If you’re a frequent Twitter or YouTube user, you may have seen an animated short about witches figuring out how to use Tinder, or one about Star Wars’ Emperor Palpatine recovering after Darth Vader threw him down a Death Star shaft in Return of the Jedi. These shorts come from the same artist, Ian Worthington, better known as Worthi or Worthikids (the name of his YouTube channel).
For the past few years, Worthington has been uploading increasingly inventive videos to his YouTube channel and his social media (including Instagram), branching out from 2D animation to using 3D models in seemingly 2D shorts, and imitating Rankin/Bass Productions’ stop-motion films through the open-source 3D computer graphics program Blender. Though his shorts vary wildly in subject matter — some are originals, while other re-create parts of popular shows — they all boast expressive animation and an impressive level of detail.
Worthington hopped on the phone with Polygon to discuss his process, including making his own sound effects, developing a sense of style, and making the jump from animating as a hobby to pursuing it as a career.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.
Polygon: How did you get started drawing and animating?
Ian Worthington: I started with animating by doing sprites, like pixel art. I was making little computer games with my siblings, and I wanted some sprites, so I started like that. Then I slowly made the resolution bigger, and eventually, I switched over and started doing animations in Flash. That was early on in my channel, my first couple of animations. I did Flash for a couple of years, and now I’ve moved over to Blender.
I’ve been using Blender since the very beginning, I just didn’t do it for the character animation. I would export the characters out from Flash as transparent image sequences, then put those in Blender. I’d put the background in and do Blender-y stuff with compositing and such. Really, the Blender update that lets you draw directly in the program is just removing an unnecessary step, which was Flash. Now I can just make the drawings right in there, which is great. But I still do my backgrounds in Clip Studio Paint, because it’s a good art program for painting and stuff like that.
Do you remember the first complete animated sequence you did?
I started by doing a lot of GIFs. It was all very short GIF things. The first full-on animation with audio was — this is very embarrassing — a Homestuck animation. I did my own voice acting. That used to be on my channel, but I’ve since privatized it, because I’m embarrassed by it. It’s not very good.
How much were you drawing prior to the sprites? I understand that you basically trained yourself on how to draw and animate.
Yes. I’ve been drawing since forever, just because me and my siblings were all homeschooled, so we were at home all the time. We were all doing drawing games and stuff as far back as I can remember. We all developed our own styles, and they split off and did other stuff. But I’m out here doing the animations for the YouTube. [Laughs]
You do some of the animation in 3D and then make it look 2D, which isn’t a typical process.
Yes. I’m not doing so much of that yet, I would say that’s more experimental stuff on the way. I did a little bit of it in Palpatine’s Journey, but it’s pretty obvious, it’s the part where he’s falling and he tumbles around. He’s a 3D model there. Some of the backgrounds are 3D in that one, because I didn’t want to redraw the whole background over and over, so I just made a bumpy model, and then switched the camera angle around. And I’ve been doing that since forever, even my very old animations, I’ll just do a big drawing and then zoom in on it and move around this big 3D version of it. It’s not as complicated as it sounds, it’s very much like a cheap model. That way I don’t have to draw the backgrounds over and over. But moving forward, I’m working on more experiments where the characters will be completely 3D, and imitating a 2D look.
It takes way less time. Or the time is dispensed differently, because obviously it takes longer to model characters and then rig the characters and all that. But once the character is ready, you can just animate them, and it takes way less time than drawing them over and over and over. So I can make longer stuff that way, which I’m really excited about. If you’re doing 2D, it’s easier to make very short things, because you don’t have that upfront weight of having to make these characters, you can just draw them. But then you have to draw them over and over and over.
You’ve also animated clips from live-action shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Check It Out!, with Dr. Steve Brule. What makes a segment something that you want to animate, and how do you make it something fresh?
I used to have a way I picked those. I haven’t picked one in a while. They were usually popular clips already, and I’d watch them, and if I was like, “Oh, this would be fun to animate,” I’d animate it. I would take screenshots from it, but not too many, because I didn’t want to know all of the framing, so I could kind of make it up. But I needed some reference. I took four or five screenshots, and then I just started doing the storyboards over the audio, and riffing on what happened visually.
