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.


  1. Awesome stuff, John. Big fan of Doug TenNapel, and a big fan of yours as well. It's always awesome to see how these things began, and I find it amazing how Sockbaby was the result of a fan sending Doug an e-mail. It's a little inspiring, in its own way.

  2. You would be surprised to find out what happens when younsend an e mail. Especially if you make stuff.