Episode 325 — Becoming a Content Creator — Sam Wickert
Episode 325 — Becoming a Content Creator — 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 and Sam talk about the journey of being a content creator, imposter syndrome and cycles of creativity, taking pride in your work, the importance of relationships and having your own creative community.
Sam Wickert on Allan McKay’s Podcast: www.allanmckay.com/310
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/
[03:50] Sam Wickert Talks About Starting His YouTube Channel
[06:20] On Being a Content Creator
[15:42] The Importance of Relationships
[27:21] The Imposter Syndrome and Cycles of Creativity
[33:52] Taking Pride in Your Work
[43:26] Virtual Production: The Current State and Its Future
[54:18] Allan and Sam Discuss the Best Content Release Dates
[1:01:49] Sam Talks About Future Technology to Watch
EPISODE 325 — BECOMING A CONTENT CREATOR — SAM WICKERT
This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 325! I’m speaking to Sam Wickert who is a Content Creator, VFX Supervisor and Director (especially of Chalk Warfare). I’ve had Sam on the Podcast before: www.allanmckay.com/310. We talk about being a content creator, imposter syndrome, taking pride in your work, the state of virtual production and future technology to be on the lookout for.
I’m super excited to have Sam on the Podcast. He’s done a lot of great creative stuff. I’ve worked on Chalk Warfare 4 with Sam.
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Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
[01:16] 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!
[1:08:05] 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 (PART 2)
[03:50] Allan: Again, Sam, thank you so much for taking the time to chat! Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?
Sam: My name is Sam Wickert. I’m a Director and a YouTube Creator. I do VFX as well. On our YouTube Channel, we create a lot of high end action VFX short films and fun products for our audience. I also do music videos, client work, stuff like that.
[04:40] Allan: How did you get started? Did you always picture yourself in a creative industry?
Sam: When I was younger, there was this digital age going on YouTube. I was old enough to pick up a camera and be a part of it. I got into it early on, in the 2010 era. It was just a wild time. A lot of the friendships I have these days come from those YouTube days and the collaborations that were very small. For instance, I’ve collaborated a lot with Zach King who now does a lot of Instagram. I met him several years ago when he had a YouTube channel called Final Cut King. He saw our Chalk Wars videos which were our first viral successes. But I drew a lot of the inspiration from the stuff I saw on social media and YouTube; and it exploded from there. It began with making the content you wanted to make and then being able to fund it through advertisers. I’m glad I was able to be a part of that. We continued to make YouTube content. On top of that, it leads us to meeting people who are in production fields which leads us to commercial and music videos work. It’s kind of the same group of people. At the end of the day, the content we enjoy making is traditionally harder to get funded and to make.
[06:20] Allan: I think you’re the perfect person to talk to about this. For once, projects can now be more audience driven. I even have a few friends whose projects got picked up because it’ll be a Vimeo Staff Pick for a week and will get the right eyes on the projects. What were your thoughts on that early on?
Sam: Before, there were these gatekeepers and you had to get past them. That’s where we’ve been seeing a shift because of social media. If you want to make content that people enjoy and you want to have an audience attached to it, in that essence, I’ve succeeded as a director. Hopefully, from a business perspective, you’re succeeding so you can keep making more content. I think it’s just this democratization of technology; pro-consumer gear becoming accessible for everyone. We can make something that’s beautiful now. It’s about what you can make and being able to showcase it. YouTube and Vimeo, a lot of these avenues are allowing people to do that.
[08:09] Allan: That is so cool! I think it’s pretty amazing. In general, crowdfunding and having access to a platform means you don’t need to be shown in a theatre. We did a short film at Blur Gopher Broke that was nominated for an Oscar. But to qualify, it had to be screened in a theatre. We had to go and pay a theatre, to screen it.
Sam: It was a necessity. It’s an interesting point with Indie Go Go. Have you seen the short film Code 8? They turned it into a feature film. In 2016, it was a very cool, VFX heavy short. The main actor on it was from television. They got a lot of buzz from it on YouTube, and crowdfunded this short to turn it into a feature film. It’s on Netflix now. It’s a pretty wild time!
