It all started with a funny web video posted on April Fool’s Day in 2003. A group of friends put together their own scripted dialogue with the video game “Halo: Combat Evolved” to animate a snarky meta commentary on basic Marines-in-space gaming tropes.
But that video, which itself was preceded by a jokey trailer for the same show two years before, would begin 16 seasons of “Red vs. Blue,” the flagship show for what would become Rooster Teeth Productions. And that would lead to commercials, feature films, other live-action and animated series, video-game development, a hiring boom and annual events that attract tens of thousands of fans across three continents.
Cover photo: The team at Rooster Teeth Productions in 2016, several years after it moved to Austin Studios in East Austin. Contributed by Rooster Teeth
On Friday, the now 350-employee Austin company will release “Why We’re Here: 15 Years of Rooster Teeth,” a documentary on its history so far. The title is a reference to a bit of dialogue from that first “Red vs. Blue” episode: “Ever wonder why we’re here?”
To mark the occasion, we spoke with three of Rooster Teeth’s longtime leaders, co-founder and CEO Matt Hullum, co-founder and chief creative officer Michael “Burnie” Burns, and Gray Haddock, who heads up the company’s fast-growing animation division. They helped choose some of the moments that helped build the studio into what it is today.
April 1, 2003: the first episode of ‘Red vs Blue’ premieres
Episode 1 of “Red vs. Blue” came after the success of a video posted in 2001 teasing the concept of the series and using an animation technique called “Machinima.”
Burnie Burns: I wish I could tell how many people have watched that particular video. It came out four years before YouTube was a thing. View counters were not a tool we had at our disposal. People would share it physically, via email or burn it on CDs for their friends. My favorite story ever is a guy who said he discovered Rooster Teeth because he found a burned CD on the ground of his local pool and didn’t know it was a series.
It’s hard to find someone who watches online video who hasn’t seen the first episode of “Red vs. Blue.”
Matt Hullum: I got passed “Red vs. Blue” on a CD from somebody. I said, “I made that! I worked on it.” I’d have to say it’s been viewed 100 million times, but it’s impossible to say. Who knows? It’s nuts.
October 2004: Rooster Teeth’s community platform launches
To this day, Burns and Hullum credit the early creation of a place for Rooster Teeth fans to meet and chat on web forums as a key to the studio’s success and longevity.
Burns: Our friends were half in film and the other half a web, tech group of friends. We were very interested in online forums and chat. It just kind of made sense for us to make a forum where we could talk and that just naturally expanded. In the second year we launched our social media site, roosterteeth.com. There were profile pages, people could make friends. All things that are very common today but were very progressive at the time.
That really took off. For a long period of time, I really consider the social media site to be our second major form of content. We had to show what we were really working on. It was really like a second show. We did comics, which were really important. As animation guys, we weren’t really showing people what we looked like. They knew our voices. Comics built our identity as a company and as a group of people.
Sept. 24, 2007: Burnie and Rooster Teeth’s Joel Heyman meet Bill Gates
“Red vs. Blue” was using a game engine owned by Microsoft for its visuals, but rather than shutting it down Microsoft seemed to embrace the web videos, encouraging Rooster Teeth to continue on its path. It even asked Rooster Teeth to create a video for a company event and invited the creators to a launch party for “Halo 3,” where they met Microsoft’s founder, Bill Gates.
Burns: That was a brief encounter. We contributed at one point a special video for Bill Gates’s annual keynote to the entire company. As a thank you, he sent us a “Halo” poster signed by him. We’ve often wondered if the amount of time it took for Bill Gates to sign the poster made that the most expensive thing in our office. What’s the value of five seconds of Bill Gates’ time?
Hullum: They were always really great. The thing that always surprised and impressed us is they were wiling from the outset when we first met them to say we don’t know what this is but we value that it’s something that’s innovative and we want to take our chance on things that are innovative. They could have said, “Nah, you’re nothing with us.”
Burns: They made everything that we do possible with that decision.
Dec. 11, 2007: Grifball officially became a reality in the ‘Halo 3 Heroic Map Pack’
As Rooster Teeth’s influence continued to grow, even inside jokes from its videos began to infiltrate reality. In Episode 59 of “Red vs. Blue,” there’s a reference to a sport called “Grifball,” a mix of rugby and basketball, that ended up becoming a real game mode in “Halo 3” and future titles in the series. It’s also been compared to the modern gaming hit “Rocket League.”