For the Pepe Silvia one, at the very beginning of that short, there’s this surreal joke where Charlie enters through the door, and the door is closed, and then a second Charlie enters. That was an error from straightforward storyboarding and not checking what actually happens, because I hear the doors open, and I’m like, “Okay, he came in, I’ll draw him coming in.” And then I hear what I think are the doors opening again, and I’m like, “Now, hold on.” What’s happening is, the doors just slam shut. I watched the actual clip; they open, and then they slam, and it makes a very similar sound, and I didn’t really pick up on that. So I was like, “I clearly made an error, but I’ll just run with it.”
Where did Witches on Tinder or Frasier and Niles Become Demon Lords start?
I’m not entirely sure. I’ve noticed I don’t really come up with ideas unless I’m trying to. If I’m just sitting around, I’m not gonna really come up with anything. I have to actively be like, “Okay, I want to do a short, now I need an idea.” Then they’ll usually start to come to me. It starts as a basic idea, like, “Oh, I want something with witches.” Then I usually start recording the dialogue, or writing the dialogue, if there are other voice actors. I’ll usually just jump right in and start recording and figure out how the conversation goes from there. Then I’ll do the storyboards afterward, set to the audio.
You’ve talked a bit about making your own sound effects for the Palpatine short. Is that typical?
That’s pretty recent. I did foley for the Frasier and Niles one. That was the first animation where I was really doing a lot of foley, because I wanted footstep sounds and banging sounds, and I was like, “Okay, this will be fun.” Then I encountered an issue, because I wanted Frasier to do this little energy-blast powering-up sound. I was like, “I could surely just steal this from some Dragonball Z game or something, but I’m curious, how do they make those sounds?” I hadn’t really wondered about it before.
I went down this rabbit hole, trying to figure out how they come up with these sounds, and it ended up being just synths. They had a lot of synths in the ’80s. So I tried to remake it with synths, and then I got hooked: “Okay, I want to do all my sound effects from now on, because this is really interesting and kind of fun to create stuff.” The exception is in Palpatine’s Journey. When Palpatine lands on the ground, there’s this really compressed, bad-sounding car-crash sound. That is not mine, that is a public domain sound that I found.
Your 3D work like Hatbox Troubles is inspired by old Rankin/Bass works. Why are those such an influence on you?
I’ve always loved their Christmas specials, and I hadn’t really thought of their influence on my art style, I just really liked them. Then I watched a film with my brother, Nutcracker Fantasy, which is a Japanese stop-motion film made by one of the animators who used to work for Rankin/Bass, so it totally looks like the Rankin/Bass style. It came out in the ’70s. It’s got a funky synth soundtrack. It’s so visually stunning. The style is so engrossed in that puppet world, that stop-motion look, that I was like, “I want that, I want to do that! Drop everything!” I also started to think, “This is something you can imitate, because it’s so low quality; it’s on film, and it’s grainy, and it’s like a VHS copy of it. Surely, if you did a bunch of trickery, you could do this in 3D.” So I was hooked on that idea that you could imitate this in 3D.
I started doing experiments, but then I dropped the ball and got busy with other stuff for a year until last October, where I had some free time, and I was like, “Okay, I’ve done a couple of experiments now, I’m just gonna go for it.” I did this GIF of Danny Elfman in his Oingo Boingo days, just dancing around. That was my first legit experiment. When I posted it on Twitter, I got such a positive reaction of people being like, “This looks real.” That was such a confidence boost. I wasn’t quite sure. When you made it, you know, obviously, that it’s fake. You feel the fakery. But when people liked it, I was like, “I want to keep doing this. This is really fun.”
Have there been any other works that hit you in the same way, other things you want to emulate, or that otherwise influenced your style?