[10:09] Allan: With YouTube and its early days, what was the experience like for you? I used to think its quality was so low, which is why I thought Vimeo was a better quality platform. What was it like for you to put out content early on?
Sam: I think it’s interesting to see what happened with YouTube, happening with new platforms. It’s interesting to see the shift because it’s a lot harder now to create a channel from scratch. There was a lot more natural organic growth. And now, there are so many people on there and the sheer amount of content has increased. We’re a highly visual society nowadays. There’s been a big shift in how things could go viral. I don’t think the term “viral” exists these days anymore. It could be nothing and turn into something. Now, there is a sort of natural flow of events. Our Chalk Warfare 4 film was different because the films before had a more natural explosion. This was around 2014. All those films had a push from big channels and people talking about it. With Chalk Warfare 4 needed the push from people in it and the fans of our previous films. But at a certain point, the algorithm machine took over. They must have so much content, they have to filter it through. We noticed an interesting shift where it didn’t explode. It had a more natural growth. But over the course of 6 months, Chalk Warfare 4 is about to hit  million views which is pretty crazy. The other ones are around that view count, but it took them 6 years to get there. I think that goes along with how YouTube has changed. It’s now about watch time. They were competing with people on view count. So everything became about watch time, so the videos that were longer got traction. We struggled for a while to make content that would work on this platform. We wanted to make a film we wanted to make (which was 16 minutes). I do think there’s been a huge shift in social media, and there are different tactics on how to make content nowadays.
[15:42] Allan: It’s always evolving and hard to keep up with it. I think relationships are everything. How do these relationships start, typically?
Sam: It can be really anything. I’m from South Carolina. When I was in California, I was on a Discover commercial. I was a VFX Supervisor for it. I was at their lunch break and I was looking around with whom I should sit. I saw some guys having interesting conversations. I realized they were from North Carolina, and they were heavy into tech. They were a part of this drone craze. They run a company called Aether Films. It’s through this networking that conversations open up. We ended up doing a few projects together, and they ended up being the tech company on Chalk Warfare 4. We were extremely appreciative of them! They were providing us with one of the lenses we were shooting on. We had a car that had a camera stabilized on top of it, and they had the setup to achieve the vision we had. It’s cool now to see that as everyone progresses, you continue to keep in touch. They’ve worked with Michael Bay, with their drone tech. But networking allows you to continue to make cool things. It’s one of the most important things to keep those connections going.
[18:29] Allan: I come across that a lot. A lot of people think that networking is hard. And a lot of time people try to make things transactional, instead of asking, “Is there anything I can do to help?”
Sam: I completely agree! We had a lot of influencers in our film. Even the people who weren’t in front of the camera, thow were people who just wanted to be a part of the project. We had influencers who helped us with the initial push. We had Zach in there. I had Jamie Costa who is a great actor. He has a YouTube Channel on Star Wars theory. The actress in the film is Lana whom I met at Universal Orlando Resorts. We developed a friendship. We lived in the same area in California. She has a huge Harry Potter following. I thought it’d be cool to put her in the film. We’re just trying to help each other succeed.
[20:47] Allan: Just in general, in filmmaking if you’re doing it alone (versus doing it with people who are just as passionate as you) it makes a night and day difference. It also determines whether you’re going to succeed. Any one of my friends who are successful filmmakers now had a community starting out.
Sam: It’s really crucial. I joke with one of my buddies, who does travel videography, “How do you manage to be doing a video and then working with this new company I hear about (which is booming 3 years later)? Then, you’re with Richard Branson on his island helping him film something for Virgin?” He’s just a yes guy! It’s a great attitude to be around. It’s good to say yes and it allows you to network. Some people think he’s lucky. But it’s really about him taking advantage of every opportunity. He’s by far one of the best networkers in terms of communicating with people. It helps you feel more confident too.
[22:15] Allan: Just recently, I started to retrain myself to have the mentality that everyday, I want to see a new opportunity in my inbox. And to do that, I need to create new opportunities. Instead of dreading the responsibilities in my inbox, I want to be excited. There is a quote from Richard Branson that I love: “If you want to be successful, just keep saying yes to everything.” In the beginning, when you have time — but not enough opportunity — you need to be doing that.
