The Art of the Animated Parody

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Last June I signed up for my first panel at a local convention called Too Many Games. Without dancing around it, the panel had about 7 people show up to it. Yeah, it was a bit of a failure, but I think the presentation had some good info in there! Since then I’ve been trying to think of a way to share the presentation with everyone and I decided to do it through this blog post. This way, unlike recording a video, I can update it if I feel there was something I missed or would like to include later. I hope that you find this useful.

Introduction

A few years ago I made a handful of anime inspired shorts for Maker Studios’ Nacho Punch channel. These three shorts did really well across YouTube and I learned much during the production of them. I wrote all of these with guidance from Vernon Shaw (who runs Hot Pepper Gaming and now works for Game Grumps), and his input was of great value. Vernon taught me lots of good tips on what it takes to make solid shareable content. The following is what I learned from making these three (Star Wars: The 1980s Anime, Harry Potter: A Cyberpunk Adventure, and Tokyo Ghostbusters) shorts.

1. Creating Something Shareable

Shareable: An easy to communicate Idea that is accessible enough for people that they’re willing to share it with others.

The Idea is made up of Content which leads to Value.

But what is the Idea and what is the Content?

2. The Idea

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I was approached to do animated work for Maker when they were gearing up to relaunch their YouTube channel The Station as Nacho Punch. It was suggested that I work on an established property like Star Wars or Harry Potter. They needed something that could be produced cheaply and quickly with a tight turn around time. Considering I work full time, I needed to come up with something that favored quick and cheap.

At the time, my daughter and I were watching a ton of Voltron through Netflix. It occurred to me that I could make a Voltron inspired Star Wars short that would intentionally look bad. This would allow me to produce something cheap and quick. From there, the 80s anime aesthetic ideas started falling into place. I could make use of things like poor dubbing, bad localization, poor VHS video quality, and mainly lousy animation.

Maker ended up naming the short “Star Wars the 1980s Anime.” I was kind of against calling it something so blatant and tried to push back, but the fact of the matter is that this title tells the audience everything they need to know about what they’re going to watch.

3. The Content

Familiarity: One of the more important aspects of designing these shorts was the idea of Familiarity. The point being that since the cartoon is going to be so short, we need the audience to instantly connect with the scenario. In the case of Star Wars it was set during the battle at Hoth because it is an iconic scene. Cyberpunk Harry Potter riffed on key moments from Harry Potter, while Tokyo Ghostbusters was essentially an anime version of the original Ghostbusters cartoon opening. If the audience doesn’t have to learn anything new about the backdrop, it allows us opportunities to introduce new elements and twists through our narrative.

starwars-voltron-comparison

Fast Paced: We wanted these shorts to be quickly paced. Since they were only going to be about a minute long, we needed to find ways to maximize the amount of gags and action. With Star Wars I decided to go for a “Next Time On” format. This let me introduce the idea that this was an on going series and that we’re in the middle of it. In many cases audiences love seeing the previews for the episode of an upcoming show since they’re usually nice highlight reels with just enough of a tease to leave them wanting more. Star Wars capitalized on this. It allowed us to have big gaps in the story and show scenes that were roughly connected. Harry Potter took the movie trailer route which gave us a similar freedom. With Ghostbusters, it was much more straight forward being that it’s an opening sequence parody, though I did include a slight taste of what an episode could be about after the intro sequence.

Entertaining: Of course the short needs to be entertaining on multiple levels. The gags need to exploit the standard tropes but also dig a little deeper than that, plus it has to be fun to watch even if someone didn’t find any of the jokes particularly funny.

For Tropes we want to hit the easy anime gags. In the case of Star Wars we want giant robots, transformation sequences and melodrama. Hardcore fans of either side see right through these jokes, so we need to hit a little harder and get them invested. We need to show them we’re fans too. This is where we move beyond the tropes.

