Disclaimer: The following article has been a lazily conceived work in progress over the past few months that has evolved from its original intention and aim of direction to successfully devolving into something that is barely academic and questionably opinionated. As I am not famous nor an expert on anything I don't know if I should be even allowed to have an opinion and, ruthlessly, this is probably not even a funny article, which it probably should be, given the loose demands of the intended publisher. But it is about comedy, somewhat, and might be a little insightful to those considering making an online series.
After chatting with a fellow short film programmer (I'm aware how wanky that sounds), I was graced with the label 'online' in reference to how I source my programme for Short Com. Personally I was unaware their was such sectarianism in the film programming world, I've somewhat waltzed in with my own way of doing a film festival/programme without knowing the rules or much caring for them. Personally I don't really discriminate where a film that I might like to screen is doing its rounds. This blasé approach has often seen some say I'm a champion of online comedy. I'm not and I've been a little bit reluctant myself to go with the idea of making a sitcom series to be exclusively thrown online, thinking I can't note anything that's really made a big success there yet. Then I recalled how I had been meaning to catch up with a little online series called Red Vs. Blue, something I neglected over the years after it became a healthy distraction during my academic days being a feckless student. Funnily enough, I had done an angst-ridden presentation on Red Vs. Blue as an example of 'radical media', so I had been championing online comedy long before being involved in that world. Point aside, I somewhat forgot Red Vs. Blue and how immensely funny it was. Furthermore, unaware how bloody big it has become.
If you don't know what Red Vs. Blue is, it is an online Machinima sitcom based on the multi-player of the game Halo. If you didn't know, Machinima is the art of creating animated videos in real-time virtual game environments; hopefully you have learned something, or at least a pretty cool word. Red vs. Blue came into existence after filmmaker Burnie Burns played the Halo multi-player game with some friends, questioned why the game makers decided to call the game vehicle a "Warthog"? Further stating, "...it looks more like a puma". Pretty much this line alone sparked something in Burnie, convinced there would be an audience out there who would like their silly in-game ramblings and thus the genesis of Red Vs. Blue.
So, in the spirit of making this an authentic article, I sought to ask Rooster Teeth, the team behind Red Vs. Blue, if they could potentially answer some proposed questions on their success and rise, to understand how it is possible to make a successful web series. Unfortunately I never heard back, but the guys behind the successful and equally awesome Cyanide and Happiness, Explosm.net were more than happy to answer a few questions. Equally if you don't know Cyanide and Happiness, they are comic animators that make deliciously dark and crude comic strips but also have successfully crowdfunded to make a series of animated shorts. What was interesting to hear in my research is that they had been in development with Comedy Central, thus insightful to see why they went the Independent route.
You had gone through the rigmarole of the development process for TV networks and decided to go your own way. Can we get any insight what really turned you off and the difficulties you faced? As Dave says on the Kickstarter promo video "Risk everything for the minute chance to get on television". Was this a question of creative control being sacrificed? Being asked to dilute the edginess of your content?
It was about both.
When we were talking back in 2010 we were being asked to completely give up the Cyanide & Happiness name to produce a pilot that may or may not even be released. We built this brand from the ground up, so the idea of giving up all of our hard work completely scared us away. Thanks to all of our readers being incredibly awesome, we're able to produce lots of great stuff on our own, so we weren't going to give that up so easily.
Being responsible only to our fans is also nice in that we can make any crazy idea we want. If we go to a bar and come up with something insane like a brain talking to poop (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0u22Q9B8AzA), we head back to our computers and start animating. True story.
By turning down the networks have you turned your back on them for good?
No, not at all. If we were able to find a deal where we could keep doing what we love without having to give up or dilute C&H, we'd be interested. We all think it'd be great to get a show on TV. The deal has to be right, though. The last thing we want is to give fans anything less than 100% the C&H they know and love.
"If we meet our goal we'll create a season of eight 10-12 minute episodes" (estimated maximum Internet attention span). Is that a possible hindrance, concern you have about Internet audiences that might restrict ambitions to create longer content or does that suit you just dandy?
The episode length feels great to us! For the episodes we've made so far everything feels perfectly tight and punchy. We'd rather have a shorter amount of dynamite content than try to make lots of filler. We leave a lot of material unproduced. Long term we think it'd be fun to create a full-length musical or a possible spin-off series, but that's all speculation at this point.
What happens next year once you have used the funding generated from the Kickstarter campaign? Another crowd funder or can you sustain yourself with ad revenue from the Internet and maybe sponsorships?
