I've gotten out of an Uber just outside what looks like a derelict corner store in Sydney. It's an ordinary, plain Australian suburb. Opposite the corner store is a large house with a shale grey concrete wall and a window covered with some kind of blue tarp.
Save for a small sign on the front, you'd think the place was completely abandoned. There's no audible sound from the outside, at least none that can drown out the din of passing traffic. But the shabby exterior is actually the office of Super Mario Glitchy 4, one of Australia's largest YouTube channels and the home where Meta Runner, the government-funded anime starring video games, esports and speedrunning, was born.
This story has been retimed to coincide with the launch of Meta Runner's first episode, which you can see below.
The channel was first made in 2009, but the earliest video viewable from 20-year-old founder Luke Lerdwichagul was uploaded in 2011. It was a glitchy video with buggy audio from the opening of Mario 64, with basic text overlaid the first few minutes of the game.
Mario wants cake, and Princess Peach promises cake. But borrowing from Portal, the cake is a lie, and because it's Mario 64, there's pretty much fuck all that Mario can do about it. And that was the channel's early output: editing Mario 64 footage with Windows Movie Maker and creating a new narrative with simple text. Instead of hunting stars, Mario's suffering from diarrhoea thanks to all the bad mushrooms.
The videos were tagged as "bloopers", even though they weren't bloopers or glitches in the traditional sense of the word. It was old YouTube, a place where many creators were just mucking around with software and video creation tools for the first time, a period where Content ID didn't exist.
The general idea is that the videos would have a story, even if some of them didn't really have a story. Lerdwichagul uploaded multiple videos a week. None of the videos had thumbnails, and some of the earlier works have been muted or demonetised for copyrighted content.
Like most channels at the time, Lerdwichagul was still living at home. And it makes sense Luke was 13 when he started uploading videos, and by the time he finished high school, the channel had grown to a million subscribers.
The SMG4 channel was still a fun hobby, but Lerdwichagul's older brother Kevin — who would become the CEO of Glitch Productions and the driving force behind the business side of the channel — saw an opportunity.
"I was doing a double degree in computer science and engineering, and I finished it and looked at what Luke was doing," Kevin said. "He's literally just working in his own room, just for like, every weekend. And I was like, what are you doing? And he's like, 'I'm making YouTube videos.' And I sat down, saw his audience, saw everything he had, and was like, 'Okay, there's a lot of potential in this.'"
The younger brother didn't really have a business vision or plan at that stage — he just enjoyed making YouTube videos, and still does. The only difference now is that the two brothers aren't alone.
The SMG4 office, which doubles as the living space for the Lerdwichagul brothers, is split into two teams. Eight people are working full-time on Meta Runner, the animation series backed by Screen Australia, AMD, and Epic Games. They're located at the back of the Mascot house, with another three staffers (not including the Lerdwichaguls) working just on content for the SMG4 channel. On top of the full-timers, there's one contracted music composer, a part-time 3D modeller, and the brothers are in the middle of hiring a sound design team in Melbourne.
It's a necessity given planning has already begun for season two of Meta Runner. The first season doesn't launch on YouTube until early Friday Australian time, although the brothers have already been told they can begin applying for another round of government grants. Crunchyroll also came on board as a late sponsor for Meta Runner — Kevin met Crunchyroll's marketing manager at a recent Supernova con — which should help the series internationally.
Australian-made TV is rare, and Aussie animations even more so. But the great advantage of Meta Runner from the government's perspective — and an argument often cited when it comes to funding local game development — is that the vast majority of the audience will be international, offering a greater potential audience and value for money for the taxpayer. Kevin said only 5 percent of the channel's 3.13 million subscriber base was Australian, with around half of their audience coming from the United States.
"There's a significant appeal with reaching, because basically [the government funding] is representing Australia," Kevin said. "The reason why Screen Australia is funding this is because ... we have animators, we have an animation studio based in Australia, creating something really awesome to show to a global audience. And I think that's a rare sentence to hear in this day and age.
"So to be able to fund that and to be able to create this is a very significant deal. It sort of shows the world that, hey, Australia has an animation scene as well. We're film producers here, we're film makers. We're also creating amazing content for the world as well."
It's an astonishing achievement that all of this came from a YouTube channel from a 13-year-old with Windows Movie Maker. And it's indicative of the permanent shift in how content is created. It's not just YouTube as a platform that has changed how people consume and create content. It's also becoming a more viable source of employment for artists, composers, animators and visual effects specialists, particularly in Australia where there are fewer businesses supporting film and TV production.
But even though the production pipeline shares a lot of similarities with film and TV, SMG4 face a problem familiar to Aussie game developers: they can't access the same grants and benefits available to traditional screen industries, despite the scale making online-only content much cheaper and quicker to produce than a Hollywood blockbuster.
"Especially with animation ... but specifically with online content, it's very, very in the early stages of slowly turning the lead and realising, hey, these people are making stuff and the stuff they're making people are paying attention to," Kevin said.
"If there was more funding, there would definitely be more of this kind of content in Australia because it's exactly like you said, there's always that sort of gate that closes when you realise, 'Oh, I can't create the vision that I want to create because I don't have the money, I don't have enough manpower to do it.'
Not being born in Japan doesn't mean you can't make your own anime.
"I think it's just a matter of time before that slowly starts becoming a reality and more companies realise that that's where grants and funding and where the future should be."
It's already had an impact on the university level. Luke, who took a course at AIE to learn more about animation and modelling, said Glitch Productions reached out directly to the colleges asking for 3D artists and animators when they were staffing up for Meta Runner.
A large part of the Meta Runner experience has been a learning process. One of the brothers' biggest mistakes early on was not realising just how long pre-production can take — only a couple of months was initially dedicated to pre-production for the first Meta Runner season, a timeframe that almost immediately blew out. But the series still came together relatively quickly for a lot of Australian projects, with the whole season taking about a year and a half to produce from start to finish.
"We're looking to halve the time [for season two], because we actually have the pipeline, we have the framework, we have the assets," Kevin said. "It's a big joke in the office: when something breaks, we're like 'Don't worry, season two, we'll fix it for season two.'"
Learning the art of compromise has been a theme, too. While taking photos on my visit, I noticed a Google sheet on one of the screens listing some of the things that had to be cut. Like any project, it's a list that's undoubtedly greater than the creators would like.
But having grown a fanbase over almost a decade and having regular discussions with their audience about the state of projects would, the brothers said, help them through the process. "We've had videos where we're like, 'This is what we need to do for production. And this is how much work there is to do.' It's just that open honesty we can have with the fanbase," Kevin said.
If anything, the legacy of Meta Runner will be the realisation of a dream. "Nothing is more important to us than just making awesome content for people to enjoy and especially being in the Australian space, we have the unique opportunity when people will turn heads because it's a very small pond," Kevin said.
"We feel like we want to grow that scene. We want to grow that industry here. And we sort of have the means and we have the opportunities, the tools to do so."
The first episode of Meta Runner's inaugural season launches early Friday morning on the SMG4 YouTube channel.