Dustrunners Prehistory

MCMFriday, May 2, 2003
This post is from a version of my blog with inconsistent timestamps: evidently I was very good at defining 'modified' dates, but not 'created' dates. As such, I can't be sure when the content was actually written. Sorry!

The best way to explain where we are today is to explain where we've been the past three years. This is, in many ways, the exact opposite of what reason tells me I should do with the show... but at the same time, it's a necessary first step towards our new paradigm.

This is not going to be about how Dustrunners came about, or why we picked this character or name or place, or why this person was hired or that person fired. This is a speaking-points-only overview of how not to make an animated series, with what I hope will be insights into where we go from here.

When we started Dustrunners, I didn't really want to be too involved. Honestly, I'd had enough of that kind of thing, and I thought if I set it off on the right foot, whatever group of people took it over wouldn't need me anymore. I really suck at that kind of thing, of course, and I ended up directing every little detail. Irony point #1: a year later, I thought my big mistake was being too involved in everything.

First step when making a series is to get characters, get a concept, get it going. So we got a bunch of designs based on rough character ideas, and sketched out the world of 2036 (as it was back then) in enough detail to get collaborators interested. Once things got rolling, we set up a company called The Dustrunners Project and dumped great gobs of money into it. We paid for our designs, we paid for our ships, and we were humming along brilliantly.

After trying to pitch the show to a few people, it became obvious to us that TV people were not interested in what was, in our minds, a very anime-inspired sci-fi show. The comment that still sticks with me is: "nobody likes science fiction, no one likes animation, and adults have better things to watch than this." It may be true that overall, adults have better things to watch than Dustrunners, but we were mainly thinking of our demographic, the 18-30 year old males who loved Macross, Appleseed and Gundam ... and so we decided to go where they lived directly...

So we were going to distribute on the web. I mean, it was a great idea at the time. Dotcoms were starting to fade, but it wasn't clear yet that it was a sure thing, and there was a chance enough people had high-speed internet and could deal with full 22-minute episodes online, right? (Incidentally, Irony point #2 right there). Since most of our audience was not-so-much Windows and not-so-much Mac, we had to find a format that could work on Linux. So we settled on 3ivx, which really kicks ass in terms of compression and compatibility. Downside was that all the Mac and Windows users had a hell of a time playing the videos (ha! comedy!)

We were going to make money by advertising. Banner ads, sure, but the best bet we had was the fact that our video was freely online and every time you watched an episode, you would sit through a new Jetta commercial (not necessarily, but for the sake of argument). The time it'd take people to hack out the commercials and re-encode the files for Gnutella wouldn't be worth the pain of watching them in the first place. More than that, we were actively targeting advertisers who made ads that our demographic really liked. There were sites at the time where you would actually actively try and watch Budweiser commercials, so assuming we did our homework correctly, we could make advertising good. That was a major effort.

Around this time, sensing our business was doing well (we had a few episodes written, one storyboard finished and a trailer almost out the door), we took out a loan to keep the cashflow going and pay for extra expenses one develops in the process of making an animated series from scratch. Loans, it turns out, are not a good idea, no matter how kick-ass your ideas are.

The real problem was that, during this time, I was spending less and less time watching the show's detailed progress, and working more on hacking together a really neat game and website for the show (along with Spin, who incidentally is the co-creator and co-writer of Dustrunners). I had decided sometime during the trailer's development that it was better to NOT be hands-on all the time, because it made the professional artists we were working with uncomfortable, and they really needed the creative space to be their own people.

Now imagine, if you can, the following: we have to impress advertisers of our creative and technical talents, and our ability to get the job done. Our loans, while not depleted, are starting to demand more attention than I can devote, given my complete obsession with PHP. And the trailer, which had been under development for a month, comes back in finished-product state completely different than the storyboard it was based on. Oh yes, my friends, there was a minor panic there.

Getting hold of my most trusted advisors, I tried to perform damage control. We took our meagre knowledge of 3D programs and worked for three days straight, night and day, and assembled the trailer many of you have seen ("Coming this fall!"... no, really!). Spin and I, the chief architects of that trailer, really had no idea how to animate before that stint (in a practical sense), so that was a very exciting adventure. We sent it off for sound and music editing, and relaxed. It debuted on the web and I think was well-received. We were on our way to success.

Aaaaaaaand then things really started to fall apart. We'd done voice recording for the first episode, and had everything ramped up in terms of production there. 3D models were distributed to animators who would sign out scenes and return them completed, the finished product was almost automatically assembled based on these scenes and a script I'd written, and we were getting the sound work for the episodes worked out when something terrible happened.


Advertisers were promised an episode, our user base (quite large at this point) were waiting for an episode, and our loans were about to expire, and I had to either get a job to pay for the show's survival (which, truthfully, would have meant dragging it out longer), or crash-and-burn. We needed that episode out, and the unthinkable happened: not one of the animators hired to animate the episode did a thing. My blinders-to-the-world approach made me scramble so fast on the trailer than I didn't notice the bigger iceberg ahead, and we crashed head-on into it, trashing any hope we had of surviving another month.

I must admit, around this time I was so totally demoralized by the whole process that I didn't really want to touch Dustrunners anymore, because I suspected I would probably be better off giving the package to a real production house and letting them make it work. So after a bit of negotiation, we had a deal to develop the show for TV, the trick being that we needed to tone down the website and make it more of a marketing tool. So we had an all-stop on development, and, given the timeline we were expecting, we tried our best to keep the community interested while the show was prepped for broadcast.

Not sure how it works in other countries, but in Canada you get one good window to get a show on TV, and that first year, we missed it. The upside? We got a year to prepare to blow people away, which was probably a good thing. Dustrunners for the web was a lot more margins-oriented than Dustrunners for TV, and a lot of re-work had to be done. The downside? We couldn't explain to our user base what was going on with any detail, we had to wait a year to see anything come of Dustrunners, and the loan from the show now fell on me, personally, and I had to find a new job for a year to pay for it and my family. But hey, it was only a year, right?

Once or twice during that time, the idea came up to bring back the website properly, and I set things going again... but in the end, we didn't have the proper content backing to keep it alive, and the lack of a definite future made feel guilty. It was like keeping a critically-ill patient alive even though you knew nothing would come of it.

The next cycle came, and we were shown off all around the world. Our production partners on the show did a great job promoting us, and I'm sure we would have gone somewhere, had it not been for one unfortunate fact: the Canadian Television Fund was butchered this year. Most products will lose their funding, which means they won't be made, and Dustrunners would likely have been one of those casualties.

In the end, the market for Dustrunners on TV is not that great. At least, not the way it should be made. But I made a promise to my wife on the very first day I thought of Dustrunners (fun fact: the night they landed the satellite on Eros)... I would see Dustrunners through to the very end... I would not abandon the idea midway.

So here we are. Another chapter in the Dustrunners saga. I don't know where we're going this time around, but I do know I won't make the same mistakes. I'll find new ones this time.

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