Filmmakers Sam Wickert and Eric Leigh started their channel in junior high. Three years later, they went viral and their lives changed for good.
Talk to any kid today and they’ll likely tell you how cool it would be to become a YouTube star. Many of them already have YouTube channels set up. The dream is real, but the reality is that creating a successful YouTube channel is not easy at all. So it was a crazy dream come true when Sam Wickert and Eric Leigh became overnight YouTube sensations in high school.
Wickert, 23, and Leigh, 22, who run the popular YouTube channel SOKRISPYMEDIA, met in Greenville, South Carolina in the fifth grade. The pair shared a love of movies, TV, video games and the internet, and established their YouTube channel in 2009 when they were still in junior high.
“I got my hands on a camera when I was very young, and all I wanted to do was coordinate action scenes,” recalls Wickert. “Computers weren’t as ubiquitous as they are now, so I was fortunate to have access to the technology and realized I could edit two clips together. It was just magic to my eyes.”
Wickert and Leigh uploaded 10 videos over the next three years, most of which were inspired by video games they enjoyed (“Grand Theft Auto,” 2011) (“Traffic Rush,” 20011) or real-life quandaries they could poke fun at (“Homework,” 2010). Then, in 2012 they posted the video that would go viral and change everything for them.
The two-minute short, “Chalk Warfare,” was a live-action film featuring teens shooting at each other in a video game that comes to life after they draw weapons in chalk on the pavement.
“We uploaded it online, and it just erupted,” remembers Wickert. “So we immediately made a second one, ‘Chalk Warfare 2.’ That just erupted as well, and we were able to make some money, and we had an audience.”
Wickert and Leigh were still in high school at the time, but they were granted a clear vision of what the future could hold for them as filmmakers and visual effects mavericks. When it came time to go to college, both teens carefully considered their options before deciding on Chapman College in Orange County. They were intrigued by its proximity to Hollywood and its stellar reputation.
They continued to run their YouTube channel while they attended college, and one day they hit on a fantastic idea for a new short while they were sitting in the back of an Uber. The idea would become, “Channel Surfer,” and it was the pair’s second-ever foray into 360-degree virtual reality filmmaking.
“If you’re not getting something completely unique out of the VR version, why bother making it in VR at all?”
It was 2015 and Wickert recalls that VR was just becoming a big deal at the point. The hurdle, they decided, would be to create a film with their signature style, but that wouldn’t make sense in a format other than VR.
“If you’re not getting something completely unique out of the VR version, why bother making it in VR at all?” Wickert remembers thinking of the challenge they placed upon themselves at the time.
Channel Surfer proved to be the culmination of everything they had learned about filmmaking and visual effects up to that point, and it passed their VR litmus test with flying colors. The nearly 3-minute experience shows a teen being sucked inside his grandmother’s antiquated TV screen only to find himself occupying the worlds of various TV shows (“Cops,” “South Park”) as he navigates life inside the tube.
Thanks to the magic of VR, the viewer is sucked into the TV screen alongside the hapless traveler.
“Someone I was with said, ‘You need to check out this kid’s video,’ and I remember smiling really big and thinking this is the best 360 video I had ever seen.”
Wickert and Leigh entered “Channel Surfer” into a festival at the University of Southern California, and to their great surprise they ended up taking home first place. It was at the same festival that they were discovered by Brandon Padveen, an associate producer with MWM Interactive’s (MWMi) division.
Padveen immediately fell in love with “Channel Surfer,” and sought to recruit SOKRISPYMEDIA for collaborations with MWMi (the same collaborations that are now screening on Within).
“Someone I was with said, ‘You need to check out this kid’s video,’ and I remember smiling really big and thinking this is the best 360 video I had ever seen,” Padveen remembers. “It was just a total delight to be in the headset.”
The first collaboration between MWMi and SOKRISPYMEDIA was a sequel to “Channel Surfer” called “Internet Surfer,” which updated the original idea to show the protagonist jumping into the Internet instead of into the TV. Wickert says that it was essentially “Channel Surfer” fully realized as they originally intended it to be.
“The tools get better every month,” explains Wickert. “The tools we were using for the last one, I wish we had for the first one. But they just didn’t exist at the time.”
MWMi, went on to collaborate with SOKRISPYMEDIA on a trio of unique, visual-effects-driven, VR videos. “Tiny Tank,” and “Video Game Vehicle” both take viewers inside of video games. In the former it’s an elaborate war game, and in the latter the protagonists drive through a series of video games including Super Mario Bros.
“Do Not Touch” finds museum-goers jumping inside the frames of great works of art and running amok in various renditions of masterpieces.
Wickert and Leigh had to leave school at Chapman due to the rigors of creating these videos, School might call them back one day, but for now they are enjoying being fully immersed in an industry that is just beginning to thrive.
“I like to think I’m a lifelong learner,” says Wickert. “It was hard to make a decision about what I wanted to emphasize in school, because when you’re on YouTube, you’re a jack of all trades.”
The video series SOKRISPY DREAMS is available now on Within alongside a helping of other immersive content. The Within app is free to download via the App Store, Google Play, Oculus, SteamVR, Viveport, PSVR, and WebVR.
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