Still doing hand-drawn 2D animation more than 20 years after leaving MTV, Aaron Augenblick and his ‘rinky-dink’ Brooklyn studio have thrived by not producing animation for kids.
21 years ago, Aaron Augenblick took the biggest gamble of his career – he left MTV Animation and started his own animation studio at the age of 22.
“My bosses had a special intervention for me,” he remembers. “They were like, ‘Look, we just need you to know this is the worst idea. You're going to basically ruin your career.’ I was just shaken. But I had this soul-searching moment, and it like, ‘Okay, thanks, but I'm going to give it a whirl.’ I knew I’d regret it the rest of my life if I didn’t at least try.”
Six months later, MTV Animation was closed and Augenblick Studios was going strong, as it has been for the last two decades; 2019 marked the studio’s 20th year in operation, and even in the face of the current COVID-19 pandemic, in 2020, they’ve never been busier.
“That was the first and greatest lesson I ever had, that no one knows anything,” Augenblick says. “We're all doing our best working in this dark. I never would have thought in a million years that today my rinky-dink little Brooklyn studio would still be open, and MTV would not be around. It blows my mind.”
Last year, the studio celebrated 20 years of producing adult animation series for Comedy Central such as Shorties Watchin' Shorties (2004), the faux-documentary Golden Age (2006), and Ugly Americans (2010-2012), as well as animating with creators like Adult Swim’s Tyler Gregory Okonma for The Jellies! and Netflix series like Losers. Augenblick Studios also produced the animation for Red Hour Film’s Zoolander: Supermodel, which while originally conceived as a series, has just been released on CBS All Access as an 84-minute film. The work was first released in 2016 by Netflix in Ireland and UK after the release of Zoolander 2.
Most recently, Augenblick Studios completed a new animated series for Snapchat, which will be premiering in the coming months, and began production on its first animated feature film and R-rated comedy, The Adventures of Drunky, a sophisticated take on falling from grace, and being down but never completely out, that stars Sam Rockwell, Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Coogan, and Nina Arianda.
Read AWN’s exclusive interview with Aaron about the film:
Aaron Augenblick Talks ‘The Adventures of Drunky’
“What I think is unique is that we've primarily focused on adult animation,” Augenblick explains. “Very rarely have we done kids' animation. In the early days, people thought that was insane. They were like, ‘You'll never succeed this way. If you were smart, you would turn your studio into a children's animation studio.’ I was told that by many, many people way smarter than me. And we just kept plodding along, because this is the type of work that I like to do.”
While adult animation had not traditionally been big with U.S. broadcasters focused almost exclusively on kids and family-friendly content, Augenblick believes the line between adult and kid’s animation is “beginning to blur,” and that it’s transforming the industry locally. “Nowadays, I don't think many young viewers care what's for kids and what's for adults,” he notes. “To them, they're enjoying everything across the board. Whether it's dramatic, whether it's funny, whether it's for kids or whether it’s for adults. It's all just animation. I think that's a big sea of change in our industry. And I'm happy to be a part of that.”
Many of Augenblick Studios’ adult animation shows pride themselves on being gritty, raw, and unapologetic with dark and mature comedy. Illustrating life and humanity in its most authentic form, Augenblick attributes their animation style to influences from not only the culture of their own New York neighborhood, but also the city’s culture “through the decades.”
“Our studio is literally one block from the Brooklyn Bridge, so we're just right here, steeped in the middle of it,” says Augenblick. “Whether it's the punk rock that was happening on the Bowery, to the pop art that was happening at The Factory, to the animation that was happening at Fleischer Studios, it's all there in our studio. We're sort of trapped in this Kafka-esque maze of New York. Everything we do tends to feel a little bit weird, and dark, and mysterious.”
He adds, “The history of New York animation is just so bizarre and so unique. From Winsor McKay, to Fleischer, to UPA. And we're proud to be a part of that lineage.”
This “bizarre” aura that seeps out of Augenblick’s animation also stems from his bold choice to stick with traditionally hand-drawn animation, another unpopular road to travel in today’s entertainment industry.
“I have always and will always be obsessed with hand-drawn cartoons,” Augenblick shares. “I have never had any interest in any of the CGI or stop-motion. I swear it's like every five years somebody's like, ‘Well I guess you're going to have to stop drawing now’ because there’s a call for the death of hand-drawn animation. But it won't die because it's just so great and so eternal.”
Augenblick’s hand-drawn love-affair runs deep, starting in his childhood, and he has no plans to stifle that passion with his studio. “A big influence on me, and the studio as a whole, is underground comics, which also had such a presence in New York” Augenblick says. “When I was growing up, the mind-blowing moment for me was once I saw Liquid Television, and Raw Magazine, and people like Kaz, and Gary Panter, and Art Spiegelman, and all these New York cartoonists that were doing things. My world opened up and I saw how funny things can be, and how weird things can be, and how meaningful things can be. Whether it's the Holocaust in “Maus,” or whether it was Kaz's depictions of this dark cartoon city. This stuff just blew my mind, and I kind of feel like it's never left me.”
From first finding a strong animation direction with Golden Age to creative breakthroughs on Wonder Showzen, Augenblick Studios has worked hard to carve out a place for itself in the industry, according to Augenblick, as a “weird, indie studio, somewhere in between a singular creator and a full production house,” with shows currently in development at Adult Swim, PBS, and HBO.
After many years spent producing animation for broadcasters and other studios, Augenblick Studios is focusing considerable attention on developing their own projects, starting with The Adventures of Drunky, a film Augenblick describes as “a love letter to New York, and a love letter to old weird America.”
“When we hit the 20 mark, it was a very reflective time and it made me think, ‘Okay, we've done this for 20 years now. What are we going to be doing for the next 20? What have we not gotten to do?’” Augenblick says. “So, I started developing more than I ever have. We're basically halfway done with production for Drunky, and we're projecting that we'll be done with the film by the end of next year.”
“Over the past 5 to 10 years, we’ve come to a point where a wide variety of animation is accessible to people,” he continues. “And that was very much not true when we got our start. Thankfully, 2D animation continues on with sort of the existential qualities of animation, and the dark side of Hollywood, and the depth of emotion that you can actually find in cartoons, in the cracks. It makes me excited about the future of the studio.”