Cole Kush is no stranger to bold visions. For nearly a decade the 35-year-old Canadian animator has built one of his generation’s most daring and hilarious bodies of animation work, which heavily features music videos. His 3D clips — gently disconcerting and self-referential, with a kind surreality — form a constellation of diverse characters: nightmarish Sesame Street avatars inhabit Mac DeMarco’s “Here Comes The Cowboy” video, and Homeshake's "Heat" stars flat-affected humanoids such as a rat-bodied dandy and a portly Silver Surfer. The settings are just as varied, running from a slightly tweaked version of Earth (Jerry Paper’s “Grey Area”) to the last neuron firings of a video game programmer’s pre-death brain (TNGHT’s “Gimme Summn.”)
Kush’s iconoclasm is the guiding light behind his most ambitious project yet: a video streaming platform called Eternal Family. Unveiled in March, Eternal Family is a hub for programming revitalizing the anything-goes mentality of public access TV — spending an afternoon watching the shows and animations feels like combing through the "Liked Videos" section on the YouTube profile of the funniest, best artist in your city. Eternal has been in the works since Adult Swim made the mistake of passing on Dayworld, a remarkable pilot Kush co-created with Jay Weingarten in 2018. He tried pitching another series, but the entertainment industry’s sedentary pace got to him. “I'm grateful for the opportunities [Adult Swim] have given me in the past,” Kush tells me over the phone from Victoria, British Columbia, “but things are slow-moving. I pretty much just said, ‘I've got a lot of energy myself, I'll make my own network."
Buoyed by financially accessible advancements in tech for video streaming services (“In the past it probably would cost $50,000 or $100,000 to make an actual functional site like [Netflix],” Kush says), Eternal Family built its library. It includes humorous music tutorials by Mac DeMarco and Jerry Paper, and new shows from Jay Weingarten and Cricket Arrison of the like-minded cult comedy troupe Wham City, as well as a curated selection of brilliant public domain works and a stock footage library, 100% free for any use and only half a joke (each video features a man hysterically performing a different mundane task). There’s an open call for submissions to the site, but arguably the most defining feature of Eternal Family’s administration is its payment plan for artists: users pay $5 a month, and 60% of the money is spread out between the site’s creators based on viewership. It may not be the recipe for an entertainment monolith, but as Kush told me over the phone, he’s more interested in making a space for streaming video where originality is its biggest defining feature. It’s not as prohibitive as you might think.
What are some of the things that you want Eternal Family to do differently than big streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu?
The biggest thing I wanted right off the bat was a place for experimentation. A lot of my visual artist friends all have ideas that they're pitching to networks and ideas that they just would really want to make no matter what. I wanted to make a space for things that aren't the most accessible ideas. Some of the shows on Eternal are shot with an iPhone or GoPro or whatever. I don't really care, I just want unique new things and interesting stuff.
The other thing too is that I wanted to give a majority of the revenue to the artists. I looked at a few different models of collaborative content streaming models, and one that I really liked that seemed to come up was about a 60/40 split: 60% of all the revenue is distributed to all the artists who are contributing based on view time percentage or however many views that month. The rest goes to all the operation costs, which scales up, and then adding staff and then having funds for licensing and producing more content in the future.
[Open submissions] was something that I wanted to have from the get-go, but there was a little bit more of a legal aspect to that. You can't just open up to public submissions; you have to protect yourself. I had to figure all that stuff out with the lawyer, and then once we did, we opened that up. There's probably a hundred submissions so far, and it keeps getting new ones coming in every day.
Has the transition from animator and director to a COO come naturally to you?
Oh, no. Huge learning curve. I don't know anything about any of this. I've got a bit of experience over the past few years managing bigger projects [like Dayworld] with more moving parts, but as far as this goes, I'm in the deep end, just figuring it out as I go along, and that's what I've always enjoyed. But I think it's actually more of a community collaborative thing where it's just like, "Hey, I don't know what I'm doing. Do you guys want to help figure this out with me?”
It's easier to dive into an ambitious project if you have a reliable community.
Yeah, for sure. We have enough of a shared sensibility where I feel like there's a group of people and brains that can figure out how to make choices that fit the overall vibe. And the other thing too is that I didn't really have any plans as far as promotion of this. I just was banking on all the individual creators having their own fan bases. And that has been working so far, so it's cool to see.
At the core of it, you’re building communities, and people always respond to that.
Do you have any criteria for qualities that you're looking for in submissions, or are you going in with a relatively open mind?
Just a completely open mind. A big part of it is I just don't want to have any specific guidelines, and obviously, there's things outside my own tastes and sensibilities that I think could be good for the overall direction as well. So I'm trying to get a bit of a brain trust going with people that I also appreciate and have a bit of a more objective curatorial or selection process where we can all analyze together and sort in that way.
The stock footage library on Eternal Family represents a big part of your artistic sensibility, which follows the movement, and pacing of stock clips. You also integrate it in some of your work too.
I've always just found stock footage to be funny and interesting. It's a weird sterile parallel universe version of life. I was trying to think of different perks you could have for a membership, and I thought it'd be funny to have a stock video section that you could download and use for your own projects. But the idea of it just being the same person who's just laughing at every single clip, basically unusable clips was really funny to me. So I've got lots more of those clips coming. There's probably hundreds. I’m just going to keep on building that library until there's hopefully thousands.
How would you feel if you actually saw one of those clips in a Twix commercial or something?
That'd be the best. I would love it. Yeah. That's the plan. Seeing a stupid idea like that spread into more of the public would be funny.
Based on your experiences so far, would you say that a do-it-yourself streaming service like Eternal Family could be the future?
I think I'm seeing a bit of a shift right now. It seems like I'm certainly not the only one to start an experiment or project like this. At the core of it, you're building communities, and people always respond to that. I think using these tools can create these communities that take you away from the three big options that are offering this. I think this is probably the way of the future. I would certainly like to see that.