“How cheap can you make it?” – why I’m making a TV series, but not for TV

For years I asked myself why Australia hasn’t had its own animated series for adults.

Now I know that it’s my own fault!

 

 

Sad Animator expects money. Laugh at him.

 

 

“Pretty cheap!”

Last year I went to a launch event put on by our state film funding body and SBS, Australia’s multicultural government TV network.

At the drinks part afterwards I asked a lady from SBS if they were interested in commissioning adult animation. She replied, laughingly, “How cheap can you make it?”

“Pretty cheap!” I replied. I can make funny cartoons fairly quickly if I want to.

So, since I don’t need their money to make the cartoons, I figured I should just make them myself.

I’m currently making them — in the form of an animated series called BE A MAN — using money I earn elsewhere.

People have asked me, “How will you make money doing this?” The answer is, “I won’t”.

I suppose the goals are to make something good and to make a reputation for doing so, each of which is valuable.

Waiting around for TV executives to pass judgement on my ideas isn’t furthering those goals. Better I just make the things, enjoy the making and stop to earn money when it’s possible.

 

 

A script. You could write one!

 

 

Devolving

I went to the SPAA Fringe conference last year. It’s reasonably priced and a good way to get access to some interesting people and hear things first-hand.

I attended a roundtable discussion with a ABC-TV development fellow who asserted that the best way to approach the ABC with your comedy idea is to NOT approach the ABC with it.

Instead, it should be taken to one of their “preapproved” production companies, ones they repeatedly work with (Andrew Denton’s, for example) so that they can decide if it’s ABC-worthy.

We at the table were a bunch of mostly neophyte dopes with TV show ideas. The impression I got was that he was sincerely trying to give us the good oil.

I’m not sure every ABC executive would give the same advice. The most interesting thing I learned from speaking to several of them was that none of them seem to agree on anything.

 

 

Storyboards. You could draw these.

 

 

“At least it’s not sitting gathering dust on the shelf, right?”

I listened to this podcast of a talk from the SPAA Conference (not the one I attended, the “big boys” one) which asks the question, “Will one of the people on this panel, who represent alternatives to network television, actually put their money where their mouths have been for quite some time now and commission some bloody content?

The moderator did an excellent job trying to squeeze an answer out of them. Their answer was muffled but sounded a lot like, “noooooo, probably not right now”. They’re currently doing fine paying pennies (or nothing) for your video once it’s been made.

“At least it’s not sitting gathering dust on the shelf, right?” said the nice lady whose salary is paid by people giving YouTube their work for free.

 

A character. You could build this.

 

 

“The right people”

Sometimes we complain that we aren’t successful because we aren’t friends with “the right people”, the implication being that “the right people” are TV executives or celebrities whose access to money or power could smooth the way for us.

What’s great is that if you’re more concerned with making a good show than with having a show on television, you almost certainly know “the right people” already. Your smartest, funniest and most eagle-eyed friends are capable of helping you make your show, or of making your show better. You only have to ask them for help.

Once you have “the right people” involved, it’s just a matter of renting a camera and some lights. Or sitting in a little room and  drawing lots of things.

 

 

Backgrounds and props. You could draw these.

 

 

Making stuff will save you

Working in animation, I sometimes find myself part of a large crew working to make a children’s show worth millions of dollars, and in the middle of that I sometimes forget it’s possible to make something better on no budget at all.

But you can! People do.

I’d say the following is as true for you as it is for me. It’s important, so I’m writing it in pink:

You have ideas and energy that the people in charge don’t want and wouldn’t know what to do with. Use them yourself.

 

 

Cartoons: you have to make them. They'll get you if you don't.

 

 

The reason Australia hasn’t had its own adult cartoon series

It’s because nobody in the TV industry wants one as much as I do, and I haven’t worked hard enough at it!

I apologise, and I’m fixing that now. Slowly.

 

David Blumenstein writes and draws, often simultaneously. He makes pictures and animation for money. He’s not saying anything you didn’t already know. You can learn more about his animated series via his Twitter feed and his Facebook page. Or go watch him making it at Squishface Studio.

SBS/Film Victoria presentation

Click for full size

 

I’ve been mostly working on comics lately, so my animated project The Precinct has only occasionally peeped out for a sniff of air, but yesterday I went to a Film Victoria presentation by a group of SBS staff and took some pictorial notes.

Here they are, in case you’d like to learn what they’re up to over there (heavily flavoured by my own POV. Don’t assume anything is a direct quote unless it’s in “quotes”).

The general theme was, “We’ve had no money for a few years, but we have some now, so we’re going to do stuff with it”. Go SBS!

 

THE GOSS

There were probably lots of big TV/film producers there, but since I don’t know who they are, I was very pleased to encounter the (just as big, but more animation-friendly) Ivan Dixon from Rubber House, Peter Viska and Kate Mills from Viskatoons and director “Tall” Paul Andersen.

