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A Promise Fulfilled: Independents Thriving on the Net

Rick DeMott talks with three leading independent Internet animators about how they have turned their love for toons into a burgeoning career.

The indie stars of the Internet. Odd Todd © OddTodd.com. Weebls-Stuff © Sumo Dojo Productions. HomeStarRunner © 2004 HomestarRunner.com.

When the Internet animation boom was reaching its peak around the turn of the millennium, the Net looked like the promised land for animation artists. Flash and other affordable animation software had become an efficient way to create quality content with relative ease. It seemed animators would be in charge of their creations, not a room full of accountants and market analysts. The World Wide Web was the creators stage and smart animation was no longer relegated to festivals and Japan. It was the time when the quality of ones toon was all that kept one from success. The shackles of animations corporate enslavers had been broken forever.

But then the industry tanked. The surviving firms for the most part had fingers in other mediums. None of those companies were producing or commissioning the same amount of content as before and fewer people were producing the content that was being made. Then the big corporate players moved in and the little guys were left feeling like Da Man had triumphed once again.

The vastness of cyberspace seemed so lonely now. How could one man or womans work shine bright enough to be noticed in the Google-sized swirling vortex that is the Internet? But then a ray of hope shined past the neon glow of pop-up ads for Paris Hiltons new porn site and free, low-interest home loans. Artists working from home started gaining popularity. Word of mouth about that new funny toon spread through blogs and e-mail blasts. Animation made in the late hours of the night by people who did it just for the love of it were beginning to open new doors for their dedicated creators.

Surviving in Laid Off Land

Probably the most ironic, and in many ways inspiring, tale of independent success on the Net would have to be that of Todd Rosenberg. The Internet both its collapse and its potential are the keys to his cartoon series Odd Todds (www.oddtodd.com) success. Rosenberg had been working in business development at AtomFilms during the boom years, however, like many others, he didnt survive the downsizing. Though his résumé contained mainly sales jobs, Rosenberg worked on e-cards on the side and tried to sell comic strip ideas to newspapers, but he could never make a living out of it.

So I decided that over my laid off time, before I needed to find a new job that I wanted to at least produce something, so that I didnt feel like I wasted all this time, Rosenberg said. Originally the site was going to be a one-minute rant of an unemployed guy everyday. The site was going to be one big play button and [visitors] would hear what this person had to say. I did a lot of recordings like that and it sort of lent itself to animation, which I didnt know how to do. So I got in touch with some friends that knew Flash and asked if they wanted to work on this with me. Nobody was really interested so I got a copy and got a book and basically taught myself Flash.

Welcome to Laid Off Land! © OddTodd.com.

In November 2001, Odd Todd was born from his experiences being laid off. The simple line drawings fit the witty rants of the loaf in the blue bathrobe. Rosenberg writes and animates all the content for the site. He only gets help with programming when creating games. All the sound is recorded at home using a computer mic with a foam pop guard and edited using Sound Forge.

I got lucky traffic-wise because the first cartoon was forwarded around the Net to the point where it was crashing the servers of the hosting company I was using at the time, said Rosenberg. Once I realized I was getting some traffic I decided to add features to the site to keep people coming. So thats when I added Laid Off Land, which is the Yahoo! Club, and we started the Daily Facts from TV. So I always felt that having something daily on the site was necessary. As I kept adding features and adding cartoons and games, it just retained the audience that I had. Fortunately, people still seem to be discovering the site.

Before too long, the site received interest from Hollywood. Rosenberg said, I was lucky with people getting in touch with me through the site. It was a difficult process at first because, especially after the first cartoon, there was a lot of requests and inquiries. Im a producer from Hollywood and I want to work with you and stuff like that. And just a lot of people who were looking to get involved in some way. It was kind of a learning experience for me basically not to screw up or start to make mistakes. It was very overwhelming. All of a sudden I got panicked with the idea of screwing up, but fortunately to this point I havent, but whether I will remains to be seen.

