TV - Don't Hug Me I'm Scared

With all six episodes of a new series now available to watch on All 4, find out more about Don't Hug Me I'm Scared and read an interview with the YouTube phenomenon's creators Becky Sloan, Joe Pelling and Baker Terry ...

What is a Job? Who are a family? And what is that horrible noise? Join three friends Red Guy, Yellow Guy and Duck as they learn about everything there is to know with the help of some friendly talking objects! But wait, maybe something's not quite right here. Every teacher they meet on their journey seems a bit out of their depth. What lessons are they actually learning? 

Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared is a deeply unsettling comedy puppet show, think the Muppet Show relocated to Twin Peaks. It started life as a YouTube phenomenon. Eleven years and a quarter of a billion views later, main characters Red Guy, Yellow Guy and Duck are now inside your television trying to get out.

How did ‘Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared’ first come about?

BS: Well it began about 12 years ago, we all met studying art at university. Baker and Joe were doing animation, and I was doing fine art. Obviously, we became best buds and then after uni we all got a studio together where we could continue to just make stuff.. So in between our day jobs we used the space to make short films and experiment. Joe, Baker and I started working together more and more. I think it worked well because we all had different skills to bring to the table. Like I was making a lot of props, big physical things, Joe was doing a lot of animation so we naturally just helped each other with things we were doing. I think we knew we wanted to do something with puppets, and we just started sort of experimenting in our free time really. I started making these characters. I think I made Yellow Guy first and then we just started to build this small set. It was a bit of a weird way of doing things. We hadn’t written the scripts or anything. But It was also quite an organic process - we were kind of making it up as we went along.

There was one day where we got together and made this song. We knew we wanted to take a recognisable kids show format, and mess with it. I think having all just come out of art school the idea of teaching creativity seemed funny to us, we wanted to slightly take the piss out of that type of thinking. So we did it! And we shot it over a weekend and it was all quite mad. The fire brigade came because we melted the roof with one of the lights…

JP: I remember the fire brigade coming in and being very confused. They came into this room and there was a load of meat on a felt set with blood everywhere and they were like ‘what’s the issue here?!’.

BS: I remember wafting the fire alarm with a tablecloth covered in blood to try to stop it. Very bizarre! And it stank of raw meat!

JP: After the terrifying experience of making the first short we teamed up with Blink Industries, who showed us how to make stuff without melting the roof. Producers James Stevenson Bretton, Hugo Donkin and Charlie Perkins have been pivotal to the show’s development since then.

I wanted to ask actually about the craft – actually making the series.

BS: I think with the series we have been keen to hang on to the DNA of the show. It’s still a very mixed media, unique show. There are so many different techniques involved: puppetry, live action, 2D animation, CGI, stop motion. It feels like there’s not really anything else like it out there. And it’s really exciting because we get to work with lots of other artists that we really like.

JP: It feels like the UK isn’t really known for making animated shows or anything like that, so it’s cool that we were able to make this and make it feel really distinct and separate from the 2D shows that you see coming out of America.

BT: Absolutely. It feels like a kind of natural evolution from the, relatively old now, stop motion, puppeteer, children’s animation that used to be a mainstay.

JP: Oh, you mean like Oliver Postgate?

BT: Oliver Postgate, exactly. Bagpuss.

BT: They were also genuine labours of love as well. I think Oliver Postgate was just a guy who loved doing that and did a lot in his shed.

JP: No. It’s all done on the computer I think. Bagpuss was simulated by Andy Serkis.

BT: Oh sorry that’s right. That’s why it was a labour of love because he had to go through the Pixar computer thing.

BS:. I think that’s what’s nice about making this show, everything you see is made by hand - there is so much detail and you can watch it again and again and you might spot something new. I think people respond to the tactile quality of the show and how handmade it is..

BT: We have packed in an incredible amount of detail. Sometimes an unnecessary amount. I’m just thinking of the USB grape stuff. I don’t want to spoil anything but the cyber grapes. The USB grapes that all have different inputs….

BS: They actually have sockets in them. Like a silly little gag will have an amazing intricate prop that took like a day to make and it’s on screen for like a second.

JP: Hopefully it also just adds to the comedy. You know the fact that we bothered to make so much stuff and put so much detail in just adds an extra layer of oddness to the show.

