Dale Crosby-Close is bringing back the weirdness of early Noughties animation

Illustrator and animator Dale Crosby-Close is on a mission to bring back the weirdness that dominated online videos at the start of the Noughties. We caught up with him to learn more about his work and why he thinks we’re heading into the age of the human.

For readers of a certain age, the very mention of Salad Fingers and Burnt Face Man will surely bring back fond memories of huddling around a computer screen and wiping away tears of laughter. And for illustrator, animator, and “general human being” Dale Crosby-Close, who was a teenager when clips like these first came out, it’s a vibe he’s trying to recreate in his own work.

Currently racking up hits on YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok, Dale’s work is a worthy successor to the likes of his hero David Firth. It features a host of everyday situations populated by odd characters. Thanks to being family-friendly and fun, it’s primed to make audiences of all ages chuckle.

Dale didn’t dive into animation right away, though. After graduating from Kingston University in 2014, he began by working predominantly as an editorial illustrator for newspapers like the New York Times and Politico. While this was enjoyable and gave him the chance to work with amazing people, he never felt like it was the perfect fit for him.

“I always thought other illustrators did a much better job at illustrating,” he tells Creative Boom. “So almost a year ago to this day, I decided I’d pivot to animation, making videos for all to enjoy and hopefully smile at.

“I didn’t have a set idea in mind; at one point, I wanted to do explainer videos (I still do), but eventually, after much trial and testing, I began to find my feet. I’m still unsure if I’ve found them, but I know they’re somewhere at the end of my legs, and that’s enough for me. I’m having fun anyway.”

The demands of editorial work soon took their toll, though. Work can be pulled at the last minute, an editor could move to a different publication, and before you know it, you’re not sure where your next commission is coming from. Doing his own work was a way for Dale to take back some control. And it’s not just animations either; he also wants to put on events and get into video games.

“I’d also like to start an animated interview series to showcase people, but it’s still a fledgling idea rattling around in my brain at the mo,” he adds. “Animation just happens to be the vehicle for a lot of that; I love it as a tool and way of communicating; it’s probably my first love, forever and always.”

It’s a love rooted in the early 2000s, which Dale says was a golden age of animation due to the internet being something of a testing ground for strange and mysterious ideas. “Monetisation wasn’t a thing. People didn’t even know what the animator looked like; it was just people making for the fun of it,” he explains.

“It was weird, and I was at the perfect age (maybe 12?) to soak it all in. Whenever a new video came out, I’d watch it countless times and quote it from friends. If I can have even a fraction of that effect on people, I’ll be very happy indeed.”

According to Dale, the godfather of this scene was David Firth, the genius behind Salad Fingers and Burnt Face Man. These were some of the first animations Dale ever saw, and to say that they influenced his life and humour would be an understatement.

“It was the sense you got that he and his friends were having a good time doing what they were doing, and it really shows,” says Dale. “You can just tell they were laughing their arses off when making it, stumbling on new ideas and popping them into a video, just for the sake of it. I think I mainly want to take forward that sense of fun.

“As I say, I’m still finding my voice, but I try to capture the enjoyment it brings and show that to the world, saying, “Hey, look, it’s okay to make weird bits”. My notes page is just a mess of little snippets/scripts/lines of dialogue or ideas for future bits. I’d show you, but they’re top secret, and you’d need to eat my phone if you saw them, and it’s a medium-sized phone; the choice is yours.”

The internet has changed a lot since this golden era, but Dale still thinks there is space for the weirdness it spawned. “The tools to create are even more readily available these days. I think it’s more about exploring ideas, having fun, and making something you find funny yourself, weird, or whatever your thing is, not being afraid to make mistakes and try new things,” he says.

“For me, it’s about not taking it too seriously, but it took a while to get to that point. I guess I’m trying to revert to my younger, more carefree self now that I think about it. I also believe in the age of AI, and things being able to be copied and replicated at the push of a button, that the human side of things becomes even more important. I think it’s the age of the human. Long live the brain.”

