The VRTM Story: An Animated Series About Time Travel

I’ve always tried to make a habit of documenting my projects and sharing as much as possible. My last company made this a part of its core philosopy. It was a great way of holding ourselves accountable, and helped us build a small audience of people to launch new projects and get feedback from.

After documenting stuff at need/want for four years, I wanted to try something different — an animated video series that would document the stuff I was working on.

Art style Exploration

For no reason other than I thought it was cool…. I went with pixel art. I went on and hired a couple of pixel artists to create some concept scenes to see how they looked.

The obvious setting was my apartment and desk. I took some pictures, sent them over, and waited excitedly to see the first concepts come back.

These are the first concepts. I didn’t hate them, but I just felt they were extremely awkward and sort of weird. I realized if I was going to animate myself, I may as well take a few liberties.

The Setup

I thought about how I could make the setting more interesting and honestly, I think I got carried away.

The idea was to set the series in the future. The future version of myself was about to launch a VR time travel company, and to get people excited about the launch, he decided to travel back through time and post videos to YouTube in the distant past (a.k.a. right now).

I thought that this would allow for some much more interesting content and narratives within the series. For example:

  1. Any $1 I made in the distant past, with compound interest, would be worth a lot more in the future. I planned on the animated, future version of myself getting insanely rich quite quickly.
  2. Perhaps companies that I launched in the past could have knock-on effects in the future. Maybe a slingshot is the new weapon of choice in the future, after all other weapons were banned for getting too powerful.
  3. I thought it would be fun to warn people about things that were going to happen in the future. If I was right and the things happened I could say “See! I told you;” if I was wrong, I could take credit for warning people. It was win-win!
  4. The world could have a really dark, cyberpunk feel to it.

I also liked that the entire thing could be positioned as a “product launch” which would fit within the narrative of the show. The associated website would be selling the benefits of time travel, as if that was the product it was selling.

The name I decided on was — Virtual Reality Time Machine.

I hired a new artist to mock some stuff up in this new direction and I loved what I got back.

This was the main desk scene where most of the episodes would be set. I cut between different zoom lengths in post to add a bit more variety to the shot.

There was another angle that showed the computer screen allowing me to demonstrate stuff.

This was the transition I used to cut between animated and real-life footage. All of the real-life footwage was set in the present day and filmed on a GoPro camera strapped to my head.

I was PUMPED at the direction that this was going in.

The animation

I had assumed that animating each episode was going to be a bit of a nightmare. My original plan was to send an animator the audio for each episode and get them to sync up the lips of the characters. Then, I’d piece the different clips together in Premiere Pro myself.

Lucily, my buddy Kevin turned me onto some software that basically automated this entire process. Adobe Character Animator lets you create custom character “rigs”, which are animated automatically from an audio source, and/or a webcam.

This would dramatically decrease the cost of each episode!

The Launch, and what I learned

The “launch” of this was fairly underwhelming. I didn’t have much planned outside of just emailing a few people about it and sharing it on Twitter. The feedback was mixed. Most people were confused by the positioning of the whole thing. “You’re launching a time machine…from the future? What?”.

It took a lot of explaining and time investment before the “AHHHHHH I get it now” moment, and most people didn’t get that far.

In hindsight, the positioning and complex narrative was a mistake. I thought it was funny and clever, and perhaps it was, but it was also confusing to the point that very few people really understood what it was all about.

I hoped that the content in each video would be interesting enough for people to get over the “WTF is this?” question, but that didn’t seem to be the case either. I have a newfound respect for anyone who can make a compelling video…it’s a very different skillset to writing!

Ultimately, after making a few more videos, I decided to scrap the project and repurpose all of the content into a more traditional blog format (which is why this blog exists).

Interestingly, the first day that this blog went live…. the post about starting an automated business for some friends got more traffic than the same Virtual Reality Time Machine video got in three months!

I think it’s safe to say that it wasn’t the content that was the issue — it was the delivery.

This project was still super fun to work on and I don’t regret it for a second. I still may use the charecter rigs for the occasional video, but for the type of content I’m going to be making, a format like this one seems much better. It takes much less time to create, and takes much less time to consume.

If you were one of the few people who checked out VRTM when it launched and subscribed, THANK YOU!

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