Editorial

A collection of published articles. 

Rooster Teeth Broke The Internet First

ON SEPT. 5, 2002, BURNIE BURNS BROKE THE INTERNET. This was two years before Facebook launched, three years before YouTube existed, and 12 years before Kim Kardashian posed for Paper magazine. The concept of “going viral” hadn’t yet gone viral and didn’t exist much beyond one video of a dancing baby that got passed around in the late ’90s. So why was the chief technology officer of the telecom company for which Burns worked standing in his office doorway, asking, “What is going on in here?”

“I’m like, ‘I don’t know? I’m working?’” Burns says. “The internet is pegged,” the CTO told him. “Nobody can do anything, and we’ve traced it to one of your ports. Something in this room is eating up all the bandwidth in the company.”

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Earlier that day Burns had plugged his monitor into an extra computer server in his office and uploaded a trailer for a potential web series he called Red vs. Blue. In the clip, a voice narrates scenes of interstellar warfare from the video game Halo. “In the time between the first and second invasion, there was a brief but violent period of civil war,” the narrator begins. At the bottom of the screen, subtitles read: “In the meantime, some guys got all pissed off. And totally started wailing at each other. What a bunch of d**ks.” The narrator soon breaks from his story to argue with the dissenting subtitles. At the end, the screen switches to two Halo characters appearing to talk to one another. “Huh, what’d you think about that?” one asks. “Yeah I think someone owes me the last two minutes of my life back,” the other answers. The comedic tone for the series is set: sarcastic, argumentative, and self-deprecating.

Burns had posted the link in a couple of internet forums, Slashdot and Fark. Then he unplugged the monitor and forgot about the file. “There was this little light on the server that would blink when it was accessed,” Burns says. “Blink, blink … blink.” When the CTO came to his office that afternoon, Burns looked at the light. It was on—one solid, continuous blink. “I immediately reached over and turned it off, and that’s when I realized like, wow, this is something that people will actually share. This could go big.”

On April 1, 2003, the first installment of Red vs. Blue appeared on redvsblue.com. Burns had known from the start what he wanted from the series, but he needed help. He and some friends had already abandoned a similar video series called Drunk Gamers—which had garnered a small following and was exactly what it sounds like. He’d made the trailer because it was too hard to explain his new vision to his friends. He was looking to tell a story using a video game that wasn’t the story of the video game.

It took a couple of episodes, but he eventually assembled the crew he needed. Each installment was a weeklong collaborative effort between Burns and five of his friends—some with filmmaking skills, others his “internet computer buddies.” They worked out of his downtown Buda home.

On Mondays, Burns wrote that week’s show. On Tuesdays, the group recorded the audio. On Wednesdays, they edited the audio. On Thursdays and Fridays, they shot the video for the episode using a technique called “machinima,” which for them meant manipulating the movements of characters from Halo to match their previously recorded dialogue. Finally, on Saturday they’d release a four-minute clip onto the internet.

The first Red vs. Blue episode opens with two Halo characters, Simmons and Grif, covered from head to toe in armor and distinguished from other characters by the color of their gear and their voices. “Hey, do you ever wonder why we’re here?” Simmons asks.

“It’s one of life’s great mysteries, isn’t it? Why are we here?” Grif answers and then waxes poetic about God and cosmic coincidence. Their guns are pointed downward, out of frame. Their heads nod gently as if speaking to each other from behind their helmets.

“What? I mean why are we out here? In this canyon,” Simmons exclaims.

Week after week, the six of them—Burns, Gus Sorola, Geoff Ramsey, Matt Hullum, Joel Heyman, and Jason Saldaña—drove to Buda, crammed into a tiny computer room, recorded audio in a dark closet, trashed Burns’ computer room, cleaned up Burns’ computer room, and binged on each other’s company. Then they’d do it all over again.

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FIFTEEN YEARS AND 16 SEASONS LATER (the second-longest-running web series ever), it’s safe to say that Red vs. Blue went big. That one show has spawned a multimedia production company called Rooster Teeth—a euphemism for a derogatory term used in the RvB trailer.

