Several years ago at CTNX in Burbank, I sat through a session on episodic YouTube animation, my attendance fueled by nagging doubts about my hipness quotient and feelings of being old and out of touch with the latest animated shorts “those damn kids today” were devouring while attending raves or visiting their moms in rehab.
Looking back on that session, only one property shown was even remotely funny. That property was Dick Figures. And while no two people can agree on what “gluten” is, let alone, what “funny” is, suffice to say that from my perspective, the series holds its own against just about anything out there labeled “episodic comedy.” Gluten free or not.
The brainchild of creators Ed Skudder and Zack Keller, friends, co-workers, USC grads, writers, animators, deviants, partners in crime (choose your label) Dick Figures is sophisticated in its simplicity and brilliant in its execution. Like all good humor, it’s not for everyone. Just us cool folk. If you don’t get it, then you don’t get it. Such is life.
At its core, Dick Figures illustrates, with reckless abandon, one of the most fundamental, hurtful, nasty, vicious, funny and rewarding relationships there is in life – the “buddy-buddy” relationship between two guys. Sometimes base, crude and uniquely repugnant, other times infinitely worse, a good buddy-buddy story nevertheless always gives us a reason to smile. And think back to Junior High, the five best years of our lives.
No matter how life’s battles wound us, our best buddies lift us up when we are most vulnerable, look us squarely in the eye, smile, and with surgical precision, carve up our psyche with a succession of insensitive taunts and insults that leave us gasping for the very air we breathe. As we writhe on the ground in emotional agony, they tower over us, gloating, laughing, calling us names. Because we love it. And they know it. Because it’s funny. And when it’s funny, even when it’s at your expense, it’s funny. If you can’t kick a friend when he’s down, what good is friendship?
Dick Figures, in just a few short years, has become one of the most successful episodic animated properties on the Internet, with over 270 million video views across 40 episodes. Chronicling the moronic, often violent exploits of two stick figure buddies, Red and Blue, Dick Figures is produced by Six Point Harness and distributed by Mondo Media, one of the most successful and experienced web-centric media companies, known for edgy, fan favorite shows such as Happy Tree Friends and Deep Space 69.
Launched May 31st of last year, the Dick Figures: The Movie Kickstarter campaign raised $313,411 from 5,616 backers. At that time, (not sure about now), it was the most successful fundraising effort for an animated project in Kickstarter’s history. The film, just completed and soon to be released, first to Kickstarter backers and then to the general public through some manner of download, streaming and DVD formats, is a shining example of how a small studio can fund its own animated projects solely through the support of its fan base. I recently had a chance to talk to Ed and Zack about the film, the success of the series and the dynamic of taking their alter-egos, Red and Blue, to the “big” little screen.
Dan Sarto: Two or three years ago at CTNX, Aaron Simpson led a session on YouTube animation success. You guys were there I believe. Aaron showed a number of episodes from some of most “popular” animated series on YouTube. To be honest, the only one I thought was really well done was Dick Figures.
Zack Keller: Thank you!
DS: Congratulations on the success of the Kickstarter campaign. It’s really a testament to the promise and potential of today’s new entertainment media dynamics. You’ve hit on most if not all of them – grass roots growth of a small animated property, organic growth of a huge fan base, crowdfunding of an animated feature. There’re so many examples when it doesn’t work, it’s really nice to see when it does.
ZK: I guess we lucked out. Thank you.
DS: Well I don’t think its luck. Sustaining what you guys have done for four seasons is not luck so…
Ed Skudder: Thank you very much.
DS: How did Dick Figures start? How did you guys come together? What was the genesis of the idea and what made you choose the web as the venue for your storytelling?
ES: Dick Figures was born within Six Point [Harness, the studio at which they work]. In 2010, they gave us all two days to work on whatever we wanted, to come up with new ideas and pitches to show the studio. I ended up doing a little one and a half minute short about Red and Blue, who back then were way different. They had different voices. Actually, the tone was a whole lot different. But Six Point liked it enough that they showed it to Mondo Media who also liked it enough to greenlight one episode.
Zack and I had been working together for a couple of years. We met at USC in the film production program and had been doing projects together ever since. So he and I naturally just teamed up. In the first episode, Mondo said that if we got 100,000 views in a week, they’d greenlight the rest of the season. We got that many views in the first couple of days, which was really exciting. We’ve been making them ever since. It wasn’t a conscious decision to go to the web. We just kind of landed there and found ourselves figuring it out as it went along.
DS: When you were making the pilot, what were your thoughts about the viability of the idea as an ongoing series?
ES: We didn’t think about it that far forward because when we did the pilot, what we made was so weird compared to the rest of the projects we’ve done together, we didn’t really know if it was going to take off or be popular. We were very nervous. We figured no one would like our stupid little cartoon. Then, when they greenlit the next one, and then the next one, and the next one, we started to consider we actually had something cool and that we had to figure out the tone of the show, where to take it, what to do with it. We started coming up with new ideas, adding new characters, almost accidentally, just rolling with it as we went along.