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Moving beyond tropes we want to explore what I’ll call Layered Gags. These are the jokes for the most hardcore fan. With Star Wars I slipped in Sasori Vader from the old Famicom game. This is something die hard Star Wars and gaming fans knew about (mostly due to an Angry Video Game Nerd episode). On top of that, the visual gag of Darth turning into a scorpion is just silly. So that joke works two ways as the casual fan will crack up at the “randomness” of it while the more invested viewer will get the reference and approve that we’re on their level. In the case of Cyberpunk Harry Potter, a particular group of fans will notice that Voldemort was not a Terminator at the end, but actually a Snatcher from Konami’s classic game Snatcher. Again, the visual still works two ways.

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The shorts also needed a Cool Factor. Many of the ideas across the shorts, while silly, also double as being cool. Luke’s lightsaber arm is kind of rad, and seeing the Ghostbusters battle ghosts based on yokai is awesome. There is also something appealing about the idea of Hogwarts appearing as a futuristic city full of neon lights. These ideas are able to get the viewers imaginations going and they hopefully buy into the alternate world you’ve created.

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validation-of-cool-factor

Side Note: The above example, I feel, is validation of one of the Cool Factory ideas within the Star Wars anime. In the short I decided to throw continuity out the window to show Luke face off against Darth Vader at Hoth. On top of that, he’s wearing his Jedi uniform and using his green saber, both of which he doesn’t have until Return of the Jedi. When EA first showed a trailer for their recently released Star Wars Battlefront game, it ended with a similar situation as the Star Wars anime. I’m not saying my short in any way contributed to this scenario in the game, but the game scene was met with applause. People thought it was cool, hence it counts toward the Cool Factor.

The Cliff Hanger Ending across the three shorts were created with the idea of leaving the audience wanting more. One of the highest compliments I was paid by several people after these shorts were that they wanted more. I believe the Cliff Hanger Endings play a large part in what lead people to wanting the need to see more. Since they’re not getting the complete story there is a feeling of wanting to see these stories resolved.

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4. How do I get people to watch it?

This is kind of the tricky part, and I will be straight up honest in that I’m not sure if Maker used any magic on their end to get these cartoons noticed. I have no idea if there was any sort of advertising budget behind these or if Maker employees had contacts at other outlets in order to spread the word. The following comes from my experience with viral content unrelated to the anime shorts. Update: Vernon informed me that Maker had no marketing budget for these and the shorts found their own way.

The first one is to send links to your favorite sites. Include a short note how you’re the creator of the content and you think it’s a nice fit for their site or blog. If you can get just one major outlet to report on your short then congratulations because this is when the Snow Ball Effect will likely kick in and your work officially holds Value. For example if a site like Kotaku deems your video to be of value, other outlets that value Kotaku will then believe your video to have value and will repost it. Once the blogs begin to circulate the short, their readers will then hopefully begin to circulate it among their friends, hence the Snow Ball Effect.

Of course there is also Newgrounds you can upload your creation to. Newgrounds is a little more inclusive, meaning even if your work is featured on Newgrounds it likely won’t leave Newgrounds. At least not how it may have years ago. However, there is still a large and active community over there who are willing to watch your work. Newgrounds does a fantastic job of weeding out the cream of the crop, so if your short is good it will rank highly and possibly win daily or weekly awards (which help make you feel good!). If you’re featured on the front page you’re guaranteed to get lots of eyeballs on your work and potentially even open up doors to chat with other artists. I would likely be nowhere if not for Newgrounds. They were extremely important in helping me establish my work and I owe Newgrounds a lot.

Of course the other obvious channel of trying to spread the word is by posting your newly finished short across your social media channels, though this admittedly is widely hit or miss depending on the size of your following. Like everything, there is a large element of chance at work.

Conclusion

Based on the experience I had making these shorts I believe the above information to be a strong formula for creating viral parody content. By following the above you manage to appeal to fans, harness the ability to win over jaded fans (the people ready to hate from the moment they click play), and appeal to the widest possible audience for your subject.

I hope that you’ve learned something from all of this and that you’re able to make some awesome viral parody cartoons.

Good luck and have fun!

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Phil

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