It took a year for Zack Keller and Ed Skudder to make a 75-minute movie. For animation, ordinarily an arduously slow and complex process, they made good time.
Keller and Skudder did this with a little more than a dozen people on their team. About half of those people worked as animators, churning out 50 seconds of action per person, per week. It was a big job, but they had something working to their advantage.
"It helps that they're stick figures," Skudder says of the main characters in Dick Figures: The Movie, which comes out today on iTunes, Amazon and Yektra, with other platforms to follow.
Keller and Skudder are the co-creators of the web series where the characters originated, Dick Figures, which centers around the misadventures of friends Red and Blue. It's packed with pop culture references and surreal, sometimes bawdy, humor. With each episode a fraction of the length of a Looney Tunes short, it's the kind of bite-sized animated comedy that's easy to digest when you're on computer or smartphone. Season five of Dick Figures recently launched on YouTube, by way of Mondo Media, with video-game antics, fro-yo drama and references to summer blockbuster Pacific Rim.
Dick Figures was a quickly assembled series pitch that has become a runaway hit in the web animation world. It was nominated for an Annie, the prestigious animation awards, alongside shows produced by Disney, DreamWorks, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. It didn't win, but the nomination alone was a big feat for a small show, which is made inside Hollywood's Six Point Harness studio.
It's common for Dick Figures episodes to rack up more than a million YouTube views. These aren't empty views, either. The series has some serious fans. One of those fans stopped by the studio to show the team their characters tattooed onto his ankles. "We were all touching it," Skudder says, still in awe of that moment.
Maybe the bulk of fans aren't quite as hard-core, but they certainly show their love. Dick Figures has done pretty well in the merchandise department, selling everything from T-shirts to iPhone cases. They've sold "tens of thousands" of soundtracks, according to Keller. It's become a model of monetizing entertainment in the 21st century. "It's now, literally, it's own economy, and it only exists online," Keller says.
That they now have a movie entering the Dick Figures canon is a big step forward for web-based entertainment.
Dick Figures is purely an Internet phenomenon. It has no ties to television. Keller and Skudder have never done the big San Diego Comic-Con pitch, as so many other animated series do. They have no marketing budget. Even though they're distributed by Mondo Media, a big player in the web animation game, it's still largely a DIY effort. So, when it came time to make Dick Figures: The Movie, Keller and Skudder decided to keep the film where it belonged, online.
In summer 2012, they raised more than $313,000 on Kickstarter. At the time, that was a record amount for an animation project using the crowdfunding platform.
Still, turning a web series into a full-blown film has its challenges. They had to be more ambitious with the art, as well as more cautious. They had to beef up the story, too. "We made it about Red and Blue's friendship," Keller says. "It has a lot more depth of character."
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Keller and Scudder turned a web series into a movie fit for a big screen, keeping in mind that it could magnify any flaws, but fans most likely won't be watching this film the traditional way. There won't actually be a theatrical run, although there might be a few screenings in the future. "We may as well stay online, where all of our fans are," Keller says.
With the online release for Dick Figures: The Movie, Keller and Scudder are doing more than getting the movie to their international fan base as easily as possible. Skudder says, "As independent filmmakers, we're hoping it does well just so that other people can do this."
See also: More L.A. Weekly film coverage