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Can You Make A Career Out of Internet Animation? The Pegbarians Are Definitely Trying

It can be tough to earn a living through YouTube.

But that is what Dutch animators Thijs Koole, Florian Walraven and Martijn Calkhoven — also known as Pegbarians — are doing. In late 2012, the three classmates started their Pegbarians channel as part of a school project. They wanted to find a way to pay the rent by working for themselves, rather than for commercial clients or big studios.

Following their summer 2014 graduation, Pegbarians have since made a career out of internet animation, balancing commissioned and original work with (or around) YouTube’s monetization system. They managed it by building a solid fan base through sketches based on popular culture staples like Adventure Time and Super Mario, as well as series based on stories proposed by their audience and Let’s Play animations. As of this writing, Pegbarians’ channel boasts 200,000 subscribers and is part of Channel Frederator’s network.

“In television and cinema, all involved have to invest big, with 13 or 26 episodes at the same time, before there’s any idea of how successful it will be,” Calkhoven told Cartoon Brew. “On YouTube, you make and upload the first episode, then maybe a second, then maybe a third. If you don’t feel like continuing, you simply quit and start another series. If a video we make fails, it’s not that dramatic, because it cost us barely one week of time.”

In early 2013, Pegbarians took the first step towards making a profitable channel by getting famous, also known as “leeching off of others’ success,” explained Koole, laughing. It worked: Pegbarians’ first video, Pokeball Z, earned them 12,000 channel subscriptions in a couple of days. Today, it boasts over 4.5 million views — but it didn’t make the animators much money.

“We used audio from Freeplay Music — which turned out not to be free use music — so we had to stop monetizing the video,” said Koole. “That was a tough lesson to learn.”

Today, Pegbarians are doing OK financially. Walraven and Calkhoven are making online animation full-time. Koole is doing the same part-time —- but not thanks to the monetization of Pegbarians’ videos.

“It’s tough,” explained Calkhoven. “Pegbarians makes us enough to pay our monthly Internet bill, although the channel is still worth it. It brought us many commissions from other channels, which do make us enough money to live on. Those channels happened to like what we did with Pegbarians, and asked us to create stuff for them too. I guess you could say our channel is our portfolio.”

Eighty percent of the work Pegbarians create online is for YouTube channels like SeaNanners and Vanoss Gaming. In the beginning, channels paid them a set amount per video, but now they split the revenue 50/50 a month after the video has been uploaded.

This means the channel gets content they didn’t have to produce; they press “upload” without risk of losing money. For Pegbarians, it means more income, because their videos always do well on other channels. They’ve found that animation content generally gets more than double the amount of views than live-action content, because people watch animation several times.

However, animation isn’t the ideal art form for the world of YouTube. In 2014, Ross O’Donovan criticized YouTube’s new monetization scheme for its preferential treatment towards live-action creators. While Pegbarians understood that a new algorithm was necessary, because people were exploiting the system, they also saw it as a short-time solution.

“Obviously, this system gives game players the most benefits,” said Calkhoven. “I’m quite sure YouTube doesn’t mind making even more money off of Pewdiepie through the new algorithm. Some live-action YouTube friends and I sometimes compare our clicks-per-minute, and they get like 10 times more. It’s no wonder animators get discouraged by this system.”

Unfortunately, moving onto other platforms isn’t a viable option. And while Pegbarians are secretly hoping a serious competitor to YouTube arises, they know it’s probably not going to happen. So they’re trying to beat the scheme by creating low-key, longer-form content.

“We did a live Q&A that worked very well,” explained Walraven. “Basically, it’s us talking for about 15 minutes, illustrated with just a few slides that we repeat. It’s a time-effective method, and works quite well for the viewers. I was surprised to find that people are not only interested in our animation, but in us as well. They even want to hear about our hobbies.”

In the future, Pegbarians would like their channel to return to its initial concept, a series based on the their characters, Red, Tinits, and Knut. But when they have to choose between making something for themselves, or a series for someone else’s channel, which pays the rent, it’s an obvious choice.

The Pegbarians believe the future of their channel is going to come down to crowdfunding. But they also believe that the problem with Patreon and other crowdfunding platforms is that they’ve become too popular.

“People have been using it too much for things like, ‘I have to go to the grocery store!’ or small amounts like $400,” Calkhoven explained. “Come on, just do one commission and you’re done.”

Despite Pegbarians’ unclear future, Koole, Walraven, and Calkhoven want to continue creating animation for their YouTube channel. “The greatest thing about it is that we can make what we want to make,” concluded Walraven.

“We can have this really weird idea and say, ‘Let’s make it!'” agreed Koole. “On the Internet, your audience creates itself around you. Pegbarians’ main audience is nerdy guys, aged 13-17, and that’s totally fine. YouTube doesn’t pay much, but we get to make butt jokes.”

  • Mightyflog

    I think Animators need to start thinking like businessmen especially if they get tons of views. Youtube ain’t going to do it for you. You can create your own products and sell them, use affiliate sales that tie in to your animation, create training videos. Put a funny 5-10 second commercial that takes people to a tshirt shop you created. Combine what you have with affiliate marketing and or product creation and you can make way more out of your cartoons. But artists are necessarily businessmen.

  • Darren Rawlings

    A good example is Simon Tofield’s “Simon’s Cat”.

  • Chris

    I enjoyed this post and hope Cartoon Brew writes more articles about indie animators and what they do to make a living.

    • Happy to hear that! An article about another indie animation studio that uses the internet to its full potential is coming up in a month or so – stay tuned! :)

  • I’ve been creating original animated series on Youtube for about 5 years now, and I’ve learned plenty of lessons from it.

    The first thing I’d like to say is that (trying to be) making a living off of Youtube involves Playing The Game. The monetization algorithm demands that you produce lengthy near-daily content that can sustain eyeballs for as long as possible. Let’s Plays, Top 10 Countdowns, 671 Facts About Your Favorite Show. Stuff that doesn’t have anything to do with your work, that takes time away from your ability to do work! You can always post live streams of your work day, as long as you never listen to or experience anything copyrighted with any of the five senses during your day! Or you could form your own multi-channel network and buy into volume like every company that sends an obnoxious invitation to my email every day!

    I think there’s also a question to be raised about whether Youtube is a suitable home for original animated series. It’s just my opinion, but I don’t think it is at all. Youtube is specifically geared towards disposable entertainment and brands that are less about the creator and more about what the creator is into. If animation is successful on Youtube, there’s a 95% chance that said animation is along the lines of Parody or Satire. It’s often a one-shot. There’s also a chance that a Newgrounds animator, who built their success there, brought their fans over to Youtube. Or in the case of, say, Cyanide & Happiness, building your success through a different medium entirely. But the biggest empires on Youtube all revolve around video games and pop culture. Consumer media that is about the act of consuming!

    One of the things I was constantly told was that I needed to up my SEO (Search Engine Optimization) within Youtube. To have great tags that would guarantee I would show up on the first page of Youtube searches. For starters, if this was possible to be accomplished, articles like this about super talented people struggling probably wouldn’t exist. But, also, how much does SEO help an original property, vs a parody? Maybe someone doing a Spy vs Spy parody has a chance to crack the first couple of pages of a Spy vs Spy Youtube search, but how do you crack even the first 50 pages of an “animated series” search with the billions of videos on Youtube, not just of independent work, but often pirated videos of television series. Especially when your only ammunition are tags and your video title!

    This is not taking into account some of the other kinds of things I heard about from various MCNs trying to court me, like “like trades”. Suggestions to collaborate with other people for no pay in the hopes of greater exposure. I couldn’t help but feel like the MCNs were making all the money swallowing every channel up and taking their cut, and not trickling down that money to their creators. It just didn’t feel right to me at all.

    What I’d say to the Pegbarians is that Patreon is a far more legitimate way to feel like you’re specifically making a living off of your work and your work alone, sponsored by actual patrons who are paying SPECIFICALLY to see your work! Regardless of whether you think Patreon is overexposed, getting abused, or even beneath you (why post to Youtube then?), it’s the best way of directly building a relationship with your viewers who want to show their support.

    Also, there’s a lot of defeatist talk about “if only there was competition for Youtube; sadly, it’ll never happen.” Why do we assume it’ll never happen? In 2005 there was no Youtube. It’s easy to think Youtube’s been around forever but it’s just been a decade at most. There was a time when MySpace was everyone’s home. Heck, Livejournal. Livejournal!! Maybe a Youtube doppleganger isn’t going to rise up and dethrone them, but maybe you shouldn’t be waiting for that!

    Instead of expecting 1:1 competition, where I think animators need to look, and where I think some savvy animators have already started looking, is inking deals with off-Youtube content networks where you get a better ad rate, but maintain your creator rights. Sites like Vessel, where you get a much better rate in exchange for temporary exclusivity, interest me. Subscription-modelled sites like Seeso (which Cyanide & Happiness hooked up with), interest me. Any service looking to try and enter the field with Hulu or Amazon and fund original programming, these seem perhaps over my head at the moment, but why not try?

    The only thing that I intend to use Youtube for going forward is a video host, nothing more nothing less. The amount of time I put into trying to make it work, was taking away from my enjoyment of making the work! Paying for ad campaigns that fizzled, following all the proper best practices, tweeting incessantly about my content, producing (ugh) “video game videos”, stretches of posting videos twice a week for weeks. That stuff didn’t change a thing. And it’s the easiest way to feel like everything you do (and everything you are) is terrible. But then I look at the Patreon and see the support I get there, and I recognize that there’s just this disconnect, that will probably never be bridged. This year I hope to try and think outside the box for how I can get my content out there and make money doing what I love. At some point I think it would be pretty rad to have a whole think tank come together and brainstorm about it. But for now that’s my plan.

    • Martijn “Pyrowman” Calkhoven

      Hey Matt, Martijn from Pegbarians here.

      I agree with most of what you wrote. Youtube isn’t the best platform for animation and no amount of ‘tag optimisation’ will improve it. A lot of problems you mention also crossed our path.
      About that Patreon thing: The original interview for this article was held a while ago. It’s been updated a few times, but there’s still some information that’s a little dated. While I’m still a little sceptical about Patreon and other crowd-funding services, it doesn’t hurt to try and I would love to be proven wrong. That’s why we’ll be setting up our own page next week.
      When it comes to services like Vessel and Seeso, I’m still very much in the dark. At the moment of the interview, I had never heard of these. I’ll have to do a little research and ask around to see if it’ll be a viable option for us. However, I do not think any of them will dethrone Youtube any time soon.

      • Realistically, they won’t dethrone Youtube. At best, I’m hoping one of these off-Youtube content networks ends up as a healthy alternative that provides a business model that can work for artists. Youtube itself is geared towards MCNs, Let’s Play channels and vloggers and that’s not going to change. Creators need a site that is geared towards creators.

  • Cindy Gagnon

    One way they could use the algorithm would be putting a days work in videos and make a time-lapse of it. An 8 hour day in 15 minute format would be interesting to watch for some people.

  • Martijn “Pyrowman” Calkhoven

    They’re the original designs from the Dragonball Z and Pokémon series. In the US, they were recoloured to blue or purple, but not here in the Netherlands. Besides, all they do in our video is stare and hum, nothing racist about that.