Animation has always had a strong creative streak with plenty of variety to it. If you didn’t like that Walt Disney was chasing realism, all you had to do was look across town to the Warner guys on Termite Terrace and see cutting edge character comedy in full flow. Today is no different; while major studios have become increasingly bland in their offerings, there are plenty of others taking up the creative mantle. Is what they’re doing worth the effort and risk involved?
This topic is where the intersection of art and commerce is most critical. The former desires freedom, creativity, and art for the sake of art. The latter desires financial return, stability, and predictability. For the most part, they appear incompatible, but have been able to get along for many years with the odd quibble or two.
Feature films have become inherently more predictable as box office receipts have slipped. TV shows are slowly seeing toyetic properties creeping back in, and old favourites are getting a contemporary reboot. Web animation is where you’d think the real action would be, but it’s been disappointing so far. At one extreme is the lowest common denominator filled with fart jokes; on the other relatively high budget shows but with disappointingly familiar themes and stories.
What’s lacking is the creative charge that pushes the boundaries. That doesn’t mean adding cursing or more risque humour to series either. The two things that animated shows, movies, and web series’ could do with a real shot of at the moment are story and character. Both seem to be sorely lacking at the moment aside from standout shows like Adventure Time and Legend of Korra.
While the risks of standing out are inherently obvious (show could fail, etc.) the rewards are too obvious to ignore. When done right, creatively risky shows can be wildly successful because they offer something different. That’s what Adventure Time did; going in mathematical directions on epic, heroic quests to rescue princess when everyone else stuck with gag shows.
Web series’ should be all about creativity at the moment. They can get away with lower budgets, they have a young audience that has shown a greater tolerance for more unique content, and they are more adept to innovation when ti comes to merchandise and earning revenue from unusual sources.
What it comes down to is leadership; while there have been numerous leaders of televised and theatrical animation over the years, we’ve yet to see a distinct leader emerge in the online animation world. Someone has yet to combine the creative and shrewd business sense that provides inspiration to others as well as carving a path for them to follow. Walt Disney did it in his lifetime with shorts and features, Fred Seibert did it with animated TV shows in the 1990s and early 200s, but someone for the web generation remains in hiding. It’s not for lack of trying either. YouTube channels have been rapidly consolidating over the past two years. Multi-channel networks (MNCs) dominate the platform as do traditional media companies, but there is still an immense focus on the individual creator, and while live-action has been quick to find it’s stars, animation has struggled to find someone with consistent brilliance.
Web animation has a particular opportunity to get creative, yet there are so many me-toos and fascimiles from people who are either too hell-bent on finding their 15 minutes of fame, or failing to actually take 5 minutes and think about what they want to achieve.
If you’re making web animation and you’re the boss, why wouldn’t you make something spectacular that hasn’t been done before? The audience is already there, you just have to convince them that your content is the best, so why not strive for that and be different from everyone else at the same time?
Risk is relative to how much you’re willing to tolerate, but I’m a believer in the Michael Milliken approach; namely the riskiest investments will eventually pay off provided you make enough of them. If you can’t see this being the case, Frederator have used it as the modus operandi since the beginning with enormous success. That said, taking creative risks requires being somewhat smart about it. The rewards may not come straight away, people will be ignorant, maybe even resistant to them.
What matters is that taking creative risks is a necessary part of the process that helps motivate everyone and prevents culture from becoming stagnant. I believe that creative risks are worth it provided they are suitably hedged and don’t present an irrecoverable obstacle should they fail. If it’s possible to do that, there are no excuses.