Animator Michael Cusack moves from viral shorts into longer-form
Despite a channel that boasts over 38.8 million views, animator Michael Cusack – creator of series Yolo and Damo and Darren – says he’s never really made much money off of YouTube. What the platform has given him, however, is a leg-up into an enviable animation career.
Yolo, a 2-minute parody of girls’ nights out, went viral when Cusack first uploaded it back in 2012. It currently has more than 8 million views, and caught the eye of Rick & Morty co-creator Justin Roiland. He’d go on to approach Cusack to create an April Fools special for the Adult Swim series.
The resulting short, Bushland Adventures, sees Rick and Morty take a roadtrip from Wollongong (where Cusack is from) to Bendigo. The animator had complete freedom to take the episode where he wanted.
“It was this strange dream job, where I was handed this thing where I could pretty much just do anything. It was very, very creatively freeing. That’s what Adult Swim is great at; they pride themselves on looking after creators and giving them a lot of creative control and freedom,” Cusack tells IF.
Since then, Cusack’s maintained a relationship with Adult Swim, with whom he is creating an Australian project in partnership with Princess Pictures. He’s also struck another deal with 20th Century Fox.
With Princess he also crafted Koala Man, commissioned as part of Screen Australia and the ABC’s Fresh Blood initiative. The project is among the those shortlisted for this year’s AACTA Award for Best Online Series. It follows a divorced dad who works for a council by day but at night turns into a koala mask-wearing superhero on a mission to rid the streets of petty crime.
Cusack will appear in conversation with Jan Fran this evening as part of AACTA’s Shorts + Web Fest in Sydney, discussing his career and the world of adult animation. The nominees for the shorts and online awards will be announced tomorrow night.
At 18, Cusack wanted to be a filmmaker in the vein of Quentin Tarantino or Kevin Smith. However, he got into animation in part because live-action was expensive and took a long-time to come to fruition. Animation married his love of filmmaking with a love of drawing – he’d loved making flipbooks growing up – and allowed him to more quickly pump out “little stories and visions.”
In this way he says his current career has developed somewhat “by accident”. He’s largely self-taught and made Yolo when he was just 22 while broke and working in hospitality. The first episode of Damo and Darren, ‘Ciggy Butt Brain’, he made for fun and to give himself a “break” while crafting Yolo 2. He thought no one would like it, and it wouldn’t get any traction – it’s currently his most popular video with 8.2 million views.
For Cusack, each new work has snowballed into something else, but there was never a grand plan when he started out.
“There wasn’t much thought behind it… 2010-2014 was the golden era online for animations uploaded by creators and I just wanted to be a part of that. I wasn’t really trying to build an audience or thinking like that. I just wanted to make cartoons.”
Cusack’s main advice to other young animators and creatives is to get out there and make stuff. Having a great idea is one thing; work ethic and execution is another.
“Anyone can sit around and dream and think they’re geniuses; that’s great and all. But you’re really got to put in discipline and work; get up early and just work on your craft.”
In that regard, he encourages eschewing traditional pathways. Instead, he suggests building a profile online and developing ideas that way, testing what strikes a chord and what doesn’t. However, if he was starting out now, he says he’d be uploading videos to Instagram, not YouTube, as it currently has more eyeballs.
“Watch YouTube tutorials about animation or filmmaking, or whatever the medium is you want to use to get across your ideas. Then just put stuff online and try to build an audience for it. If it fails, don’t worry. Try again. Keep trying, keep networking. I would say forget the college stuff; I think that’s an old dead thing.”
As for his own career, he’s relishing the opportunity to move beyond viral shorts into longer-form storytelling. His focus going forward is on crafting content for the US streaming services.
“It’s one thing to make viral cartoons. It’s another to make TV shows that Baby Boomers are going to watch, and that people are going to sit around and watch on a couch. They need characters to latch onto and stories to get invested in. So that’s what I’m getting into now.”
For further information on this year’s AACTA Shorts + Web Fest and to register your attendance visit www.aacta.org/whats-on