In 2010, New York’s ASIFA-East created an original 12-month wall calendar as a fundraising device. It featured artwork from some of the Big Apple’s top animation talents. Among the 12 artists was pioneering web animation director Xeth Feinberg, who (at the calendar launch event) screened a new series of self-produced web cartoons called Ugly Realities, a spoof on the ‘reality show’ genre. I’ve known Feinberg since the mid-1990s and whenever he has a gap between paying projects, he’ll crank out some new indie shorts, which he’ll self-distribute on his websites xeth.com and mishmashmedia.com, in addition to sending them out as links to clients, network executives, colleagues and friends.
For Feinberg, making indie web shorts and series is not just a creative outlet, it’s the reason he has a career in the first place. As an independent animator and cartoonist with a background in CD-ROM animation at the dawn of the new millennium, he had been mastering the potential of Flash (in his words, ‘the miraculous little computer application that makes webtoons possible’) for just over a year–which practically made him a wizened old expert in the field. The director explains, ‘In 1999 I was already making my pseudo-silent-era black-and-white Bulbo animations, had cut my teeth on a series of children’s interactive storybook webtoons, and had created the first more or less fully animated webtoon series for Scifi.com, The Existential Adventures of Astro-Chimp. I also did enough other freelance Flash production work to have learned a lot about how not to efficiently produce webtoons. I worked solo and was able to turn out a finished webisode in a week or less. All this work was getting seen, and though I was making a living at it, web animation still seemed more like a fluke than a career.’
A key part of Feinberg’s story helps set apart animation for the web from TV animation. Because the director had created his early Bulbo series with the intention of self-distributing it on the web, he didn’t have to first pitch the series to a traditional TV network that might say no. The limitations of the late-’90s bandwidths and modem speeds helped set the simple style for the Bulbo shorts, allowing a single animator/director to create, animate and distribute the series independently. Most importantly it helped set up Feinberg to create his next series as a paid project for Scifi.com. While the rules and business model of the internet are still being written more than 10 years later, one thing remains true – the web is still a place where someone (like Feinberg) can create without a ‘gatekeeper’ blocking his path, post work on his own ‘channel’ or website and spin such visibility into a larger success.
Groundbreaker – Dan Meth
Many creators owe their start in the biz to Mr. Fred Seibert who has spawned oodles of opportunities for pitchers through his initiatives at Cartoon Network/Hanna-Barbera (What-A-Cartoon!) and Nickelodeon/Frederator (Oh-Yeah! Cartoons and Random! Cartoons). Webtoon director Dan Meth arrived on the animation scene in 1999 and gradually made a name for himself through his internet cartoons. Fred hired Meth in March 2006, and they both began to search for ways to work with one another on original content.
What they came up with, The Meth Minute 39, was a very forward-looking series, a glimpse into the not-too-distant future of web series animation. A few years earlier, Meth was a struggling freelancer with a knack for short, punchy and funny web animations that happened to score millions of hits. When Meth came to work for Seibert, the director used his initial proximity to Seibert to pitch cartoon ideas for Random! Cartoons (an anthology of seven-minute standalone cartoons, each acting as potential pilots for series). Seibert wasn’t interested in any of Meth’s pilot pitches, but neither he nor Meth seemed discouraged by that. Eventually, Meth dreamed up a pitch for what would become The Meth Minute 39. His idea was to make a grab-bag series of unrelated short internet cartoons – one per week, over 39 weeks. Eventually, the plan was ironed out and Seibert began to personally fund The Meth Minute 39, which, as a series of independent films, would air on Channel Frederator (a broadband internet channel) and become widely available on YouTube.
They unveiled their series with a certified phenomenon of a short called Internet People. It was a very shrewd beginning for the series because it basically summed up (in song) the history of pop culture as spread on the internet while at the same time placing The Meth Minute 39 within that context. The short attracted millions of hits and lots of attention in the media. As a film, Internet People owes a lot of its success to Meth’s catchy little tune. Animating to a song lends an advantage to a filmmaker because it provides a tight little structure on which to base the film. Other shorts in the series poked fun at targets such as Jem and the Holograms, Mike Tyson, James Brown, the Beatles, foreign animated cartoons, comic book noir, the emo generation and much more. The Meth Minute 39 was like the internet equivalent of Robert Smigel’s Saturday TV Funhouse. Just as in Smigel’s satirical shorts, the strengths and weaknesses of Meth’s films were largely determined not by his skill (he’s a consistently good and confident filmmaker), but by how well he chose his pop culture targets and how often his writing was able to carry it beyond an inspired idea.
