The world is currently beset with ads of Pixar’s new movie “Brave”. That Scottish, redheaded tomboy is smizing at me from every bus station, magazine stand, and billboard that can possibly hold her and her wild, red, curly hair.
And, that hair is important. It was only made possible by a pricey, groundbreaking new suite of production software that has allowed Pixar to animate things like curls in its clear, crisp style that were heretofore un-computer-animatable. It’s yet another new benchmark from an iconic company continually pushing the limits on what can be imagined and conveyed on the giant screen.
“Dick Figures” is one of the top viewed and rated regular shows on YouTube created by Ed Skudder and Zack Keller. Episodes are downright stalked by a cult following and have been viewed more than 125 million times. The show has racked up a million subscribers over the past 18 months that it has been regularly on the Web.
It grew out of the stick figure animation subculture, which is about as un-Pixar as you can get, technologically-speaking. Much of the appeal of this animation is its use of lo-fi technology that levels the playing field, so that everyone can be an animator as long as she has great characters and a great story. You could argue Pixar — while also famously a slave to great stories and rich characters — uses technology to do the opposite. It spends hundreds of millions of dollars to use technology to build a greater competitive moat.
The show is about two stick figures, named simply Red and Blue. You guessed it: One is red and one is blue. A small team of about a dozen people working at Six Point Harness in LA animate the series, write, and do the voices. It lives purely on the Web. They make just enough money to pay the staff and keep bootstrapping the animation studio they all work at. Not a bottle of Crystal in sight and no expectation of it. “No one is living big, but no one is going hungry,” Keller says.
After producing some-37 episodes for the Web, the two founders have decided to make a movie. There’s no technological breakthrough powering it. And there’s no big studio behind it. It’s precisely the opposite of something like “Brave”. They want to do it, and hope their viewers want them to as well.
So they’re asking their viewers to put their money where all those “YOU GUYS SHOULD TOTALLY MAKE A MOVIE!” comments are and contribute to a KickStarter campaign to make it possible.
So far, some 2,997 people have contributed $175,506. If the site’s metrics are to be believed, one person has even contributed at the $10,000 level. Not bad. The company is tracking to hit the minimum goal of $250,000 by the end of the campaign — just 13 days away. But that counts on a surge towards the end.
In the meantime, the founders moment by moment drenched in excitement and fear — both if they get the money and don’t get the money. The studio, the team and the talent are all ready to go as soon as the campaign wraps. They’ve already written the story, which is about how Red and Blue meet.
Not only that, they’ve written three versions: One if they raise enough for a thirty minute movie, one if they raise enough for a sixty minute movie, and one if they raise enough for a 75 minute full-length standard feature film. The project will suck up six months to 18 months of their lives, depending on the amount and length. They are all just sitting there watching the Kickstarter tally and waiting for their lives to change on a dime, or more accurately, about 2.5 million dimes.
“If it works, it’ll be crazy,” Skudder says.
“It’s been constant ulcers,” Keller adds.
This is pretty much as raw as you can get in animated filmmaking. And no offense to Pixar, but if I only had $15, I know which one I’d give it to. (Indeed, this isn’t an idle comment. I just contributed to the Kickstarter project, and life with a newborn all but insures I won’t see “Brave” in the theaters.)
This is the kind of thing we hoped we’d see when the Web was first created, which we mostly didn’t. Then we hoped again we’d see when things like this YouTube were created. And we mostly haven’t.
We want to believe that the gatekeepers of Hollywood keep all this talent down, and if you can disrupt all of those gatekeepers, weird, quirky talent will find an audience and rise to the top.
But it seems the Hollywood gatekeepers are actually more efficient than we thought — or their imprimatur is so valuable it can make mediocre talent pop. Few talents totally discovered online have translated to mainstream media. Even Justin Bieber required grownup producers to become a star. There was season after season of “Project Greenlight” to discover great filmmakers, and each movie mostly flopped. The show jumped networks and eventually got cancelled. Even bonafide online viral hits seem mostly one-off and hard to replicate.
So the “Dick Figures” guys are wise not to try to cross mediums. They’re not pitching their movie to studios. They’re doing it themselves. Most studio heads likely wouldn’t get it. Much of the humor has grown out of the Web. “We grew up in the Internet,” Skudder says. “We’re very active on Reddit and in touch with what people are talking about. That’s reflected in the topical humor of the show.”
If it works, this will be a movie stripped down to the barest essentials: talent, audience, basic funds to produce, and distribution medium. It even has inside jokes that the creators and the audience get, but the rest of us who don’t live on Reddit may not. “We have made it on our own for years. We’ve made money completely because of the fans,” Skudder says. “We want to make a feature film with that same lack of restrictions, the ability to do whatever we want. We want to make it just for us and the fans.”
It’s certainly harder to do a movie this way. But it’s also — for lack of a less pretentious word — more pure. The two met in USC’s film department and bonded over their love of old Steven Spielberg movies, which oddly enough you see nods to in the action sequences that take place around these basic stick figures.
They’ve always wanted to make a movie, and after trying and failing to go through the studio system, they are just making it happen on their own. Meanwhile, you have an audience who has been asking for a movie about Red and Blue, and now they get to contribute to make it possible. It’s pure entertainment commerce with every bullshit step taken out of the middle.
The downside is that no one really gets rich off of this, even best case scenario. And that means it’s not exactly scalable. But that should make this individual example — should it happen — more delightful, not less.
Hollywood moguls have talked and talked and talked about the power of the Web distribution and crowdfunding to resurrect shows that didn’t make it in the traditional television game. People want to see more seasons of “Arrested Development” or “Friday Night Lights,” and the talent wants to make them, so why can’t we just make this happen already?
Because you’d have to strip out a lot of middlemen to do that, and that’s not what Hollywood does. The future of this kind of ultimate, on-demand entertainment — “I want this to exist… Can my friends and I all give you $15 to make that happen?” — will never be pioneered in Hollywood. And it’ll probably never be as big or as mainstream of a story as we’d like. But if it does, it’ll have seeds in one-off examples like this one. People who stop talking about the power of these mediums, and just use them already to get stuff made that people they know will like.
It’s not going to remake Hollywood. (Let’s stop all that nonsense commentary before it starts.) It’s adding content the world couldn’t have seen before, not replacing it. The existence of “Dick Figures” doesn’t take anything away from “Brave”. It’s merely a statement that millions of people want more than just “Brave”.
Watch the first five minutes of the movie below, and then go contribute $15 or more. I want to see what happens if these guys get to $700,000 and can make a full-length feature.