Catch the first leg of creator Dave Warren's fear and loathing journey from studio animator to struggling independent.
Dave Warren of channelzero put his career and house on the line to finance the making of SoSophie. Photo credit: Frank Longford, Studio2 Productions, Santa Ana, California.
David got his foot in the door with Ralph Bakshi's Spicy City and found his calling. © 1997 Home Box Office.
NWAs Straight Outta Compton blasted from the speakers of the Mitsubishi as I rounded the on-ramp onto the 710 Freeway, making my final drive home from the city of the same name. Today I was happily leaving behind my job as art director for a garment company in this roach-infested, locked behind security bars sweat shop in the gang capital of the world for a new job, a new career, in animation. After two years of studying nights and putting together a portfolio, I was hired as a character designer at the now defunct HBO Animation studio in Century City working on Ralph Bakshis Spicy City.
The studio was an amazing little family of artists in this boutique environment where creative input was encouraged and nurtured. HBO was new to animation and was looking at a lot of ideas. Everyone from the production assistants to the producers had an idea for a show that he or she was working on. It was impossible not to get caught up in this swell of creativity. I was hooked. I wanted to sell a show too. Being brand new to the business, I was naïve and thought this was the norm for the animation business, so I went home every night (usually after an extended happy hour with my fellow artists) doing the Snoopy dance because I was so in love with my job and the dream of seeing my own vision on the air.
About the time production was wrapping up, reality stepped in. It was my birthday and I had just returned from lunch with a big group from the studio. I got called upstairs to the producers office. My present from the producer was to lay me off. My work there was done and my style didnt fit the only other in-house production, Spawn. Just like that it was over.
Luckily one of the artists at HBO had a good relationship with a producer at Warner Bros. who just so happened to be looking for a character designer for the series Pinky and the Brain. As quickly as one experience ended another began. I remember telling Eric Radomski, supervising director at HBO the news. He said, Youre in the animation business now. I didnt know what he meant at the time. I do now.
Warner Bros. was a completely different environment than HBO. It was a big machine. This giant gray sea of cubicles full of artists, assistants, writers and all the other people it takes to put a show on television. Often times, it was a lot of work and there were real deadlines to be met. Although the plush environment of HBO and its generous production schedule was gone, I was still having a great time. Im this kid from a poor little Podunk town in Connecticut, and here I am, working at Warner Bros. on a Steven Spielberg cartoon.
This was like a dream. I grew up watching Bugs Bunny and learned to draw by tracing him from my coloring books. I was honored to be part of that legacy and still am. These were fun times. I was working on an incredible show, surrounded by amazing talent and made a lot of great friends. What happened though was I got caught up in my life at Warner Bros. and without realizing it, stopped thinking about creating and selling my own ideas. Opportunity and a reminder of my dream arose when, after many an episode, Pinky and the Brain finally came to an end and Warner Bros. started laying off the staff.
So much of this business is built on relationships and this was the case when I was called into the associate producers one day expecting to be given a lay off notice (just like HBO years before, only today wasnt my birthday) when to my surprise she asked me if I would be interested in helping develop an idea for an animated series created by Jamie Kellner, who was then head of The WB. She did this as a friend who believed in me, in my passion for what I did and as a last ditch effort to help me avoid having to go out and find another job. What she ended up giving me was a glimpse at a future, one I would become determined to make my own.
Of course I said yes and jumped on the elevator upstairs to the executive offices to meet the person in charge and find out what I was supposed to do. As it turned out, all they had was an idea and a script. It didnt even have a name. They wanted me to develop the look of the show, the characters and put together a presentation or pitch to be presented to Jamie Kellner and the other Warner execs. Realizing the amount of work to be done and the time given, I asked for assistance and was allowed to assemble a small crew to help me complete my goal. I quickly put together a team of friends and artists from Pinky and the Brain facing a similar fate to mine.
