How ‘Pencilmation’ Became a YouTube Sensation

When Ross Bollinger posted a video of an animated stick figure online in 2004, YouTube didn’t exist and the 16-year-old artist didn’t envision a web show.

Today, Mr. Bollinger’s stick figure—who is named Pencilmate and has Curious George’s mischievous energy—is the star of a YouTube series with 19 million subscribers. The “Pencilmation” channel on YouTube has more subscribers than the Pixar (6.24 million) and Walt Disney Animation Studios (4.83 million) channels combined. YouTube doesn’t publish animation-channel audience tallies, but

Ramin Zahed,

editor in chief of Animation Magazine, says he believes “Pencilmation” is the platform’s most popular animated series. When YouTube announced the creators with the most views globally in 2019—its most recent such figures—“Pencilmation” was third, with 2.8 billion.

Ross Bollinger didn’t aim to create a series that became a YouTube hit. ‘I just make things and hope that they will find an audience,’ he said.


Photo:

Emily Soto

Mr. Bollinger, now a 33-year-old dad in Montclair, N.J., hasn’t tried to build an audience beyond YouTube. He barely has 200

Twitter

followers and only recently hired a publicist. He and the show are supported almost entirely by ads on YouTube. “I just make things and hope that they will find an audience,” he says.

“Pencilmation” has done little to pursue sponsorships but a representative says licensing and distribution deals are a priority for 2021. Mr. Bollinger says the series’s main channel had roughly 2.4 billion streams in 2020, but wouldn’t say how much money he made last year. Industry analysts say ad revenue on YouTube varies, and estimate that with those numbers, “Pencilmation” grossed between $4.8 and $10 million in 2020, with YouTube keeping 45%.

Every week “Pencilmation” releases two episodes, each about 3 minutes long. Mr. Bollinger creates the series with more than 100 writers, animators and storyboard artists around the world, from Canada and Australia to the U.K., the Philippines, Mexico and Brazil. They are independent contractors and not employees. Mr. Bollinger says that is because “YouTube in itself is a pretty unstable environment for a business to exist in, in the sense that everything is fluctuating all the time.”

Like many web-based shows with a broad reach, “Pencilmation” is largely unknown to all but its followers. A number of professional animators contacted for this article had never heard of it. Rachel Van Nes, a Los Angeles writer who works on “Pencilmation,” says she didn’t know about the series until a friend began working on it.

That is often the case for web-based animated series, Mr. Zahed says. “These shows rarely get to become widely known outside their YouTube community unless they get big merchandising and promotional campaigns put behind them,” he says. “However, we have seen a lot of interest in these online brands in recent years because of the overall appetite for animation across the board.”

The first “Pencilmation” video went viral in 2004 but the second went nowhere, Mr. Bollinger says. He stuck to a simple format—a stick figure with no dialogue—because he was still a teenager and lacked the resources to do anything fancier. He shelved the character until he was in college at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and turned him into a series for his senior project. A stick figure made the task of illustrating an entire series manageable.

As “Pencilmation” became popular, Mr. Bollinger realized that not having dialogue would allow the series to travel without a language barrier, like Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, and others. A representative for “Pencilmation” said the U.S., Brazil and India are its biggest markets, each representing about 10% of the audience.

“I like to watch it every day,” says Zacai Chibwe, a 6-year-old in Livingstone, Zambia, of “Pencilmation.” Zacai speaks English and is a fan of “Cars” and “PAW Patrol.” His mother, Mwansa Chibwe, says she doesn’t think the absence of dialogue is what hooked her son on “Pencilmation.” “It’s just a good show,” she says. “When something’s funny, it’s just funny. It’s just done really well.”

Mr. Bollinger says he tries to work with the same artists as often as possible. “I really strongly believe that a creative product is not just about saying, ‘I want this guy, this guy and this guy to get together and make me this,’” he says. “There’s kind of an incubation process where you have the same group of creative people working together for a long period of time. And they kind of grow together and they sort of mature together.”

Among his collaborators is Brett May, who lives in Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory, Ontario, where he grew up animating cartoons. His parents worried that he wouldn’t find a job in the arts but now Mr. May says he animates roughly five episodes a year. Each requires drawing about 1,400 still images and takes three months to complete, he estimates.

“People from where I live don’t really get into animation,” Mr. May says. “I started with stick figures and now I’m doing stick figures for a living and it feels really good.”

For more than a year, Mr. Bollinger has been developing an animated series with some “Pencilmation” collaborators, including his wife, Ama, and Ms. Van Nes. It is called “Gil Next Door” and follows two brothers—a frog and a tadpole—who live in a gritty 1970s version of New York for pets. Mr. Bollinger is bankrolling the first 10 episodes and plans to shop the series to other streaming platforms in hopes of becoming less reliant on YouTube and ad revenue. “Gil Next Door” has dialogue—even if that means it might not travel as seamlessly as “Pencilmation.” “That’s just a creative desire and what I would like to explore,” he says.

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