Sam: It’s a great mindset! In moderation, of course. It’s eye-opening when you do that. It makes you want to step out of your comfort zone and find yourself taking on more opportunities. It gives you the feeling of autonomy. You also achieve it through autonomy. You need to surround yourself with people of the like mindset as well. Everything happens through personal connection as well.
[25:18] Allan: While we’re talking about opportunity, with the first couple of instant successes, what opportunities has it created for you?
Sam: It was really interesting! I wish I was the age I was that I am now. The internet was different then than it is now. I wish I had been actively taking on projects and actively working (and not a highschooler). I do wish I was directing things. Because I feel I could leverage things more. Back then, we were mostly making things for my channel. I met some great people. Zach King messaged me since he watched Chalk Warfare 1. We also had the opportunity to work with talent agencies that messaged us back then. So I really wish I had the opportunity to take a bit more advantage of it back then. But it allowed us to make some music videos back then. It allows us to make some revenue off of our content and have conversations with some brands and have some hope that we’d be able to have some content.
[27:21] Allan: I’m curious about imposter syndrome. What’s your journey with all that?
Sam: There is a beautiful image that I have hanging up in our studio that describes the creative journey. It starts with a great idea. Then, it comes down to, “Wow! That’s a lot of work. I did not expect this!” Then, you enter this swamp of despair. There is a bridge to cross that and it’s with family and friends, and humility. You enter out of that and jump into, “Wait. This isn’t so bad! That turns into, this is pretty good. Then, it becomes one of the best things you’ve ever made. It may not be the best thing you’ve ever made but sometimes it’s hard to see past that despair and realize you’re going to be on the other side. We go through it every time. When I’m working with sound designers, I’m always at a low point. As a VFX guy, when you a jack of all trades, you’re making the movie several times. You’re making it in pre-production, you’re making it while you’re filming, you’re making it [again] in post-production. There is a lot of room for error. The VFX side of things (without handling the audio), the audio happens at the last moments and it’s 50% of the movie. I’m seeing all these visual effects that need to be done, and it feels like a terrible film. And there is a lot of openness in this process. It’s a common thing in the creative community. You do get in your head when you’re working on a project. When you’re writing a comedy, in your head it becomes not funny. You have to remember it was a good product to begin with.
[31:30] Allan: When you are in those moments of despair, how do you see the reason behind it?
Sam: It’s harder when you’re working from scratch. It’s easier for us, as our audience has grown, we know at least some people will watch it. At the end of the day, I’m interested in making the type of material that I’d like to watch [myself]. But it’s hard if you don’t have something to look forward to! Entertainment can change lives. It can change a person’s outlook on their days. So it’s a very valuable thing! As a creator, it’s easy to forget that. You’re making something for humans to enjoy now and you have to keep that in mind. It doesn’t have to take itself so seriously. The outlook that people will get to enjoy it, especially if it stays up [on YouTube] for years. So much pain and suffering can go into the making of something. You’d much rather stay up for 36 hours than put out a product I’m not proud of! At the end of the day, that’s my goal. It’s an interesting field, ever changing and we’re all along for the ride.
[33:52] Allan: That’s something that I had to retrain myself. I went through 10 years where I stopped giving a shit. The show that got an award changed my mind. Then I can look back and be proud of it.
Sam: Sometimes looking back at your old work, it’s inevitable to see it as not up to par. It doesn’t mean that it’s bad. If you know you’ve done everything possible at the time to make it great, and later you look back and see how much you’ve improved, in terms of your ability and knowledge. We realized that when we did our Chalk Warfare 4, it was the testament to improvement of tech. And it allowed us to make a piece of content that we’re proud of. It’s always a good recipe for success. That’s what allows you to move forward. Speaking of networking, we were shooting in South Carolina at this Mill. We found out he was commissioned to scan the entire Mill with laser scanners. He was just great at it. He had high resolution scans of that whole location. Somehow, we met him and he was there on that day. He was really into what we were doing. When it came time to do post-production, we just asked him for those scans and he gave them to us. All I had to do is go back and grab the texture data. I went back and got thousands of locations’ scans. We were able to match everything with anchor points in RealityCapture (which is a great software for this!). We made an entire map of the location. We were able to do a lot of the virtual production too. I almost wish we could have it for pre-production. We were able to utilize that. It was extremely beneficial for the process!