Part of the fun and opportunity of making 39 shorts is to experiment a bit. For instance, Meth’s short Mike Tyson’s Brunch Out!!, a pun on the popular 1980s video game, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, gave Meth the chance to create a deliberately disjointed short that gives one the feeling of picking up a little bit of conversation from each table at a busy restaurant. On one hand, the film makes a point about brunchers who are lost in their own worlds, while on the other hand, it’s an illustrated joke – Mike Tyson out of context, eating brunch and randomly spouting out Tysonisms on demand. The dueling concepts compete with each other, threatening to break apart the whole. It’s interesting to see how many ideas a one-minute film can or can’t hold and that’s part of the adventure of this whole enterprise.
Rarely does an individual hear about a series launch that they can possibly imitate themselves. While The Meth Minute 39 was set up to be a personally funded commercial loss, it’s clearly the opening salvo of a new business plan, already spinning off a subsequent Meth-created series, Nite Fite, which was funded by a commercial sponsor. How’s that for results? Each of us can pick up the baton and make our own ‘Meth Minutes,’ possibly even making 39 shorts over 39 weeks. Seibert has hinted he might repeat this himself, although he points out that it’s uncertain such a format would work for another filmmaker. I’m inclined to agree. Meth’s gifts perfectly suit this type of project. First off, he’s imaginative, funny and has a real gift for timing and storytelling. While his interests are broad, including rock music, ’80s pop culture and video games, his focus is decidedly narrow, perhaps owing to his background in newspaper comics (Syracuse University’s Daily Orange)–giving each cartoon a laser-like precision. The short length lets Meth gets in and out without anybody getting hurt.
At a recent event at The School of Visual Arts, legendary animation director Ralph Bakshi fielded a question from someone in the audience who challenged that it was not possible to make your own feature and get it distributed toward making a profit. Bakshi answered, ‘You mean to tell me that there’s no way to do business? I don’t believe that. There’s always a way to figure it out. It’s your problem to figure out. Not mine.’ The Meth Minute 39 is in the same spirit. Make something good and get it out there, and a business model will form.
The webtoon as self-development
When I introduced a panel event at the 2009 Ottawa International Animation Festival to launch my book Animation Development: From Pitch to Production, I joked that my book could have been called, Self-Development. This is because if someone seriously has the goal of creating, pitching, selling and producing her own series, it will require all kinds of self-development–as an artist, writer and storyteller. Similarly, the unique format of a web cartoon (being short, fast and cheap to make) allows its creator a lot of self-development opportunities. And, unlike a pitch for an animated series, the webtoon is not at the mercy of a development executive’s OK. While it’s true that The Meth Minute 39 was a project paid for and distributed by an established media company (Frederator), it need not be so. Although Xeth Feinberg has made animations for Icebox.com, Scifi.com, HuffingtonPost.com and others, he is also a one-man animation machine turning out terrific independent web cartoons and series – all within the confines of his home studio.
I’ve admired Feinberg’s work since discovering it at an ASIFA-East festival jury screening in the mid 1990s. Some independent animators are content to make film after film that are similar in tone, structure and subject. Feinberg’s body of work is unique in that he’s made successful dialogue-driven toons (the Papu series), silent-era-style black-and-white cartoons (the Bulbo series) and one-shot narratives (The Old Country). Unifying the filmmaker’s work is his distinct style, which seems like a mixture of Hanna-Barbera, indie comics and the pie-eyed designs of the 1930s.
Feinberg’s self-produced body of work did not go unnoticed by San Francisco-based Mondomedia.com, which awarded the director a webtoon syndication plan for his Bulbo series that preserved all the filmmaker’s rights while providing production funds upfront. Even more notable, for jumping media genres, not long ago Blue Sky Studios recruited Feinberg as a story artist to write jokes and content for their feature films Ice Age and Robots. The director’s commitment to self-development through webtoons has a lot to do with this success. Because webtoons are short, simple and fast productions, they automatically encourage greater experimentation in form and content. Nickelodeon’s Making Fiends creator Amy Winfrey agrees. ‘Make lots of short films. Don’t get hung up on one sequence or project. Creating a variety of quick films can teach you more about timing, staging and storytelling than laboring over one long film for years.’