At Austin Film Studios on East 51st Street, the company occupies three former airplane hangars and one trailer called Bungalow A. It also operates a warehouse-size animation department up the road. Rooster Teeth has produced 11 animated series; 10 live-action series; a handful of web series; seven podcasts; two video games; a network of YouTube channels; three feature-length films; a merchandise line; its own successful paid streaming service; and three annual conventions—in Sydney, London, and Austin. It employs about 400 people, including directors, writers, producers, actors, voice actors, martial artists, troubleshooters, fabricators, costume designers, merchandise makers, game creators, game players, event planners, sound designers, money managers, social media wranglers, a sweet PR manager, and a friendly security guard. Not to mention five of the original six guys who produced the first episodes of Red vs. Blue—now boasting abbreviated titles like CEO and CCO.

How did they get from point A to point B, and why does their journey matter? For one, any company that can boast almost 45 million YouTube subscribers, has raised a record-breaking $2.5 million on IndieGoGo to fund their first feature film, was acquired by AT&T–backed Fullscreen Media in 2014, and can fill downtown with more than 60,000 fans for a convention in Austin’s summer heat—RTX 2018 runs Aug. 3-5—deserves examination.

We could consider all their content from 2003 to the present, observing the ways they’ve grown their stable of programming and expanded into ancillary businesses. But the real answer—how they’ve moved from point A to point B—isn’t what they’ve produced since that first episode of RvB, it’s when. As with many great success stories in technology and computer culture, timing is everything.

Back at the beginning, after a new RvB episode was uploaded on Saturdays, Burns would wait at his computer to watch for comments. What did the community think about the episode? Did they like it? Did they hate it? Which jokes worked? Which fell flat? Anxiously he’d hover over the page like a fish considering bait. As user activity lit up, Burns would bite down hard. Refresh … refresh … refresh. Then a comment would appear: “First.”

“Like, they’d post the word ‘first,’” Burns says, hands gripping his head as he recalls it. “I was really annoyed by it. I was like, Guys, I want to hear what you think. And then there would be four or five more people: first, first, first, first, first.”

After a while, this annoying, yet ubiquitous, internet habit of claiming primacy in a comment section provided Burns with an insight. In a marketplace—the internet—where nearly everything is freely accessible, users don’t just want to see something, they want to be the first to see it. “So that was where we got the idea of letting people watch an episode on Friday night instead of Saturday. They could pay for it, and they did,” Burns says. The first dollar that Rooster Teeth ever made was from its subscription service, which it called Rooster Teeth FIRST.

The company’s niche media empire is replete with such nods to internet and gaming culture. One of their most popular YouTube channels is called Achievement Hunter, a title that gamers earn when they search for and attain specially designated objectives that video game makers plant in their games—objectives that do nothing to advance the primary narrative. Achievements can be anything from winning “Father of the Month” in Dead Rising 2 (a zombie-apocalypse survival game) to playing soccer with friends in Grand Theft Auto V.

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Around 2008 a trend emerged on YouTube in which users posted clips of themselves playing video games. Most would provide commentary; some would provide instruction. Isolated videos grew into their own channels, each centered on its own aims, games, or the personalities producing them. Achievement Hunter was one of these channels. Its first episode aired in late July 2008—a two-minute clip showing viewers how to get 1 million points in one stunt run in Burnout Paradise, a car racing game.

Achievement Hunter began releasing daily videos, and the hosts became familiar to fans. Among them was Gavin Free, who himself had been a British fan who flew to the U.S. to meet the Rooster Teeth crew when he was 18 years old and asked for an internship. Free hung around long enough to get hired full-time in 2008—officially to direct Season 7 of RvB, unofficially to star in a bunch of live-action shorts and miniseries and to work on Achievement Hunter.

