Saturday, December 14, 2013

Sockbaby 4

Like I said back on the 6th, in the aftermath of Sockbaby, I knew what I wanted to do next, but I didn't really anticipate the reality of the experience.

I have to admit that, because the global acceptance of Sockbaby came both easily and totally without my understanding, there was a part of me that believed that maybe that would carry over into anything I made. I wouldn't call myself arrogant, but the three episodes of Sockbaby did seem to succeed consistently on the level they were intended to.

It is mostly overlooked that Westhavenbrook did several projects in the years between Sockbaby 3 and Sockbaby 4 and they were not all terrible. In fact, the very same year that we made the first Sockbaby episode, Ben Beames made a short called MERCY as a student project while at UCSC. I played a role in the film as well as did a few others who are familiar to all of Westhavenbrook's productions. I guess it could come as a surprise that the film had much of the same crew as the Sockbaby series.

This is the first project I remember us working on that was shot in HD using Ben's Santa Cruz based film company Silverwolf's  JVC GRH-D1 High Definition MiniDV Camcorder. In 2003 these cameras cost 3,000 dollars a piece and Silverwolf had 2 of them to cover the multiple projects they were doing at the time.

Mercy was a film Ben had pitched as a college project, but it was turned down because it was considered to be too big to be finished in 8 weeks. Ben finished the project in 2 weekends on his own.

In 2005, we finally got to do something we'd been planning for a few years. Ben Beames had written a feature length screenplay for a period adventure film called THE TYRANTS OF NAZCA in which I would play the lead role.

As part of a pitch to get financing for the film, Ben had been planning to shoot the opening sequence, an action scene involving moving vehicles. I obviously emulated this approach years later with THE DANGER ELEMENT.

Filming commenced on Ben's family's rice farm after a series of tests and rehearsals:

Filming on the opening truck chase sequence of TYRANTS OF NAZCA took 5 days. Everything that could go wrong did. The scene was set in a dry desert, the location was rained out the night before the first day of filming, changing the setting entirely. The sky changed day by day, making it challenging to cut from one shot of the sky to the other without it looking completely different. The truck developed an impressive water leak that we handled by just continuing to pour water into it throughout the shoot. I eventually developed an inner ear infection that made it impossible for me to move my eyes without vomiting, let alone fight with Justin Spurlock on the back of a moving truck, which meant that shooting had to be delayed for a short time.
But anyone who's seen this sequence knows that Ben was able to accomplish something we'd never done before. An action sequence that was really beginning to step into the circle of theatrical quality.

I'd been developing several stories and making experimental shorts involving THE DANGER ELEMENT's main characters, Battle Jitni and Billiard, for years. It was around this time that I dumped several weird experimental ideas that had come up between Justin and I into a no budget gorilla film that eventually ran at about 40 minutes long. The film was technically primitive, hilarious in some places, a total confused mess in others. But it was always really meant to provide a place for me to experiment and learn without any of it actually having to work. Many things that eventually made their way into THE DANGER ELEMENT came from things we discovered while making this terrible, but endearing, film. It was called BATTLE JITNI and the GAUNTLET OF SORROW. Some of our die hard fans remember the brief period of time in which you could actually watch it online.


During that time period, many tumultuous things happened. I met and broke up with my first girlfriend (yes, I know. I was 25) I was offered a job out of state which I agonized over taking and eventually turned down to become a youth minister at Saint Anthony's Catholic Church in Hughson, CA and entered into what would become a long term relationship. The turbulence of ordinary life almost caused me to give up film making. When I decided to actually do this, it suddenly occurred to me that it was impossible and I continued making films. I was never in any real danger of quitting. In 2007 we actually filmed two scenes for THE DANGER ELEMENT feature (at the time, its working title was THE GOD MACHINE) only to have the financing for the film collapse shortly afterward. One of the scenes we filmed would eventually become the opening scene for episode seven around 6 years later.

It was also around this time that I met Brooke Brodack.
We were both featured on the front page of a website started by Carson Daily. Sockbaby and this video:

That was the first time I ever saw Brooke's face. We ended up admiring one another's exploits and, though we were both promised some big things by Carson's camp, what actually ended up happening was that Brooke and I worked a job making videos together for a while in San Francisco. It wasn't the greatest job in the world. She moved out here from Massachusetts shortly after our initial acquaintance and we spent the next year or so making very little money and living on the edge of homelessness. I would still contend that it was among the very best times of my life aside from the insane stalkers we accumulated. This has been a problem that has continued into the present.

In 2008 I got an e mail from Doug TenNapel containing a script for Sockbaby 4.