Feinberg’s work never comes across as precious or fussed over. His strengths lie in his wiseacre vision, which is ironic, spontaneous, intellectual and lowbrow all at once. I wonder if the director’s self-produced Papu, in which a blue goon perpetually swings a mighty hammer at both friends and foes alike, is Feinberg’s answer to the trials and tribulations of the world of animation development. In a cartoon pitch, all relationships between characters must be clear and purposeful. Papu’s very description, which reads, ‘An Inexplicable Force of Nature,’ takes a jab at these conventions. In the Papu universe, characters are thrown together into relationships just to score a laugh. (Not a bad reason in such a short format!) Papu is rarely without his randomly chosen companions: a small generic boy and a drunken longshoreman. This trio is as inexplicable as the big blue guy himself. Dispensing with the usual rules of a character-driven cartoon, the director is free to spend his shorts any way he pleases, prolifically churning out cartoons aiming to win a broader audience, and also courting future career opportunities. Each toon becomes one more conk on the head, and I mean that in the best possible way.
Animation thrived in the early days of the internet, when new web portals and ‘destination sites’ were being touted (and funded) as the ‘next television.’ Because Flash animation files (unlike video) were small enough to be easily viewed by the average web-surfer, demand for them exploded. Web animation and the internet have come a long way since those early days, as bandwidth has increased, leading to a new frontier of broadband internet channels. So many possible destinations for presenting your animation, however, is not all roses. Xeth Feinberg describes a thorn or two. ‘There is so much audience fragmentation and so many separate social networks that getting your work actually seen seems harder than in the days when you could just put a .swf file up on your little website and send out some emails. I think that’s a problem affecting everyone from the largest music and film companies, ad agencies and news organizations on down. Nobody really understands the best way to do anything with this technology.’
Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it’s essential for a web animation director. Purposely spending time online to research what is new at animation sites is necessary. Dan Meth agrees, adding, ‘You can stay up-to-date by watching how others are doing it and knowing people outside of animation in other fields like web design and marketing.’ Along with staying up to date on technology in terms of the technical side of things, technology is also changing how people view your cartoons on the web. This is because video sites are always evolving. Web traffic is like a river forming new outlets. ‘You must understand the way people watch video to get the biggest audience,’ says Meth.
In general, technology has made online animation increasingly sophisticated and easier to create. At this point, there is really no difference between technical requirements for TV animation or film festivals, or for the internet. ‘If you can digitize it (and you can digitize anything), it can go online,’ says Feinberg. ‘If you want to animate your webtoon to the sophistication of Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men, you technically can (good luck!). That’s a big change from the turn-of-the-century dial-up web or even five years ago.’
Perhaps most significantly, technology has brought the audience and the filmmaker closer together. For instance, when a viewer watches a film on YouTube, Atom Films or an animator’s personal website, the viewer might leave a comment, giving feedback or asking the director a question. For Dan Meth, this is the most satisfying part of directing a web cartoon–posting it online and then reading positive comments from his audience. Although today’s technology allows web cartoons to find an audience and connect with them, Xeth Feinberg reminds, ‘As a creator, you have to try to focus on the end-result, on what you want to do, and not just devote yourself to chasing technology. Because you will probably never catch up for long.’
The secret agenda of a webtoon
At present, the viewing public is dividing its time between TV and online destinations, sometimes watching online content on their TVs and vice versa. Either way, the message of how folks are now watching content has not been lost on pay-TV and broadcast networks, creating the need for them to have their own online presence. Web destinations such as SuperDeluxe.com and Atomfilms.com (owned by Turner and MTV Networks respectively) acquire existing short films and seek original content, which they can produce, own and post on their sites. The parent companies ensure that this low-risk development could spin into a TV series similar to the way the original Beavis and Butt-Head and South Park independent shorts led to successful series.
These online divisions of major networks allow for greater risk-taking, enabling edgier projects to break through, perhaps all the way back to a place on the TV screen. For many webtoon directors the goal may be for their self-produced creations to make the jump to the higher profile and better paying format of series TV. For example, Amy Winfrey’s Making Fiends began as a self-produced web series in 2003, but a year later, Nickelodeon (in a fiendish mood) contacted her about the possibility of bringing the series to TV. The new incarnation of Winfrey’s series debuted on Nickelodeon on October 4, 2008.
The lines between the web and TV will continue to blur but for now at least the web remains a great launching pad and a nice playground for tomorrow’s directors.
David B. Levy is the author of Your Career in Animation: How to Survive and Thrive – which was the first career guide for animation artists working in North America – Animation Development: From Pitch to Production and Directing Animation (all Allworth Press). Levy has been an animation director for six series to date, including Blue’s Clues, Pinky Dinky Doo and The Electric Company, and he’s also completed six award-winning independent animated films. He teaches animation at Parsons School of Design, The School of Visual Arts and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and regularly lectures at Pratt Institute and the Rhode Island School of Design. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.