Burns: “Grifball” is a custom game type that we made in “Halo 3.” Even though we spend a lot of time in “Halo 3,” we’re not very good at “Halo.” We wanted a mode we could be good at. It took off like wildfire. We wanted to be part of gaming culture. It was humbling for us. It was really important for us; it was our first foray into game development. We started the way a lot of indie game developers do, we just started making custom mods for games.
March 11, 2008: Red vs. Blue declared ‘Most Successful Machinima Series” in ‘Guinness World Records Gamer's Edition’
Burns: When you’re a kid you always try to come up with things that nobody’s ever tried before and declare yourself a “Guinness Book of World Records” holder. That might have been the first conversation with us asking, “Do you make money on this?” We were profitable from day one. But it was the first time anyone outside of Rooster Teeth asked about our business model.
Hullum: I remember they quoted a number like $200,000, a random number. “Red vs. Blue” has made this much money. Where did they get that money? Those days are a little bit over. The general public people would ask, “How do you make the money?
Burns: “When are you gonna get real jobs?”
March 26, 2010: Monty Oum hired to do custom 3-D animation on ‘Red vs. Blue’
Monty Oum was an animator who was brought on to help with “Red vs. Blue,” but it became clear that he had talents and ambitions that would lead to greater things. He created “RWBY,” Rooster Teeth’s first anime series, and was a huge creative influence on the rest of the company. Oum died in February 2015, at the age of 33 due to an allergic reaction during a medical procedure. A memorial to Oum that includes fan art and his original motion-capture suit, which he used for his work, hangs at Rooster Teeth’s animation offices.
Gray Haddock: I remember meeting Monty for the first time. He was a really cool guy. He could be quiet. Over the course of a couple of years, we were elbow-to-elbow with desks on the green screen stage in our first building. The seeds of what would become the 3-D animation team began with Monty’s work on “Red vs. Blue.”
We’d work really late nights. One night, Monty came back from having taken a nap and described this crazy dream about girls each represented by a different color and we all said, “That’s great, Monty, go back to sleep.”
By the end of that season, he began working with Miles (Luna) and Kerry (Shawcross) and they had the beginnings of the idea for “RWBY” so that after “Red vs. Blue” Season 10, they started asking around, “Who wants to make an anime?”
Hullum: From the outside it may have felt like a departure, a really unusual step, but we were very comfortable with developing our own anime. We believed in Monty and had been trying to develop something new with him for a while. We had spent so much time on the Convention Center, we had seen how video-game boyfriends had anime girlfriends and vice-versa. They traveled in the same circles, including us. Monty had a vision for something unique. He was perfectly positioned to take the next step in his career and do something bold.
March 26, 2011: Rooster Teeth’s most-viewed video of all time, the Angry Birds trailer is released
Of the videos that Rooster Teeth has metrics to measure, its live-action parody of “Angry Birds” has been its biggest draw with nearly 26 million views on YouTube alone since 2011.
Burns: When you’re making content online you never know what’s going to be the video that takes off. People wanting to make a viral video, that’s such an impossible thing. There is a momentum to something going viral that you really just can’t manufacture. Most of the views that thing got were in the first two months.
Hullum: The first week it exploded right out of the gate. I remember we got so many phone calls from news outlets about that video. Most of the questions were, well how do you make a viral video? Like there was a checklist of items and voila you have a viral video. We’d been doing this for eight or nine years when that came out. We had never tried to do stuff that would be “viral,” it just wasn’t in our nature.
Burns: We’ve always wanted to make videos we want to watch. There’s probably a lot of people that have seen the “Angry Birds” trailer that don’t have any idea it was made by Rooster Teeth. That’s really not the path we want for people when they watch our content. We’re telling long stories over a long period of time and some of them are about us.
Hullum: It reminds me of one of the first times we went to YouTube HQ and met the guy who’s our partner manager. He said, “There’s not a lot of people doing what you do on YouTube. You guys make series and you make things that you could watch on TV on this platform.” We have always been an outlier, a little bit different with how we’ve approached this digital space. We’re into the stuff that we’re into. We’ve just kind of followed our creative ambition toward that and tried to use these different platforms and outlets to fulfill our creative desires.
May 27, 2011: the first RTX Event
Before it became a gigantic convention that annually swallows the entire Austin Convention Center for a weekend and that has expanded to England and Australia, RTX was an outdoor-tent affair with screenings of Rooster Teeth’s shows. But even its first year was bigger than Rooster Teeth expected.