In all the time I've known him, this is how it works. I'm sure 7,000 people asked him to make another Sockbaby episode in the 5 years since the first episode, but you'll never actually get news of one until you're least expecting it. I read the script and literally laughed out loud the whole time, Called him up that night and we talked about getting the ball rolling. Justin and I made a trip down to LA to chop up the script over lunch as it was far too long. I'd say it was a good 20 minute script, but we needed something more like 10. Some truly bizarre subplots got cut, my favorite of which being that Burger was introduced as having gained hundreds of pounds since episode 3 and then burned all of it off in a determined effort to save Ronnie in the final act.

Even after that, things didn't get started on this project very easily. I'm not terribly proud of the outlook on life I had at this time in my life, but I don't know that it could have been avoided. I was unemployed and broke with no car and the plan for this project involved spending every weekend of April in LA at Doug's house filming the episode. Don't take this the wrong way, I love Sockbaby, but at that moment, I wasn't willing to do this. I remember having this conversation with Justin Spurlock in which I weighed the pros and cons. "We've made 3 of these things," I said, "is it worth the effort to expend money and will power that I do not have in order to make another?" I know. It sounds horrible, but it was how I felt. I was dejected about my feature film project falling apart and I wanted to do something that was going to make my life better as it was not all that great at the time. I know it sounds dramatic, but I was really conflicted about jumping on board to do another one of these things, particularly because it was a backyard project that we weren't going to be making it in our back yard.

Ultimately, I blame my attitude on feeling like I had not really been able to accomplish my goals for the previous 5 years. Nothing I had done had ever attracted the kind of positive, magical reaction that Sockbaby did. You'd think this would make me want to go back to it, but what it really did was make me want to do something completely different. I'd seen what Sockbaby could do and I wanted to see something else. THE DANGER ELEMENT had been that "something else" for a number of years and it had just been pulled out from under me.

I don't think I ever told Doug any of that, but he was the one who eventually convinced me to come out of my cave and do it. He had gotten Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite) and his twin brother Dan Heder to agree to appear in Sockbaby 4. This started to make me feel like we actually were trying to do something bigger and better than before. I don't know that we actually were, but it felt like it.

I had also met Doug Jones (Hellboy, Pan's Labyrinth) about a year earlier and had gotten him to commit to playing Doctor Elymas in THE DANGER ELEMENT, which, at the time, only existed as a draft of the script and was called THE GOD MACHINE. We were able to bring him on board for Sockbaby 4 to play himself. So it was really starting to feel like something worth doing.

For the most part I had a really good time making Sockbaby 4. Dan and Jon were great fun to work with. Doug Jones and I got to collaborate for the first time and it proved to be something special, we had the biggest crew we'd ever had on a Sockbaby short as Doug TenNapel had pulled in a number of friends and fans to work and all of them pulled their weight admirably for being volunteers. Many of them have remained my friends and colleagues in the years and adventures since. Even Rob Schrab made an appearance, allowing us to skewer him with a flying tiki torch.

I do, however, think that my attitude at the time caused me to take the project far more seriously than anyone should ever take a Sockbaby episode. In my mind, this was the only thing I'd have made in 5 years that I knew thousands of people were going to watch, so it had to be awesome. As a result, I do kind of regret the two shouting matches I had with Doug on the set. Not for the reasons you might think. It is not unusual for Doug TenNapel and I to disagree. We disagree on a lot of things, really. And its no secret to anyone who worked on the first three Sockbaby episodes that Doug and I had our fair share of arguments about this or that. But the thing that is special to me about everything that Doug and I have done together, whether on or off the set, professionally or privately, is that I think every disagreement we've had, even if it escalated into a shouting match, actually ended up making at least one or the other of us into a better person at the end of it. And if it was over work, it would make our work better. We also seemed to have a knack for being able to have a laugh 5 minutes after we've had some show stopping argument. I don't regret any of this. What I do regret are the one or two times this happened on the set of Sockbaby 4 in which I know I made the rest of the crew uncomfortable. One of my simultaneously favorite and most regrettable memories from the set, simply for its awkwardness, was a disagreement about the 180 degree rule that I had with Doug while Jon Heder and Dan Heder each held onto one of my arms in the middle of a 12 foot swimming pool, all of us dressed in ridiculous costumes.

Ultimately, these are funny memories to me and probably are for Doug, but I have this regret in my heart for the possibility that I may have taken what should have been a fun, backyard project for most of the people involved, and turned it into something way too serious. I can only hope that I've been over thinking it for all these years.

We filmed Sockbaby 4 using, again, one of Silverwolf's JVC GRH-D1 High Definition MiniDV Camcorder. Justin Spurlock shot just about everything. We had followed the model set up on Sockbaby 2. I would plan and edit the fight sequences while Doug and Justin handled shooting the rest of it and Justin edited the non action sequences.