In order to get a work visa in the U.S., Free created his own YouTube channel called the Slow Mo Guys, on which he and his friend Daniel Gruchy perform stunts extremely slowly. They now have more than 11 million subscribers. “We had to write like six pages explaining YouTube for his immigration papers,” says CEO Hullum. The visa was granted, and the Slow Mo Guys was picked up by Rooster Teeth.

Michael Jones, a YouTuber who had developed a considerable following by posting himself playing video games, was hired by Rooster Teeth in 2011. He suggested to Ramsey that the company expand its notion of Achievement Hunter to full-length streams of video games. Jones and Ramsey soon released 12 half-hour videos of themselves playing Saints Row, a game about running a worldwide criminal enterprise.

For some, watching a live stream of a video game is about learning new strategies, experiencing games or consoles that they don’t own, or following a well-written storyline. For most, it’s about the personalities playing. Games consume mental focus, require a fixed gaze, and occur in an intimate space. But when a game is streamed live, there is a sense that everyone is there together, playing, chatting, and hanging out.

As other channels with similar premises started appearing on YouTube, Rooster Teeth formed partnerships to supplement its own roster of seven. It built a YouTube–based network, called Let’s Play, that now consists of nine independent channels that each produce their own content but refer back to RT. It’s like a TV network with a bunch of different shows, produced by various companies but united on a single channel, or a record company that produces many types of artists under the same label.

Only the animation department exceeds Let’s Play’s popularity among Rooster Teeth’s properties. A 150-person team dreams up every detail of the nine animated shows in production, from the city skylines down to the way the wind ripples across a character’s clothes. The office is loosely divided into sections by task—3D animators sit with other 3D animators, 2D with 2D, riggers with riggers, and so forth. Nearly everyone has two computer monitors casting a dancing light across the desks. On one monitor they work to delicately craft cityscapes or sketch the shading across a character’s face. On the second monitor they’re watching YouTube videos or streaming music.

On a recent visit, one animator can be seen tracking a compilation of professional rock climber Alex Honnold ascending massive walls on his second monitor. Another is watching a Bad Lip Readings video from Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony. Some have their second monitors open to animations that they’re thrilled with or inspired by. “If someone is working on a fight scene, they’ll open a bunch of fight scenes on the second monitor and then pick a move from this one and a move from that one,” says Gray Haddock, head of Rooster Teeth animation.

A few steps below the animators’ floor is a gaming wing (though, let’s be honest, every wing at Rooster Teeth is a gaming wing in one way or another), which houses Rooster Teeth’s game development and publishing arm and the studio where Red vs. Blue is now produced. The RvB room now hosts four gamers who work on four 55-inch flat-screen TVs using 16 different Xboxes and 64 controllers. Each controller is connected to a single component in the scene being shot, except for one that controls the camera angle within the game.

Kyle Taylor, the co-director of RvB, toggles the camera to face two characters, then grabs one controller in each hand and appears to make the characters talk to one another. His favorite scenes to shoot, he says, are “group scenes,” for which they’ll gather a bunch of people off the animation floor and give them each a controller. “It works for things like battle scenes,” Taylor says. “We’ll group them and give them different cues and then choreograph a giant, multiplayer scene.” Once a scene is shot, it’s sent to editing. Audio is recorded in their on-site recording studio, then edited and laid over the video in a small, dark office around the corner. If they need to add elements of their own animation, they can enlist the 3D animators on the floor. If a joke doesn’t hit quite right, the writer is brought in to rework it.

Technology- and manpower-wise, it’s a far cry from Burns’ spare room in Buda, but at the core it’s still just a bunch of gamers, in a slightly bigger room, still having a good time and still just trying to make each other laugh.

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TODAY BURNS’ OFFICE IS A FORMER SCHOOL BUS that he bought from a guy in Mueller, not far from the studio. The inside is clean and cozy. A desk is pressed up against one side of the bus. A couch lines the other. Toward the back is a small wood-burning fireplace that adds an impractical warmth to the ambiance. Because his office is mobile, Burns is able to work in solitude while remaining close to the action—whether it’s on the set of their latest live-action series, or right outside Stage 2, where costume design and set fabrication take place.

