Inside Terrafirma with John Fox (Part 1)


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“When we came up with the idea of making a video, we never could’ve dreamed of making as many as we did.”

 

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There’s a certain magic to videotape. Undoubtedly nostalgic, tangible, clunky in structure… yet soft in tone. The lines jumping sporadically on a dimly lit cathode-ray display.

If you raced motocross in the mid-nineties, chances are you owned a piece (or many) in the Terrafirma film series. For three brothers from the Bay Area, what started out as a way to add to their brand’s reputation, turned into an industry monument; a place where style and attitude met skill and effort. Big whips, road trips, bar-to-bar racing, and a radio blasting Pennywise. John Fox (Terrafirma 12, and 3) lets loose and welcomes you back to 1994.

I’d say “us,” but I wasn’t born yet. Don’t laugh…

Discussion includes: The beginnings of Terrafirma and introduction to Crusty, filmmaking influences, trips to Tower Records, “Kids on the Couch,” Doug Henry, Donny Schmit, and a little bit of Jeremy McGrath, among other things…

 

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World of Echo: In light of Fox Racing’s recent revival of the Terrafirma series, re-releasing the films on YouTube in high-definition, I want to ask… why now? What are your goals in remastering the series?

John Fox: Terrafirma 1 is celebrating it’s twenty-fifth anniversary, this year. One of the biggest reasons we decided to re-release the series was because the VHS tapes that everyone bought those on back in the day are obsolete. So much has changed since that video came out, I’m sure many people have thrown away their VCR players long ago! Re-releasing the series gives people the opportunity to share it with their kids and relive those times without the hassle.

I did want to note that you’re releasing it for free. Was that an important decision?

The power of video, as far as marketing goes, has changed so much in twenty-five years. Social media formed and the audience’s attention spans have become much shorter. Releasing the videos in sections on social media, as well as in its entirety on YouTube, gives the audience the best of both worlds. There was no need to charge people for it again, because the selling process already happened twenty-five years ago.

What was the catalyst for the Terrafirma film series? I’m trying to remember now if you guys came along before or after the Crusty films?

Terrafirma was released just before Crusty Demons of Dirt, which came out later that same year in 1994. I couldn’t say whether or not there was a catalyst for the Terrafirma film “series,” because we were not thinking that far ahead in that period of time. When we came up with the idea of making a video, we never could’ve dreamed of making as many as we did. The series itself came after the fact, once it became a big success and valuable marketing tool for the brand.

The story behind Terrafirma 1 though, unfolds [as such]… I’m the youngest in my family and I have two older brothers, Pete and Greg. Greg is nine years older than me, Pete six, and they both had a head start on me in working with the brand. Pete started working there full time when he was fifteen, and Greg started when he was twenty. We all grew up racing together and riding dirt bikes with our Dad. In addition, Greg and I were super into skating, surfing, and doing other alternative sports starting in the mid-eighties. We’d buy all of the latest and greatest surf and skate videos at the time, so we had all of the Powell-Peralta “Bones Brigade” videos like Animal Chin and Future Primitive. We also owned all of the Billabong surf videos by Jack McCoy as well, one of the greatest filmmakers of all-time.

 

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John Fox, frontside slash.

 

We would sit around the dinner table after watching these videos, and we’d talk about how great it would be if motocross had videos like these. Cool editing, great music, you know? This is the late-eighties/early-nineties, mind you, pretty much the only motocross videos coming out back then were these Gary Bailey-type “How To Ride” instructional videos. They weren’t done in a way that made you want to watch them over and over again.

We talked about doing a video for about a year. I was in college at the time in Hawaii, and Pete and Greg decided that they’d just start gathering footage for the fun of it. Pete would go to Doug Henry’s house to shoot an ad and say, “You know, I’m going bring the video camera and shoot some stuff on that too.” He’d bring the camera to amateur races as well to record Bubba [James Stewart], Travis [Pastrana], and Ricky [Carmichael] with Greg.

They were getting all of this footage and Greg and Pete would call me in Hawaii with stories like, “Man, we got some epic stuff with Doug Henry out at Pismo Beach!” I’d be so psyched and couldn’t wait to see it, which eventually led to me dropping out of Chaminade University of Honolulu and joining the brand with my brothers, because I wanted to be a part of what they were doing so badly. Motocross was exploding at the time and Fox was making some big moves, and my dream was always to work at my Dad’s company. I was a video junkie, I literally watched every good action sports video back in the day and everyone thought I’d be perfect for this new project they were working on.

