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Punchlines and pipelines: The animation behind Cyanide & Happiness

Tags: Animation Television Harmony Customer Story

As the animation industry barrels towards immersive, technologically driven experiences like virtual reality, it is especially impressive that a 2D animated web series about sardonic stick figures can command 7.3 million subscribers and over 1.8 billion views on Youtube — and that is exactly what “Cyanide & Happiness” has done. It all started as a webcomic in 2004 by Rob DenBleyker, Kris Wilson and Dave McElfatrick, who met on 2000s teen humour hub Newgrounds. From there, they formed Explosm Entertainment and began experimenting with turning their comedic comic into a cartoon in 2009.

Four years later, in early 2013, they aimed to launch a “Cyanide & Happiness” animated series. Working with a traditional TV network would have meant limiting their audience and creativity — so they decided to strike out on their own. “The Cyanide & Happiness Show” Kickstarter was launched and raised $770,309 from 14,242 backers, breaking the record for the most raised by an animation project on the crowdfunding platform. 


Having aired the first season on Youtube, “The Cyanide & Happiness Show” found a supportive home in NBCUniversal’s Seeso. Since then, the LOLs have been rolling in. For the third season, Explosm switched from Flash to Toon Boom Harmony Premium and began to bring its creative capabilities in-house, growing from two to seven animators and producing over two minutes of animation a week across the series and Youtube shorts.

We spoke with Explosm Entertainment animation director Bill Jones and director of business development Derek Miller about “The Cyanide & Happiness Show”, switching from Flash to Harmony and successfully creating content outside a traditional TV network paradigm.

After over a decade of “Cyanide & Happiness”, how do you keep people coming back?
BJ: The fans really respond to the main writers. We have been trying to push not only their unique voice and dark comedy, but also visual comedy through animation. There are certain characters that people love like Ted Bear, Señor Cleanfist and Shark Dad — if we can find characters like that, it keeps people coming back. It’s that world-building aspect that “The Simpsons” has done really well and we hope to do more as we develop our show.

Cyanide-Happiness-ToonBoom.pngSource: Explosm Entertainment.

What’s the difference between the “Cyanide & Happiness” series and the Youtube shorts?
BJ: With season three, the writers pushed for an overarching storyline for the entire season. We had very focused, full episodes, which was new for us. We are pushing towards more cohesive, full seasons of projects, but we’ll always have the weekly shorts that allow us to do whatever we want. That’s where we can get away with a lot of stuff.

What does your pipeline look like now?
BJ: Our pipeline goes like this: someone writes a script, we think it’s funny, it goes through. We typically try to figure out how long it is going to take, how many people it will take to make it, then it’ll go through voice acting. The director will make selections based on whichever one he or she likes the most, then that’ll go to our animatic artists.

explosm-animation-studio.jpgSource: Explosm Entertainment.

We’ll render that out as an MOV and pop it over to our animators working with Toon Boom Harmony. Between that, there’s also background artists working in Photoshop — we moved from Flash over to Photoshop backgrounds when we switched to Toon Boom [animation software]. And our character artist makes all the assets that we need for our turnarounds. The animators will get the MOV of the animatic and the assets, we’ll rig up the characters ourselves and then jump into production. The actual production of the show is done in Toon Boom Harmony Premium.

What are some of the benefits you have seen since switching from Flash to Harmony Premium?
BJ: We knew right away [Toon Boom Harmony’s] deformers, rigs and the library were worthwhile to use. Especially deformers — Flash doesn’t have anything like that and they are super important. Also, the ease of the library when we’re talking about using several different animators and being able to share rigs, props and scenes. This is hugely important, especially if it’s working with whatever server we’re using.

Explosm-ToonBoom-Cyanide-Happiness.pngSource: Explosm Entertainment.

Toon Boom software also does a much better job of handling and importing Photoshop backgrounds, and down-resing what you’re seeing. Flash has a tendency to just show you what you’re actually making, which is often far too high-res. Toon Boom gives you the GL view, which is handy for showing you a quick, dirty look. If you need to render it out and see what it looks like in full, you can do that and then switch back.

Importing MOVs also goes much more smoothly, which is important for our pipeline since we go from Flash to Toon Boom. We just export an MOV and bring that in, and that’s what we use for our storyboards and animatics. It’s really important that it can run all those things — quickly and smoothly. Those were the big pluses for moving from Flash to Toon Boom.

Where do you see “Cyanide & Happiness” growing as an animation moving forward?
BJ: We want to keep pushing the quality of “Cyanide and Happiness” so that it becomes the gold standard of free internet cartoons. We’re fans of cartoons and try to compete with the people we look up to.

Explosm-ToonBoom-Cyanide-Happiness2.pngSource: Explosm Entertainment.

Who do you guys look up to?
BJ: Most of us are fans of “Rick and Morty”. We look at that for inspiration for what they’re doing with Toon Boom. Personally, I’m a huge fan of the “Mickey Shorts” by Paul Rudish that are on Youtube. That’s Mercury Filmworks — they do great work. Every time I see a “Mickey Short”, I’ll frame through it and look at how they’re doing this in Toon Boom, what’re they clicking on to, how they are rigging up these characters, trying to reverse engineer certain parts. We’re cartoon watchers just as much as we are makers.

What advice would you give to an independent animator or studio hoping to emulate your success?
DM: It’s all about building a fanbase. The more people who know and care about you, and the better you treat them, the more flexibility and safety you have. Fans are the lifeblood of an independent business, and they're what outside parties are willing to pay you for. Everything else is secondary to fan support. To stay independent, you also have to hustle since the money you need to exist will not be handed to you.

What is your favourite episode of "The Cyanide & Happiness Show"? Let us know in the comments below!