His first foray into other mediums came in April 2003 when Warner Books released The Odd Todd Handbook: Hard Times, Soft Couch, a comic strip collection based on OddTodd.com. Through the site, Rosenberg had obtained an agent, who set up the initial meeting with Comedy Central. After being in the works for some time, the cable network signed an eight-episode television deal in February of 2004. Rosenberg will animate the series in Flash with freelance animators hired on to help out.

Rosenberg said, Everyone seems to be on board with keeping a real simplistic style to it and keeping away from the traditional sitcom-y structure, which is great. Comedy Central over the creative discussions that weve had has shown that they are really generous in what theyre willing to see. They basically really like the cartoon and the feel and the tone. Of course theres going to have to be some expansion on it other characters brought in but essentially the cartoon is still going to focus on the guy in the blue robe. Hes going to head out of his apartment a little bit more often and well see a little bit more of his family. And see a little bit more of his love life. And his struggles with work. And having more time allows us to get into more detail into the things that Ive touched on with the cartoons on the site.

Witness the eating habits of the laid-off man. © OddTodd.com.

Though hes had a book and now a TV deal, Rosenberg freely admits that he isnt rolling in money. His main source of income from the site is through merchandising done through Café Press, where he sends images to and they pretty much do the rest.

Café Press is actually a really good service for people who dont want to deal with merchandise but want to sell merchandise, Rosenberg said. You set your own price, so if I sell a mug for $13, Ill get $2 of that. I dont know if thats a lot or a little but its a lot when you didnt really do anything to make the $2 and someone is getting a good coffee cup out of the deal. Thats turned out to be who usual comes through to pay my rent, which is a huge help for me I have done some things right, but I havent found a way to make any real money off all this. The site still remains the main source of income for me.

Rosenberg has been able to turn his childhood love of The Peanuts and Mad Magazine into a career. He says as a kid he use to draw violent cartoons in his notebooks, but he soon discovered that, people arent interested in wildly violent stuff. So at that point it made me think that if I toned back the violence a bit someone would be interested in what I was doing, so I tried different things from that point on until I was able to hit on something that worked.

Todd Rosenberg and his alter ego. © OddTodd.com.

It seems that Odd Todd has really worked for him. When asked about what advice hed give to others wanting to start creative ventures on the Net, he said, I get the feeling theres a lot of people out there who have something to say and dont have an outlet or dont have an idea how to package something to say it. Id say to work on getting clear on what message they want to put out there, and that will often lend itself to the proper format... There is so many different choices out there whether you want to start a blog or whether you want to do animation or just scan in paper comic strips or whatever. But one thing I always say to people who are laid off, people are drawn to doing something whether its the accountant who wants to be a writer or the sales guy who wants to be a cartoonist just really take advantage of the free time that is available from being laid off, or whatever the circumstance is, to really not burn the time and at least produce something even if its just for yourself. Just push yourself to get off the couch and do something at least once in awhile. But I dont have that much room to talk because Im really lazy.

To help out new users of Flash, Rosenberg even has a section on his site called New to Flash, which highlights work done by non-professionals. Its a way to give back to a community that has helped him.

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Jonti Picking and his unexpected stars, the Badgers. © Sumo Dojo Productions.

Net-working

Jonti Picking, based out of the U.K., started working on the Net in 1997 as a way of promoting his music by giving people access to his sample library. He started tinkering around with animation packages on the c64 and Amiga, but Flash really let him accomplish what he wanted to do.

Weebl and Bob has a simple style, which focuses on the misfortunate, and often gross, interactions between egg-shaped Weebl and his smaller friend Bob. Much of the other cartoons are forged around songs with dynamic beats. Picking sites U.K. comedians Vic and Bob, Don Hertzfeldt, Monty Python, The Simpsons, adverts and Japanese design as his influences.

A big breakthrough came when he submitted work to www.b3ta.com, a Website dedicated to entertainment on the Net. Through the b3ta site and its newsletter, interest built, allowing Picking to start weebls-stuff.com in 2001. www.b3ta.com really gave us the kickstart and continues to provide us with lots of lovely hits. From there it all spreads virally from inbox to inbox. Badgers (a looping animation to a hard electronic beat with the only lyrics being badger and mushroom) was the real jolt and keeps bringing people our way everyday. Lord knows why that was so popular, but it is.