When I came back from Hawaii, I sat down to hours and hours of footage that Pete and Greg had accumulated, all of which was taped on crude, Radio-Shack style, Super-VHS cameras. It was great that we had all of this footage, but we needed something to edit it on. We ended up buying an editing system called the “Video Toaster,” I’ll never forget it. It came with two tape decks, monitors, and a pretty crude computer that could figure out the time stamp frames of each tape. I’d punch in and out on the scenes I’d want to cut and it would make the edit. It was tape-to-tape editing though, and it took forever! It was so unlike digital, where you’re free to move all of your clips around lightning fast. If I showed an edit to Pete and he said, “You know, I don’t like that second shot.” I’d basically have to re-edit the whole thing. It was definitely time consuming.

 

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Amiga’s “Video Toaster,” released in 1990.

 

Linear editing was all of the rage back then, or rather that was all you had!

It was all we had, exactly. So, I started piecing together the footage for Terrafirma 1, editing to some songs I was digging at the time. Pete would also suggest songs as well, or Greg. It’s funny that you mentioned Crusty in the beginning, because right as we really started rolling on Terrafirma 1, we got a blank tape in the mail that ended up being the trailer for Crusty Demons of Dirt. It was from Dana [Nicholson] and Jon Freeman, who sent the tape out in hopes of catching sponsors to promote the feature. We were blown away when we saw it, we thought, “No way! These guys are onto the exact same idea we had!”

Both videos launched the same year, and luckily they can both stand on their own as historical pieces of motorcycle video. Terrafirma and Crusty are different in many ways, but also very similar. Those guys did an incredible job with the original Crusty and beyond.

We actually jumped on board with those guys pretty quickly and soon became the number one distributor of Crusty films, at the time. Fox pretty much had a lock on motocross videos in the nineties. It took our competitors a long time to catch up, but once they did they had already missed the window. Some of them made some great stuff, but there was a five-to-ten year window where it was really happening and profitable.

There was no animosity between the two filmmaking camps?

There was no animosity at all. We were the same age as those guys and when we met everything clicked right away. It was a great relationship and we never stepped on each other’s toes. Both camps were working hard to produce great dirt bike videos.

 

 

You said earlier that you were the “video junkie” of the family. From a technical perspective, where were you at with video production when you started working on Terrafirma? Additionally, was there anyone to guide you in those early days?

There wasn’t much of any [help] at all, I just had to jump into the river and start swimming. I had a lot of experience watching and critiquing videos, but nothing technical. A couple of years prior to Terrafirma, my brothers and I went to one of the larger motorcycle trade shows in Ohio and Pete, being the creative genius that he is, said, “You know what? I’ve got an idea for our trade show booth. We’re going to have a wall of monitors looping a video with music to draw people to our booth.” What Pete ended up creating was a scrapped together, hour-long video of race footage ripped from Motoworld TV footage we had recorded on our home VCR through the years. It went over really well at the trade show, and I would say that was the first introduction to video making on my end, and Pete was a huge part of that. Nowadays we refer to that video as “Terrafirma 0.”

Additionally, Pete ended up being my boss for the entirety of my stint with the Terrafirma series. I’d sit in the corner of the design room with the rest of the designers where I had my editing desk set up, and I’d let everyone know when I had a new section of the video edited for them to check out. Pete would routinely join them and give me tips, so I had constant feedback from people that were really talented, which was a great environment to grow quickly in.

Did you guys have to sell the idea of doing the video?

Pete and Greg were the ones making decisions with the brand at the time so, no, we didn’t have to sell the idea. There was no doubt in our minds that we were going to make this thing. They were very smart businessmen, so they didn’t want to go gung-ho on the first video in case things went poorly. We were very naive in that regard, because I remember we capped the budget for production at around $5,000.

Wow!

There was almost no budget, very grassroots style. Our projection for the first run of tapes was 1,000 units. We sold out within the first week! We tripled our order for the next batch of tapes and that sold out within three weeks.

 

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Who was involved on the production side of Terrafirma 1? Was it really just the Fox family entirely?

