A Piece of the Online Pie – An Interview with Jonti Picking
Jonti Picking, the founder of weebls-stuff.com, knows exactly what it takes to make a viral short. The ingredients are simple: eggs, talking toast and badgers.
Over in TV land, development executives also have fairly specific parameters for what will make a hit series. Whether you agree with their methods or not, the system has turned out some of the funniest moments in comedy history. Executives look for unique shows with likable, empathetic characters, strong villains, a distinct point of view – or a handful of other elusive traits that lead to high ratings and big profits. This creative navel-gazing is not all hot air.
Some of these “rules” are worth considering while you create your ideas, but its a simple fact that you’ll never know what concepts work until the audience has their say.
With web series, this reality is even more obvious. Most “hit” series that originated on the internet don’t follow the majority of these TV conventions.
Or take the shorts on weebls-stuff.com. The 32-year old Picking started the website back in 2003 and his knack for making netizens laugh has shot the portal into the upper echelons of online comedy. He’s since built a blossoming media company – complete a line of toys, posters, t-shirts and a DVD. And now with help from w00t!media, weebls-stuff.com even has big-time corporate partners like Cadbury and T-Mobile.
But regardless of the influx of corporate dollars, his site continues to roll out weird stuff that would have a tough time landing interest in TV land. Go watch the first episode of Weebl and Bob and imagine trying to pitch the concept to a development executive: “Well, you see, there’s this egg, Weebl, who sort of mumbles funny stuff, including his undying love of pie. And his friend Bob, who also likes pie, is deathly afraid of bees. They tend to discuss pie or dress up like anime characters, visit France and then in one episode they get a visit from Stephen Hawking.”
I laughed while I wrote that last paragraph, but I suspect the pitch room would be eerily quiet. Most development executives would be straining to understand where the “entry point” is or how the series can stretch to 50 episodes. Ironically, after a considerable amount of online success, Weebl and Bob ended up with a 30-episode order for MTV UK.
As far as web comedy goes, it appears we’ll need a new rule book. Audiences, who now vote with their mouse clicks, have nominated some of the most bizarre shows as the new kings of comedy. “Viral” series like Salad Fingers, Strongbad Emails and Weebl and Bob break the comedy mold we see every day on television. Funny is still funny, but this is a whole new chapter in comedy.
We’re now seeing the second rise of online comedy, led by Stage 9, Comedy.com, The Onion, Crackle, 60frames, SuperDeluxe, Atom (the only site in the first wave of online comedy) – and most are bankrolled by big, corporate parents. They’re all equipped with development pipelines intent on cracking the “viral” code which has all but eluded big media. Its an unenviable task. Cable’s 300+ channels has become synonymous with overkill, so what do we make of the web’s 10,000+ comedy options? Breaking through this level of clutter will take time, something I hope corporate parents are prepared to suffer.
Feeling lost? Perhaps Picking’s success will help illustrate a few symptoms that can lead to this “viral” disease:
Low Cost: Adobe’s Flash software has helped in that category – and Picking’s crew at weebls-stuff.com have produced handfuls of inexpensive Flash-animated shorts that have gone wildly viral. He uses small teams of animators, who work on a short for a week or so, and the result is a short that costs in the low-thousands. Producers looking to find that magic short will likely create handfuls of duds before one takes off, so keeping the costs low helps. I spoke with the Ask a Ninja team last year, and they were shooting their comedy shorts against a green screen painted in their living room.
Musically Driven: Music was the original thread through most of the original animated series. Series like Looney Tunes, Merrie Melodies, Happy Harmonies and Silly Symphonies not only featured music, but their titles suggest a musical imperitive. Jonti Picking began his entertainment career in sound engineering, and shorts like Magical Trevor, Badgers and Kenya all feature his infectious, wall-to-wall music. Other examples include JibJab’s This Land, Chronicles of Narnia (Lazy Sunday) and The Evolution of Dance.
Bizarre: Television has been home to some weird series and in the era of Adult Swim, this trend seems likely to continue. But if the web is good at anything, it’s for revealing our taste in the odd. Take or House of Cosby’s, JoeCartoon.com’s Frog in a Blender or Weebl’s On the Moon series, which features The Toast King, Insanity Prawn Boy and the Moon’s version of Keith Moon – Moon Keith Moon.