As Dale points out, the tools to create animations are more easily available. He started dabbling when he was 14 on a project called Smack Egg. “My first animation over a minute was back at uni for a project, which I fumbled through using Flash, but then didn’t touch it again for years,” he adds. “Then, about seven years ago, I decided to learn how to code and make games, so I needed to learn how to use Photoshop to add animation to the game sprites.”

“Fast-forward to last year, I was still using Photoshop to animate, but it was way too clunky for what I needed. I wasn’t using any textures or fancy brushes or anything, so I taught myself Animate using some online tutorials and sage advice from a few wizards (many thanks, wizards).

“I think once you understand the basics of animation, it’s really just learning software and figuring out what you want to make/say with it. Start simple would be my advice, though someone gave me the same advice once, and I followed it not, so instead, do what makes you happy, or something along those lines.”

Dale’s animations are written, drawn, and voiced by him, and it’s a creative control he loves. “I love it when an idea pops into your mind, and you think, ‘I wonder where this could go’ because often I have absolutely no idea; it’s like finding bits of a puzzle. Sometimes, it takes days; others, it’s there right away. I always have a few different half-finished bits floating that I just add to whenever it feels right, like having seven different jigsaws out at the same time that you just peek at now and again.

“I’m also really enjoying discovering exactly what things I like to make. I got so used to asking others whether an idea is good, whether it’s a good joke, or whether I should bin it and move on, etc. I guess it may be due to a lack of confidence over the years, but now I just follow what I think is funny and excites me, then run with that.

“At least then, I made one person laugh. Be your target audience and just see what happens; that’s what I say. I’d also like to collaborate more, making longer, more fully realised bits. I like having creative control, but I also like joking around with like-minded people or bouncing off someone and seeing what happens. There’s room for it all.”

In terms of what inspires the stories in his animations, Dale admits that pretty much anything and everything can be useful. “It can just be a mundane situation that I’m thinking about, e.g. a human at the shops, then the idea of someone saying something within that framework will just make me do a wry smile and shake my head, thinking ‘that’s ridiculous…I’m into it’,” he reveals.

“I always think that when I laugh at my work, I’m not laughing at ‘my work’; I’m laughing at the situation some characters have found themselves in if that makes sense? Also, little jokes I’ve had with friends, overheard conversations, or old cartoons like Futurama all seep in and find a way in there. It’s like a big meldging pot (meldge is probably definitely a word) inside the old brain.”

And while Dale makes animation sound like a fun pursuit, he admits that the landscape at the minute can be very tough. “I can’t speak of actual serious animators because they do some lit work with some real rizz (said in the modern tongue, in case any young people are reading this) that’s way above my pay grade, but there doesn’t actually seem to be a whole lot out there in terms of animation that feels like it was just made by one person at home,” he says.

“There are a few big names, but aside from that, there really isn’t that much, or at least that has been put in front of my eyeballs, which is actually a bit wild now that I think about it. There was so much out there when I was young that influenced me; it feels like there really isn’t enough out there for the next generation; there’s definitely room for more. Hopefully, I can be a slight inspiration to people in that regard. Who knows, maybe in 10 years, someone might mention me in an interview. Hello, if that’s you, thanks.”

TikTok has proven to be a fun community for Dale despite him never setting out to be big on there. He says it feels like the platform has a genuine desire for things on the slightly stranger side of life. It’s somewhere people want to be liberated and shown something other than potentially damaging videos.

“At the end of the day, you’re at the mercy of the dreaded algorithm of doom, but hopefully, the good stuff shines through eventually,” he concludes. I do count myself as extremely lucky, though. Thank you to every single person who has ever watched a video or sent it to your cousin; you are all my heroes.

“One final note: it warms my soul any time someone messages me something like ‘I’ve had a rubbish day, but your animations have cheered me up’. I had a rough start to the year, so it means a lot to know I can be of some help, even if it’s in a small way. Hopefully, my animations can be a small haven where people can be a bit weird and just enjoy themselves. One can dream anyway.”

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