For Terrafirma 1, yes, I would say that was primarily the Fox brothers on that. I would say Pete probably shot sixty to seventy percent of the first movie, and Greg shot a little of it as well. Greg was with Pete a lot when they would go on shoots together. When I got back from college I think I only shot one or two sections of Terrafirma 1, and one of them was Reynard’s section in Oklahoma.

I did all of the editing and almost all of the music decisions on Terrafirma 1 as well, with Pete assisting me with a couple song choices. Pete was adamant on the Alice in Chains that you can hear in Terrafirma 1, which I had to clear with their label at the time, Capitol Records. I never used music that we didn’t properly license through the appropriate channels, and I handled most of that throughout all of the projects I worked on.

 

“I was a little nervous that motocrossers wouldn’t like the music I was picking. ‘Are these guys going to like Pennywise?'”

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If Terrafirma is remembered for anything, it would be its eclectic soundtrack. That’s interesting to hear you actively pursued getting rights and fighting for certain songs to be included.

I remember a lot of underground skate videos back then would just dub music without getting the rights, because they were doing smaller numbers and were keen on having that raw aesthetic to them, but we never thought of doing anything like that. The repercussions would’ve been too great if something went wrong. Once the record company got ahold of your tape, you’d be screwed.

Pete, Greg, and I, we grew up on rock music, and me being a little bit younger than them I had a little more of an ear for the punk music that was coming around at the time. It was almost like the second revolution of punk rock, the first being in the late seventies and early eighties with Black Flag, The Dead Kennedy’s, all those raw punk rock bands. When I started working on Terrafirma, bands like Pennywise, NOFX, and The Offspring were really starting to make some great music that was just perfect to edit to. And you couldn’t hear those bands on the radio back then, so for the mass audience it was music they had never heard before. It was energy. It was fast-paced. It really lent itself to action sports, in a way. Some of my first experiences hearing those bands were on video. Taylor Steele with his Momentum series, Jack McCoy with the Billabong series, tons of skate videos. If I think about my CD collection back then, it was heavily influenced by those videos I was watching. It wasn’t stuff you’d see up on the front shelf at Tower Records, you know?

I was a little nervous that motocrossers wouldn’t like the music I was picking. “Are these guys going to like Pennywise?” I thought. Right away, there was such positive feedback from the bands and the motocross industry, that I really had no reason to worry.

That’s funny to think motocrossers might not have liked Pennywise. You can’t use any other type of music in a motocross video these days without hearing, “Man, this needs some punk rock!” You guys nearly defined the sound of motocross with those videos.

Thank you! That makes me feel good. [laughs] And I know the Crusty guys also did an excellent job with their music selections as well. I think those two videos introduced motocross to so much new music, it was almost like a changing of the guard in a way, and there was a new energy within the industry. A new, younger feel. In the 70’s and 80’s, there was this raw image to motocross, and in the 90’s it got a bit of an edge. Don’t get me wrong though, I love the 70’s and 80’s era of motocross!

You talked about the early stages of developing Terrafirma 1, specifically Pete going to Doug Henry’s house with a video camera for the fun of it. Was that how Doug’s part transpired, from random trips to his house?

It was! It’s unbelievable that we were able to put a section together out of that footage, because when that footage was shot we had no idea what it was for. Once I had started editing, that was all we had, and I’d have moments where I’d think to myself, “Man, I wish I had another shot of Doug whipping over this jump!” Because it was already in the can, what I had to work with was what I had to work with. I learned from that experience and shot a bunch more footage for Terrafirma 2 because of that. I was guilty in the first film of actually repeating a couple of shots in the edit!

 

 

Terrafirma always seemed to carve out a section dedicated to the outdoor season by including the most notable battles, highlights, and crashes. What was it like filming at those events back then? I know nowadays there are a few hoops to jump through, such as acquiring the rights to shoot and working around the TV package.

The national series was kind of unique in that we didn’t actually shoot that, at least in Terrafirma 1. As we were working on the project, we’d get together [Pete, Greg, and I] to talk about ideas, and one day we thought it might be rad to do a “best-of” section for the nationals. The footage was out there, because Seals Communications had a deal with ESPN to shoot all of the races, so I cold-called somebody at Seals and pitched the idea of using their footage in our video. I explained over the phone, “We’re doing this new video at Fox and we have an idea for a national section that’s going to be cut to three or four minutes using the best moments we find. Are you guys cool with that? We’d like to team up.”

