If you think about most of the videos that qualify as “YouTube hits,” the majority of them have certain keywords in common: “gimmick”, “funny”, “DIY”. But none of those keywords apply to Afterworld, which is currently the number three Most Subscribed To director’s channel on YouTube. Considering that slots 1 and 2 are occupied by the BBC and CBS, the computer-animated apocalypse series is almost certainly the most watched narrative drama being produced for the web right now.
So why is Afterworld so successful? The fact that there’s nothing else like it currently on the web has to be part of the appeal. The stilted, dissolve-heavy animation style (produced through a combination of Poser and AfterEffects) recalls early-’90s Japanimation-meets-Second Life. The story (which follows Russell, a 30-ish white guy who wakes up one morning to discover that 99 percent of the Earth’s population has been wiped off the planet) seems to be original––it’s not in any way spoofy or even self-reflexive.
The storytelling style breaks the old “show don’t tell” film school rule pretty drastically––the soundtrack is virtually wall-to-wall narration, and as the animation style precludes the characters from engaging in any serious movement or action, most episodes play like spoken word with illustrations.
There are eight episodes of Afterworld currently on YouTube, and if you watch them back-to-back, what’s most striking is the series’ complete lack of humor. This is not X Files-style sci-fi, with banter and quips; nor does it come from the Buffy school of action-packed, supernatural mythology delivered with a major wink. Russell spends at least half the series ruminating in total sincerity on big issues like evil and loneliness (typical revelation: “The real villain is nothing more than human nature!”), whilst staring mournfully off to the left of the screen, his glasses catching the reflection of campfire or raindrops.
In willful defiance of the tropes laid out both by contemporary genres and pretty much every other video on YouTube, the creators of Afterworld have dared to make a web series seemingly devoid of irony. In this cultural climate, that kind of gamble is incredibly brave.
Afterworld is featured on and funded by Bud.tv, Anheuser Busch’s not exactly thriving online advertainment video portal, where it stands out amidst more conventional, fratboy-tastic content, such as the campy makeover show, What Girls Want.
Super-straight faced sci-fi doesn’t immediately come to mind as a natural fit for such a party-centric brand, but the counter-programming has worked like gangbusters–the series’ YouTube success is the one bright spot on Bud.Tv’s otherwise dismal track record.
According to Afterworld‘s website, the series is intended as “a fully-immersive, interactive science fiction series…A new kind of computer-animated entertainment that goes deeper, blending video games, graphic novels and anime into one dynamic experience.”
I’m not sure what that means; are users already helping to determine the course of the narrative, or will their input be required at some point in the future? The current website doesn’t offer any additional information, and I was unable to view the Afterworld page at its corporate home (Bud.Tv’s age check system did not accept my assurances that I am over 21). In a way, it doesn’t matter––the people have already spoken through their subscriptions. Whether or not other content creators will listen remains to be seen.