Doug wanted half of the fight scene to take place under water, so we came up with a way to film with the camera placed inside a fish tank that was submerged up to its rim. We used the old Digital 8 camera to do this and It usually took 3 people to operate this rig. Two to hold the tank from flying up out of the water and one to operate the camera. This also presented an opportunity for an animated sequence of Ronnie's longs being filled with water to be created featuring our mutual friend, Justin Roiland (Rick and Morty)

It is also of note that I learned to breathe fire on the set of this project. The skill has come in handy again only once since that day.

We premiered Sockbaby 4 at a screening that included the previous 3 episodes at a panel at the San Diego Comic Con in 2008 to yet another impressive crowd proving to me that the Sockbaby's audience had not died in our absense, but had merely grown hungrier. We spent an hour, once again, signing autographs and taking photos with our fans.


 And all this did to me was commit me even more earnestly to the goal I had failed to accomplish. Finishing THE DANGER ELEMENT.

Friday, December 6, 2013

SOCKBABY: the first 3

Reese Roper once asked me how it all started and I said that it was because of his band.
He apologized. 

This is the actual story.
In 2003, my good friend, Uriel Padilla, and I ordered the farewell album of one of our favorite bands, FIVE IRON FRENZY. (They're back, by the way.) We were poor young men in our early twenties who lived with our parents. It rained every time we went outside to film something. For some reason I remember this as a bright and hopeful  moment in my life.
The cover of the CD had this awesome painting on it by Doug TenNapel, the guy who created a childhood memory of mine called EARTHWORM JIM.

The back of the cover had Doug's e mail address on it, so, as I am known to do every time I find contact information belonging to someone who has done something I like, I wrote Doug an e mail. It was short. I told him how much I liked his work on the cover of the album and included a link to a trailer for one of my terrible movies. The trailer was good, though. I have always been better at making those than making movies. 

I did not expect the reply I got. Aside from a recommendation that I read his new graphic novel at the time, CREATURE TECH, which I did and loved, he seemed to unexpectedly have this notion that we needed to do some kind of film project together. Later that evening, I got a script for SOCKBABY. He had written it in something like a half hour and included a whole line up of character designs. He had already decided that I would play the role of Ronnie Cordova.

A month or two later (maybe it was the very same month) Justin Spurlock and I were making a trip to Bakersfield (about the halfway mark between where we lived and where Doug lived) where we met Doug TenNapel for the very first time in a Denny's restaurant for Breakfast. The very first thing he told me as we walked in the door was how his neighbor was doing compositing work on PASSION OF THE CHRIST. 

Knowing people who worked in the film industry was a pretty new concept for me at that time so this pretty much blew my mind. But it didn't stop there. I also learned that he had just sold CREATURE TECH to Fox, so it didn't take more than a few minutes for me to start feeling like I'd stepped out of the almond orchard I grew up on and into show business. 

During the course of breakfast I showed Doug a video storyboard of the fight scene I was planning for Sockbaby. Uriel Padilla and I had filmed it in a gymnasium at our Church and I was able to play it back from a digital 8 tape so Doug could watch it. He was impressed enough to make me feel great about myself for a while. Justin, Doug and I drew a great deal of attention to ourselves as we acted out scenes between the tables of the crowded restaurant and the distinct voice of Ronnie Cordova was discovered and heard for the first time. Before going our separate ways from the Bakersfield Denny's we snapped this picture:

I think we spent about a month doing preproduction for the first Sockbaby episode one evening a week in Justin's mom's garage. Justin and his brothers, Cody and Grant, helped us build costumes for Burger and Sharky almost to the exact specifications of Doug's drawings. I was particularly proud of constructing Burger's robotic arm entirely out of cardboard, a process that Doug had turned us onto with reference to Rob Schrab's work. 

The story of how the first episode of Sockbaby was made is an awkward contrast to the global reaction that it generated. Doug came out to co-direct the first episode with us, which ended up being shot over about 2 days spread out over something like 3 weeks. The weather changed and we also didn't really know how to use our cameras so the white balance shifts right in the middle of the fight. What this has taught me is that technical standards generally do not matter on the internet. What this did not teach me is what actually DOES matter. Because I still don't get what happened next. 

While Doug was in town, he told us his intentions for the short. He wanted to enter it in a monthly online film competition called Channel 101, which was founded by his friends Rob Schrab and Dan Harmon, who you may know as the creators of the SARAH SILVERMAN PROGRAM and COMMUNITY. There would be a live screening at which the audience would vote and the video would also go up on their website. At the time, I had no clue who they were. On top of that, I had no idea what good putting a video on the internet would do. I seriously did not get what the point of doing that was. Should give you an idea of where we were in history. There was no YouTube. I didn't even really have a reliable connection to the internet.