It’s on Stage 2 that the fictional worlds of Rooster Teeth—past, present, and future—collide. The massive hangar is partitioned off by old sets. In one corner, an office space has been sectioned off using the carnival-like entrance from their latest feature film, the horror-comedy Blood Fest (which premiered at South by Southwest this year and will play in theaters Aug. 14), combined with the interior walls of a spaceship from their second film, Lazer Team 2.

On the other side of the hangar, a set of shelves is stocked with plastic bins labeled “Rollerblades,” “women’s pajamas,” “zombies,” “more zombies,” “ski boots,” and “sports.” At one point Burns sifts through a costume rack in front of the bins that has a nun’s skirt and a wrestling garment that reads “The C**kblocker” across the crotch. “Oh yeah, I know what skit that’s for,” he says and then continues down the hall. Even though he’s boss-man now, he’s as involved in the daily grind of the company as ever—maybe more than ever.

The whole thing—viral videos in 2002, subscription services in 2003, gaming channels in 2008—makes it sound like Burns and crew were anticipating the major trends of internet culture. The truth is that they weren’t anticipating any of it. The only thing that they were anticipating was that you can’t try too hard to anticipate. When it comes to technology, no one knows what the next trend will be, nor the next major technological shift, nor the next big platform. Rooster Teeth is less a bunch of gamers trying to get to the end of the game, and more a bunch of achievement hunters who accidentally figured out a way to create their own achievements.

The animation department has already undergone its first expansion and has plans to hire 50 more animators this year. They have 24 infrared cameras for motion-capture. They have multiple recording studios, and they have a virtual reality set that they’re not sure what to do with yet. Attendance at their three conventions has grown each year, and they’re dreaming up where in the world to host a fourth. Rooster Teeth FIRST has about a quarter-million paying subscribers, and its fan base is widespread. Only 65 percent of regular Rooster Teeth viewers are in the U.S. The rest are scattered, with clusters in the U.K., Japan, Sweden, and New Zealand.

Way back when Burns and his crew launched Red vs. Blue, the only way to distribute the file was to torrent it. A torrent is a file that breaks up large files into a bunch of tiny units called “packets.” One server—the “seeder”—contains all the packets. As more computers—“leechers”—start downloading the file from the seeder, different packets are distributed to different leechers. The torrent keeps track of who has which packet, and soon the leechers are not downloading just from the seeder, but from one another as well.

In the beginning, the guys at Rooster Teeth were simply creating shows that they wanted to see. By creating a hub to torrent from, they became a torrent themselves. Only what they were torrenting wasn’t just a media file, it was a whole set of connections—a culture. Fans arrive to the world of Rooster Teeth through many different portals, but they all see the same thing: a bunch of people like themselves.

Like Tanya Jasso, who moved to Hutto when she was 10 years old. She describes the town as “all white and boring.” She watched YouTube videos to pass time, and Red vs. Blue showed up in her recommended videos. It made her laugh, and she started looking for more episodes. When she found the Rooster Teeth website, she also found a community of people who laughed at the same jokes she did, talked about the same topics, and watched the same shows.

Jasso is 20 now and one of the administrators of an online group called RTATX. She plans and hosts events for her fellow Austin-area RT fans—anything from volunteer days at the Texas Food Bank to grabbing tacos on Fridays. Most of her events are posted to a group on the Discord app with more than 200 members.

Though Rooster Teeth is the group’s common interest, they discuss a host of subjects—swapping pictures of dogs, talking about lunch, recommending gyms. They greet each other in the morning and share their takes on the latest video game releases.

“They started out by making a show for a community, one that they were already a part of,” says Allen Setzer, another local fan. “Everything they’ve done since has had a feeling of camaraderie with their fans. They do this for us, and we watch it for them.”

Published in Austin Monthly (August 2018).