Soon enough, television came calling. MTV:UK phoned me up after seeing the site so I popped in for a chat and they offered me money, said Picking. What could be finer than doing what you love for a living?

Picking turned his Weebl and Bob characters into a series for the cable network and was able to bring in a staff of five. The TV cartoons are all done in Flash then exported to Tif sequences. From this point, the core group of talent started Sumo Dojo Productions Ltd. (www.sumo-dojo.com) to do commissioned productions. The new firm recently completed Weebel and Bob-influenced spots for Anchor Butter in the U.K.

It seems that a whole business grew from what Picking describes as, a bunch of static pages manually updated by me on my Blueyonder Webspace. As things grew I forced the other guys to help me out with the promise of a Coke at some vague point in the future. Ash (webmonkey/coder) really made life a lot easier as did Cheechy (server uberlord) with building the sites as they are and sorting out server hosting and such. Skoo (co-writer) is a constant thorn in my side, making sure what we do is actually funny. Both sites are now fully PHP driven with a database and lovely admin feature so we can upload lickity split and not faff around. Eventually well bring them both back together. Eventually.

Like other independent sites, they make money off merchandising. Picking said, The site doesnt actually make money so much as lose it through bandwidth costs (over 1,000 Gig last month). The only thing keeping it ticking over is t-shirt sales, which thankfully have started to pay for things. Also rather luckily for us the lovely people at Jolt give us free hosting for the Weebl and Bob site (www.weebl.jolt.co.uk).

When asked what advice hed give to people wanting to start tooning on the Web, Pickings answer was simple. Join b3ta. If youre any good then the magic donkey will choose you for the newsletter. If people like you then it should carry on growing. Oh and dont slack off making stuff.

Mike (right) and Matt Chapman have gained legions of fans, which include Buffy creator Joss Whedon. © 2004 HomestarRunner.com.

If You Build It, They Will Come

Brothers Matt and Mike Chapman created the characters of HomeStarRunner.com eight or nine years ago. Stories were developed over time. When the Chapmans discovered Flash 4, the prospect of creating quality content with relative ease became a possibility. In January 2000, they started HomeStarRunner.com as a forum for their creative endeavors.

Sharing his name with the site, Homestar Runner is a slow-witted sports lover, whose intentions are always good, if not always successful. However, the real star of the site is Strong Bad, who wears a Mexican wrestling mask and boxing gloves and answers fan e-mails with a great deal of witty sarcasm. Other characters include flighty, tree-hugger Marzipan, Strong Bads terminally depressed brother Strong Sad and Strong Bads little yellow sidekick The Cheat. The cartoons are infused with pop culture satire, skewering everything from early Nintendo games to the 1980s as a whole. Though both Matt and Mike wouldnt call themselves total animation aficionados, they do cite Bugs and Daffy and Peanuts cartoons as animation influences, along with live-action favorites which include the 1960s Batman TV series, Three Stooges shorts and Pee-Wees Playhouse.

A love of computers and creating brought HomeStarRunner.com to life in 2000. © 2004 HomestarRunner.com.

Like many kids raised in the media age, they were always creating films, both live-action and animation, using their parents Super 8 camera. When asked about their early ventures into animation Mike said, We had done a million drawings on paper type of animation, but as we grew older and realized how tedious traditional cel animation was, our interests waned until Flash came along essentially. We had looked around we had Mario Paint for the Super Nintendo and did stuff on that and had been looking for animation programs for computers because we saw that it was headed in that direction and might soon become very easy to do good looking animation much easier than traditional cel.

Mike had attended Florida State University for photography and Matt attended for film. After college, both of them pursued jobs in graphic design. Neither of them had any formal computer training other than a Photoshop course before starting the Website.

Matt does most of the voices for the site, while Mike works on illustrations or drawings for any given cartoon. They record the sound in their office in a sound room, which is described as not the most technically advanced thing, but it gets the job done. After the voices are done, Matt and Mike split the animation work in half and combine the work in the end. Strong Bad E-mails, a signature part of the site, generally run three minutes and take 15 hours on average to create. The longer regular-length cartoons, including all the characters, take 40 to 50 hours.

