside "The Simpsons" production office, he noticed a Ford Bronco that had both a Roanoke College alumni sticker and a lacrosse sticker. Conserva, who played lacrosse for Roanoke during his sophomore year, was excited and returned to "The Simpsons" office after making his deliveries. Unfortunately, the Bronco was gone.
Later that evening, a production coordinator noticed the Roanoke College logo on Conserva's sweatshirt and offered to introduce him to Joe Boucher '87, the Bronco owner, who was producing "The Simpsons" and working on a lacrosse film. (Boucher later went on to produce the Emmy Award-winning series "King of the Hill.") Boucher offered Conserva a three-week internship on "The Simpsons," which gave him the opportunity to work with a top-notch animated production.
"I encourage everyone to do an internship, especially in this [economic] climate," Conserva said. "You become an easier hire." His own internship was pivotal in securing his first job. Following his back-to-back internships, Conserva returned to Roanoke and began his senior year. By fall break he had already received a job offer from "Chicago Hope."
A Show Biz Career
Conserva moved to California as soon as he finished his degree requirements the next summer. He began working in post-production, which he described as "everything that happens after each day's scenes are shot until that episode airs." That includes technical adjustments, visual effects, color correction, music and sound mixing. He found himself intrigued by this aspect of production and says that it gave him "a lot of opportunities to make something very cool."
Today, Conserva's responsibilities are even more wide-ranging. He works closely with the "CSI:" cast, which this year includes actor Ted Danson, who has stepped into the void left by the departing Laurence Fishburne.
"I have some of the most individual interactions [of all the crew]," Conserva says. "I work one-on-one with each actor for dialogue additions and technical corrections. We shoot the lines in the ADR [automatic dialogue replacement] stage; this is also known as 'looping.' I have a great relationship with all the actors, who are very solid people. That is a big part of why this show works. Everyone jives well."
Conserva also works closely with the "CSI:" sound team, which has won two Emmy awards and a handful of Motion Picture Sound Editors Awards. "What has been nice is that we still stand as the most-watched show on earth," he says.
Some days find Conserva high above Las Vegas in a helicopter shooting aerial shots of the city, which are then cut into the episode footage in order to establish settings. Although "CSI:" is set in Las Vegas, and a few casino scenes are filmed there, most of the show is filmed at Universal Studios or on location in Los Angeles.
Increasingly, Conserva finds himself drawn to the musical aspect of the show. He enjoys bringing in major artists, such as when he arranged for the country music band Rascal Flatts to appear on an episode last year. He noted, "There ought to be more of that to come this season."
Conserva's success comes from good old-fashioned hard work. "You just have to knuckle down and make things happen," he said. "We put a show on every week. It's finished two nights before it airs. There's always a deadline, whether it's the shooting schedule or getting the show completely wrapped up. You acclimate."
Conserva was very engaged in social activities at Roanoke and says that both his social involvement and his communications minor have held him in good stead in his business. "You end up communicating with people and learn on the fly," he says. "You need social skills and Roanoke has a lot of these opportunities. Communication is a big part of my career."
Conserva is married and the father of two young boys. When his older son, Xander, was born, Phil got serious about the clean-tech movement and how he could get involved. "I was really intrigued with biodiesel," he says. He wanted to see if he could help lessen the environmental impact of his Hollywood work environment.
He consulted with several biodiesel professionals and came up with a plan to transition the "CSI:" trucks and generators to the renewable fuel. Country music star Willie Nelson had been fueling his tour vehicles with biodiesel - an alternative to fossil fuels - through Conserva's associates, Agrifuels, based in his home state of Connecticut.
"I liked Agrifuels' network of first-class delivery for touring artists," he says. "They sourced quality U.S. biodiesel, from local producers, based on the location where the band's trucks and buses happened to be during the tour."
Conserva has reached out to various rock music groups, such as Widespread Panic, educating them about biofuel use and offering to provide the product. Ultimately, the groups embraced biofuel and began using it to fuel their touring vehicles. "It is important to me that we support sustainably produced American fuel with American money," he says.
Conserva also is an investor and board member of Trexa, a Los Angeles-based company that designs and manufactures "electric drive vehicle platforms," which are modular and scalable, and upon which an almost limitless variety of vehicle applications can be built. Conserva says that the platforms can be used with any vehicle body, such as those for unmanned vehicles, racecars, package delivery trucks or emergency response vehicles.
Whether it's biodiesel fuel, electric cars, or his latest interest - eco-renovation - "it's time for us to move fast and be in the future," Conserva says. "That's my big interest - the future."
On Oct. 15, Conserva accepted an award o behalf of "CSI:" from the Environmental Media Association, a Los Angeles-based organization that works with the entertainment industry in a global effort to educate people about environmental issues and inspire them into action. "CSI:" was recognized by EMA as the winner in the Television Episodic Drama category.
Conserva's sense of social responsibility extends beyond the environmental realm. He also is involved with Have Justice Will Travel, a Vermont-based group that provides legal and supportive services for low-income women who are victims of domestic violence, and their children. Conserva's sister is an attorney for the group, which Conserva calls "small but significant." The group provides legal, psychological and economic services in an effort to break the cycle of abuse.
Conserva expects that his future projects will branch out. He's interested in all kinds of media, he says, including feature-length films, documentaries, reality TV and the music industry. "My ambition and strengths are creating entertaining content that is a resource for positive and constructive change," he says.
However, he's happy with where he finds himself right now. He enjoys spending time with his wife and sons, who visit the "CSI:" set and are friends with the cast and crew. And, even in his 12th season, Conserva thoroughly enjoys his work.
"Spirits are high," he says. "After this length of time, it's pretty great to be happy to go to work."
For more information about biodiesel, Trexa and Have Justice Will Travel, please visit www.agrifuels.com, www.trexa.com, www.HaveJusticeWillTravel.org. Follow Conserva on Twitter@FSMdaddy.
- Sharon Nanz '09