Episode 310 — CHALK WARFARE Director — Sam Wickert
Episode 310 — CHALK WARFARE Director — Sam Wickert
Sam Wickert is a director and VFX supervisor who has worked closely with many clients such as Epic Games, Google Daydream, AMD, BlackMagic Design, Universal Orlando Resorts, Redbull, and Discover.
The most exciting projects he has enjoyed working on is the content featured on his YouTube Channel, SOKRISPYMEDIA, which has accumulated over 1.6 Million subscribers and 400+ million views – most notably recognized from its web series, Chalk Warfare.
In this Episode, Allan interviews Sam about his creative process for the Chalk Warfare franchise, the innovations he uses on the most recent installment and the challenges of making his own content.
Chalk Warfare 4: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cd1EmYRZynw&feature=emb_imp_woyt
Sam Wickert on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/samwickert
Sam Wickert on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm6648246/
Sam Wickert’s Website: https://samwickert.com/
[03:01] The Original Idea Behind Chalk Warfare
[11:53] Opportunities that Followed
[19:34] Filmmaking as a Communal Art and the Importance of Relationships
[28:07] The Creative Process Behind Chalk Warfare 4
[37:23] Shooting the Skydiving Scene
[49:44] The Challenges of the Production
[53:16] Allan’s Contribution to the Film
EPISODE 310 — “CHALK WARFARE” DIRECTOR SAM WICKERT
This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 310!
I’m sitting down with the Director Sam Wickert. I’m going to be talking about everything from filmmaking to YouTube, to his project Chalk Warfare. We also talk about the short films that he’s directed and his creative process.
I’m super excited for this Episode! His short films have accumulated millions of views. Please take a few moments to share this Episode with others.
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
[01:15] Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was you didn’t get the job? Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write The Ultimate Demo Reel Guide from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. You can get this book for free right now at www.allanmckay.com/myreel!
[1:08:48] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you and everyone else in your discipline should be charging. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com!
INTERVIEW WITH SAM WICKERT
[03:01] Allan: I want to talk about Chalk Wars. You just put out the fourth one. How did the first three come about? How did you get the idea?
Sam: So early on, we were making content on the channel and nothing was really sticking. Video game content was becoming popular at the time, but we were making skits, comedy style. We had some viewership, but it wasn’t until we had the idea for Chalk Warfare. My buddy Eric came up with the idea. I usually direct the projects, but when it comes to writing we bat off some ideas. It was too difficult to wrap my mind at the time: How does an actor draw a gun in chalk on the wall and then pull that out of the wall? It was too difficult to figure out how to do. Through that year of making content, we made a video where I had to replace a weapon. So I built a cardboard prop and then replaced it with a 3D weapon. When we finished that video, I realized we could do this idea.
If you watch the fourth one versus the first one, you can see a drastic difference. It’s a weird jump. The first one is really simple. We had four guys and we shot it in one afternoon. I had some cardboard productions in pre-production and we had the actors hold them. I went through the process of painting them out frame by frame. Not the smartest way to do it! I did some frame-by-frame animation. Then I had to roto those hands. A lot of work for one afternoon of shooting! And I hated the video because I’d been looking at every frame. When we uploaded it on the internet, the thing really exploded. This was back in 2012 – 2013. I think it had 500K views, or somewhere there. Blogs were picking this thing up and tossing it around. It was wild to see the response. Then we decided to make the second one. We had a video project in between that. With Chalk Warfare 2, we started with weapon integration, with having references. We wanted to make it bigger and improve on the previous one. That one went viral as well! The audience was growing. After explaining all that work, I was just burnt out and I couldn’t do it anymore frame-by-frame. It was a lot of work. I knew I had to make improvements.
Years later, we made the third one. People are still asking for these on the channels. The third one was still a lot of work. The level of productivity and the level of quality increased. This one still did well. It proved to us that we could take a break. People seemed to enjoy the third one more. We did something unique in that: Social media has unlocked something that we’’ve never seen with content before. We were able to jump in and ask our audience which weapons they’d want to see. Like, what weapon would you want to see?
[10:11] Allan: For some reason, I’m thinking of Predator.
Sam: People really wanted that one! Audience was able to vote for it, and there was some anticipation. It still took us 6 months to make it. We had some 3D assets for the first time, some simulations with Fume FX. People seemed to enjoy that. We loved the response the third one had. We didn’t think we could top that one. Then we got involved with the VR craze. As VFX artists, we got introduced to real-time rendering. We did some really cool projects on our channel. When 2020 hit, it was time for the next one. The internet goes through these phases every 3-6 years. So: Chalk Warfare 4!