ZK: Creating Dick Figures has been a really organic process. We started by making just one, not knowing it would go any further. Then we started looking to the fans and they started talking about a line of music, a movie eventually, toys, shirts, music. Whatever they were curious about, we just went for it. It’s been a series of organically evolving projects since day one.
DS: Your show is a shining example of the new breed of animated webisodes that take great advantage of viral social media communication. How much has audience commentary and the “vibe” from social media played a part in the show’s development?
ES: We definitely pay a lot of attention to that. We read the comments, go through all the pages and interact on Twitter. We look at fan art that’s posted on Tumblr and deviantART and try to pay attention to how they’re feeling and what they enjoy most about the show. We definitely take that into consideration when we’re writing episodes. A lot of the ideas and characters come out of whatever is on our minds at the time, but the things the audience loves the most, we want to use to fill in as much as we can. It’s like a tip of the hat on our part to the fans that enjoy the heck out of the show.
ZK: It depends. Whenever we’re coming up with ideas for the show, it always just starts as Ed and I coming up with the simplest, funniest idea possible. For the pilot, I was thinking, “What if one character just spoke in Auto-Tune?” And Ed was like, “What if he swallowed a bee and it made him speak this way?” I’m like, “Okay let’s see what kind of fun we can have with that!” You could definitely see us exploring that in the first season. What should they do? What if he wants to go into outer space, or do time travel and see dinosaurs? We just had really simple concepts that we used for plots and then tried to make funny and keep to a 2 ½ minute time span. The charm for the show really is the simplicity of it.
DS: Are there any comedic duos or buddy-buddy films you look to for inspiration?
ES: I think we look to each other mostly. We definitely love all kinds of comedy. We’re around so many funny, unique individuals all the time we certainly draw inspiration from a lot of them for the characters in the show. Red and Blue are very much Ed and I in the way they speak, in their mannerisms. The other characters in the show come from comedy that we’ve been exposed to and the many influences in our lives. One of the things that make Dick Figures unique is that they have a very different blend of humor. It just feels like two friends, bantering back and forth because that’s how Ed and I make fun of each other. A lot of the humor stems from us.
DS: It’s the essence of buddy-buddy humor. I have a friend from college and the two of us, in a text message or email, will say things to each other that are so horrible, so vicious, without the slightest concern for propriety. Anybody accidentally privy to our vitriol would be terribly offended and seriously insulted. I’ve got many years on you, so I can attest to the fact that it only gets better as you get older and more crotchety. It only gets funnier.
ES: I can’t wait
DS: Tell me about the Kickstarter campaign and the feature film. I understand it started as a 30-minute special but expanded based on the success of the campaign.
ES: We saw a lot of comments popping up all the time saying either this should be a TV show or it should be a movie. Zack and I have never really leaned towards TV. We’ve always loved feature film. We both thought to ourselves we should make a movie. Kickstarter had begun to take off. Double Fine raised a whopping three or four million dollars, so we were very inspired that a tiny little indie studio could really pull off something huge like that. The reason for a half hour special was after running the numbers at Six Point, trying figure out how big a project we could do, we came up with half an hour. But after the Kickstarter campaign closed, we had so much support and so much enthusiasm from the fans, it seemed a shame to ramp up the production and then only do a half hour show. So we decided to do the whole thing. Through Mondo Media, which has about a million and a half subscribers, we have a big bullhorn to tell our fans what we’re working on.
ZK: So for the 5th episode of Season Four, we released The First Day of Cool, which is about how Red and Blue meet and first becomes friends. We didn’t tell any of our fans about it, but at the very end of the episode, it announced you’d just watched the first five minutes of Dick Figures: The Movie and it pushed everybody over to Kickstarter. For the next five episodes, we continued adding stuff about the movie, throwing up pictures of the progress, doing “making ofs”, really starting to build fan awareness of the movie.
ES: After the Kickstarter campaign finished and we had time to catch our breath, we realized we’d raised more than we’d hoped and after reorganizing the budget, we figured we could totally do a feature. We’ve been cranking away ever since.
DS: Tell me about the dynamic and the challenges taking a production based on little comedic shorts and expanding that into a feature film? You can’t just stitch together a bunch of shorts here. This is a very different animal.
ZK: As I mentioned, all the episodes are very short and based on one specific idea. We’re lucky in that the show has always been about Red and Blue’s friendship and how it was only natural to make a movie about their friendship and how it changes. Not just how they became friends, but how that friendship evolves. We knew that was going to be the emotional core of the story. We put that into place and then built from there. We wanted to go on this grand adventure around the world, building action, adventure and comedic pieces while at the same giving our characters and ideas more time to breathe.
We’ve been doing Dick Figures for two and half years now. Ed and I have written a bunch of feature scripts. That’s what we were trained in at USC. We’ve always been itching to do a feature. We have a bunch of animated film ideas that have been sitting around waiting for us and Dick Figures just happened to be the first. It was pretty easy to write. The characters come from who we are and what make us laugh. We made fun of each other for a couple weeks, wrote it back and forth.