Hullum: The story with RTX is we were just going to have 200 people come out. We had figured out that the largest screen at the Alamo (Drafthouse Downtown) was 200 people. It was going to be a simple community event. We put tickets up for sale online. The shopping cart broke almost instantaneously with a flood of traffic. There was so much pent-up demand. We ended up selling 600 tickets.
Burns: It was 535, the same number that sold for “Lazer Team.” (Note: that story comes up later on.)
Hullum: We had a great time. It was smaller and more communal. We held it in a field next to our office. We had a karaoke zombie-themed immersion event. It was a big love fest, it was awesome. The next year, we moved it to the Convention Center.
Dec 12, 2011: Barbara Dunkelman hired as part of new wave of RT talent
In 2011, Rooster Teeth began acquiring new shows and bringing on new hires at a faster clip. Some of these new faces would go on to lead entire divisions of the company, host shows that would become huge hits, or expand the horizons of what the company could do with its interests and talents. In doing so, Rooster Teeth began to spotlight a new generation of content creators under its brand. Some of these hires included Barbara Dunkelman, who had already done work for the company before becoming its community manager, and British expatriate Gavin Free, whose multiple on- and off-air talents would make him one of Rooster Teeth’s most recognizable personalities before long.
Burns: We’ve always had an “SNL” approach to our talent model. When we started this, we were all already in our late 20s. We knew we were already older. Our next-generation hires, Barbara (Dunkelman) and Gavin (Free), they would come from the community.
Gavin is one of the most naturally creative producers I’ve ever met in my life. He has a real passion for it and aptitude for high-speed photography. I talked to Gavin a lot in the early days. My main advice was you guys just need to get started and moving.
If you have one person with a really good idea, a passion for something and a presence on camera, they can make themselves a huge career.
Haddock: (When I was hired) it was crazy exciting after having watched their videos for the better part of a decade to be in a room with all the personalities. I thought everybody was incredibly friendly and open and it’s about as much fun to work with these people as to watch them tell jokes. I was there when Michael Jones and Gavin came on board for the first time for “Achievement Hunter.” Miles had just started as an intern. Miles and Lindsey Jones had just been hired. To have joined Rooster Teeth right as the company was sort of bringing in its second generation of talent and see how from 2011 till now the amazing paths everyone has been walking since then and meeting them in their first week of internship... Now you look around, they’ve grown to become producers and heads of writing and everyone’s leading teams now.
July 6, 2014: Indiegogo campaign for ‘Lazer Team’ goes awry
The company decided to go big for its first feature film, the comedy “Lazer Team” by crowdfunding the project through Indiegogo. But a glitch made for an unexpected problem the last day of the campaign.
Hullum: It was a unique moment in time when crowdfunding had gotten to a point where it had maturity and enough respect. It was something you could do and that people weren’t afraid of. For us, we wanted our first movie to be a big deal to our audience and they were gonna feel real invested in it. We wanted them to have a sense of ownership and sense of something they brought to fruition. The thing Burnie and I kept talking about through that process and the shooting was that what we had done was make the community, our audience, be our boss. They had paid up front for this movie. We knew we’d better do a damn good job on it because they had all invested in us and put their hard-earned money in front of us with the hope and belief we were gonna do something special. There wasn’t a day on the set we didn’t think about that.
We had an incident, the same as our first RTX, strangely. We had one walk-on role we were trying to sell, but the shopping cart broke. We ended up selling that magical 535 number of walk-on roles. We were able to figure that out. We had big crowd scenes in a football stadium with people looking up. It worked out great creatively, for the audience as well. Every day you’d see someone who was a backer on set, you had a real sense of purpose.
Nov. 10, 2014 through Feb. 2015: acquired and acquiring
In 2014, the indie video company decided it was time to partner with a company that could help it become a bigger business. It announced it was being acquired by Los Angeles firm Fullscreen. The next year, Rooster Teeth made another acquisition of its own, bringing on a team of video-makers collectively called Funhaus.
Burns: For me, I felt like we were a very big part of the first chapter of online video. Things really changed in 2011-2012. Suddenly people realized you could make money on this, and everybody else could lose money. Looking down the road at what was coming our way, we saw huge media entities spending a lot of money in this space. To be a part of the next chapter, we were going to have to partner with somebody who could help us navigate to that.
