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The 100% True Story of How I Taught Myself How to Animate So I Could Launch A Web Series

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAbout five years ago I was at a crossroads.

I’m a writer, lucky enough to have sold a few shows. One to a cable network, a few others to production companies. Unluckily, I’ve never had a show actually go into production. It paid the bills, more or less, but was incredibly creatively frustrating.

Chilltown, the show I sold to a network, was always special. I’m from the Bronx, grew up in and around hip-hop culture and felt it was frequently misrepresented. I wanted to do a show that my friends and I could relate to. Initially, I self-published Chilltown as a comic book (working with a great artist), got some press and was able to sell it as a series.

After three long years in development hell, the rights reverted back to me. It was one of the biggest let downs of my life.

So there I was. No representation (my manager/agent had left the business), no job, nada. Yet I had the unswerving conviction, based on essentially nothing, that people would like Chilltown.

I knew I couldn’t afford to farm it out to a production company (animation is wildly expensive) and crowdsourcing didn’t really exist back then, so I decided to do it guerrilla style. On the web. Solo. There was just one teensy caveat: I didn’t know how to animate. In fact, I hadn’t drawn anything since middle school.

I took a year and adapted Chilltown for the web while I taught myself the basics. Lived off my savings, a couple of loans from the bank of mom & dad and some temp jobs.

Every day, I practiced using downloaded tutorials and books, plus model sheets, done while I was at the network, as a guide. By the end of the year, I had written Season One as well as a second series and felt ready to start.

I hired actors I knew and cold-contacted comedians I found online. Everyone worked for free or a nominal fee. It was a real labor of love.

I spent the second year drawing. It was nerve-wracking because I had no idea if anything would ultimately work. I ended up completing over 400 pieces of background art and 200 characters. I was ready to animate.

The day I composited background art with the characters and got them to move was heady. It was the first time I realized: ok, I can do this. I spent nearly four months animating Episode 1. Making mistakes, starting over, making more mistakes and finally getting the hang of it.

In all, it took about five years to complete 140 minutes of animation from beginning to end: Seasons One of Chilltown and The Danger Squad (the second series; launching in 2014) as well as a bi-weekly Chilltown spin-off, The Lele Show (an animated parody of dating advice shows, mostly gleaned from my own sad experiences with online dating.) That included taking 14 months off when my mom got very sick and, ultimately died.

ChilltownTV

So, was it worth it? It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had. Turns out I love animating.  But then I found myself at a second crossroads: actually launching the series.

After spending so much time learning how animate and actually completing everything, you’d think I’d spend a lot of time figuring out a game plan. Uh, not exactly. Partly because I felt like I just had to get it out there launching was, in some ways, conquering my fear of After All This Time Would People Like It?  And partly because I naively didn’t think I needed a plan.  I had no clue about the realities of marketing anything.  Ok, maybe I wasn’t completely clueless.  Just incredibly inexperienced.

Exhibit A: Two weeks before my official launch, Nov. 14, 2012, I hired a publicist for one month.  Yes, this occurred to me only two weeks before launching.  The former press person of an ex-boyfriend (don’t all bad stories seem to start there), she had a lot of experience promoting hip-hop, or so I thought. She agreed to do it for an admittedly low price, claiming, after we met, that she’d get Chilltown over 100,000 views in a month, which I absolutely did not believe.  But she did have some connections to tastemakers (she had been listed in Billboard magazine as someone to follow on twitter and had credentials) so I figured it would be worth it and had visions of Chilltown articles splashed all over the media dancing in my brain.

It was almost a total wash.  The only person she connected me with was another animator who was looking for a job.  From me!  I say “almost” because in some ways it was an important step.  She was the first person in the business who saw the show.  And she genuinely liked it.  Which really gave me confidence; something I sorely needed after being holed away working for so long.  It also taught me how to be more discerning about publicists (duh) and I haven’t hired another one yet.  But most importantly, it made me realize I have to build a fan base from the ground up.

So I started promoting the show myself and jumped into the fray a thousand percent.  A friend recommended a guy who had marketing experience who gave me some pointers.  I joined Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram.  I already was on Facebook and Twitter.  Thus, the blitz began.  Posting about the show, meeting people, reaching out, stumbling a lot–I mean A LOT–but slowly moving forward.  I even had someone helping me for a while who was wonderful.  Stacey posted on social media about episodes and even went with me to an interview and screening, handing out fliers and was an all-around cheerleader.

It has not been easy. But it’s also been thrilling.  A real roller coaster ride.

At one point, I likened it to the Kübler-Ross stages of grief, Web Series style:

• Denial (“All I have to do is put my show up on YouTube and it’ll instantly go viral!”)

• Anger (“When they said, ‘Just a dollar and a dream!’ I didn’t realize they were referring to what my actual compensation would be.”)

• Bargaining (“Yes, I will appear on your 30 minute podcast, Xylophones & Madrigals, and agree to a 45 minute phone ‘pre-interview’ where you grill me about what I’m gonna say on the show just so I can promote my hip-hop oriented web series to an audience of one: the host of Xylophones & Madrigals.”)

• Depression (“I was just on Xylophones & Madrigals.”)

• Acceptance (“Hi, I’m writing to book my second appearance on Xyophones & Madrigals.”)

Then there’s the thrilling: I’m starting to build a real fan base. Small, but real. ABCNews/Univision listed us as one of “Five Web Series That Should Be On Your Radar” and Tubefilter called us a “Show to Watch.”  Two small urban on-dial radio stations, Rhythm 105.9FM in Yuba City, California and the Just Wake Up Morning Show on WRN Radio in Bethlehem, PA are carrying a short comedic entertainment segment I write and perform as Lele (from The Lele Show.) Plus, I was elated when I received close to 40,000 views (between YouTube and Blip) on one of the latest episodes.  I even started a weekly blog called Adventures of a Web Series Newbie (which has been picked up by TVWriter.net) where I detail everything that’s going on and, yes, occasionally rant.  This journey is decidedly not for the weak.

So I’m thinking of next steps.  Planning on doing a re-launch and using the knowledge I’ve gained these past months to really bring it up a notch.  And hoping to get representation.  Wish me luck!

About Leesa Dean

Born and raised in the Bronx, Leesa Dean attended Wesleyan University and has a BFA. Her underground comic book, Chilltown (Xeric Award winner for Best Indy Book), has been featured in The Source, Spin & Vibe Magazines as well as numerous national newspapers and radio. Primarily a writer, she has sold a number of television scripts—including ones to HBO producers Two Oceans Entertainment and BET—but was always "in development." Frustrated, she taught herself how to animate five years ago and, solo guerilla-style, completed three full series: Chilltown, The Danger Squad (debuting 2014) and Lele's Ratchet Advice Show. Since launching, Chilltown has been named one of “Five Web Series That Should Be on Your Radar” by ABCNews/Univision and a “Show to Watch” by Tubefilter. The Lele character (whom she writes and voices) does the weekly 60 Second Wrap Up, a comedic entertainment report, on urban radio station Rhythm 105.9fm.