Animation is a team sport, requiring the talent of many people in order to be successful. I wanted to make this show happen and impress Warner Bros. In order to do so, I needed an extremely talented team, who could not only help me come up with something brilliant, but also get the work done. Most importantly, I needed a team to buy into this idea of creating this show from scratch, and actually believe that its possible that we could be successful and end up with our creation on the air. I was fortunate to have my good friends Rob Davies, Diane Kredensor, Ralph Sosa, Sandra Frame and a few others join me on this quest. Without the talent, teamwork and support of these people, none of this would have been possible. There is no way I could have done it alone. That was true then and still holds true today.
So here we were, this group of unknown artists like the little train going I think I can, I think I can creating this show which ended up eventually being called Camp Whatever. All the while, developing the concept with little or no direction, knowing we are going up against other shows in development vying for the same timeslot. These other shows were from well-established writers, producers or celebrities. We were up against concepts like Duck Dodgers and Jackie Chan. I found the added pressure and the challenge of being the underdogs going up against the big guys to be a rush like I never felt before. It was at this moment in my career when the light went on.
I always enjoyed working in animation and felt it a privileged job, but this was different. I felt at home in this environment of creativity and commerce. I thrived on both developing concepts and pitching them to the executives. I always loved coming up with show ideas, but I found out I equally enjoyed the process of selling them. I began to see my strengths and develop confidence in myself. My ideas seemed to be as valid and as good, if not better than the next person's, even if they were better known and more established than myself. I was doing a pretty good job at organizing and motivating a team of my peers, and was becoming more and more comfortable sitting in a pitch selling my ideas to the powers that be.
The enthusiasm for what we were doing became infectious and soon we were asked to develop other show ideas for some of the writers at Warner Bros., eventually even being allowed to develop and present our own concepts. It was at this time that my show SoSophie was born. I had this idea for a female version of Speed Racer and decided now was the time to execute that idea.
Well the little train called Camp Whatever never did reach its final destination of getting on the air, nor did any of our other concepts, including SoSophie, but it was a fun ride. We rose from obscurity and made it to the final four shows in contention for a Saturday morning slot on The WB. This was from a field of dozens before finally losing out to a take-off of Disneys Recess called Detention. Even though we didnt get picked up, we accomplished quite a lot and the seeds were sewn for what would become my future.
We were all laid off. Rob Davies went to Canada to start Atomic Cartoons, obviously bitten by the same bug as me. Diane Kredensor went to Nickelodeon, developed a childrens book. Ralph Sosa and I went over to Sony to work on Dilbert. This was a humbling time for me, going from this amazing experience at Warners back into a dirty ol dusty cubicle again. I never recovered. I spent my days at Dilbert doing my job, just getting the work done, and my free time on continually developing SoSophie with Ralph. My heart was no longer in it, and I longed for the days of development at Warners. Unfortunately those types of jobs just arent that easy to come by.
When Dilbert wrapped up after one season, I felt burnt out and was dreading the prospect of looking for yet another job. At this time in the business quite a few artists were out of work and employment was hard to come by, let alone finding a good show to work on. With limited prospects and little desire, I realized I was at a crossroads. I had to either go for it and get out there and sell my own ideas, or try to increase my skill set to make me more employable. I was a character designer and those jobs became far and few to come by. Storyboard artists were always in demand. Maybe I could learn to board and rise through the ranks that way. Storyboard, then direct. Maybe I would just get out of the business all together.
I decided I wasnt getting any younger, and if I was going to go out there and chase this dream of having my own show on television, then I had better set about doing so soon. My wife, who is either the most incredible human being I have ever known, or a complete, raving mad woman agreed with me and offered her emotional and financial support. I saved what I could, cashed in what little I had invested in stocks, refinanced my house and, shortly after being let go by Sony, started channelzero out of my house along with my good friend of all these years and fellow artist, Ralph Sosa. Ive been losing money ever since and have never been happier.
At the time, the Internet was just starting to happen and this program called Flash was all the buzz. It was a perfect environment for what I wanted to accomplish and this new software provided an economical way of achieving it. The challenge was that SoSophie was developed as a Saturday morning cartoon and the Internet was looking for more adult, harder edged content. This meant redeveloping the show to better suit the market. This also meant time and money, the latter of which was in short supply. Realizing we could go broke very soon, I had to quickly find ways of bringing money into the business and, at the same time, continue to develop SoSophie. We accomplished this by taking on projects for other people who were looking to do the same thing we were or just needed animation.
