Thoughts on Thought Cafe

For the uninitiated, Nerdfighteria is the community that has grown up around YouTubers John and Hank Green–known as the vlogbrothers–for the last decade. This past February, I had the joy of attending Nerdcon: Nerdfighteria, which was a convention intended to celebrate those 10 years, along with fellow Nerdfighters from all over the world. The basic principles of the community are acceptance and empathy, un-ironically enjoying the nerdy things in your life, being kind to others, decreasing the amount of suckiness in the world, and reminding yourself that every other person you meet is just as complex as you are. Also that we are made of awesome. The number one rule in Nerdfighteria? Don’t Forget To Be Awesome.

What does this have to do with animation? Getting there!

Of all the great things to come from the vlogbrothers’ early start in online video, one of the best was a grant they received from YouTube (back when they did that) that allowed them to create an educational show called Crash Course. And what makes Crash Course stand out among the droves of online video? It’s animation, brilliantly done by a small Canadian studio called Thought Cafe. While fantastic, accurate writing, and complex educational concepts are why we tune into Crash Course, the animation is 100% what makes it so successful; it’s what ties all of the best qualities of an educational show together and really helps the material stick in your brain.

Crash Course is easily the thing Though Cafe is most known for and kept busiest by, especially right now, with four different Crash Course shows currently in production (Computer Science, Film History, Mythology, and Sociology). PBS Digital sponsors the creation of two Crash Course series per year, one of the many reasons why #ILovePBS.

Prior to Nerdcon, I had visited the studio’s website and their own YouTube page a couple of times, mainly due to my interest and ties with the animation industry and curiosity about who was behind the adorable and helpful visuals of Crash Course. What I didn’t realize was just how amazing they are, and just how rigidly they stick to their values as a company, as broadcasted via their site’s logline:

We’re an animation studio that promotes social justice, self-education and critical awareness.

The studio specializes in motion graphics, and have really found a nice way to style the characters in Crash Course so as to not be limited by the puppet rigging tools in After Effects. By that, I mean that despite the often clunky nature of the bone tools, the animation is smooth and fluid and so cute and funny. Of course, I know that they have their own custom tools and pluggins to help as well, on top of just taking the time and care any professional would. I just love how integrated the animation is to the movement and flow of each piece. It is so integral, and literally is the branding of Crash Course. Likely by no accident, that style is also indirectly the branding of Thought Cafe itself through things like the staff’s headshots on their site, which is a fun and practical move. This stylization really unifies the branding of all of the different Crash Course topics across the channels (there’s also Crash Course Kids), and gives it the professional look that has really set a standard for professionally produced educational content on YouTube (as well as arguably pioneer it). This was one of the videos they showed at Nerdcon that really summed things up nicely:

Like I said, one of the best things about Crash Course is definitely the animation. Especially when we are dealing with more difficult topics, or topics that cover ideas that are far more abstract and hard to explain clearly, like physics. During the Crash Course panel at Nerdcon, the host of Crash Course PhysicsDr. Shini Somara, continually expressed her gratitude towards the show being able to afford such high quality animation to really help drive dense and abstract concepts home to viewers.

From the site:

We believe that animation is the perfect medium through which to educate the world online, inspire conversation around current issues, and raise critical awareness.

Can. I get. A hell yeah? Something else that sets this studio apart is their own YouTube channel (which I mentioned briefly), and how forthcoming they are with their audience. While at Nerdcon, I was fortunate to attend their panel, “Thoughts of Thought Cafe,” where, among other things, they announced an upcoming series of tutorials they are working on, including some practice assets provided by them. I hope we get to animate the Mongol!

Although the studio’s clear strength is 2D motion graphics, they showcased a wide variety of styles during their panel, including some VFX and 2D that integrated CG. While their mograph and 2D work is abundant, I’d love to see them utilize pure CG more. We saw a little bit of that through the more realistic renders for a forthcoming documentary about the environment. At the same time, it’s so nice to see 2D animation alive and well, especially when integrated with lowpoly work done in C4D. I’ll take anything they make, let’s be real.

Last week, they released their 2017 sizzle reel, which, as reels do, gives you a fantastic overview of the studio’s varied output, including snippets of the documentary I just mentioned:

After the panel, I had the pleasure of briefly talking to one of the studio founders, Jonathon Corbiere, and asked him a bit about the business side of starting the company. I approached him and simply asked when he knew to pull the trigger on starting his own company, and it sounded like getting Crash Course was really what sealed the deal. Founded in June 2009, the Toronto-based studio now boasts around 20 employees, and a studio that allows dogs. Hell yeah.

Before that, he and several others who founded the studio were working at other design firms full time, while trying to get their own work off the ground. Corbiere explained to me how they were searching for educational content on YouTube to animate to, and reached out to John Green seeking permission to use the audio of one of his videos, not even knowing who he was. John granted it, and after they finished and showed it to him, I guess he kept them in his mind. I’ve heard so many stories like that–it really drives home the idea that by creating and putting more of your own stuff into the world, you create more chances for opportunities.

I’m really excited to see where Thought Cafe as a studio (and YouTubers) head next. In the meantime, enjoy these two Q&A videos they have on their channel. You really get a sense of how amazing and dedicated these people are:

I must implore you once again to check out their body of work on their site and subscribe to all the things!

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