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A Few Thoughts on Machinima’s Two New Original Series

The YouTube channel Machinima, which was the subject of a recent LA Weekly piece about exploitative business practices, is continuing to grow its animation programming under its Happy Hour label. This month they debuted two new original Flash series—Space Adventure Legend Quest, created by Chris Voigt, (aka Sexual Lobster), and Action Faction, created by Jon Etheridge and Tony Schnur.

It becomes harder and harder everyday to distinguish between shows that are made for cable programming blocks like “Adult Swim” and animation produced for the Internet. The advent of Flash, combined with diminishing budgets, has been the industry’s great equalizer. What was formerly considered “amateur” animation on Newgrounds has now been elevated to mainstream status as it is commissioned by Google-funded YouTube channels like Machinima and mainstream networks like Fox, which is ramping up its Animation Domination High-Def programming.

Production values are no longer an imperative; the number of views is what matters. If more people watch a piece of animation produced for $5,000 than a piece of animation produced for $500,000, then there is no reason to spend the larger sum of money. It is this new and emerging paradigm that threatens the entire TV animation industry. Shows no longer need bloated crews of dozens when a couple of guys working from home and subsisting on Ramen and Doritos can attract a bigger following online.

This new approach to animation doesn’t break the rules because it knows no rules. It is created as everything else is on the Internet: fast, cheap, and without reverence for the past. It would be a pointless exercise to react to it or make any judgement about its quality. Let us simply acknowledge that the cartoons fulfill an economic need and satisfy an audience. They aren’t designed to stimulate the senses or challenge viewers, but only to sate the Internet’s insatiable appetite for fresh content. By that standard, they do their job well.

  • “It would be a pointless exercise to react to it or make any judgement
    about its quality.”

    So why give them any attention at all?

    • AmidAmidi

      Good question. Personally, I’m not in any rush to pass judgement on these individual shows because that would be missing the bigger picture of what’s happening. It’s not really about these shows so much as what they represent and the general direction that mainstream commercial animation is headed.

      Theatrical animation was experiencing a golden age in the mid-1940s when TV networks starting broadcasting regularly. Few would have predicted that just 25 years later, the TV animation model would eliminate studio-produced theatrical animated shorts. We’re experiencing a similar paradigm shift here. Web animation won’t immediately supersede TV animation, and it may never do so entirely, but the idea of the half-hour TV cartoon is slowly dying and it’s because of shows like the above. That’s a more important story to me than whether these cartoons are enjoyable to watch.

      • the Gee

        Well, I intended to write that I don’t check out the CB Biz portion of the site but there doesn’t seem to be a link for it anymore anyway.

        Do you hear from these new shows, these new ventures, after the debut with whatever passes for ratings? 

        For instance, a while ago you guys put up a notice about a Tom Hanks produced series. To be honest, I haven’t heard nor have I seen anything about that since then. The series may have run whatever passes for a season as far as I know. Or, the show may still be in production without any being online. 

        It is really easy to forget these things happen unless I’m constantly reminded that they are supposed to be happening. Maybe that’s my fault or maybe that is a problem. Things need to be “worth watching”—for better or for worse.

      • 25 years seems like a pretty long time to me. I’d guess the internet phenom you are looking at might work it’s magic a bit quicker in terms of replacing the 1/2 animated sitcom. I do think quality is an important issue (although all those HB cartoons I grew up with as a kid were pretty formulaic and simplistic in terms of their movement when compared to the average theatrical short). I think the bottom line both in terms of TV animation replacing theatrical shorts and web cartoons eventually doing the same to animated sitcoms will come down to lower costs as you suggest, but they will have to have a little more going for them content wise as well. The dot gone bubble of the early 2000’s tried to take advantage of cheaply produced animation for the web but somehow never took off. That may have had something to do with limited bandwidth. Now that you can port content easily from your computer or game platform to your big screen TV perhaps it will happen. But I think the cartoons will have to not all just be derivative of what’s been already done before.