BS: Why has someone gone to this length to make this? It’s like a lunatic has made it.

BT: It’s always had that air of outsider art hasn’t it. That someone’s discovered it in someone’s recycling bin after they’ve been found dead.

Would you describe the series as distinctly British?

JP: I suppose we are inspired visually by that era of 60’s/70s British animation. That kind of twee, creepy, very homemade feel. But I don’t think it’s exclusively that.

BT: I think it’s just a natural thing because it comes from us and that’s what we know and who we are. We’ve never drifted into the territory of wanting to do something like ‘overtly British and British and Britain’. It’s just a continuation of our experiences as we live here I guess.

We worked with a lot of amazing British talent, lots of incredibly talented propmakers, animators, directors of various things, puppeteers, it would feel crazy not to show them off basically now that we have a small opportunity to do so.

Can you summarise Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared in three words? Sorry it sounds a bit like a ‘Smash Hits’ question – ‘If you were a biscuit which biscuit would you be?!’.

JP: Can we answer that question instead?

BS: I would be a Party Ring because I’m fun!

BT: I would be a plain digestive: they’re versatile, they’re sturdy, you can rely on them, not fancy.

JP: Shortbread.

BT/ BS: Shortbread?!

JP: Oh, fxxx off! Three words? Can we describe it as just ‘puppets in rooms’?

BS: Fun educational nightmare.

JP: Yeah, that’s good.

BT: That is good.

Jp. Kids show for adults. Sorry that’s four words.

BT: Three words? Nice puppet show. Puppets comma show.

JP: Colours and sounds.

BS: Something to watch.

BT: What about ‘are they puppets?’. Are they puppets?

You have an incredibly loyal fanbase which is very dedicated to spotting Easter eggs in the series – some of which you may not even have intended! Is it hard to keep things secret?

JP: it’s amazing that the show has this big online following and people dissect it to such an extent. That’s exciting for us because we get to play with it. We have to be careful about what we post sure but it means that we can put a lot of detail in and we know that they’ll appreciate it.

BT: Yeah I think that our creative process, or whatever you want to call it, has evolved over the years along with the intensifying of the audience engagement and reaction, so we feed off of that as much as they feed off whatever it is we’re putting out there.

BS: It’s a feedback loop. It’s definitely fun to play around with and the new series is riddled with Easter eggs that new fans might not understand but existing fans who have seen the YouTube series would be able to pick up on.

So comparing the series to the YouTube series, how did that work in terms of adapting it to a longer form format?

BT: I think it was something that we really ended up relishing and making the most of. The approach I guess in its fundamentals is similar in that you start with a longlist of subjects that might be fun to do an episode on and then you see what story comes from the subject or if there’s anything that jumps out from that buzzword for the title of the episode.

This time we made a real effort to really be story-led. We’d use the episode theme as a starting point obviously but then really leaning into the story to make sure that was our driving force behind everything we did across all the episodes. Which is different to how we’ve worked in the past because they were so snappy and brief you didn’t have time or space or attention span to get that much story in there. With the longer format episodes we wanted people to be actually genuinely invested, to care about the characters we knew had to focus on the stories as a whole. Without that I think it would feel a bit throwaway.

JP: I remember when we first started, the urge was to expand the show quite a lot and to build the entire DHMIS world. We realised that one of the things that we found intriguing about the shorts was their odd, intimate smallness. So that’s one things we’ve tried to retain with the half hour episodes, this kind of claustrophobia, this smallness and the central question hanging over the show. Where are we? Who are these guys and what’s going on? Trying not to iron that out or explain it, that’s part of the fun. That’s something we kept in our heads when we were developing this.

BT: So rather than expanding outwards like you’re flying away from a planet in a spaceship and you see the whole thing, it’s more like you’re crashing into the planet and like expanding inwards.

JP: That's right or like a balloon, so if you blow up a balloon it normally gets bigger and bigger. We didn’t want to do that in case we popped it like a balloon. Instead what we decided to do is go inwards like a balloon that goes inwards. I think that’s a watertight metaphor. It’s like a balloon that goes in.

BT: But some people…ok, now I’ve got a good one, it’s like people when they grow their hair, traditionally you think they would grow it outwards and it would grow longer but some people have ingrowing hairs and those actually can be very painful and in some cases…

BS: It gets infected.