 

AND FINALLY

OH! And here’s what you can expect from the Q&A at an event like this:

 

 

“Nu?” Media

The current Precinct news is that we’re going to be sitting down to create a “cross-platform strategy” for the series — a report on how we’d integrate “new media” elements into the show (a tie-in website? games? stuff you can interact with via your mobile device?).

This is going to be very interesting because most new media tie-ins I see are boring and stupid.

Example A: I bought a Paddle Pop the other day. The stick told me to log on to paddlepop.com.au to claim my “free digital prize”. I assumed it’d be something crap like a Paddle Pop wallpaper or something. Sarah checked it out and it was, in fact, a PDF of a chart showing us what prizes we didn’t win. That’s brilliant. When the guys at Streets open their mailboxes and find wet pharmacy brochures, they must think they’ve hit the jackpot.

Example B: I once read an outline for an interactive animation series which appeared to have been written in English, auto-translated into Japanese and then auto-translated back into English again. The concept was shot through with bullshit animal rights themes designed to make their thing look “worthy”. The document was liberally sprinkled with buzzwords and doublespeak designed to impress your grampa who’s never used a computer, or perhaps the head of a national funding body. It impressed both, and the series may yet be made.

Suffice to say you won’t be seeing any Precinct characters “speaking directly to you via their online website blog!!!” or asking you to vote on some bullshit by sending an SMS.

NEW MEDIA TIE-INS WHICH AREN’T BORING AND STUPID
Donnie Darko website
– Extra mini episodes of The Wire and The Shield
– Little Breaking Bad e-mail video where the main character tells YOU not to waste your life

What is good about these? The Donnie Darko site (whatever you think of the film) is an intriguing bit of interactive video art which plays on your knowledge of the movie and adds to it by revealing extra clues to what Frank Zappa called the “conceptual continuity”.

The mini-episodes of The Wire and The Shield appeared as corporate tie-ins (with amazon.com, Budweiser and Maxim’s websites), and helped fill in character background and motivations (in the case of The Wire) and previewed the following season’s plot (in the case of The Shield).

The little Breaking Bad thing is mostly just a cute bit of programming, but nicely in character (and it fits with the storyline).

Now let me get all thesis on you for a sec.

Homestar Runner is an entirely “new media” phenomenon. It is not an online spin-off of a TV show. It is a series of little animated things in various formats (the most popular of which is Strong Bad E-mails, in which the character “Strong Bad” answers e-mails sent by actual viewers).

They do “tie-ins” to their stories in the form of playable games. These games are both fun games and extensions to the narrative world. The games include jokes which CAN NOT be made as effectively in a traditional narrative format!

They also do “spin-offs” in the form of songs, cartoons and merchandise. These spin-offs usually have as their basis an offhanded joke made in a Strong Bad E-mail. Their cartoon series Teen Girl Squad is supposed to be “created” by Strong Bad. The character “Trogdor” is a mini-empire unto himself.

The upshot of all this is that every piece of the Homestar Runner world, in whatever format, comes about because (a) the creators thought it was funny, (b) the public demanded it, or (c) the public helped create it themselves. THAT is engaging (though moderated) interactivity!

To my mind, this is not a TEMPLATE to follow. Our show’s not as free form as theirs. It’s just worth remembering that all the elements of our “digital strategy” should exist because they ADD to our story — plotwise, characterwise –- and should be funny.

So here’s something I’ve been thinking about for The Precinct: an online “choose-your-own-adventure” story (or, as it’s called by dopes looking for new media funding, a “multi-threaded narrative”).

A while ago I started to write one based around my short Herman, The Legal Labrador. When I began writing a new Herman story upon finishing the film, I found that I had a lot of different ideas I wanted to work into it, and had trouble figuring out a way in which I could make all these possible concepts and characters fit together. When I hit upon the idea of forming them into an interactive story I knew I had found the best possible vehicle: one without narrative limitations, and scope for incorporating virtually any storytelling medium — sound, animation, text, game — I could want.

The Herman character can’t talk (he’s a dog), so a typical passage goes,

3. Suddenly, you hear a small squealing noise coming from the next room. It is followed by a heavy CRASH! You wonder what caused it.

To investigate, go to page 4. To run away, go to page 5.

4. You head for the next room. Pushing the door open, you see what caused the noise: your owner, Chuck, has knocked his alarm clock onto the floor. Chuck is a 21-year old journalism student who was out late last night. He must have forgotten to turn off the alarm.

“Ugggghhh”, says Chuck.

To say, “Woof!”, go to page 8. To say, “Woof woof!”, go to page 13.

13. “Woof woof!” you say. Chuck looks at you through bloodshot eyes. “Oh, hell yeah,” he grins. “Pancakes sounds great.” You shuffle into the kitchen and start making your famous Honey-Buttered Maple Short Stack. Chuck eventually walks in, wearing a shirt for a change.

