Failing My Most Ambitious Project
I have put a lot of time and love into some of my projects. The one I had the most hope and ambition for has been my biggest failure. If my friends read this, they'd disagree with me. They'd tell me I worked hard at something and have something to show for it. But I am also lucky enough to have wonderful supportive friends... Would they ever tell me otherwise? Probably not. Let me tell you about my journey trying to make a cartoon.
My Journey as a Comedy Hobbyist
Becoming Twitter Famous-ish
I've always been really into cartoons. I owe my interest in comedy to classics like Flapjack and Spongebob. In addition, I've had a decent amount of experience with joke writing. When I was 15, I started a twitter account where I would write jokes under a pseudonym and amassed around 30,000 followers at my peek. Unfortunately, a 15-year-old should not have access to the dopamine of tens of thousands of people validating their existence. I was addicted to growing this twitter. Every second of my day was dedicated to writing jokes. When a tweet would gain thousands of retweets, I would feel nothing, and when it got less than a hundred, I felt completely invalidated. Of course, in addition to being addicted to Twitter, I was a dumb 15-year-old and would make stupid comments because I didn't know any better.
I deleted the account a few years ago. It was not healthy for me at the time, but I am no longer a dumb 15-year-old. Instead a dumb 22-year-old that, at the very least, doesn't constantly crave external validation. You can easily find screenshots of my tweets plastered around the internet, but unless I tell people about it, it doesn't really follow me around anymore.
Starting a Satirical News Outlet
Using my audience, I also started Yew Nork Times, a satirical news outlet with some of the most talented people I know. The website is no longer up, but you can see some of the popularity we were able to amass on its twitter. It saw some success, but I had college and three jobs to worry about. I just didn't have the time to work on it and it slowly died.
Wishing I Could do it All Over Again
As I've come to learn more about Indie Hacking, Entrepreneurship, and how to market myself, I've had the feeling over and over again that I really missed out on some awesome opportunities. I pissed away a pretty cool network of talented people, and threw away any chances at monetization by focusing more on just totally misusing my platform. Oh well. I was 15, what can I expect? If I didn't wish I could do anything differently then that would mean that I haven't grown.
Fast Forward To A Healthier Time In My Life
At this point, all of my comedic attempts just became telling jokes to my friends. We make each other laugh all the time, and I am completely content with that being the extent of my comedy escapades. This is still the case, but something really inspired me to try and make something cool.
A fellow classmate during my time in college ended up showing me a film she made. It was beautiful, and it took her 2 years. 2 years?!? Whoa, that's amazing! I've only worked on things that have taken up a few months of my time! A fire lit up inside of me. I thought to myself, "Well, thirty thousand people thought I was funny at one point, I can make something cool too!"
I took some time to just think of what I would want to watch. Hm, I really like pirates, and I really like charming childish main characters. Okay, what if I had a show about a child who has no pirate skills, but ends up being a pirate king by pure accident. Sort of like Forrest Gump, but the pirate kid. Ah, there is so much I can do with that premise! I wrote down something I can pitch to people.
Kiwi is born
An unsuspecting child (Kiwi C. Kettle) becomes captain of a grandiose ship after a pirate king devotes his life to minimalism and poetry.
Amazing, I am feeling really hopeful about this. I reached out to one of my good friends and co-worker at the time, Hurston Mazard Wallace. I pitched the idea to him, and saw the fire strike in him as well. We were pitching episode ideas, visual gags, and character ideas. We were on the same page and... I wish I had a more poetic way to describe this. It is as though colors were flying out of our mouths and painting a beautiful picture. It felt right. Now, all that was left was to make it!
The Making of Kiwi
Writing the Pilot
I did most of the writing and Hurston edited and expanded on some weaker places. This was easy. I had so many ideas that I finished the entire episode, ten minutes worth of screen time, in about two days. We read it out loud to each other, and laughed while doing it. We knew we had something good.