DS: Has the feature been more enjoyable than the episodic work?
ES: There are definitely pros and cons. For the shorts, things are fast and stupid and mostly inconsequential. We can kill the characters at the end. It doesn’t matter. We can do whatever we want. But at the same time, with the movie, we gave things more time to breath and actually have a nice conclusion, writing larger arcs for our characters to explore their world, really figuring out what makes these two tick. That has been very satisfying, to finally sink our teeth into something deeper.
ZK: It’s going to be interesting. We have been setting up this world for several years and in the movie, we bring most of the characters back. We’re able to pay off a lot of stuff we’ve been setting up in the show. In a few episodes where we just mentioned minor things, those end of becoming big parts of the movie. We get to see characters change.
DS: From a more philosophical standpoint, do you think that the web has really fulfilled the early economic promise with regards to individuals distributing independently produced content?
ES: I want to say yes and no. I think it’s really close. I think if you’re an individual or a very, very small team, a couple of people, then absolutely. We’ve met and are friends with plenty of animators and folks on YouTube that have done their own thing and they put it out there and created a tremendous fan base and make a great living off of it. They love what they do. The problem is that scale comes in. When Dick Figures, which is done at a studio, tried to make that work [financially], I think we were close. I think it needs a little more time to grow. I’m sure, from what Zack and I have heard, in the next couple of years we’re going to get there. I think the studio right now is breaking even. No one is complaining. But I think as a viable economic force, I think the Internet needs just a couple more years to find its feet.
ZK: One of the things we found out in the Kickstarter campaign is that we have a lot of fans who don’t own credit cards. That sounds bad, but a lot of them are kids and so when we went to fund this movie a lot of them didn’t have access to a PayPal account or credit card. That’s what’s been really great about YouTube. It was a platform for us to release something small, cheap, that did well. We started getting views and started getting money from those views and it just snowballed ever since. As I mentioned earlier, now we have soundtracks that are selling, t-shirts and other merchandise. So this has been an amazing platform to launch this type of project. It’s been great for a lot of other filmmakers, creators and artist out there, not only with Kickstarter, but YouTube and Etsy and other online video sites and stores as well. It’s still growing in a great direction.
DS: How do you arbitrate decisions about whether or not you’ve taken something a little too far. Do you ever get a point where say, “Yeah, maybe this is a bit too over the top?”
ES: That’s a great question by the way, very relevant for us. We deal with that a lot actually. We’ll be having a lot of fun with an episode or an idea. We’ll always take a joke maybe five steps too far. We both have pretty good judgment and know when things get too crazy. We definitely talk about it sometimes. “Oh, should we push this a little further?” There was one episode where Red just straight up poops in people’s mouths, which we did with the intention of let’s see how far we can push this. But we’ve never really had an argument about this. We will definitely self-censor ourselves if we think things are getting a little too out of hand.
ZK: Definitely. It’s one of the benefits of having two of us. Two sets of eyes. It’s about checks and balances. Usually, one of us is coming up with jokes and is pushing the other one and when one starts laughing, you know it’s working. But then we’ll stop laughing because we’ve gone too far sometimes.
DS: Sure. Ultimately I imagine you always defer to if it’s funny or not?
DS: Last question, I promise. Do you ever get criticized for the show’s violence and if so, how do you respond?
ZK: I don’t know if anyone has ever brought that up before. The language, if anything, has been the one thing that people have had the most trouble with. It’s not like the series is for kids by any means language-wise, but it’s never been too bad, and it’s never been very hateful. I think people make that distinction. They may be swearing, but it’s not coming from a hateful place.
ES: Violence has never really been brought up. It’s not a terribly violent show. It also might be because they’re stick figures, and there is so much stick figure content out there. We’ve really never had to deal with many complaints before.
ZK: Because they don’t look like real people, we can say and do a lot more things than we’d be allowed to do if it was almost any other show. Even just the way the characters move. There’s blood and guts all, but it’s so simple, sometimes almost child-like. That’s part of the charm of the show.
DS: Animated shows seem to get away with a lot more than live action. And stick figures, I can see how that is even more distinctive. It’s not like a photo-realistic first person shooter game.
ZK: It’s one thing for a videogame where you can kill and blow someone’s head off. They’re humans, it’s a slaughter with blood everywhere. Instant M rating.
ES: The violence is one thing we considered for the movie because we did realize how many more people were going to watch it. After seeing how many fans were so young, and especially after recent gun violence problems, we really try to not show a whole lot of handguns. In the movie, a lot of the violence is more martial arts-based. It’s definitely not a non-violent movie by any means. But, we definitely tried to cut out people shooting each other.
ZK: Actually, I think one of the biggest issues we contend with is that the show is called Dick Figures. We get fan mail from kids who refer to it as Stick Figures because their parents won’t allow them to call it Dick Figures. Even though they’re watching a show called Dick Figures. I think maybe we should change the title.
Dan Sarto is editor-in-chief and publisher of Animation World Network.