Eventually, if you make the “right” decisions for Herman, he goes looking for help from the police:

36. You call a very special friend and arrange to meet for lunch. Two hours later, you stroll through the door of an elite crimefighting unit in Melbourne’s inner suburbs, a unit known as “The Precinct”. You observe a large room full of desks, pot plants and self-absorbed police officers. Most of the cops are yelling at each other. One sees you and takes the time to yelp, “Dude — there’s a dog wearing pants!” Everyone turns to look.

Turn the page.

37. A shadowy figure peers out of the locker room and growls, “He’s with me.” The other officers look at each other for a moment before going back to their bickering. The figure strides into the light. It’s your friend, Sgt. Ben Ackersley. Ackersley is well known as the lonest of lone guns, a cop perpetually on the edge. His mullet hairdo looks particularly unkempt today. He greets you: “What’s new, mouthpiece?”

To respond seriously, turn to page 48. To return his jab with a similarly casual retort, turn to page 48.

48. Ackersley grimaces, much as he always does. “Come on,” he whispers, as though the words are being choked out of him by a painful childhood memory, “let’s talk in the kitchenette.”

Turn the page.

49. Ackersley delicately pours boiling water over your teabag, then throws the semi-filled kettle through the closed window in rage. As he settles down with his cuppa, you tell him you suspect a politician is dealing drugs, but have no proof. “Proof is for Girl Guides and Hugo Weaving,” Ackersley declares over the top of his mug, which reads “World’s Best Dad”. A gruesomely symbolic-looking crack splits the word “Best”. He stands, silhouetted against the smashed window. “That bastard’s going down.”

To accept Ackersley’s help, turn to page 51. To suggest he’s flying off the handle! he’s a loose cannon! he’s too damn close to this case!, turn to page 54.

I really enjoyed writing this and I think it’d be fun to do something similar based specifically around The Precinct as an adjunct to the series.

The Precinct functions as ‘80s cop action taken to the “nth” degree, partially parody and partially serious. An online interactive Precinct story (let’s call it “Midnight Beat” for now) would function on another level: as a parody of the interactive story itself. Having been exposed to many variations of the medium, including:

  • Choose Your Own Adventure® books from the 1970s and ‘80s
  • early ‘80s interactive fiction adventures such as Infocom’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy
  • ‘80s and ‘90s text-and-graphics games such as Leisure Suit Larry, King’s Quest, Maniac Mansion and Sam and Max Hit the Road
  • Multiplayer online games for BBS systems, such as Legend of the Red Dragon and TradeWars

… I find I’m highly immersed in the language of what you might call “consumer-level interactives” (“LOOK ROOM. LOOK DOOR. READ SIGN ON DOOR”).

Some features of Midnight Beat (as an Adobe Flash-based online experience) could include:

  • Story pages — the text of the story itself. This is accompanied by audio narration of the text, including voice acting of character dialogue. We would also see an illustration or animated loop appropriate to the action. These are, of course, accompanied by the call to pick an option to continue. Hypertext links placed amongst the text may link, as elsewhere on the Web, to helpful information about the word clicked or relevant outside websites, but could also take the user to amusing secret video clips or even hidden action paths.
  • Comics/animation pages — cutting to a comics page or animated segment to better progress the story. Might be used, for example, for a car chase, for a particularly important conversation or just because it’s fun.
  • Puzzle pages — giving the user an actual exercise to do, i.e. a parody of an activity book maze, a driving game, or something completely aside from the narrative (“What sort of hat does Sarge look good in? Draw Sarge’s hat, then print out your masterpiece and put it on the fridge.”). User may or may not need to adequately complete the puzzle/exercise to progress.
  • Interactive features — allowing users to leave their mark on the story in various ways, such as asking they grafitti an alleyway which can then be seen by the next user to happen along.
  • Jukebox — providing the user’s choice of 8-bit video game style background music.
  • Chat module — allowing users to chat live with other people currently playing.
  • Store — depending on the business model, could include an online shopping cart for purchase of Precinct merchandise or even offline versions of the interactive (i.e. DVD-based or book form).

Maybe we could get “special guest” writers to do their own plotlines. Andrew Rule and John Silvester could write the section where the Carlton Crew try to buy off Balanovis and Seidman. I’d enjoy Shane Maloney‘s description of Sarge’s explosive encounter with some sleazy city councillors. And how could we tear ourselves away from Shane Black‘s tale of murder, revenge and Jessup gone rogue, armed with homemade Molotov cocktails?

Or we could write it all ourselves, which is fine. An interesting thought is that, were we to start work on writing Midnight Beat, what we came up with could actually inform the animated series, not the other way around. Since there could be any number of simultaneous plotlines, it could work as a testbed for all of them! The best ones go in the series!

Obviously this is all pie-in-the-sky, but part of the point of this “cross-platform strategy” exercise is to think about what COULD be done, had we time and money.

Do you have any thoughts? What sort of new media crap could we launch with the series? Does any of this sound good? What would interest YOU?