When we told our mentor that we were working on this project, she introduced us to a very talented student studying animation (I can't find a link to her work, unfortunately). We pitched our idea, and asked her if we can hire her to help us storyboard. She was very excited about it! We set a fixed price and got to work. Every Sunday, Hurston and I would take the train about 2 hours to Depaul University to work on this with her. I wasn't trained in drawing, and never was, so I mostly provided guidelines while Hurston drew sketches and our storyboarder perfected it. That was our workflow and it worked very well. The work that was coming out of it was beautiful.
Getting Funding, Forming A Team
Reaching Out To Our School's Film RSO
Through our school's film RSO, we tried to get funding to make our pilot. This would come in handy to pay storyboarder, and to buy food for students that signed up to work with us. Plus, we needed animators to sign up. However, this actually ended up being much more difficult than I anticipated.
The main critique of our story is that it did not feature a single female character. Clearly, since most industries are male dominated, we needed to do our part and help make films more inclusive. In an ideal world, we would have found a female to help with the writing, but we didn't because so much of the storyboard had been done and we just couldn't spare the time or money to change so much of it. We changed some of the characters to females.
This didn't completely make the RSO happy since simply having a female in your story doesn't necessarily make it non-masculine. However, explaining the situation and taking their edits led to us finally being approved for funding.
One of the things Hurston and I wanted to buy were drawing pads. Since nobody has ever really pitched an animation to this club, they didn't really have equipment that suited our needs. We asked for this in our budget breakdown, but we were rejected. What the hell?! We were told that we have money we can spend as we see fit, so why the heck couldn't we just get the drawing pads?
They told us that they were not just going to buy us technology because that was beyond the means of what they do. They also told us that there are drawing pads at the media center so they didn't see why we needed to buy any. The drawing pads at the media center were from the early 2000s, and there were only a few of them. They barely worked, and we would have to check them out and return them in intervals. On top of that, we ran the risk of the drawing pads being checked out to someone else when they needed them.
This was a mess, and a battle that took weeks. Ultimately, we never got to use our allocated budget for drawing pads. We ended up asking the media center to update their inventory, to which they agreed after a ton of convincing. A month later, we finally had two drawing pads that we can check out. It wasn't ideal, but we didn't have another choice.
Failing As A Leader
About twenty students signed up to work with us. There were some really amazing people. As happens in all school clubs, this number dropped significantly very quickly. Just a few weeks in and we were down to about 10 people. Most people dropped out because they realized this was much more work than they anticipated. The ones that stayed, though, were gems.
Hurston and I set up a rigorous schedule that would need to be met if we wanted to finish the animation by our deadline (we had about 6 months, and a significant portion of it has been wasted just dealing with Bureaucracy). We would have our weekly meetings, and fill people in on where we were at in the process. We then told them what we needed to accomplish and then it would become a working session.
I don't know how I was supposed to run these weekly meetings, but what I was doing clearly did not work. People weren't hitting their deadlines, and barely showed up. There were very few people that we can truly rely on, and they were special to us. When people missed their deadlines, I didn't know what to do. I told them it was okay, just catch up, but they never did. Maybe I should have been less lenient, but this project couldn't exist without them, so I couldn't kick out the slackers! I had no control and no matter how much I tried to motivate and inspire everyone, it just didn't work. I know I'm supposed to learn from my mistakes, but I really don't know what I could have done. Maybe it just wasn't possible with random students, and maybe I just had to hire people instead of get people to work on something with me for free. As a broke college student, I just couldn't do that, though. Every week more and more lag would build up, and it was beginning to seem insurmountable.
Stepping In To Animate
I had to start animating myself as more people quit the team. I had zero interest in drawing and did not know how to. I spent hours at night just practicing and trying to get anything to look good. It just wasn't working out, though. I'm no animator, and I'm no artist. I dreaded every moment of it, but I had no choice if I wanted to finish this project.
Guiding the Musicians
Hours were also spent with the musicians who agreed to compose with us. Much of the humor of the story needed to be embellished by the sounds, so it was very important to work closely with them. They were incredibly talented, and honestly, this was the smoothest part of the entire process.