Time: This may be the tough one for studio-backed online efforts. Weebl and Bob started mumbling their first pie-rants in 2002, the year the internet died. Out of the ashes of portals like Icebox, Hypnotic and Pop.com, Weebl and his pal Bob slowly grew an audience that now tops 1.5 million uniques a month. Thisjustin.com, HBO and AOL’s portal, barely opened their doors before packing it in. The lesson here is that an online audience must be cultivated over time, and not every site can expect to hit the immediate jackpot like funnyordie.com.
But as you embark on your search for the next viral hit, you can’t forget the essential ingredients – eggs, talking toast and badgers.
Jonti Picking recently answered a few questions for an exclusive CHF interview. Below we learn how he got his start in online comedy, what his writing process is like and why timing is so damn important.
AARON SIMPSON: What’s the secret to making a viral online short?
JONTI PICKING: There is no secret since you just can’t go out and make a viral. It’s impossible. You can make something that you hope will become viral and that’s it. Viewers make things viral and I can’t say this enough. Anyone who says different should probably be ignored (certain US ad agencies, I’m looking at you). I’ve made things I’ve been really pleased with but they’ve just not clicked in the right way and I’ve made things I’ve thought “Meh. It’ll do” only to have them be wildly popular.
AARON: Your background is in sound engineering. How did you find yourself crossing into animation?
JONTI: I completed a creative music tech course after art college which had a section on new media (mainly Shockwave) and a bit of web design. Before all this, I was playing around with animation packages on the C64 and Amiga too so Flash really just melded all my interests into one handy package. After college, I eventually started as a Flash developer for a big, London new media company. Then one day MTV called asking to show Weebl and Bob, which I was making in my free time. After that I just concentrated on the animation.
AARON: Had you been making films since you were young?
JONTI: Not really. I was was mainly into drawing comics and making up silly little tunes about sausages called Fred or a penguin balancing things on it’s nose. I guess not much has changed.
AARON: What was it about the website b3ta.com that inspired your original animations?
JONTI: It was the general sense of humour that they had going on. It really got me thinking about using the tools I knew to make things I enjoyed rather than just making things for work.
AARON: At what point did you realize that your Flash-animated short film Badgers had gone viral?
JONTI: I was actually away the weekend I released Badgers so had no idea what was going off until Monday. Once I’d checked my email and looked at the site hits I had a fair idea it was pretty popular. Oddly enough I’d said in jest to some guys I was working with weeks before that it was going to be massively popular.
AARON: How did you arrive on the idea of a looping music animation?
JONTI: When I’m writing the music I’ll have the tunes looping for hours as I work out what I’m doing with them. I basically want everyone to suffer as much as I do.
AARON: How long does it take to produce a typical Weebl and Bob episode?
JONTI: About 3 days if we’re feeling inspired on the writing front. The actual animation is usually fairly quick these days as I’ve built up quite a library of actions for them both which is expanding all the time. I do like to have something specifically animated for each episode though.
AARON: How many people are involved in the production?
JONTI: We just use one guy at a time on each animation but two or three writers on the animations with plots. Including me, we’ve got three animators now who all work on different things at the same time. Peabo is currently doing commercial work and Wonchop (our new boy) is doing a loop about arse melons.
AARON: At what point did you start adding production help?
JONTI: When I started Sumo Dojo (my old production company) we got Peabo involved, as I liked his work. I’d not really thought about it before but now I see the benefits of production support as I actually get a day off now and then. Since we started Weebl’s Stuff ltd. we’ve been really busy with commercial jobs outside of the website so hopefully I’ll be getting a few more animators if it carries on.
AARON: What commercial jobs have you been working on lately?
JONTI: There’s a couple of pieces for TV we’re working on along with some animations for a TV channel website. On top of that, there are some games and animations for a brand of fizzy drink.
AARON: What effect did the series of 30 MTV shorts have on Weebl and Bob?
JONTI: It made me hate the sight of them for a while since I was making an episode a day in order to meet the deadline. But now I like them again.
AARON: Would Weebl and Bob work as a regular TV series?
JONTI: Possibly, with some actual backgrounds they could work. I think something like Cat Face or On the Moon would work better though.
AARON: Have you been offered TV series since the MTV effort?
JONTI: We’ve had a bit of interest but nothing has ever come of it. The problem seems to be that the chaps we speak to all move to different companies shortly after we’ve spoken to them. I think is the lesson to be learned here is – if you like your job, then don’t bring us in for a meeting.