[11:53] Allan: While we’re talking about opportunity, with the first couple of films having success, what kind of opportunities came your way? I imagine a lot of crazy, wonky things popped up.
Sam: I wish that I was the age I am now when we had that opportunity. The internet was different. I wish I was actively taking on projects and directing things. I feel I could’ve leveraged that back then. But we were interested in making content only for our channel. We had the opportunity to work with talent agents. Looking back, I wish I took more advantage of that. But it allowed us to make some music videos, earn revenue off of our content, to have conversations with some brands, and to have some hope that we could make content and have the viewership. Now, we’ve noticed that new content has a bit of a flow of events. Chalk Warfare 4 was way different from all the previous films. The ones before had natural explosions. They had a push from other channels. With the fourth one had the push of the people who were in it, but YouTube’s algorithm just took over. We noticed an interesting shift. It didn’t explode, it had a gradual growth. But over the course of 6 months, it’s about to hit 50 million views. That’s pretty crazy! It was a slower rise initially, but it continued on a steady trajectory.
[15:38] Allan: In the beginning, while you were making different content, did you have a good supportive team around you?
Sam: That’s the hard thing about making content (and I think about it to this day!). I was very fortunate to work with the group of guys that I worked with. We were young and we were looking up to content creators who were older. We wanted to have that caliber of content and that legitimacy. At the end of the day, if I became the best at visual effects and I was in high school, I was still a highschooler making content. It wouldn’t have the same legitimacy. I grew up in Greenville, South Carolina. I got in touch with some guys who went to North Greenville University and they were a part of their film program. These were older guys. They all loved doing stunt work and videography. This was around 2010 when DSLR’s were becoming available. These guys were always available with their gear. One of the guys still makes content to this day. His name is Justin Robinson. He’s a phenomenal filmmaker. It was up to my VFX to put the final spice. That’s what you saw in Chalk Warfare 1, 2 and 3. Filmmaking is a communal thing. There are parts to the process. You can be someone who’s on the technical side and a jack of all trades. On YouTube, you kind of have to be. You have to know if what you’re shooting is going to work in the edits. But when it comes time to production, it’s a communal thing. As an independent creator, it’s hard to tell that story with limited involvement. It helps to have a core group.
[19:34] Allan: I think relationships are everything. For you, both then and now, how do these relationships start?
Sam: It can be anything. I’m from South Carolina. When I was living in California, and I was VFX supervising a Discover commercial. I hadn’t worked with this company before. At lunch, I was looking around: Who am I going to sit with? I sat with some guys having a great conversation and they were from North Carolina. They were part of this drone craze. It starts with this networking. We kept that conversation going and they ended up being the tech team on Chalk Warfare 4. They were extremely helpful! Davis was providing the lenses we were shooting on, for example. It’s really networking like that! As everyone progresses with the work they’re doing, you continue to keep in touch. Everything evolves but the networking keeps everyone connected. It’s important to keep those connections going and dig what other people are doing.
[22:11] Allan: I come across that a lot. A lot of people think that networking is hard. You just have to reach out, but you have to make sure to not make these relationships transactional.
Sam: I couldn’t agree more! We had a lot of influencers in the films. Those were people who wanted to be a part of our projects and I want to be a part of theirs. We had Jamie Costa who is a great actor. One of the actresses is Lana, I met her while we were doing a project for Universal. She has a huge Harry Potter influence. We are all trying to genuinely succeed.
[24:22] Allan: You’re working on ambitious things. The point is to do another one is to get more ambitious.
Sam: Sometimes you don’t know if you’re making the MVP of that particular property. We were just making the film. Just jump in and make something!
[24:55] Allan: And worry about the messiness later.
Sam: So much pain and suffering goes into making something. We were even doing that on Chalk Warfare 4 because we promised to release it. It feels good when you can be proud of what you’ve made. It’s an interesting field. It’s ever changing and we’re all along for the ride.
[25:55] Allan: I’ve had to re-train myself about how I look at my work. Once my work is out the door, it’s set in stone. I want to look back and be proud of it.
Sam: Sometimes, you look at your old work and think that it’s not up to par. It doesn’t mean it’s bad. If you put it the best you could at the time, when you look back at it, you can see that you’ve improved. That’s what happened when we were looking at Chalk Warfare 4. It was so much better than the one before. It’s a testament to our growth, our knowledge and better tech. You have to grow to make new content. That’s a recipe for success.