I would say one of the early inspirations was Baman Piderman by Lindsay and Alex Small-Butera. That was just a YouTube series, but I remember seeing that and being like, “Whoa, this was animated by two people? That’s it? The animation is so beautiful.” That was definitely an early inspiration of like, “Oh, indie animation exists, and it’s a thing you can do.” I was like, “Oh my gosh, I want to do that.” As I move forward, I want to work with more people, like different voice actors and maybe some co-directors or co-animators, to get some more interesting styles. Before that, I felt bad that I couldn’t really pay anybody, because I wasn’t making much money. But now that Palpatine’s Journey is doing very well, I think I can start collaborating with more people now.
How did you come up with your own style?
I’m still not entirely sure. It’s difficult for me to say, because I don’t necessarily draw this way intentionally. I’m trying to break out of it, honestly, I’m trying to make more studies, because this is just how I draw anything. I go to draw, and it just looks like this, and I’m like, “Well, that’s a little disappointing.” I want to have some versatility. So I’m trying to break out a little. I will say, in terms of style inspiration, a lot of it is SpongeBob. I had a How to Draw SpongeBob book as a child. That was a huge influence.
Another big influence is — this is kind of an outdated influence, because I don’t really see it in my work much anymore, but — as a teenager, I was really into One Piece. Eiichiro Oda, his art, I loved it so much. I was like, “Oh, I want to draw like him.” I would also say, it kind of snuck up on me, but when I started doing the Rankin/Bass thing, I was like, “Oh, I have to change, I have to try and draw in their style.” Then I was like, “Hold on, my style already looks a lot like that.” It was weird, because I didn’t think of them as an influence, but they kind of snuck up on me.
Do you do all your voice acting for now?
Yeah, all the currently uploaded shorts that don’t use audio from something else, I did all the voice acting. I don’t see myself as a voice actor, I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t part of the short, but I do enjoy it, especially if it’s an imitation challenge, like, it needs to sound like Yoda or something, because then you get to study these audio clips and be like, “How do I do that with my voice?”
Can you walk me through the general process of creating a short?
I start with a very basic concept, usually a drawing, a very rough sketch, where I’m just trying to think of an idea of what to do. I usually start with a character. I’ll draw a character and I’ll be like, “Okay, the short is about this character. That’s all I know right now.” From there, I’ll either open up a text document and try to write out some dialogue ideas, or I’ll go straight to recording, which is kind of jumping the gun, but I like to have audio to animate to. It’s a lot more difficult for me to do storyboards to nothing. I have done it sometimes, but it’s trickier. When there’s dialogue, you immediately know the pacing. You know when the beats are.
Once I have the audio ready, I start doing storyboards. Because I don’t really work with anybody else currently, I don’t think they’d make much sense to anyone but me. They’re very rough. After I do the storyboards, I’ll usually touch up the audio a bit more. I don’t want to add foley yet, because I don’t know how the characters are moving, so I don’t know when to put in the precise footsteps, but I can put in some ambience and maybe a couple of musical stings or something like that.
After I’ve got that done, I usually do another pass through the storyboards, which is the rough animation pass, where if a character needs to move in a more complex way, like they’re walking, I’ll do some additional animation on top of the storyboards just to rough out the keyframes of how the character should move later. I just jump straight into doing the line art, the cleanup. I usually go one shot at a time, I start with the characters and no backgrounds at all, I just do the cleanup. Then I fill it in and I start messing with the colors for the characters. Once I have an idea of how to draw the character, I usually go straightforward, one shot at a time, shot after shot after shot after shot. If I get a little fatigued from drawing that much, I’ll bounce back and forth to doing foley stuff for the animation I’ve already done. I’ll do a little bit more sound design, then more animation.
Once I finish all the character animation, then I do the backgrounds. I wish I didn’t do them last, because they pile up. I suddenly have to do 10 to 15 backgrounds. At this point in the short, it’s so close to being done that I’m hyped up and I don’t want to wait any longer, so I end up doing all the backgrounds in one day, and they’re kind of messy because I just want it done. As I’m doing the backgrounds, one background at a time, I’ll start rendering, and I’ll think about compositing. I don’t want to use too many compositing effects, but I usually do a little bit of color correction. I sometimes add a little bit of blur, so it’s just a little softer. It depends on the short and what I think it needs. I do that per shot. Once that’s all done, I’ll do a render where it’s really tiny and I can see how the whole thing looks, and if I like that, then I do the full-size render, and it’s done.
