For three years, Maddi Winter had been searching for a hit. She’d been posting videos to TikTok and its predecessor, Musical.ly, attempting to build an audience, but nothing she tried seemed to work: not her dancing, or the special effects she learned to create, or even the cute videos of her bunny. Then, last year, she came across a tutorial on YouTube explaining rotoscoping — the process of drawing animations over live video — and thought she’d give it a try.
Her first rotoscoped video showed colorful rings flying across her body and a rainbow blooming above her head as she danced to a remix of the disco-esque “Take Your Time (Do It Right).” She’d never animated anything before, but it only took her a few hours to complete. “It wasn’t really an idea,” Winter said. “It was a nice misfortune that happened to be one of the best mistakes of my life.” The video blew up, and in the year since, she’s amassed nearly 3 million followers who tune in for her hybrid live-action and animated creations.
Winter is one of a growing number of animators who have been able to reach a huge audience thanks to TikTok. The app’s short format rewards catchy and experimental clips, and it’s entirely centered on video, two things animators are primed to capitalize on. A number of animators have built followings in the millions, and they say that TikTok has provided them with opportunities that just can’t be found on other platforms. That also makes them one of many communities at risk of being torn apart if President Trump’s TikTok ban ever goes through.
possibly my favorite video i’ve ever made!! (edit time: 27 hours ) #animation
♬ Geek’d (feat. Lil Baby) – Bhad Bhabie
“I just kept doing that and growing on it, and my audience likes that more than anything else I’ve ever done,” Winter said.
TikTok has been a uniquely welcoming space for animation — so much so that many of the community’s top creators had no experience before they started posting. Lulu, who goes by TootyMcNooty on TikTok, started out by filming her iPad’s screen as she changed the appearance of different characters. For months, she largely used just a single color — red. But as she started posting actual animations (and using multiple colors), her videos regularly began to notch view counts in the millions.
“I get comments saying, ‘I was here when you were doing the red drawings,’” Lulu said.
Lulu now has close to 5 million followers, making her one of the biggest animators on the app. Other major animators, including Alex Rabbit and Abnormal Chaos, who both tend to post fully animated videos rather than live-action hybrids, have similar stories of learning animation as they go. “I’ve learned more on YouTube than school ever has taught me,” Alex said. Scroll back to the beginning of most animators’ TikTok histories, and you can see their evolution, often from animatics to simple line animations to a confident style and recurring characters.
Animators have a few theories for why their work does so well on TikTok. For one, their videos are just different. In an app filled with clips of people dancing, a bright and quirky animation is going to immediately catch viewers’ attention when it pops up on-screen. Plus, there’s the app’s demographic. Kids tend to be drawn to animations, said Recokh, who specializes in animated music videos, and TikTok has a younger audience.
Decided to take on my version of the trend but god daym I love Dirty Harry by Gorillaz
♬ Dirty Harry – Gorillaz
Perhaps most importantly, TikTok videos are short — no longer than a minute — which is great when you have to animate every second of it. Animators can create TikToks in a matter of days, letting them maintain a steady output. (So long as life and school don’t get in the way: “Last semester I was abroad … and it really slowed down my TikTok,” Winter said.) The app’s algorithm also seems to like it when videos are watched through, and since animations are short and catchy, it’s easy for those videos to get a boost, said Morgan Thompson, who goes by MorganToast on TikTok and also works on YouTube animations.
Animators also help each other to grow. At the top of any video, you’ll usually find comments left by other creators — often big ones — and this flurry of activity helps the video get picked up by TikTok’s algorithm. Just about every animator I spoke to mentioned spending time in a Discord server filled with others in the community, where they can ask for help and share their gripes with the platform.
“Artists love supporting other artists,” Thompson said. “When a new one comes in, they’re just immediately friendly … and that interaction gives it what it needs to be pushed to everybody else.”
Like any platform, though, there’s an element of playing to your audience. Many of the artists who only do animation have created cartoon stand-ins of themselves that help identify their videos when they hit someone’s feed. King Science, who is TikTok’s biggest animator with close to 9 million followers, has his character appear in starkly colored blue jeans, a Supreme-esque hoodie, and a yellow crown in every video on his channel whether he’s starring in a music video, a storytime animation, or a quick joke based on someone else’s audio.
Blinging lights @stefanacus @theweeknd
♬ Blinding Lights – The Weeknd
“It’s easier to follow a character,” said King Science. “Plus I always look at it as, ‘What has been the most successful when it comes to anything?’ Everyone likes to follow a certain character whether it’s music or series or shows.”
TikTok may be the only platform with a dynamic that works so well in animators’ favor. Instagram supports short videos, but there’s no way to go viral. Twitter can make a single post blow up, but it’s just as hard making it happen a second time. TikTok, on the other hand, has proven to reliably boost animators’ videos on the algorithmically driven For You Page, putting them in front of huge audiences, so long as they reliably create clips that people enjoy.
The big sore spot has been YouTube. The platform is home to a few big animators, and in years past, it helped similarly quirky shortform creators find an audience.
But nowadays, YouTube is a tough place for upstart artists. YouTube’s algorithm boosts videos that keep viewers tuned in for a long time, so short animations aren’t likely to blow up, no matter how good they are. Animators need to make videos around 10 minutes long to keep up with vloggers, and creating something at that length can take a month or more for someone working solo. It’s a huge gamble, too, since all of that work might not pay off.
“Do I risk it by putting four weeks of work into a YouTube video?” said AmyRightMeow. Amy initially built her audience on YouTube after a video she made about aphantasia went viral, but she’s since gravitated to TikTok since the format lets her put together “really good quality” videos on a more regular basis. “You can spend so long making [YouTube videos], and they don’t do well, and that’s disappointing.”
who else sees this now when you hear it . #iamlost #iamlostchallenge #animation #lmaoo #fypシ
♬ In This Shirt – The Irrepressibles
It’s particularly frustrating since YouTube remains the goal — or at least the next stepping stone — for a lot of animators. Not only does YouTube pay creators (TikTok, with limited exceptions, does not), it’s also home to a lot of the artists who inspired TikTok creators to start drawing in the first place. At this point, most of the big animation YouTubers, like Jaiden Animations and TheAMaazing, rely on a team of contractors who can help them create videos at a more rapid clip. Some TikTok animators said they’ve been hired to contribute to these longer videos since gaining followings of their own.
Animators have found ways to make money on TikTok for the time being. Alex Rabbit sells plushies of his character Minty the Rabbit. King Science made clothing and a sneaker, detailed with his character’s colors. And just about everyone has had brands reach out to them for sponsorships or giveaways. Recokh, says the app has helped him find clients looking for animated music videos. His own ability to draw an audience on TikTok has been a plus, he said, since musicians now desperately hope the app will help their song blow up on the app.
“That’s a new market,” Recokh said. “People who work with me ask me what they should do on TikTok. “That’s an extra thing I now do with whoever I’m working with.”
But mostly, the artists said they stick to creating what they enjoy. The view counts, followings, and brand deals are nice, but not everyone wants to be an influencer; Morgan wants to make a comic, Alex wants to do more illustration. Some aren’t even sure they want to stick with animation in the long run. So long as TikTok sticks around, they just want a space to post what they like.
“If you know how to draw anything, you can create anything you want with little to no budget,” King Science said. “You can let your imagination expand into any world possible because it’s a cartoon.”