The plan right now is to keep the weekly shorts up as long as we can after the episodes are launched. Since we're still focused on finishing the show, though, we haven't thought too far past finishing it.
Cyanide and Happiness already had a strong fan base before making shorts. It's becoming more and more frequent that people, filmmakers, creatives are going straight to the Internet, YouTube, to try and make their success. Do you think it's more important for these creatives to try and build an audience first than hope to get lucky with a viral on YouTube?
Everything you do depends on your audience, no matter where you find them. Getting a viral video is fun and really exciting, but doesn't mean much since there's a new cat-falling-in-a-box video every week. Over the long term you need people who really, really support your work through the long process it takes to actually produce something big if you want to really grow.
Via the success of Red Vs Blue and other content, Rooster Teeth have been able to produce their own studio. Do you have similar ambitions for explosm?
We love Rooster Teeth! In the last year, we've essentially built up all the resources and team to keep animating, so we'd love to keep getting more and more ambitious with what we can do.
Whilst it is easy to look at the success of Cyanide and Happiness and Red Vs Blue and take inspiration for it, and although the Internet does not really hold any national borders, I was still drawing a blank as to think of any UK based web series that I could mention and hold in similar regards. So I thought I'd ask the funny animator guys Tea & Cheese (www.teaandcheese.com) about their thoughts on the matter.
You've won quite a few awards, had some interesting commissions from major newspapers and even broadcasters. So why haven't you been granted a full series commission yet do you think?
We have got very close several times. Back in 2010 Comedy Central were interested in buying Isaac and Quincy, but had another cop show thing in development so they passed in the end - MTV liked it too but nothing came of that either - all the other networks just felt it was a little too rude. Then in 2012 we pitched n00bs to Amazon Studios - they bought it in the room and we got right up to the point where we were about to start making the pilot when they pulled out because, in the end, they wanted to move away from that kind programming... So then we pitched it to Adult Swim, but they passed as well... I guess ultimately - the answer is that getting a show off the ground is just insanely hard, being good isn't even nearly enough, you also have to be persistent and it has to be said, a little bit lucky.
Do you reckon it's easier to make a success with an animation series online than live action?
It's certainly easier to stand out from the crowd with cartoons because you can create a unique look/style but it requires so much more time to make that, no, it's not easier at all. It's a giant pain in the arse :D
What are the boundaries, obstacles you have found dealing with commissioners, broadcasters?
We've been lucky because a film competition we won opened doors to TV networks in the USA, so now whenever we have a project up to standard, we can set up meetings there. But we don't have any such opportunities in our home country. We've never got into a 'room' at the BBC or Channel 4 the way we have in the USA, isn't that weird? The BBC and Channel 4 are both risk averse when it comes to developing original British adult animation. They just buy the popular shows from the states. However, C4s Mashed is unique in that they are genuinely attempting to embrace animation and content from the YouTube generation... The catch being the budgets available aren't going to sustain a living.
Some successful online series are backed by sponsors and crowdfunding campaigns. Ever thought about going down that route, or have you tried even?
We raised a small amount of money with Indiegogo a while back, and along with some extra private investment, we've been making a fifteen-minute Isaac and Quincy cartoon. It's a full-on-comedy-action-fest and essentially a pilot episode/proof of concept, which we plan to take back to Hollywood and pitch again next year!
Private investment has been the best experience we've had to date, having full creative control over our work and the time to really hone our craft has been great... But you can be the judge, Isaac and Quincy will be online early 2015.
Aw thanks guys, now you have made me consider the arguments regarding a lack of comic animation output by broadcasters. As though I wasn't angered enough by their ubiquitous statements about not wanting sitcoms set in a flat, the BBC Feed My Funnies decides to set three out of nine pilots in a flat and none of them are even animation. No no no, lets stick to whatever it is wherever it was I was going on about. Aw, yes, making stuff directly for online. In truth, I still cringe a little when people tell me they are trying to make a series for directly online, mostly because a lot of people seem to be trying to run before they can even crawl, or have attained a reputable or target audience beforehand. I also think that some people believe the Internet as this realm of instantly attainable success but as Cyanide and Happiness you're putting your creativity up against animals on drugs and that can be quite soul crushing considering the creative efforts are superseded by a glorified extract from You've Been Framed, but then again, like the case of Red Vs Blue, you can never underestimate where a brain fart might take you.