Which of your projects are you proudest of?
I’m inclined to say I’m proudest of Palpatine’s Journey, just because it’s done the best of any of my shorts, and I still enjoy it, while a couple of my shorts I go back to and think, “Oh, I’d do that differently.” Other than that, I would say Hatbox Troubles, but looking at it now, I’m like, “Oh, I could do the imitation so much better now.” I’m hoping to drop more of those later, and keep upgrading.
Do you still work on video games?
Me and my brother are developing a 3D game, but I’m not really doing any of the actual work. I’m just handling concept art, character designs, and I’m helping a bit with story stuff. Then he’s handling the modeling and stuff, and actual game development. So that’s a very lax thing I’m doing. That’s called The Witching Hour. A demo will be coming out this year, probably. We have a Twitter account. The development’s coming along, we’re not posting a lot right now, we’re kind of waiting to get stuff done. Oh, and I’m doing music. It’s a throwback, N64-inspired game, so I’m trying to do a banjo-inspired soundtrack, which is really fun, that throwback fake instrument sound.
Do you have any interest in staying in games? Or is that more your brother’s passion at this point?
I used to be more interested in doing games. At this point, I feel like I’m so hooked into doing animated shorts that I don’t really have time to develop games anymore. Maybe 10 years down the line, I’ll try something. But right now, I’m just focusing completely on the animation.
Besides The Witching Hour, are you working on any projects that you’re allowed to talk about?
I guess not, but that was kind of my goal for this year. When 2020 started, after the Palpatine animation did so well, I was like, “Oh, I don’t need to do freelance anymore. I want to focus completely on my channel.” It did well enough to pull that off, and I was able to upload more content. It was so exciting because it just blew up. Witches On Tinder, when that one came out, it did pretty well, and I was like, “I can do less freelance.” And then that came out, and I was like, “Oh, I don’t need to do any freelance.”
It’s been very difficult for me getting various job offers, because my instinct is, “Ooh, money! Ooh, work!” But I’m making myself say no. I don’t want anything happening, so I can just focus. I know I’m terrible at multitasking, so I need to make sure this is the only thing on my plate. It’s working so far. I just cleared up some freelance work and I should be open, so I can just work on the channel stuff for the rest of the year. But we’ll see. Someone might come at me with a deal I can’t deny.
How long have you been working as a full-time animator?
Three years now, I think. Full time, probably closer to two years. I would say three years ago, it was very on and off, I was mostly doing commissions for people, and sometimes I’d get some freelance animator work, but the last couple years, I’ve been doing freelance full time, just gig after gig, usually music videos and stuff. You can find them on YouTube. I don’t really promote them, because they’re not so much my work, and they’re not done in my style or anything. I don’t think people would really care. It’s so unlike the stuff I normally make, but they are out there. I did a little bit of animation on an Adult Swim thing. It was for Studio Yotta, it was the Rick and Morty April 1 special. I animated three shots on that. That was the extent of my freelance stuff.
How has that transition gone, from animating for fun to turning it into your livelihood?
It’s been a long time going. Certainly early on, especially with the animations, those were completely for fun. I was hoping they would do sort of well, but at the same time, they were all teetering on getting demonetized because they use copyrighted audio, and a lot of them have. But at a certain point, looking at the timeline, I guess it was gradual, I started to think, “Okay, I really want the channel to be doing better, so I need to be making better shorts for it.” Eventually, the big turning point was Witches On Tinder, which I was very unsure about because it was my first original — in a while, at least, completely original, original audio — just my vision, and I was like, “I bet this won’t do very well. I bet people won’t like it.” At the time, it was one of my most successful, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, okay, now I need to really focus on the channel.”