Surprisingly, they were totally cool with it, and a couple days later I got a master copy of each national front-to-back (no commercials) in the mail. I thought that was so epic at the time. For a week straight, I’d watch every tape with a notepad in my hand and write down when each big moment happened on the tape. “From 2:45 to 3:15 is Henry battling Hughes,” something like that. I even had columns dedicated to starts, bails, and great passes, because when I was editing the video I wanted that section to have a nice flow to it.

That’s how the national section came about, and we were lucky enough to come up with that idea and have it work out the way it did where it soon became a fixture of the series, appearing in the first three videos [and again in Terrafirma 7 and Greatest Hits]. In Terrafirma 3 we went even further and included a Supercross section as well.

I wanted to talk for a minute about the now-infamous “Kids on the Couch” section of Terrafirma 1, which documents a young Travis Pastrana, Ricky Carmichael, and even younger James Stewart. It’s an extraordinary piece in its simplicity, coupled with the fact that it showcases three of the biggest stars motocross has ever produced. Whose idea was it to sit those three down?

It’s an amazing piece of motocross history. If we back up a couple of years, in the late-eighties we were making some big moves with the Fox brand, and one of those moves was going to the amateur nationals like Loretta Lynn’s, Ponca City, and Gainesville [Mini Olympics], and hand-picking young talent early on. That’s how we got guys like [Damon] Bradshaw and Chicken [Jeff Matiasevich], and those guys allowed us to expand the brand by combining big personalities with extremely fast and flashy riding. The problem was that we lacked experience in the business world, and our competitors came in and swooped our guys away from us by offering a lot more money. So, in 1991 and 1992 we basically had no national caliber riders wearing Fox, and that period of time was a bit of a transitional one, a time where Pete and Greg sat down and focused on rebuilding the team. That was when we really started shifting our focus towards younger riders and grooming them up through the amateur ranks to make them feel like a part of the family. Pete, Greg, and Todd Hicks, our rider support manager at the time, did a great job of picking out the best kids and starting relationships with them. That’s when we got Ricky, Travis, and Bubba.

 

 

The couch footage was actually shot in Gainesville at the Mini Olympics during Thanksgiving. That year, Greg, Pete, and Todd ended up bringing the video camera with them. The last night of the event they asked the kids to come over to RC’s motorhome and hang out, where they barbecued some food and requested interviews with the kids. Pete brought the video camera out and started taping, and once they got rolling the kids just took over with their youthful energy and stoke. I remember watching that footage when I started editing and Pete was sure to remind me not to skip over any of the footage he shot of the kids on the couch. It was about an hour of footage, raw, and I laughed my ass off the entire time! The footage was so good, and it was just pure luck that it turned out the way it did and ended up being so significant. I don’t think we (or they) had any idea what would become of that footage.

Ricky was pretty conservative as a kid, so I feel like if we only had Ricky one-on-one, we probably would’ve gotten semi-bland, “middle of the road,” answers. He was very professional, even at that age, and you could just tell that he wanted to be a pro racer. The fact that he was mixed in with Travis and James, it changed the whole dynamic and Ricky opened up a lot more. You can also see in the footage that James took over that interview pretty quickly and had the other two in stitches, because he was so young and quirky with his jokes. I really think that influenced Travis and Ricky to relax and just be kids and have fun. The footage ended up being iconic and timeless.

I think at one point Pete asks about James’ girlfriend, DeDe?

DeDe Burns! [laughs] That’s so funny. Fox still gets comments about DeDe whenever we post something Terrafirma-related. “I wonder where DeDe Burns is nowadays?”

I remember watching that sequence as a bonus-scene on the Terrafirma 7 DVD.

Even by that time [2001], that footage was so well known that people still wanted to see it. Like I said earlier, Pete shot an hour, maybe two hours of footage with those kids. There was so much we left on the table with that footage that we wanted to include it in Terrafirma 7 uncut.

 

“McGrath was so stoked to be on the team. One day he coyly asked us, ‘Can… can I be in Terrafirma 2?’ And we just laughed.”

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How did the success of Terrafirma 1 set you guys up for the sequel? Was it an almost immediate reaction to produce the second film?