[28:07] Allan: Do you want to walk through the creative process of Chalk Warfare 4?
Sam: I’ve always wanted to make it. I told myself I wouldn’t make it if it weren’t better than the ones before. It had to be different and as good as possible. I’d like to think we achieved it! It became about gaining that confidence to jump into it. It’s about how much knowledge you have versus how anxious you are to make a piece of content. The more you know about filmmaking — the harder it is to make a film. Because you’ll always want to have better gear, better lighting, and your quality standard hits higher. With Chalk Warfare, I just knew it had to be better. But also, the tech had to be there. What we decided to improve on is how to make it faster, better and hopefully cheaper. At the end of the day, it wasn’t cheaper.
- We started with previz tests. We said, is there a way to improve that process? I started working with my buddy Brandon. He’s really technical. He just finished working on something that involved SynthEyes tracking. I started discussing plans to outfit the tracking solution, so we could have real 3D tracking.
- And we were trying to figure out how to not paint out so much! We decided to stick to the physical based solution: Let’s get the weapons cut in a clear plexiglass solution. We were holding it at the right lighting. We didn’t have to have as much of a paintout solution. That improved the process quite a bit. Originally, we made cardboard cutouts. This time, we designed them on our computer first, then got them cut out at a props shop. We tested all of this out and learned a lot. When we decided we’ve improved the workflow, that’s when we decided to make a new film.
We put a post out on YouTube and asked for weapons suggestions. We got a ton of responses. Then I took a crack at the storyline. It was going to be a Battle Royale. Then we had to figure out all the other stuff: 16 weapons, a skydiving sequence, working on a limited budget. I had all these filmmakers in California and some in South Carolina. All the actors never communicated. All the stunts were done in a warehouse. We cut the film in half due to limitations. At the end of the day, it comes down to money. The process of coming up with all that was really hard. There are so many routes we could take. We wondered how we’d do skydiving against a greenscreen even! We didn’t have the money to do that. So I started hitting up people in my network and found a professional skydiving videographer. And somehow we were able to film a sequence in the air.
[37:23] Allan: How many takes did you have to make? I didn’t even know it came out. I was blown away by how perfectly it was executed.
Sam: We had 4 jumps and I only went on one of them. Looking back, it’s one of the most fun I’ve had shooting something. I made this previz and I had a full blown sequence of introducing all 4 teams. We had our antagonist character hit the main actress. That’s all we had to execute. I understood going into it that I had a dream and things would have to be altered. But it’s a testament to our crew and how incredible they were. They were able to maneuver with the steady cams. Some of the stuff ended up being CG. When you’re falling, it’s hard to track that piece of chalk. There is this perception you wouldn’t understand without having done it. In the skydiving community, they fly straight down, not on their stomachs. It was a 50 second drop and we had 30 seconds of footage. When they’re on their bellies, you get more time. But from a skydiver’s point of view, it’s not as cool. I would’ve never thought that would be a question.
[42:19] Allan: It’s funny when people are passionate about something. My wife is professional swimmer. She’s been training for 18 years. Whenever there’s someone swimming, she points out everything that’s incorrect.
Sam: I’ve fallen into that trap. I got into motorcycles years ago, and now when I see that in movies, I’m like, “That’s not how that’s done!”
[43:23] Allan: For me, I was self-aware of the skydiving scene.
Sam: It’s only 30 seconds. They did these formations to learn how they’re going to get into it. They’d hold each other’s hands to be together and then separate. It was cool to see them all fallout. It’s hard enough to shoot a film on the ground. There was that one shot where our hero’s arm crosses the frame. When we got down on the ground, the crew asked for one more take. We only had 4 runs. There was some stuff we weren’t able to get, but in VFX we can fix it. I’m very glad we did it practically.
[45:43] Allan: In terms of location scouting, was that easy to find? I love California for that.
Sam: The exterior locations go into my background of living in South Carolina. They have a ton of industrial mills. I know a lot of the guys here. I have a better foot in the door. I actually grew up who had a stake in one of these mills that’s become a location. I was able to get in touch with this guy who owns a big piece of mill property and the second one that wasn’t being used yet. We were able to get permission to use that. It even had that water tower. We had it there for the practicals. In California, we used the warehouse used in Inception and many other things. Now that we used it, I can see it everywhere. The sheer amount of content being made and the limited number of places. SCS Warehouse is the name of it. It came from networking, once again.
[49:44] Allan: During the shooting, what were some of the most challenging parts?