Hurston and I kept meeting with the storyboarder on Sundays, but our efficiency was diminishing. The beautiful drawings that were coming out were becoming obviously rushed sketches. But it was just too much work for her. We were about 70 still images drawn and there were probably about 50 more. It was more work than she realized, and unfortunately, she quit and expressed that she wasn't being compensated enough for this. I wish we could have worked it out, and I wish we could have estimated just how much work this was from the beginning, but we were too experienced to know it seems.
Hurston (bless his heart), ended up finishing the storyboard by himself over the next month or so. It wasn't as beautiful as we wanted, but it was done.
Three Months In, Three Months Left
We were now halfway through our timeline and we were way behind. We got some beautiful still images, but there was so much to do. Not a single frame was actually animated. And on top of that, we needed to do the voice acting, sound mixing, and music.
A month goes by of this miserable process of failing at drawing, fighting with the film RSO, having students slowly quit, and wondering how the hell I am going to get this done.
Bureaucracy Strikes Again
Hurston and I decided to ask our film RSO for an extension. We clearly underestimated how long this would all take, and if we wanted this to be good, we needed some more time. We explained this, showed them where we were at in the process, and tried to show them why three more months for us would be amazing.
"No. We don't allow extensions."
What?!? Are you kidding me? Let me remind you, this isn't Hollywood and this isn't some revenue producing product. This isn't Cyberpunk 2077, this isn't Dune, it's a cartoon made by some students. We fought again and again for an extension, but this just increased tensions and clearly wasn't going to go our way.
All Hope Is Gone
At this point, I had no hope or excitement left. When I thought about Kiwi, all I thought about was incredible stress. All I could think is how I was letting everyone down who put months of work into it. I felt like I just couldn't do it, and that I was a fool leading some talented and hard working people off a cliff.
On top of this, I was still a fulltime student and had 3 jobs. I was a teaching assistant for a pretty intense Computer Science course. I'd have to grade plenty of written assignments at midnight when they were submitted and get them back to students by class the next day. I was a research assistant for a lab where we were working on two publications. I was a staff member for the media arts center at my college. Finally, I was a fulltime student taking the most rigorous Computer Science classes.
Every moment began to feel like drowning. Every hour I just had more and more things to do.
I quit. I quit the project. I couldn't take it, my mental health just couldn't possibly do this any longer. These were some of the worst few months of my life. On top of working an ungodly amount of time, I was a quitter. I quit on my friend who was there with me from the beginning and I quit on the staff who trusted my vision and had incredible talent.
This hurt the most. I was embarrassed to even look them in the eyes and honestly still am. The school quarter didn't get any better for me either. I still had 2 really intense jobs (and 1 less intense one) on top of my schoolwork. Luckily, I got through it.
Kiwi Is Finished
Without me, Kiwi lived on. They finished making it and they worked hard. Obviously, I was invited to see the premiere, and I was at the very least excited to see something I created come to life. The show was a few weeks away. I invited all my friends to come and watch it knowing how hard it was to make for the team.
One Week Before The Premiere
I was so excited to see this in a theater with my friends. I couldn't even hold it in. I still felt like I didn't have the right to be so excited, but to me, Kiwi was still my baby!
In parallel, Coronavirus is picking up throughout the country. Our school has decided that the next quarter would be completely virtual. To comply with safety measures, the film RSO also announced that the screening would be virtual.
What an awful day that was for me. I lost my graduation, I didn't get to say goodbye to my friends, and more importantly, something I spent about 7 months pouring my heart and soul into wouldn't be shown. How depressing.
I watched the cartoon alone in my room, but as talented as my team was, we just did not have the resources to turn it into the beautiful cartoon it was supposed to be. The story and cartoon just did not play out the way it did in my head. This was one of the most depressing things I've ever experienced.
If you made it this far to the story, thanks for listening. I really appreciate it. I want to share my successes here on my blog, but I also think it's important to share my failures. Hopefully in the future I can try again.
With that, here is Kiwi: