Friday, November 25, 2011

Top 5 Quiet Deaths Of Web Series

Somewhere in the midst of the evolution of the Internet, there came the development of Flash games and movies. And yea, it was good. Thanks to this, people with a creative idea and a little bit of know-how are still able to put together fun (and maddeningly addictive) video games as well as stylish, creative animated shorts.

But quite a few of these series are labors of love, produced by people in their 20s or thereabouts in their free time. The lucky few get popular enough to sustain their creator, but sometimes life intervenes in even these successes and the series quietly dies off. Though I'm sure there are plenty of series that have disappeared over the years, here are the top five ones I once followed that have stalled in their tracks, perhaps never to rouse again.

5. Waterman

Waterman still has a bit of spark left, and for that we have to credit Leslie Nielsen. More on that later.


Like a lot of Flash series, this one found a home on Newgrounds, an aggregation site that offers people to submit their animations, games, and audio tracks to an appreciative or not so appreciative audience. "Bryan Waterman's series has serious television potential and a huge following," is the website's glowing blurb at the top of the Waterman page. "His advice: 'You will enjoy the series a lot more if you do not compare it to The Family Guy.'"

Refraining from that comparison is a little difficult, since Waterman shares the same predilection for cutting away from the narrative for a random joke. The randomness carries over to the overall setup, which is more Seinfeld-esque in the way it puts a bunch of strange characters together and sees how their relationships shake out in a strange situation. The cast includes Waterman, the hopefully more dull-witted expy of the creator; Pal, his slightly more level-headed friend; Ice Cream Girl, Waterman's occasional love interest; Roy-Bot, a man with the delusional belief that he's a robot; and Mr. Dillo, a wealthy armadillo. Along the way, they competed in a high-stakes ping-pong tournament, battled pirate reenactors, and befriended a robotic Chuck Norris.

The jokes sometimes fall quite flat, as is always the risk when one tries to turn a pop culture reference into a gag and occasionally decides that a reference is as good as a joke. Still, the series was quite enjoyable and had some pretty clever episodes along the way. Waterman says he was friends with the creators of the immensely popular web series Homestar Runner, dropping a few homages to them along the way. It also took the odd step of including Easter eggs in the form of text that could be read only by pausing the video and zooming in. The series had about 10 episodes and a few shorts in its run.

The disappearance:

The seventh episode was uploaded in August of 2004, and the next installment wasn't uploaded until some years later. It doesn't appear on the Newgrounds site, perhaps because it wasn't as well-received by fans; the plot basically involved the cast walking through a white void and performing with Reel Big Fish, who agreed to cameo themselves (one of several notable guest appearances of bands or celebrities in Flash videos over the years). In 2006, the last Waterman submission arrived and the series went out in a blaze of glory: upgraded graphics and a full 20-minute spectacle.

Bryan Waterman, meanwhile, started up a small graphic design and animation company in Boston known simply as Waterman Studios; the website says he's been in this line of work for over a decade, though he credits the start of the cartoon in 2003 and its modest success with helping him choose a career. He has continued to produce a few cartoons and shorts, available under the "distractions" tab.

However, Waterman has always intended to make the series go out on an even grander note and he's been trying his damndest to produce a full-length movie. A few snippets have appeared, including this impressive sample of the first two minutes. He even got Leslie Nielsen on board as voice talent. In a summary of the production history, Waterman says he nearly bankrupted himself and his company trying to get the movie (originally tagged for a 2008 release) up and running; an independent fundraising effort also failed to get a good response.


Then in November of 2010, Leslie Nielsen died of complications from pneumonia. What this means is that The Waterman Movie, should it ever see the light of day, would be the actor's final piece of work. Waterman says there has been a resurgence of interest in the film as a result and, though a year has passed, he is hoping the movie can eventually be made. "I have lost too much over the years that this project has been in development to never see it come to fruition, and the only personal gain that I have any interest in obtaining from all of this would be the satisfaction of giving my friend Leslie Nielsen another opportunity to keep us laughing," Waterman concludes. With a sentiment like that, there's nothing to do but wish him the best of luck. And maybe send in a donation or two, of course.

4. College University


College University got its start in March of 2001 with a short introduction to the characters and their graduation from high school (later expanded into a flashback episode in the series). It followed a couple of everyman protagonists, Mike and Parks, and their adventures at the titular school. It incorporated quite a bit of random elements, including a washed up kung fu star who runs a campus coffee/hash bar and Optimus Prime as a supporting character. The episodes evolved from the basic college challenges to bizarre plots such as the premiere of a reality show pitting 1980s action movie heroes against each other.

CU was a little clunky in its early days, with fairly basic animation and some slow pacing. Once it found its niche, though, it was able to have the characters play against each other fairly well. The series had 11 full-length episodes (some of which were divided up into multiple parts due to size) and several shorts. It managed to bring in Macho Man Randy Savage, Cynthia Rothrock, and the alternative rock band O.A.R. for guest spots. They also invented the game KushLash, which seems to have a cult following.

The disappearance:

The posting pace started to slow down in later episodes, with the 10th one appearing in 2005 and the 11th one showing up just about two years later. The creators, Mike and Andy Parker, once had an indicator on the website to show where the process on the latest CU episode was in script, storyboards, animation, and sound work. They eventually cautioned that episodes would be a lengthy affair, especially given their work and personal lives.

For a time, the site was updated with shorter, CU-related content that was usually timed to coincide with holidays. Then, out of the blue, the CU page started including links to other series the Parkers were doing. They were cranking out episodes at a much faster pace, usually one a week to the point where they boasted nearly as many as CU, and hosting them on CollegeHumor.com. It seems they hit a point where they were able to go through the production pretty quickly, but lost interest in continuing the adventures of their original characters. These new series still got off in a more refined way than the brothers' first project, with better animation and a good sense of where they wanted to go. They included Clock Suckers, about an irresponsible group of time traveling youngsters; Player Haters, about the adventures of some role-playing game characters through cyberspace; and The Game Show, wherein Mike and Andy give the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment to video games.

"Cloooocck suckers!"

According to Mike Parker's LinkedIn page, he worked for HMSDesign for several years after his graduation in 2001, then struck out on his own by launching LowBrow Studios in 2006 to provide animation services for TV and the Internet; the page says he was also a freelance animator for CollegeHumor for the first four years the company was in existence. People going to collegeuniv.com, the former site for the series, brings you to the Lowbrow site. There, you can still find the CU episodes along with numerous other examples of their work. I'm not sure what happened to Andy; there are three employees listed besides Mike, and Andy isn't one of them.

3. Dubtoons


Dubbing over cartoons, games, movies, etc. etc. to humorous effect probably came out of the traditional dubs for foreign movies brought to new markets. The "lost in translation" effect along can be pretty funny, and it's been about 20 years since the people at Mystery Science Theater 3000 started adding their own humorous overlay to terrible B-movies; not a dub, per se, but similar. And though I haven't seen too much in the way of joking dubs aside from Spike TV's MXC, a re-dubbed and re-edited version of a crazy Japanese game show, it's a fun thing to try out and you can find a few of these projects on YouTube.

Dubtoons grew out of a series of YouTube videos known alternatively as "Boro Tintin" and "Teesside Tintin." The videos were created by Nick Donnelly and Andrew Stebulitis as a joke among friends, but it soon went viral. The basic premise is that they've dubbed The Adventures of Tintin, an animated cartoon following Herge's beloved comic book series, to make the titular character and everyone else who appears in the series a foul-mouthed, rude resident of Middlesbrough, England. The parody has a lot of references to this city that go over the head of the non-Boro viewers, and perhaps we're a little detached just on the basis of not ever meeting any of the more rough-and-tumble city residents. Overall, though, it's pretty clever the way the plots of the cartoon have been done over.



Donnelly and Stebulis later created Dubtoons.com to showcase the cartoons as well as a few Teesside dubs of more obscure toons such as Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds, although the comments on those usually complained that they wanted the focus kept on Teesside Tintin. It was a pretty basic site, aiming to get a bit of revenue from T-shirt and ringtone sales while also inviting user submissions (which were inevitably blasted as being inferior to the creators' work).

The disappearance:

Dubtoons.com disappeared quite some time ago. Going there now brings you to one of those stand-in pages asking if you'd like to buy the domain; the links that are available on the page, oddly enough, are to a bunch of porno sites.

According to this article from the Middlesborough Evening Gazette, Donnelly and Stebulitis formed the film company Moving Picture Productions in 2005, when they were about 24 years old. I remember discovering the Teesside Tintin cartoons in about 2006, so they were still cranking them out while looking to make legit films. It looks like they've made several movies and short videos since then, and the company is still around offering corporate services as well as wedding and social videos. No doubt they're keeping pretty busy.

Like Waterman, there seems to be just a bit of life left in Teesside Tintin. Though the original YouTube channel has disappeared Donnelly and Stebulitis, perhaps spurred by the news that The Adventures of Tintin is hitting theaters as a full-length animated film, have even continued making Teesside Tintin at a slower rate. They have a YouTube channel containing a small mix of older cartoons, presumably their favorites, as well as some brand new ones that went up in the spring; dozens of others seem to have gone missing, although a few have been salvaged and uploaded by fans. More recently, in late October, the boys dubbed a trailer for the movie.




2. Fensler Films

"You tol' me do things, I done runnin'..."

Another dub project, albeit one that got a much bigger following, the Fensler Films contribution to cyberspace may be better known as "Those G.I. Joe PSAs." Back in the mid-80's, a cartoon started airing based on the line of G.I. Joe action figures and the comic book it inspired. The episodes concluded with a brief public service announcement in which the Joes saved dull-witted kids from harm while imparting a bit of a lesson. These always concluded with the kids declaring, "Now we know!" and the Joe responding, "And knowing is half the battle."

Eric Fensler thought these were perfect fodder for re-imagining, and he was right. He cranked out a total of 25 PSAs in 2003, dubbed and recut so as to remove nearly all trace of a lesson and become obscure if hilarious parodies. The most popular one is undoubtedly "Pork Chop Sandwiches," a video in which the Joe shouts that line while rushing to help some kids who have set their kitchen on fire (imparting the fire safety advice, "Oh shit, get the fuck out of here!"). These managed to go viral even before YouTube came about, getting passed around via e-mail.



The disappearance:

This is kind of an odd case. The videos have all disappeared from their original website, but have survived and proliferated on YouTube and other sites.

After about a year, Hasbro sent a cease and desist order to Fensler. The letter declared that the PSAs were "unauthorized derivative works of the G.I. Joe cartoons." Furthermore, Hasbro said, the use of the G.I. Joe logo at the end could violate trademark laws "because it is likely to cause confusion or mistake as to Hasbro's authorization or sponsorship of or association with the derivative PSAs." Despite the fact that the number of people likely to be confused by Snow Job yelling at a few children to "get that kid off my ice, you little wankers" would be small indeed, Fensler acquiesced to the request, and the videos disappeared.

By that time, of course, they had been dispersed to countless inboxes and other websites and Hasbro had no way of shutting down all of those. Since they made their way to YouTube, they have had millions of views. According to KnowYourMeme.com, Fensler later put the videos back on his website, with or without Hasbro's authorization, but if so they have all disappeared again. In fact, Fensler's site now only includes a music video he worked on, a series of links to other sites, and his contact information.

Like a lot of his Internet humor comrades, Fensler now works in video production. He did a bit of work with Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, putting together promos for Sealab 2021 and becoming a writer on Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! Most recently, according to his IMDB page, he wrote a short called The Terrys.

1. Homestar Runner



Homestar Runner may well be the most triumphant example of a successful independent web series, and that makes it all the sadder that updates slowed to a crawl and eventually stopped altogether.

The series, created by Mike and Matt Chapman - "The Brothers Chaps" - of Georgia, grew out of their mockery of children's books. They decided to do a story about the Homestar Runner, "a terrific athlete," and impart a good lesson in his effort to win a grape-carrying contest against the villainous and dishonest Strong Bad. Their initial forays into expanding the story followed along the same lines, including a cartoon where Homestar and his best friend take on Strong Bad and his pals in a wrestling match to retrieve his stolen star.

Then the brothers made a discovery: the bad guy was a lot more fun. So began Strong Bad E-mails, wherein the Mexican-masked, boxing glove wearing villain started to answer fan e-mails and spin various scenarios and sketches around them. Around a core set of characters - including Homestar, a nearly indescribable yellow lackey called The Cheat, polar opposite Strong brothers Strong Mad and Strong Sad, the shady concession store owner Bubs, and so on - the site put out a hilarious short each week. Based on the e-mails alone, they were able to expand on the universe with new settings, in-jokes, and characters. If you've come across Trogdor the Burninator, a dragon with a beefy arm sticking out of the back of his neck, this is where he originated. Along with the e-mails, the site put together some longer cartoons, video games, and other content.

The occasional custom conversion van...

The series became a huge hit, to the point where if you sent in an e-mail it would be competing with thousands of others. There were no ads to be found on the site, but the brothers managed to get by. After all, they were virtually the only ones involved (Matt on the voices, Mike on the animation, and Mike's wife Missy Palmer supplying the voice for the one female character). There was an extensive store offering T-shirts, posters, DVDs, and for a time an obscure "Kick the Cheat" toy. I once calculated that if even a small fraction of the world's population knew of the cartoon and that tiny fraction bought a single piece of $20 merchandise each year on average, the brothers were probably making salaries equivalent to CEOs. That might be a bit of an overstatement, but I'm sure they've done quite well.

The disappearance:

Babies happened.

Palmer gave birth to a daughter in 2006, while Matt's wife Jackie gave birth to a one daughter in 2007 and another in 2009. It was right about this time that the updates to the site started to slow to a crawl. The site even lampshaded a seven-week hiatus following the birth of Mike and Palmer's daughter with a cartoon entitled Welcome Back. As the stops and starts got more frequent, the cartoons were just regular submissions no reference to the gaps in time. One short cartoon in March of 2010 came about after a full five months of inactivity on the site. By the looks of it, the fact that every single person involved in the cartoon was dealing with toddlers took a bit of a toll on daily operations.

It's all about you, isn't it? Prick.

The last e-mail Strong Bad answered was in August of 2009, after answering just three inquiries on his newest computer (a running gag being that Strong Bad always used ridiculously outdated computers, although his latest was more up to date). Some new content finally came around in December of 2010, some eight months after the last real update and over a year after a more significant update. Homestar Wiki has been keeping closer tabs on the site and a few stray appearances of the characters elsewhere (such as Strong Bad in a poker game released by Telltale Games), and if you count that things have still been fairly active. The most recent update to the wiki is an update provided to the site in September, detailing some aspects of a game the brothers were developing but gave up on.

There's also the success of the site to be considered; while the rest of the people on this list managed to build off the skills that went into their web series to create careers, the Chapmans were able to fully turn their series into a career. From a fairly early point, they were able to sustain themselves by merchandise sales. It would probably be too much to estimate that they had become millionaires, but odds are they've been able to live comfortably off the site and any continued revenue from the store. Still, we hope they can start to devote some more time to the site as their children grow older and bring the people of Free Country USA back to glory.

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