[38:10] Allan: That’s cool! I might need to pick your brain about it: reprojecting all the textures.
Sam: Fortunately, the environment hasn’t changed much so it worked out for us. We’re talking months in between. It was a great process. There was some manual work. For our case, there were certain things on the building facade. The real hard thing is when you have something so high in resolution, exporting it to where it has a high enough triangle count to be able to display it in something like Unreal Engine. I’d spent a lot of time optimizing those models to retain the quality. We utilized it for some really cool stuff like the robot breaking through the wall. It inspired me to scan other things after. Now we always photoscan locations in case we need it.
[40:14] Allan: It’s pretty general now. You have to measure everything. I’m really trying to push for it to be part of the process, for any reshoots. If I want to go shoot on location in New Zealand, I can either fly there and hire a crew. Or I can hire someone to scan the area so I can plan the shots that I want.
Sam: It makes a huge difference. A year ago, we were working with that scan. Now it makes it so much easier. The camera you can now carry in your pocket. You can get some really cool stuff!
[41:23] Allan: I’m really excited to see where things are going in every direction. I was talking with DNEG about the Deepfakes department they’re building and all the performance capture they’re doing. If you need to reanimate a face, you can do it on your phone. And then there is photogrammetry! For example, the iPhone 12 has a LiDAR built in.
Sam: I got that phone too and honestly, it’s incredible. The tracking is by far superior to any other phones, to the point where you can Google a raccoon and pull up that animal in a scene and see it in its full size. It’s incredible what’s possible now and it’s in your pocket. We just use the iPhone to measure a set now.
[43:26] Allan: That’s so cool! You were talking about virtual production. If you were to go that route in the future, could you tie the two together?
Sam: Oh, yeah! The hardest thing about virtual production for me is comprehending setting the scene. It’s hard to get great wide shots with virtual production. If you’re in position to shoot with LED panels, you can shoot as wide as you want. If I’m working on a medium shot, it’s wonderful with a green screen. I’m all for virtual production! And I love what it’s doing and being able to move around scenes. It doesn’t feel as easy to walk around the set. It’s nice to go on a set and that entire scene is set up where I can run around anywhere to get any shot. I think that will improve with virtual production, but currently there is a workload with getting everything set up.
[46:36] Allan: I’m excited to see where it goes. I just did a call with 3 VFX Sups about. I’ve interviewed MELS Studio. I’ve even interviewed Unreal (www.allanmckay.com/293). But there is still a lot more freedom in the old school way.
Sam: If you have someone running through a scene and you need to whip the camera, in LED you can only do it so big. There are certain instances where LED panels become a frustration, but those will become less and less. There are so many things the panels can help with! It is a step in the direction of making things faster and cheaper. There is a drastic improvement in that!
[48:42] Allan: I think The Mandalorian did it in a way where the foreground had props, but the exterior was controlled.
Sam: Yes, you’re just working with a foreground subject and a background. So the focus plane if you want it to look realistic, you have to have that real set dressing. That’s where The Mandalorian crushed it! A lot of people didn’t even know they were shooting it that way.
[49:40] Allan: You were talking earlier about Megascans (www.allanmckay.com/271). I usually hear everyone talk about it being leveraged in games, not film.
Sam: Those services are here to help people like us make better content. And I’m all for it! We were able to jump in where I had to have a nice high resolution of a road in Chalk Warfare, some plants and a curbside. They just made it so easy and made that section. To the testament of Unreal Engine and their partnering with them, it’s amazing the content like that is accessible and free now.
[50:55] Allan: When you have big software companies acquire other companies, it’s usually a bad thing. But not in this case!
Sam: I think it’s a real testament to Unreal Engine as a company. I think they’re really working toward the creator and making great products. Their product would succeed only if you succeeded. So it seems ingrained in that company.
[52:08] Allan: When I was working on Team Fortress 2, back in the 90s, it came out and was successful. With the second one, they were looking to acquire Quake. Quake 2 was going to be an option. That was the killer! They were behind the product rather than trying to monetize.
Sam: At the end of the day, the companies that are behind the creator, those are the ones that will succeed. I’m a big fan of Epic Games. We’ve been using their Engine since the VR days. It’s becoming increasingly utilized in our workflow. It’s becoming more and more powerful every day.
[54:18] Allan: I’m super excited about that! I thought it was always interesting to release something on Saturday morning.
Sam: If you look at your analytics on your YouTube page, they always show a spike on Saturdays. It’s wise to upload something where you’d have the highest amount of traffic. That’s why you hear a lot about Saturdays. I was of this old school mindset that weekdays are better because people are in the office. It depends on the content actually.
[55:42] Allan: I think you’re right. It depends on the type of the audience and content. I mention this because we talked about this before. For me, for product launches, I’ve always done Tuesdays. I got that from Steve Jobs.
Sam: I’ve never heard that about Steve Jobs. For some reason, Tuesdays seemed like a great day before. But then I thought why? When studios put out their trailers, it’s very often on Tuesdays.
[51:10] Allan: I’m sure there is a whole marketing plan behind it that you’re thinking about. What thought process went into your marketing? And I think it’s brilliant that half the cast in this film has a massive following.
Sam: I think that’s the thing you find. A lot of the actors in this film also happened to have an audience. They may not have a million of people, but anywhere between 10K to 100K followers. Even 10K on IG is a lot of eyeballs. Those individuals have a very specific demographic that follows them. For instance, one of the people in the film is a parkour gymnast who has a huge following on YouTube. We had him in my videos because he’s from my hometown. It was a no brainer to have him in Chalk Warfare 3 and 4. When we had these ideas like lightsabers, our mind was set on, “Whom do we know who does that kind of stuff?” Of course, Jamie Costa just finished a short about Obi-Wan Kenobi. It was a chain reaction of various pieces to the puzzle. We asked what people wanted to see, crafted the storyline around that, and then used the resources available to us. It’s also helpful to send the film out. You’re making a piece of content you’re proud of, you need to send it out to see what people think. Reddit taught me the importance of posting something in the proper place. Depending on where and when you post it, it can either explode or die. You want to hit the people that may like that the most. It’s also a fun place to post memes.
[1:01:49] Allan: What kind of technology are you excited about?
Sam: Virtual production, obviously. I’m also excited about AI coming in and affecting our workflows. We can train it to matte out all the hands. Instances like that. You can use machine learning to paint out people from shots. I’m just really excited about this technology and neural networks. It’s already proving beneficial to the work we do.
[1:02:51] Allan: What other tech that you’re looking forward to?
Sam: Definitely Unreal Engine! I’m interested in making a film that is interactive. I’m excited about that. I think there will be a lot of content like that because of these new assets. There will be opportunities for IP content.
[1:04:16] Allan: I love that! We’ve talked about that before. If it’s the same location, you can use the same set.
Sam: I mean that shipping container is on the set. It looks the same.
[1:04:51] Allan: What’s next for you?
Sam: I have some films I’m really excited about! Chalk Warfare took such a long time. We made a fun film with Epic Games. On some of these ideas, we’d love to utilize virtual production but not as a gimmick. I’m really excited to set up this stuff in Unreal Engine to improve the content. But virtual production will prove beneficial in that.
[1:06:10] Allan: Where can people go to find out more about you and your films?
Sam: You can just Google Chalk Warfare. It’s on our YouTube Channel. If you want to see the behind-the-scenes footage, I recommend that you scan the QR code on the dumpster in the film. That will take you to some exclusive footage! It’s a very obvious Easter egg. COVID made it so that everyone knows how to use QR codes. I just threw that in there because there was a logo of a company I wanted to paint out.
[1:07:39] Allan: I’m kind of curious to see what you have up your sleeves. Thanks again for everything!
Sam: Thank you for this so much, man! Talk soon!
I hope you enjoyed this Episode. I want to thank Sam for taking the time to chat.
Please take a few moments to share this Podcast with your family and friends. That would mean the world to me.
Next week, I’m chatting with Foundry. I talk to Jen Goldfinch, Director of Global Industry Marketing. Until then —
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