Sam: One of the things that’s the hardest: We worked on a limited budget and we shot in California for two days. One of the hardest things was jamming in all the stunts into the first day of production. That involved them doing flips, wire work. It all had to be done in one day but somehow we were able to pull it off. It comes from doing YouTube. Even the stunt coordinator thought it’d take 5-6 days to make. That was the hardest. I was manning the camera for a lot of this. I wasn’t even able to pull focus. We finished that one day, had a 5-day break, and then went back to do some of the other effects. It was also hard to work with people’s schedule.
[52:26] Allan: What were you filming on?
Sam: Everything is Blackmagic.
[52:37] Allan: I’ve had them on the Podcast so — approve! (www.allanmckay.com/226).
Sam: Even if they weren’t the sponsor, we would’ve still used them. We had two URSA G2’s on set. We used that for the whole film. For the skydiving, we used Blackmagic Pocket Cinema. Some great tech! And if works well with DaVinci Resolve.
[53:16] Allan: What about photogrammetry
Sam: Speaking of networking, we were shooting at the mill in South Carolina. There was this guy walking around. He was commissioned to scan the entire mill with laser scanners. He had higher res scans of the entire location. Somehow, we met him because he was there on that day. We got his email. When it came to post-, we just emailed him for those scans. I just had to grab the texture data. We were able to match everything with anchor points and made a map of the location. We were able to do virtual production for that. We have to give you credit that you did on Chalk Warfare 4 as well?
[55:31] Allan: That I abandoned?
Sam: Allan did the water tower falling and the water simulations.
[55:47] Allan: That was fun! Originally, you reached out and I never do free jobs. You just wanted a wall broken. Then it changed to the tower falling and melting the chalk monster. And it turned out great, but at a certain point I had to go.
Sam: You have nothing to apologize for! But the water simulation you created, it was incredible. It’s hard to predict these things. At some point, I was handling some of the water.
[57:08] Allan: I think with this project, you managed to acquire so many talented people. That’s what re-excites me to see what you’re doing! It’s rare to jump on a cool project and I’m blown away by the caliber of this. In the beginning you’re fumbling around but then the expectation rises!
Sam: The expectation rises. I’m so thankful for people like you who are open to hearing me out. It’s a big ask. I’m very appreciative of you. There was a lot of TyFlow work we were doing. And I’m very proud of the results.
[58:03] Allan: You were talking about Megascans earlier. I thought it’d be interesting to hear about that. (www.allanmckay.com/271). What was that experience like?
Sam: Those services are here to help people like us make better content. We had a piece where I had to have a high res of a road, a curbside and plants. They made it so easy. To the testament of Unreal Engine partnering with services like that. It’s amazing this stuff is accessible and free now! It’s huge!
[59:20] Allan: I’m so impressed! I’m always reading the comments.
Sam: I think it’s a testament of Unreal Engine as a company. I think they’re really working for the creator. And their business model is based on succeeding if you succeed. It seems to be ingrained into that company. If I were getting started, I’d be starting with Unreal because it’s a fantastic product and it’s also free.
[1:00:30] Allan: Can you talk about your release dates?
Sam: We released the previous films on weekdays and I noticed a big shift happening to YouTube and the internet: A lot of the traffic on those films would come from blogs and forums posting the content. It was apparent that it was better to post on a weekday because people were in the office. Not everyone was out for monetization. But a big shift happened. No blogs and no blogs have picked up the recent film. Some were interested in getting an interview. A lot of these sites realized their worth. In terms of the avenues I thought would be around, they’ve shifted their model. That was a big shift. I wanted to focus on making the content good and working with influencers. Our goal was to work with friends and if they wanted to post about it — that’d be awesome! But to go back to your original question, weekdays always seemed to be our thing. We looked at posting on a Thursday. A lot of the big studios release their trailers on Tuesdays.
[1:05:29] Allan: What type of thought process went into marketing? I thought it was so strategic that so many people in your cast have a massive audience.
Sam: A lot of the actors we had on the film, they also happened to have an audience. Even 10K on an IG page, that’s a lot of eyeballs. And some of them have a particular niche. Their audience likes to see them acting. It was just a chain reaction to various pieces of the puzzle.
[1:08:29] Allan: This has been awesome, man! Thank you for taking the time! I can’t wait to see what else you have up your sleeve.
Sam: Thanks! I’m just excited about what the future holds.
I hope you enjoyed this Episode. I want to thank Sam for taking the time to chat. Loads of value bombs in this Episode!
Next week, I will be talking about landing jobs through your brand. Until then —
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