AARON: Do you have a particular favorite animation on weebls-stuff.com?
JONTI: I’m undecided. I think the one I’m working on at the moment could be my favourite so far though. I’m actually trying to push myself a bit with it.
AARON: You’ve begun featuring animations that were created outside of the Weebl world – like Daim’s Death Kitty and the Fat Man. Are you actively looking for new series and shorts for the site?
JONTI: Kind of. If we really like something then we’d absolutely want to have it for the site. I figure we can help promote artists whose work we like and it’s a nice feeling to be able to do that.
AARON: How did you come to establish a relationship with Cadbury?
JONTI: The chaps who sort out our advertising sales (w00t!media) arranged it all. They’re total dancers and seem to know what they’re doing so we let ‘em. They act like an agency for us really, which is nice.
AARON: How did you wind up partnering with the w00t!media gang?
JONTI: We needed a way to pay for the server costs as it was getting stupidly expensive to run (I think we run on 3 different boxes these days). Cheechy, the chap who makes sure our forums work and other behind the scenes techno gubbins, suggested speaking to one of his chums about ads. That chap was Austen who started w00t as a result. He’s doing pretty well these days and looks after loads of people. What I like about them is that they try to get advertisers who fit a site’s audience (at least in the UK. Not sure what US guys see).
AARON: Explain how you and your co-writer Chris Vick (Skoo) work together. What’s your process for writing a new script?
JONTI: Generally we’ll both be on our secret little IRC channel talking crap when an idea for a script will start to form. If we’re on fire we suggest lines right there and can have a script sorted in about an hour. If it’s not going so well then we’ll go off and write around the ideas, then email our scripts to each other, offering tweaks and suggestions for improvements until we’re both happy.
AARON: I’ve read that your and your team rely on action script to animate – as opposed to keyframing. Any truth to that?
JONTI: No truth at all.
AARON: How much of the physical animation and design are you involved with now?
JONTI: I’m still involved quite heavily in most of them though I let Peabo do his own thing as he’s better than me anyway. If I’m not animating something myself then I’ll generally just offer suggestions on scenes and motion. I think most of it’s about timing to be honest.
AARON: And what’s the key to timing?
JONTI: Mixing up the rhythm and not being afraid of pauses and a fair bit of trial and error. I spent a good 2 hours tweaking the motion of something the other day because I didn’t feel it was right. In the end, I bought one of the plugins from Trick or Script and then it was spot on.
AARON: Do you see sponsorships and product placement as a better solution than preroll ads?
JONTI: Yes and no. If the client fits then sure, why not? Something like Creme Eggs ties in nicely to Weebl and Bob. However there are obviously constraints on what you can write in those cases. I prefer to do completely bespoke cartoons where possible for commercial work. For the Prawn To Be Wild games series there was no way it could have been done without sponsorship by T-Mobile as it took a lot of time to make – and by a lot of people. But it effected the same old issue – deadlines. I would have liked our schedule on that one to be a bit longer in order to make things more polished. Swings and round-a-bouts really.
The major bonus of sponsored animations and games is the fact we can afford to make other things with no advertising in them.
AARON: Do you see gaming as an important part of the future at weebls-stuff.com?
JONTI: I love games and Flash has really matured as a tool for making something decent. I’ve got a whole bunch of ideas I’d love to get made simply because I’d like to be able to play them myself. The games on the site aren’t as popular as the toons, but at the end of the day as long as I enjoy it and a few other people do then I’m happy.
AARON: How do you see our entertainment consumption habits evolving over the next 5-10 years?
JONTI: Everything we watch will have a small picture of Brian Blessed in the corner who shouts at you if you start touching yourself. Porn will die out overnight.
AARON: You’ve been credited with visual effects work, like your additions to Resident Evil. Is this something you continue to work on?
JONTI: I wish. That was through the new media company I worked for. I basically designed the map of the Hive but other people made it look good.
AARON: Are there any online animated series that you check in on regularly?
AARON: What animated TV shows do you watch?
JONTI: The Clone Wars series was really good. While I don’t watch them regularly, I love Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Frisky Dingo and Robot Chicken. I’ve given Modern Toss a try but it’s just not funny. Dexter’s Lab is also quite wonderful, as is Powerpuff Girls. Most of the serious stuff that get’s made for kids though is so generic it hurts though. What happened to Godzilla and Godzuki? And The Centurions? Power EXTREEEEEEEMEEEE!!!!!!