Uriel, who played Davis, Justin and I all went down to the screening on Hollywood Blvd. An old friend I had made through a film festival and had not actually met in person, Hal Forsstrom, came to the screening. He's become a good friend and has worked on virtually everything I have done since as a motion graphics artist or visual effects supervisor. I also met Dennis Culp, the Trombone player for FIVE IRON FRENZY and his wife, Melinda. Dennis went on to provide a Trombone solo for the 3rd episode. Justin Ridge, an all around animation guy who's worked on Avatar, Star Wars and what-have-you, who did Sockbaby's music and, later, the incredible poster, was also in attendance. 

It was a surreal evening. The way it works is, there are five "prime time shows" that the audience has voted to come back from the previous month with a new episode. Then there are a number of new shows that also get voted on. We were voted into prime time with our first episode while a long running show starring Jack Black was voted out. Shannon Elizabeth and Drew Carey were both sitting within arm's reach of me. Dan Harmon brought Doug TenNapel a drink and couldn't say enough about the fight sequence I was able to put together. The audience reaction was unlike anything I'd ever experienced. It was surprisingly difficult to gauge how significant the experience was.

We had one month to make the next episode before the next live screening. This gave us very little time to realize that the first episode was quickly becoming one of the most popular videos on the internet. We were too busy trying to plan, shoot and edit a video that was more complicated than the first, which we'd had several months to tinker with. After a single production meeting at Nickelodeon, where Doug was working on his show, Catscratch, we decided to take a different approach. As a director, I focused almost entirely on the fight sequences and left the rest up to Doug and Justin. Justin did all the post production on anything that wasn't a fight scene. This contributed a lot to us being able to get it done in time, even though Doug became ambitious enough to enlist the help of Mike Dietz to make a hand drawn animated sequence in what I remember as less than 14 days. It was, coincidentally, the first time I ever saw myself as a cartoon.

It was fun, but it was difficult. I attribute most of what I have learned concerning collaboration in entertainment to my work with Doug TenNapel on Sockbaby 2. 

We were voted out of the prime time line up with episode 2, but it didn't stop Sockbaby from becoming one of the most watched and most quoted film projects I've ever worked on. We took the next few months to produce a longer 3rd episode with the intention of showing it live at Comic Con before putting it online. The 2004 San Diego Comic Con was my first experience with the convention and it was overwhelming for the obvious reasons if you've ever been there. Leading up to the Convention, I became aware that Jim Henson Company was so interested in Sockbaby, they wanted us to cancel the screening. Our screening played to a packed house. It was standing room only and we answered questions and signed autographs for at least a half hour afterward. No screening or appearance I have made has compared before or since.

Shortly after, I made a limited run of DVDs for the series, which I assembled in my house, and they sold to countries around the world. In the years since, a number of entertainment companies have shown interest in SOCKBABY: Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, O Entertainment. But nothing has really gone anywhere. I've learned a simple lesson about the entertainment industry as a result of this. "Don't get excited." SOCKBABY was seen by everyone in Hollywood at one point or another. Everybody kinda wanted it for a minute... then they didn't. And that's how the industry works. But this period was not defined by rejection. It was defined by new friends and new possibilities. SOCKBABY cracked open the internet for me and I was able to network and make friends like never before. Some of my fondest memories revolve around being dirt poor and somehow doing amazing things with amazing people. I don't think it ever would have happened without this project and I am still feeling the effects. One of the coolest memories of Sockbaby that I have was when Uriel and I were invited to Coos Bay, Oregon by our friend and fan, Ethan Nicholle, to fight on stage as Ronnie and Davis at one of his band's shows. An audience of 600 people screamed in approval as I threw Uriel off the stage into a crushing crowd of strangers. They loved us and it terrified me. I barely made it off the stage without collapsing.

Ethan went on to create the Fox animated tv show AXE COP with his little brother. I'm sure you've heard of that. But I'll always remember him for his graphic novel, THE WEEVIL, and for the pizza that's named after him. Because that was delicious.

The cult following that Sockbaby generated was unprecedented. In something like 5 years I never heard a single negative comment about the series. In the modern new-media climate, that is unheard of. I never understood what it was that made Sockbaby so popular. It seemed like it happened so easily that somewhere in the back of my mind it felt like it would continue to be easy. But the thing nobody ever tells you about what its like to do something that is so well loved by so many people is how difficult it is to do  it again. I knew what I wanted to do next, but I did not know how different the experience would be.