  • This “threat” to has been prominent in the TV industry for a little over a decade now. And not once during that timeframe did I imagine traditional 30 minute animated series were going to be replaced when web channels started gaining more popularity in recent years. I think television animation and web animation will be able to co-exist peacefully to the years to come. And even if this theory WERE to come to pass, we still have animators like Harry Partridge who pour tons of effort into their animation despite having limited budgets.

    Also…why didn’t you review the quality of the show’s writing?

  • These cartoons you’re passive-aggressively railing against aren’t mainstream at all. Sexual Lobster is an animator who has approximately 70,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel. That’s his worldwide following. The views on this episode he created for Happy Hour only numbers at 134,749 as of my writing of this comment. A little bit of math later and it’s not hard to realize these cartoons don’t have nearly the mainstream reach and influence you seem to think they do. Again, that’s 130K views worldwide of something that was made for free. And by checking the number of views on the cartoon for the purposes of this comment I increased that number by 1.

    If Google is going to throw money at animators, I can’t think of a more deserving group than starving twenty-something kids making dirty flash cartoons on their computer. They’re going to make the dirty cartoons anyway, and they’re collectively more varied and interesting than all the feature-length cartoons that got nominated for an Oscar this year combined. Frankenweenie? Wreck-it Ralph? Brave? They all look like the same fucking thing.

    • Eric Graf

      There were two more nominees. You missed them, didn’t you.

      • Yes, The Pirates and Gromit thing and the vaguely-reminiscent supernatural thing. Challenging stuff.

        • Actually, ParaNorman is rather brilliant in terms of pushing what’s acceptable for a mainstream “family” animation. It’s a shame you have to bring down some excellent work like that and Frankenweenie in the process of making your argument, because otherwise I agree with you. All kinds of animation can exist at all levels.

  • DJ

    Thank God Warner Brothers is airing new episodes of Young Justice and Green Lantern so I can wash the taste of these out of my mouth.

  • What about Pen Ward? Didn’t he get his start on the Internet? And isn’t “Adventure Time” any good?

  • Hotdogface

    The thought that this sort of thing could eventually replace TV animation is chilling. Granted, a lot of my favorite animation at the moment is pretty non-commercial and independent, but in order to keep the industry alive we can’t just have no-budget web cartoons. The one thing that gives me hope is the fact that TV cartoons started out pretty terrible too, with practically no budget, before eventually improving to a decent level with an industry large enough to sustain itself. Hopefully if the internet becomes the dominant medium, the same thing will happen with it that happened with television.

    • We can’t have no-budget web cartoons? Then what if we fund them with Kickstarter?

      Oh, wait. Cartoon Brew sez funding animation with Kickstarter is bad, too.

  • Jason Duncan

    To me, animation doesn’t need any high budget. It just needs to show itself relevant to the story and characters and good stories and characters don’t need budget at all. Two examples, South Park and Beavis and Butthead. Neither really fit the category of “eye opening animation” or “visual masterpieces”. But the simple and crooked styles they’re done in give them a feel that live action just can’t accomplish. Still, making animation meld nicely with one’s style is a tricky thing to execute even if it’s not “high budget and professional looking”, I guess that’s where Story focused and animation focused animators differ. Watching South Park expecting golden age grade animation is like listening to Bob Dylan expecting an opera, it’s all about how you see it, and that’s the deal with these internet cartoons. Some come across as cheap meme/pop culture mashups and others seem to be a bit more original and witty. As I’ve said before, hopefully the market for internet animation will shift in favor of those really passionate about their ideas over those who just want some cheap shot at being famous as time moves on.

  • High Minded Civilian

    So anyway, the title promised thoughts on these shows and didn’t deliver any whatsoever. Just pointing out the facts.

  • Arran

    This is a difficult one really in terms of talking about aesthetic quality – I really like Home Movies and that is not far removed at all from the examples here.
    I think the main issue is desire to see technically accomplished animation because it is an art form but there is also value in animation that might be cheaply made but can still deliver entertainment.

    Art Vs. Entertainment?

