Last season, seeing Digger, the animated alter-ego to FOX's Gopher Cam, meant experiencing amazing track-level shots as the field raced by. That hasn't changed, but this year he's back with some company in THE ADVENTURES OF DIGGER AND FRIENDS.
On Sunday, Feb. 15, THE ADVENTURES OF DIGGER AND FRIENDS premieres during the NASCAR on FOX Daytona 500 prerace show (2-3 p.m. ET). There are five two-minute Digger and Friends vignettes to be presented and repeated over the course of the 2009 NASCAR on FOX season. Besides Digger, the vignettes feature new characters including his girlfriend Annie, best friend Marbles, Gramps and arch-nemesis Lumpy Wheels.
The Digger characters were conceived by FOX Sports Chairman and Executive Producer David Hill, and developed for animation by FOX Sports EVP, Graphics, Gary Hartley in conjunction with Rhythm + Hues Commercial Studios in Los Angeles. Last year, Digger was introduced in 2D to accompany NASCAR on FOX's use of Gopher Cam, a proprietary in-track HD camera system. Digger and his friends have been upgraded to full 3D computer graphic image animation.
"The first time I saw Digger pop out of his little tunnel I thought we could really have some fun with this and make our races more entertaining, especially for younger fans," said Hill. "I really got to thinking about all this when the online effort to name him was so overwhelming. From there we came up with the idea for the vignettes and using him during races as we do Cleatus, our NFL on FOX robot."
Unnamed when he first appeared on-air, the name Digger was selected by fans during an online poll that began during last year's lengthy rain delay during the Auto Club 500. The "Help Name the Gopher" page on FOXSports.com logged over 850,000 views, and attracted more than 75,000 suggestions.
Unlike most anything a sports broadcaster has attempted in the past, the goal for THE ADVENTURES OF DIGGER AND FRIENDS is to expand NASCAR's family appeal and entertain the sport's already strong young fan base. Over two million homes with children tune into NASCAR on FOX each week, comprising roughly a third of the FOX NASCAR audience. NASCAR on FOX is second only to the NFL as the most-watched regular season sport on television among homes with young people.
In addition to introducing Gopher Cam, Digger characters now appear throughout NASCAR on FOX broadcasts as animated wipes, billboards and bugs -- fancy TV jargon for what viewers occasionally see when we switch from shot-to-shot, come in and out of commercials and when he pops out of his hole.
Hill and country music star Keith Urban collaborated on THE ADVENTURES OF DIGGER AND FRIENDS theme just last week at Urban's state-of-the-art Nashville recording studio. Hill handled the lyrics while Urban handled the music and all the rest. The full-length version is about three minutes long, but a special shorter version set to mostly animated video introduces each vignette. THE ADVENTURES OF DIGGER AND FRIENDS debuts Sunday on FOX just moments before Urban takes the stage at the 51st running of the Great American Race.
"David [Hill] sent me this furry little NASCAR-loving gopher," said Urban. "How could you turn the critter down? I immediately went to my drum machine, then to my guitar, back to my drum machine and on to my banjo and it wasn't long before I had the song. I just hope that Digger likes it."
The first episode of THE ADVENTURES OF DIGGER AND FRIENDS is titled "Channel Digger." Hoping to enhance his own personal NASCAR viewing experience, Digger installs his patented "Digger Cams" all over the track at Talladega Superspeedway. When Digger's adversary -- the security guard badger Lumpy Wheels -- tries to stop him, Digger does him one better: he takes over the NASACAR on FOX broadcast from the Hollywood Hotel.
Matt Danner (director, writer and exec producer) and Andrew Feinstein (producer, writer and exec producer) are supervising the production of THE ADVENTURES OF DIGGER AND FRIENDS vignettes, with the CG animation by Mirari Films Inc. Danner and Feinstein are seasoned animation veterans. Danner has worked as an animator, writer, director and producer on more than 40 animated projects at studios including Disney, Warner Bros. and Cartoon Network.
Most recently, Danner directed THE DRINKY CROW SHOW for Adult Swim. After producing animation at Warner Bros., Feinstein has been a nationally syndicated cartoonist whose comic strip "Girls & Sports" is published in newspapers nationwide.
Founded in 1999, Mirari Films is a CGI animation studio and VFX house based in Los Angeles. Eric Kaplan, the company's owner and president, has worked as a writer-producer for shows on FOX, HBO, CBS, and Cartoon Network. His credits include THE BIG BANG THEORY, THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN, FUTURAMA and MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE. Mirari's philosophy of bringing CG together with the leading voices in comics and comedy writing is showcased in the Mirari Films production THE DRINKY CROW SHOW, which currently airs on Adult Swim.
Voicing Digger, Lumpy Wheels, Marbles and Digger's Grandpa is Eric Bauza. Voicing Annie is Haley Mancini. The original music for DIGGER is being composed by Sebastian Evans II. Salami Studios is providing the sound effects and sound mixing, with Secret Handshake Ent. providing the picture editing. IEDA Labs Corp constructed the CG characters.