We did a brilliant short for Angus Oblong called Baby Farm, which never saw the light of day, spots for an office supply company, you name it. If it was animation work and there was money involved, we would do it. I funneled whatever money we could earn back into the business, using it to buy equipment or pay artists. Unfortunately, by the time we redeveloped SoSophie, animated a short, built and put it up on a Website, the dotcom revolution had come and gone bust. No one was paying for animation on the Web anymore. The days of insane amounts of money being thrown at mediocre ideas from the wired world were over. So now what do we do? Back to Plan A, back to television.
After another successful semester at the school of hard knocks, I had to figure out what to do with this show that so many had worked so hard on. I decided to develop a new pitch pack to go along with the redeveloped look and demographic of the show and go back and pitch it to the networks. This time as a primetime series.
While we were in the midst of getting the model pack and a pilot script together, I heard about a market coming up called NATPE. I knew little about NATPE except that NATPE is a really stupid sounding acronym, and that television shows were sold there. This sounded like someplace I should be since I just so happened to possess a show for sale. I gathered up some fancy clothes, fueled up the Ford, grabbed the laptop, an assortment of pitching paraphernalia, a bottle of water and headed off to the funny sounding TV market taking place out in Las Vegas.
After paying the monetary equivalent of a couple of months lease on a nice SUV, I entered the convention still working out my plan in my head. Once inside, I discovered that there was an annual event called "Pitch-Me," where ordinary Joes like me could pitch their ideas to some TV execs and possibly win some sort of prize. It sounded like a good opportunity so I went for it. Beforehand there was a seminar on pitching followed by an audition-type pitch with the finals being held that evening. There were close to 500 people in that room, all with show ideas and suddenly I felt a little unsure of myself. Fortunately, for my confidence, that one-hour seminar featured some of the worst show ideas I had ever heard, so I walked upstairs to the audition feeling pretty good about myself and what I had to offer.
About half the people from the seminar showed up for the pre-screen audition, each one being handed a numbered ticket and ushered into a few big empty rooms sorely lacking enough chairs for all those waiting to come in. We were told our numbers would be called at random, and would be given 60-seconds to pitch our idea to the execs waiting like Oz behind the closed doors of the next room. Talk about a memorable experience. I spent an hour and a half waiting to be called with this strange, eclectic group of comedians, chefs, magicians and infomercial half-celebrities. Each one huddled in little groups, side by side, rehearsing their pitches over and over again while they waited for their turn at destiny. It was like the Star Wars bar of creators from planet NATPE.
Just when the sweat from my palms was beginning to saturate my ankles, my number was called and it was showtime. Oz was in reality three very normal looking studio guys being guarded by an assistant with a large stopwatch. On her command I began my pitch by whipping out my laptop and playing the short. While they watched the toon, I talked up the idea. A minute later they smiled, thanked me. I was escorted out another door and told to be at the show tonight to find out if Im a finalist.
That evening I showed up with the rest of the cattle waiting for the slaughter only to be informed that you wouldnt know if you were a finalist or not until they called your name from the stage. The suspense continued to build and NATPE found a convenient way to put a couple of 100 asses in seats. There I sat, laptop in one hand, glass of bourbon in the other (this is Vegas) waiting for the big event to begin.
The best way to describe the "Pitch-Me" finals is a mix of Survivor, The Weakest Link and The Gong Show. The host was George Gray of the daytime version of The Weakest Link and the judges consisted of four entertainment industry execs. A development vp from a cable company, a publicist and two guys from a production company that specializes in self-promotion and games shows. Fifteen finalists were chosen one at a time and given 60-seconds to pitch their idea to the judges. Each judge had this obnoxious buzzer and if they didnt like your pitch, they buzzed you. They would then proceed to shred the idea in front of a huge audience and have a good chuckle about it. It was entertaining in that you know this is wrong but I cant stop watching it reality TV, train wreck sort of way, but not if youre the poor unfortunate bastard up on stage. On the other hand, if they liked you and your idea, you were given the full 60-seconds plus an additional minute of stage time for some Q&A with the esteemed panel of judges.
