Sputnik Red - Humble Beginnings
Let's go back in time - to one of my earliest IP development journeys. When I first moved to LA in 2012 I immediately looked for a path to start pitching my original IPs to local studios and networks. Since this is not a story about my own personal journey, I'd rather focus on the development of the property itself. The development of "Sputnik Red" taught me a lot about how to handle the creative and business sides of the development process. It was the first IP I've co-created that got optioned and the relationships I built along this journey have proven valuable to me to this day. So let's get right to it!
Stage 1: The Story
I co-created Sputnik Red with actor/producer Robert Dunne and art director Jisoo Kim. The show was a 6-11 action-comedy telling the story of a freak accident that strands an innocent farm boy from Earth with a feline alien invader at the edge of the galaxy. The two end up forming a partnership to find their way home and go on crazy space adventures. It was an "Invader Zim" meets "Star Trek: Voyager" type scenario.
Wandering aimlessly in an unexplored nebula at the edge of the Milky Way, Jar and Davey search for a way back to Earth. They follow their only lead, the "Moyah Stream"(shameless Farscape reference), a faint trail barely recognizable in this uncharted area of space. The unlikely duo work together to explore odd planets, befriend bizarre aliens, investigate dangerous space anomalies, drink intergalactic slushies, battle hostile alien life forms, and anything and everything they think might offer them a way back to Earth in one piece. So...lets talk about our protagonists for a second, starting from:
Jar (aka student x9z5) used to be a young, ambitious, eager but quite spastic invader that knew he was destined for greatness in the Footon Cosmic Republic. For Jar the sky was not the limit, just an obstacle. Jar is focused, fidgety and a little paranoid. He doesn’t trust strangers, or anyone else but himself to be honest. His first instinct is always to prepare for all-out war. All Jar needs is a massive fleet, a throne to sit on and validation for his greatness for everyone in the multiverse. But behind this tough demeanor hides a cute little kitten that doesn’t want to show his sweet side to anyone, less he be judged for it.
Jar's adorable design stood in stark contrast to his "super-cereal" personality. He wants to be taken seriously. He's stubborn, grumpy, trigger happy and hyper-intelligent. Destroying Earth was his final initiation test...but the Sputnik Satellite ended up crashing into his ship's backside and he crash-landed in the middle of a cornfield in Iowa. Lucky for him - a local farmboy named Davey Cunningham saw the wreckage and took it upon himself to drag Jar out of his ship and nurse him back to health
Davey Cunningham is a kid who is way too nice for his own good. Born on a small farm in the middle of “corn country” Davey’s been kept isolated from anything of meaning. He's the perfect little boy from a perfect little family with a perfect little baby sister, perfect loving parents, and a cute (or better yet perfect) puppy (why not). Davey is a bundle of naïve, silly goodness. He may not be a great warrior, or a capable mechanic, and certainly not the best judge of character - but his friendly and good-hearted treatment of every situation he’s confronted with may very well be what saves mankind from oblivion.
Davey duct tapes Jar's ship back together. When Jar wakes up he freaks out and tries to get his furry ass off-planet. He still has a mission to complete! Unfortunately, the duct tape Davey used to patch the ship up reacts with Jar's warp core and when Jar switches his engines to "warp" he triggers a chain reaction (that through nonsensical Geordi Laforge level technobabble) zaps his ship to the far reaches of the galaxy. To make matters worse - Davey was still on board when this happened. Now Davey and Jar need to make their way back to Earth. Jar still needs to destroy it. Davey wants to get back home and refuses to take Jar's mission seriously. Throughout their journey Jar changes his mind about destroying Earth, but the duo would have to go through many swashbuckling space adventures before a real friendship forms.
Stage 2: The Option
We pitched Sputnik Red to multiple studios in LA. Disney, Cartoon Network, yadda yadda. This was my first time pitching a show to networks. We had no idea what we were doing...but apparently we did well enough. The show was picked up by a local studio that acted as a subsidiary of Splash Entertainment and Kabillion: Joovie Entertainment. They put a lot of love into the IP and helped us develop it further.
The ship - the "Sputnik Red" was the show's primary location. Jar's culture is basically one big cat joke. His ship, originally named "RED" had high-tech scratch pads, automatic litterboxes and synthetic yarn balls...and yes...the ship itself was cat-shaped. The Sputnik Satellite that got jammed up its butt above earth's atmosphere created a breach which Davey fixed by sticking the Satellite to the ship with duct tape. But the "Sputnik" became more than just an ornament...it had a role to play.
The accident caused the RED's computer to merge with the Satellite's hard drive. So the ship's A.I. developed a split personality, with random outbursts of paranoia, soviet propaganda fueled rants and other bizarre quirks. The ship became a character in its own right and a third partner to the characters' crazy journey.
The awesome team at Joovie helped us refine the designs, polish the pitch bible and they also put us to work on a short script. That script and the new designs were used to produce a short, animated "proof of concept". Needless to say - we were losing our minds at the time. It was a new process for us and we were felt extremely privileged!
The animated short's goal was to establish the show's tone, the main characters and setting - plus a taste of its energy and over-the-top sense of humor.
The original script was longer than the one we ended up producing. We came up with a race alien Koalas that comes into contact with the Sputnik Red. Davey judges them based on their appearance: cute, fuzzy and cuddly, but Jar judges them for what they truly are: a hostile alien race that aims to take over their ship and sell it for scraps.
In the short - Jar looks straight at the mirror. Davey sees the Koalas in the same way he sees Jar. It's what makes him empathetic but it also makes him naive. Jar on the other hand, gets to see his own actions in a different light now that he's on the "receiving end". It's pretty subtle, but it was all there.
Unfortunately, most of the Koala related scenes were cut as we scoped down to fit the budget. But at least we got some of it pushed in. We scoped down to focus on the gag and the dynamic of the show's leads. At least we have these cool designs to show for!
Joovie partnered up with an animation studio to help us produce this short. Once we had that the next step in the process was to cast and make this damn thing happen!
Stage 3: The Proof of Concept
So young, so innocent. Sigh...OK. Maybe not THAT innocent. As you can see in the picture below: this was one of the coolest parts of the process. Tom Kenny (Spongebob) and K. Trevor Wilson (Letterkenny) joined the project as the voices of Jar and Davey. We got to direct the man, the legend Tom Kenny in a recording studio here in Burbank, California. Can't lie, for the still fresh off the boat Amit Tishler who just moved into town a couple of years back this was all pretty surreal.
Directing Tom Kenny was an awesome experience. It taught me a lot about directing voice actors in a professional setting. Hearing him iterate on lines that Robert and I wrote was pretty incredible. So...wanna see the little demo that came out of it? Of course, you do. You've made it this far! So here you go:
We wrapped up revisions on the pitch bible. We had major voice talent attached. We had studio partnerships and we were ready to move onto the next step. So...what happened next?
Stage 4: The Legacy
Truth is... I don't fully know. Joovie was in charge of pitching this IP to networks. It's possible that there wasn't enough interest, or that they couldn't find the right partner. Unlike "Nibbles", I was not in charge of business development for this project so I had little transparency on what went on behind the scenes. All I know is that after multiple option extensions the IP went into development hell and never got green lit.
But when all is said and done: the experience and the relationships we built were their own reward. I am thankful to have had this experience and I learned a lot from it. It led to friendships and business partnerships that played an important part in my career moving forward. Not bad for a first attempt!