Honestly, I’m not 100% certain on this, but I think I was off and running with Terrafirma 2 within two or three weeks of the first film’s release. Terrafirma 1 was doing noticeably better than we had thought, and the feedback we were getting was amazing. We knew we had an ace in the hole.  I remember when we inked the deal with Team Honda between Terrafirma 1 and Terrafirma 2, McGrath was so stoked to be on the team. One day he coyly asked us, “Can… can I be in Terrafirma 2?” And we just laughed. Like, of course you can, Jeremy! The videos held a lot of power, and not only did it give the riders something to look forward to, it gave us ample time to build better relationships with them when we went out to film. That was huge for the brand, and it felt like people really wanted to ride for Fox.

 

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McGrath Fox ad, from Tony Blazier archive.

 

Looking behind the scenes, who were some of the players that came into the picture around Terrafirma 2? I remember you mentioning Matt Story, who you hired as an assistant.

Yes, we brought Matt on around then. He’d go on all of the shoots with me and handle phone calls in the office.  Later on he started shooting more and more, but he didn’t shoot a ton of stuff for Terrafirma 2. He was a great person to bounce ideas off of, and we formed a good relationship.

Was the challenge of one-upping yourself omnipresent during Terrafirma 2, having to follow up a smash hit just one year later?

I think it became a little tougher later on to best ourselves, the first one was just so grassroots and raw, so one-upping ourselves on the second one was an easy thing to do. We upgraded equipment, had more experience, and probably most important of all was the exposure we had to new riders who weren’t around for Terrafirma 1. We had McGrath, Lamy [Steve Lamson], and Mike Metzger. We also had Pedro Gonzales, who was insane to film with. That dude sent it to the moon and had killer style. That really opened a lot of doors during the second film.

We were even starting to conceptualize ideas before we hit the tracks, so we’d have a game plan before the cameras ever started to roll. One example of conceptualization came from McGrath’s segment where Pete, the design team, and I dreamed up the idea of renting a helicopter and cutting the segment like we did. I think even one of our graphic designers drew up a storyboard of the shots you see in the film: McGrath picking up his gear bag, walking towards the helicopter, the helicopter flying towards Castillo Ranch, him exiting. Those were the first steps we took to improving our performance from Terrafirma 1.

 

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“Terrafirma 2” premiere ad, courtesy John Fox.

 

Jeremy McGrath in Terrafirma 2 is arguably the series’ defining segment, and I certainly want to explore that, but I first wanted to ask you about Donny Schmit’s “Ice Supercross” segment. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen before, or since. Can you expand on that? You mentioned your brother Greg shot most of that with Donny in Minnesota.

Donny was one of our younger amateur riders in the 80’s, and he won a 125cc Supercross title in ’86, but we had to release him out of his Fox contract shortly after because his contract with the factory ended, and he didn’t have any other options to race in America. He rode one year as a privateer, finishing fourth in the Outdoor nationals, before packing it up for Europe. He was one of the few American guys who was willing to go to Europe to race the GP’s, and we totally supported him in his decision. His first ride was based in Belgium with the same Suzuki team that Stefan Everts was on, then he ended up getting a ride with the Chesterfield Yamaha Team in the 250cc class. Greg kept in contact with him and would go visit Donny from time to time. Donny ended up winning two World Championships over there before retiring on top, having won the 250cc GP title in 1995. When he got back to living in Minnesota, he called Greg and said, “I just built a frozen Supercross track on a lake I want to get a section in Terrafirma!”

Greg is like, “What!? I don’t understand. Send me a photo.”

Donny goes, “Just get out here.”

 

 

Greg came into my office to learn how to operate the Betacam we bought for the movie, and went out to visit Donny.  The footage he came back with was so unique. It was Donny doing something that had never been done before, and his personality totally shines through in that part too. To this day, one of my favorite shots of the entire series is Donny power-sliding that YZ250 across the frozen lake with his feet on the pegs. It’s unbelievable, his throttle control was as good as it gets. That segment really spawned from their close relationship, between Donny and Greg.

I was going to ask how it all happened from a logistics standpoint, filming on the ice and getting the track made, but I guess you guys don’t really know!

Greg told me all they had to build with was a Bobcat, so I think Donny built it with one of his buddies…  Greg also told me more recently that filming with Donny was his first experience in sub-zero degree temperature! Being raised in California, we’re a little spoiled when it comes to having nice weather, so Greg was not prepared at all. He didn’t have any of the right clothes and froze his ass off! I think Donny was just in a letterman’s jacket… [laughs] Just another day in Minnesota!

 

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Continued in part two, linked here.

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