The closest Ive come to soiling myself since my bachelor party was when I was called as contestant number 11. I nervously walked onstage, placed my laptop on the podium, asked if we could get a camera on it, began to play the short and pitched over it just like I did in the pre-screen.
The short had a couple of things going for it. First, it was built around a theme song for the show, which I wrote and my good friend Mike Ward, formerly of The Wallflowers. The result was an incredibly catchy tune that stuck in your head. People always responded positively to the song and I knew that. Second, the short featured a scene where a sausage accidentally lands in the cleavage of one of our more voluptuous characters. It never failed in getting a reaction and this time was no different. The minute the sausage hit that girls breasts the audience let out a howl and the judges looked like they had seen a ghost. The rest of my time on stage was minor anarchy.
The judges never buzzed me, but immediately began to launch on me about who would ever buy such a thing, questioned my sanity, constructive criticism like that. At one point, I was asked what the show was about and I proceeded to explain how its a comedy about a beautiful young, strong woman who dominates in a mans sport, yet is never appreciated for her skills, only objectified by her beauty. Before I finished, I was interrupted by the cable exec that blurted out"Strong woman! Youve got a sausage making his home in a girls booby! Are you out of your mind? It was all in good fun and was, hands down, the most entertaining portion of the evening. My two minutes of stage time lasted closer to five, everyone had a good laugh and I returned to my seat.
Within seconds of returning to my seat, someone from the press looking to verify information and ask a few questions tapped me on the shoulder. All kinds of strangers were shaking my hand and congratulating me, convinced I was going to win. It was all very exciting and, four contestants later, the moment of truth arrived. I didnt win the Grand Prize. That went to a Las Vegas Magician who had an idea for a show called Real Magic, with him as host traveling around the globe in search of real magic. It was a pretty good concept and the guy was a polished performer. I could understand the judges' choice. I did, however, finish fourth overall and first among animated properties. As terrifying as the whole experience was, I could have very easily blown the whole thing off and have spent my first day walking the convention floor. But I didnt, and now I was on this incredible emotional high.
To cap the evening, I did what any self-respecting creator would have done and partied the night away in typical Vegas fashion with my new friends until the very wee hours of the next morning. I draw a lot of inspiration from music and the whole thing reminds me of a line from a Chili Peppers song Its better to regret something you did than something you didnt do. The "Pitch-Me" contest was something that I took a chance on. I was scared, I survived and now I had no regrets whatsoever.
The second day arrived too soon, and feeling the effects of too little sleep and too much fun, I made my way to the convention floor. I was approached by strangers with greetings like, Youre the guy with sausage in the boobies! Heres my card, Im a distributor from the middle of nowhere. Call me. I even did an interview with the press, and they took my picture for their magazine. I returned to my hotel that night to catch my breath. After more than a year of creating SoSophie and trying to help the show find its voice, suddenly it happened. In a whirlwind 48-hour period SoSophie went from obscurity to a small blip on the radar screen. A major milestone had been achieved. Now I had to capitalize on this moment and take it to the next level.
In the next installment, Ill discuss the year that followed up to the present day. The markets, distributors, buyers, creating The Fupduck Show, the Carmen Electra factor and everything else on this wonderful, strange journey Im on.
One last music-related tidbit before I go. Im addicted to VH1s series Driven. One of my favorites is the Kid Rock one. At the end, his friend is being interviewed and he recalls asking Kid one day Youve got all this success and everything you could ask for. Did you ever dream it would be like this? Kid Rocks response was Everyday. I can relate to that.
Read the conclusion of Dave Warren's independent journey Indie Creator: Part II.
Dave Warren is a two-time Emmy award-winning animation artist of the television series Steven Spielberg Presents Pinky and the Brain. Other animation credits include Steven Spielberg Presents Animaniacs and the Animaniacs feature film The Wishing Star, Ralph Bakshi's Spicy City, Scott Adam's Dilbert, Jamie Kellner's Camp Whatever and Angus Oblong's Baby Farm. To learn more about Dave and his company, please visit www.channelzero.org.