Story by Ian Yee and Julien Chen
Photos by Julien Chen
IT’S not JinnyBoyTV, Namewee or even the guys behind Upin & Ipin. The first Malaysian YouTube channel set to reach a million subscribers is a relatively unknown one-man show called CartoonHooligans, and it is probably one of the most unlikely success stories you’ll ever hear.
The channel – which has 996,000 subscribers at the time of writing – was started by Bram Lee, a cartoonist from Sungai Petani, Kedah, frustrated by the creatively unrewarding life of a freelance 3D animator.
“Everything was about what the client wanted,” he told R.AGE. “I needed an outlet where I could create the kind of work I wanted to do.”
And the stuff he wants to do is what he calls “animated parody videos” – short cartoon videos where different comic universes are mashed together. Example: his most successful video so far is Dragon Ball Z VS Marvel Superheroes, which has been viewed an incredible 38 million times so far.
The animation on most of Lee’s videos is impressive, but it’s nothing spectacular. And the sense of humour? Let’s just say it’s an acquired taste. Lie, seriously, he made an actual trilogy on what happens when The Hulk rips his pants. But hey, we’ve all thought about it, right? Banner can’t possibly be wearing super-stretchy pants all day, every day.
It’s probably that kind of quirky, geeky material that gives Cartoon Hooligans its mass appeal, even though Lee almost called it quits once after receiving one too many negative comments about his videos’ oddball adult humour.
We met Lee at the Google Malaysia office, where he was sitting awkwardly in a corner, fiddling with his phone.
“You’ll have to fix my grammar,” he said with a sheepish laugh. “My English isn’t that good.”
We started talking about his record-breaking subscriber base, and even he can’t quite believe what he has achieved. “My dream was to get a million subscribers, but I never thought I would actually achieve it in two years!”
What’s even harder to believe is that he still handles his channel pretty much on his own. Here, he tells R.AGE all about his remarkable story.
You have over 150 million video views on YouTube, and yet there’s so little info about you online! Tell us a bit more about your background.
I’m from Sungai Petani, but I moved to Kuala Lumpur about 10 years ago. I really loved comics and cartoons on TV. That was the only entertainment at that time.
When I was about 15, I won a competition organised by Gempak (a comic magazine), and the prize included a chance to be a freelance artist with them. But I was only 15 at the time, so the following year, I moved to KL because I really wanted to try my luck as a comic artist.
What happened after that?
I received a RM50,000 scholarship from a design academy after that, but the total cost of the course was around RM55,000, so I had to do freelance design work to pay for the rest of my fees and living expenses. I remember being barred from entering class once because I didn’t have enough money to pay the fees (laughs)! It took me a week to chase all my clients to pay me so I could attend class again. After I graduated, I worked at a computer graphics company. Then I started a gaming company with my friends, but that didn’t work out, so I became a freelance 3D artist.
For those who might not know what it is you do, can you explain what CartoonHooligans is about?
CartoonHooligans is a YouTube channel I created to post animated parody videos, like superhero mash-ups. I started it as an escape from my life as a freelance 3D artist because my clients had total control over my work and I really didn’t like that as an artist. I wanted to explore different art styles, try crazy jokes and basically have a lot of fun. I wanted to do things other channels might not dare to do, like more adult humour, or mashing up different characters. Most cartoon channels only do kids’ stuff, like singalongs.
What are the demographics of your audience?
My audiences are mostly from the United States, Britain, Mexico, Brazil and France. The age group is around 18 to 35, mostly male. I think it’s more popular among guys because the channel has a lot of adult humour based on superheroes, and I think superheroes appeal more to guys.
Even though you have almost a million subscribers, there are only 36 videos on your channel…
I spend a lot of time on every video. Most of them take around two to four weeks to complete, and videos with fight scenes take around two months! So I usually animate from day to night, every day to make sure everything looks good. I think the quality of the videos is why so many have subscribed to my channel.
You have such a huge platform now. Do you still do everything by yourself?
Yes, I do almost everything myself, from writing the story, doing the storyboard, rough designs and everything. The only part I would hire another artist to help with is inking, which is very time consuming. If it’s a big project, I’ll hire someone to help with that.
CartoonHooligans is now a full-time job for you. How do you make money out of it?
It’s mostly from the view count, and the YouTube ad revenue I get based on that. Sometimes I get sponsorships from certain brands, and I give them shout outs at the end of my videos, but I never give them creative control over the videos themselves. I only mention them at the end of my videos.
A lot of YouTubers now are giving their clients a say in their content. What do you think about that?
It’s totally their choice. I think the audience can sense it from miles away if you put a brand in your video, but it all depends on how the YouTubers want to interact with their audience. If the audience is okay with it, then it’s good for them. Personally, I wouldn’t do it.
Do you have any advice for YouTubers who’re trying to grow their subscriber bases?
You need to have a strategy. For example, if you’re a singer, you might want to do cover songs first, before you introduce your audiences to your original songs. That’s what I’m doing with CartoonHooligans. I have my parody videos first, to build an audience, and later on, I will slowly introduce them to my original animated series or characters.
Most YouTubers find that it helps to make themselves the “face” of their channels, but you’re almost invisible on CartoonHooligans. Any plans to change that?
I think I would have to do that someday. I would probably do some videos on how I create my animations. I guess I’ll have to show my face then!
Are you nervous about it?
Oh, I’m super nervous about it (laughs)! I’d rather just be the guy creating the art.