    I’ve actually lost my train of thought now though

  • I see your point, but most of the time these quick and cheap animations don’t have the quality seen in TV animation, so TV cartoons aren’t really threatened. Because of online cartoons’ fast nature, scripts aren’t hashed over or fleshed out. Yes, it fills a “what’s new” void, but does not fill an entertainment need found in better quality animation. And, let’s face it, the folks who produce these online animations aren’t making the money TV folks do. These web series are often seen as a demo reel, and hopefully if one is lucky enough to get on TV, the animators up their game.

    • AmidAmidi

      Every reason you just gave for why these cartoons won’t threaten TV animation—quick, cheap, lacking in quality, not as economically lucrative—is exactly what people said about TV animation in the late-1940s/early-1950s when they compared it to theatrical animated shorts. It takes time for resources to flow into new distribution platforms.

      • the Gee

        It might seem lame to say but both of you are making good points.

        The one difference that may matter though is films and tv–then and now– are usually communal viewing experiences. Obviously, internet content can be viewed on TV too, via AppleTV and lots of other odd boxes, the adoption of that kind of thing ups the rate of change. Once any video on the internet enters into the living room and is popular–without a TV deal or on a TV channel–that is when it changes quickly. I think.

      • Still, no one’s going to “quit their day job” to go into Internet animation until it pays like TV does, which will keep the output fairly low.

  • mick

    I think these are made by teenage fellas for teenage fellas… teen age fellas don’t have any need to find something entertaining for their kids. They don’t buy big tellys and subscribe to child friendly channels. I may be wrong but that’s my guess. The money is still elsewhere… for how long is uncertain but for now it remains in the hands of the telly men

    I am aware that a great many of these shows look the same and have pretty basic grips on humour and entertainment BUT I have seen some absolute knock out examples of great great work. This guy is pure genius if you ask me . Gundarr is well made and funny. David Firth is a chuckle machine in all directions. Tom Ska is another fellow i regard as quite marvellous. there are a lot of people just doing it and doing it well.

  • I was at the Youtube facilities launch late last year in LA and the focus was Youtube animated shows. The consensus of those making these shows was that they were hoping to sell them to television ala Annoying Orange. So many creators and companies are still not seeing the bucks that TV still commands.

    This is not a new approach, remember the dotcoms of the late 90’s and early 2000’s? The only difference is that Youtube has audiences that those websites didn’t and more people are producing their own stuff.

    There is a lot of television cartoons being produced now. These shows serve as pilots and tests markets and when some reach a certain level they’ll be greenlit for series with bigger budgets and higher production values.

    These things are definitely changing development – more and more execs expect to see something animated as opposed to just pitch packets and concepts, especially if you don’t have a track record.

  • Fefferhoden

    stimulate the senses or challenge the audience? It has been a very long time since any tv shows, movies, or cartoons have done this. Seriously, have you actually paid attention to the ridiculous crap on tv? At least flash movies break the mold completely,

  • thebulfrog

    What I’m wondering, is at what point (budget-wise) do you feel it’s not worth it to do animation at all? Obviously, in an ideal world we’d all have the budget of Disney. I’m working as an animation producer for a small web company, and really struggling to give up and coming recent grads a chance to work in their own styles for the budget we have. It’s not easy to find the right people, and I know for many of them it’s a lot better than no animation job. They appreciate getting the work. I’ve watched them learn and get better and grow to the point where I can no longer afford them. Is that really such a bad thing?

  • jg

    This is why I never appreciated the word “content”. I never liked to say it is what I make . . . “Oh we’re looking for content” they would say. I think that’s what’s wrong. “Content.” Instead of looking to tell a beautiful story through a quality-made animation, they are just put out — anything! — to satisfy the viewer and to make them laugh and come again. These guys should really listen to some of the things that John Lassetter said. He said that in Disney, they look to tell a great story. It is content, yes, but it’s quality content, it’s well thought out, and it’s something you’d enjoy and rememeber. With these new internet “content”, it’s just not the same. It just lacks the quality and ‘production values’. It lacks a good story. Now I’m not bashing on the whole Internet medium. It’s great for amateurs like myself to get their work out and share it. I’ve seen many great animations by talented persons. But then, there are animations like these which are just some cheap way to get lots of views and to get out content. Oh if Winsor McCay was here today to see this!