Hullum: We had known them for quite a while even before we’d contemplated it in any way. (Fullscreen) had a shared sense of values around the type of content that we wanted to create, It’s felt like the right thing to do on multiple levels. With Funhaus, we had always wanted since even the early days to work with like-minded people that we were excited about working with. In all types of ways. We’ve always been fans of this space, that’s why we wanted to get into it in the first place.
February 5, 2015: Let’s Play YouTube channel founded
One of the most popular online ventures Rooster Teeth has gotten into is its “Let’s Play” series, which has found a big audience alongside the trend of Twitch streamers and competitive gamers being viewed by fans. Like its podcasts and conventions, the online videos have also found a place in the real world at “Let’s Play” went on tour as a live event, as well.
Hullum: We’re still continuing to expand and explore (with live events). We had RTX in London, which was a huge success last year, and we’re going back this year. We’re looking at different places, different cities and different types of live events. RTX works really, really well in some places, but a three-day event like in Austin might not be the right event. The “Let’s Play” tour or a “RWBY”-themed tour, those are really fun, too.
Jan. 23, 2016: RTX Australia starts off a big year of RTX changes
For RTX, 2016 was a big year. It was the first year Rooster Teeth hosted the event in another country with a convention in Sydney, Australia. It was also the year the RTX Austin convention added on an animation festival, which continues annually and will expand for 2018. For 2017, the animation festival included premieres of shows such as Netflix’s “Castlevania” series.
Hullum: We had been invited to a lot of conventions down there. Australia, that’s been part of our community, outperforming everybody else per capita. They always seem to be the most excited, get into the crowdfunding campaigns in the biggest way, make the most noise. Population relatively speaking, it’s small at under 30 million, but very intense and passionate. They have a similar sense of humor, so it made a lot of sense.
Haddock: The joke is that whatever year we do it, it’s the first-annual Animation Festival. For that one, we were trying to look for a way to enhance the RTX experience. The goal is to share some of the success that Rooster Teeth animation was experiencing with some of our other fellow independent animation teams that we happened to know from around the web.
Anyone from one-person bands to tiny teams finding success distributing their work online. We wanted to help those animations teams connect with their fans outside their own comment sections. You could show up in your PJs, bring a bowl of sugary cereal and watch cartoons at a Saturday morning cartoon screening event.
Nov. 10, 2017: Honored with naming rights for Rooster Teeth Mental Health Healing Garden at Dell Children’s Hospital
Like a lot of Austin companies that find huge, unexpected success, Rooster Teeth says it’s been working to give back to its community, including working with organizations such as Make a Wish and raising money for Extra Life. For its efforts, Rooster Teeth received an honor from Dell Children’s Hospital
Hullum: It’s been a great opportunity to do something for kids that are in need and that’s the most important thing. It’s nice to have Dell give us this honor with this healing garden. It’s not something we got into it to do. This is all about trying to help sick kids and we’re in unique place to do that.
Date TBA: Rooster Teeth mega HQ
Rooster Teeth’s leaders say that as great as it is to grow so quickly, it has created some problems. As it’s spread out across three different locations (two in Austin, one in Los Angeles), the company has had an office space crunch, and at its headquarters at Austin Studios, it finds itself closed in on all sides. Burns, Hullum and Haddock say they hope the company will someday be unified on one campus, though the timeline for that is uncertain.
Burns: The main thing I’m really interested in is what we have is far different than what HBO or Netflix has in terms of engaged community for online video. What we have is a more organized, more homegrown thing, more of a sense that the people who watch are a community. I’m curious if this unique model we have can scale, if we can grow that into something that’s huge and maintain the specialness of it. That’s what I’m looking forward to.
Hullum: One thing I feel we all feel really lucky about is we’ve all grown from four or five guys in a spare bedroom to 350 people. I feel like we’ve managed to maintain our values and aesthetics an focus on community and helping to develop younger generations of talent. We would like to be growing and keep pushing ourselves and keep testing our limits and make our productions better and higher quality with every single thing we do.
Haddock: We want to (unify), we desperately want to. We miss being around the other teams. The resonance you get off that, that your energy can lift that other team, or their energy will bounce off of you... It was also fun to take little breaks and wander off into the broadcast area and be part of another show. Our company is going out of its way to make sure we gather frequently. But the intention is to come up with a Rooster Teeth mega HQ sometime a few years from now and get everyone under the same roof again.