We both enjoyed doing computer stuff so we both started learning Photoshop and Illustrator and HTML, said Mike. So Flash obviously had the most potential of all that stuff and thats what we were most interested in. We were always making movies. We were in bands making songs. This was just a new format for us to create.

Dedicated to content and not commerce, the site started with the strict rule of no ads or links. We always wanted it to remain its own world. Thats why its in its own window, its got the black border. We dont do full screen, its separates it from your browser. Our emphasis has been on doing something that is cool and letting the audience come to us. We never ever thought that it would ever get to the point where it would pay the bills. So our philosophy has always just been to do what we like doing, do something that people will enjoy and if people come to the site great. If not, thats okay.

The first two years of the site were a slow process of building traffic. Early on, the things that were cool were when a band that we didnt know linked to us. That was a huge deal. And being mentioned on someones blog. Every couple weeks there was something and wed say, Hey, thats awesome. Thats so exciting.

In 2002, the Chapmans started updating the site on a weekly basis. Previously, new content was posted when it was done, which could take as long as a month and a half. By September 2002, traffic started to grow substantially. At that point, both Matt and Mike were able to quit their jobs and work on the site full time.

In some ways it seemed like it happened fast, but we have been doing this for four years now, said Mike. The first few years I think [traffic came by] a lot of word of mouth, people linking it. Blogs or personal Websites, which I think is a much better way to accumulate a fan base then by advertising. If you hear something from a friend theres a much greater chance of you actually liking it. We never did any advertising or promoting. We just keep our heads down on making cartoons that we enjoyed and hopefully other people would enjoy.

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Strong Bad has gained fans worldwide flooding him with e-mails every week. A fan even dressed up like Strong Bads brother Strong Mad at the 2003 Anime Expo. © 2004 HomestarRunner.com. Photos by Lionel Lum, courtesy Anime Expo.

Because there are no ads on the site, its main source of income is merchandise. Fans had wanted it for a long time, said Mike, In the middle of 2001, we started with one shirt and went from there. We hope that we dont emphasize that too much. The Website costs us a lot of money, but it doesnt make us any money. Just the merchandise.

The brothers, along with a friend, are now working on a DVD, which will include the first 100 Strong Bad E-mails. The DVD will be completely self-produced and available for purchase on the site later in the year. Matt and Mike hope to do more DVDs in the future, where they can exploit their puppet work, which is limited on the Internet because of file size.

When asked about moving into other mediums, Mike said, [The Internet] is where we want to stay. Weve had opportunities to talk to people and we havent been offered anything. As far as TV goes, we think it works so well on the Web and this is part of why its good. Its not just a show you watch. A lot of things would change if it was on TV I think there is a pureness that comes from being a small operation thats just a few people. Just two peoples vision as opposed to something that has a million people influencing it, and you never know if its going to go this way or that way. I think its more personal, remaining true to that feel, and [the fans] are more connected to the characters.

Asked for advice for fledgling artists on the Web, Mike said, I think the main thing is to give it time So you have to put in the effort its not going to happen over night, but just keep doing what you like doing. The Internet provides a place where your audience is there [and] your in charge. Where as a TV show for instance, if it doesnt find its audience like that, its going to get canceled. So thats why good shows like Freaks & Geeks and Home Movies get cancelled because they keep changing the time slot and all theyre interested in is the advertising dollars. And you get some great TV shows that last less than a season.

It seems that quality will find its way on the Internet. One of the key things to all three of these sites is they all have solid writing and graphics that serve the story well. If your stuff is good it will find an audience. Perseverance is the key to independent success on the Internet. Only time will tell.

Rick DeMott is managing editor of Animation World Network. He recently contributed to a coffee table book on the history of animation for Flame Tree Publishing, which will be released later in 2004. Previously, he served as the production coordinator for sound production house BadaBing BadaBoom Productions and animation firm Perky Pickle Studios. Prior to that position, he served as associate editor of AWN.

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