By Leesa Dean
About 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 July) as well as a weekly Chilltown spin-off, Lele’s Ratchet Advice Show. That included taking 14 months off when my mom got very sick and, ultimately died.
So, was it worth it? It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had. Turns out I love animating. But I’m now at a second crossroads: actually launching the series.