BT: So the show is an ingrowing hair.

BS: It’s infected and bad.

JP: Is that three words?

BT: Yes!

BS: An infected pubic hair!

BT: That’s four words!

BS: It was a challenging process.

Is there an element of nostalgia to the show? Is it a kind of nostalgic look back to past British animations of years gone by?

BT: I don’t know if nostalgia is the right word, is it? It’s more kind of the horror of how unsettling that stuff is, looking at it now through whatever lens, this was entertainment for children?! It seems…

BS: Yeah, so creepy.

JP: Yeah, I mean for sure that’s where a lot of our aesthetic choices come from. There’s just so much good stuff from that era, but I feel but we don’t necessarily try and put the show into a specific time frame. It’s just kind of these odd mixture of styles, kids show language…

BS: I think I would describe this show as being like a VHS tape that you dig up from underground and you can’t quite place where it’s from. It’s just quite a disturbing thing. And with the subject matter, we wanted to avoid anything too current or topical and keep it very vague ‘kids show’ and broader universal themes.

JP: Yeah. I mean also we don’t have the speed to take on topical things in the way a show like South Park does. It takes us a hundred years to make a show.

JP: Nostalgia…I’m trying to think of any specific old-school references that we found that we were amazed by.

BT: I mean we referenced – I don’t know if we were amazed by them so much, more just curious and I don’t know what the word is but I think nostalgia is too warm…

JP: Peculiar curiosity. There’s a lot of choices that you’ll see, like kids shows from the 60s or 70s where they’ll decide to take unusual routes to explain things to kids. Or they’ll have a character that’s unwittingly terrifying and now it comes across very wrong and, a lot of the time, very funny.

BS: ‘Watch with Mother’, ‘Fingerbobs’, there’s an amazing film called ‘The Hugga Bunch’ which was very inspiring. And just lots of stop motion stuff, like Jan Svankmajer and ‘The Trap Door’.

Do you have a proudest Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared moment?

JP: I’m not sure proud is the right word but sometimes I see pictures of people at Comic Con or Halloween dressed up as the characters. Especially when they clearly have spent a long time at home attempting to make themselves look like a kind of humanised version of a clock or something, or they have used a mop to make themselves look like a red guy. I love that people do that.

BS: I think a huge achievement was just finally making this TV show, especially after COVID just being able to work with a huge team of talented people, a lot of whom we’re now good friends with. I think we were able to create something really unique and watching back the episodes, it feels really like a big achievement.

BT: Yeah totally almost everyone we worked with throughout the whole process this time has just gone so far for the show and been so good, in every department, …everyone’s just committed so much to it, gone so much further than you could reasonably expect or hope for.

BS: Oh yeah, we caused a global spike in aspic Google searches just because the food episode had a little bit in the song about aspic and some people didn’t know what it was, somebody at Google emailed us to show us. So that was quite a proud moment!

JP: That’s an example of us bringing something from the 70s back. We are bringing aspic back!

That’s a good ‘three word’ thing: ‘Bringing aspic back’! Do you have a favourite character to write for?

BS: Yellow Guy is probably my favourite to write for because he’s so pathetic!

JP: I like writing for Duck. He’s just so horrible. He will tell someone to their face that he thinks they’re ugly or will just be very cruel and not think twice about it because he's got all these weird little rules in his head. There’s one point where he assumes he is the dad of the other characters. That’s a good example of someone whose ego is so out of sync with reality.

BT: That thing about assuming you’re someone’s dad, that’s based on reality because when Joe and I lived together at university, the whole time we lived together he assumed he was my dad!

JP: You could have set the record straight earlier!

BT: I could go with Yellow Guy because he’s such a sweet bozo that it breaks my heart and fills it with joy writing for him. You just want the best for him but you know he’s not going to get it.

BS: Writing for Red Guy is quite a refreshing break from writing for Duck and Yellow Guy.

BT: You have these really fun characters and then with Red Guy you just imagine Joe‘s dull voice.. You know these palate cleansers.

JP: You do the voice of Duck and Yellow Guy.

BT: Everyone loves them!

JP: It’s just good having him to occasionally underline a joke by pointing out the absurdness in it. You kind of need a middleman every now and again and a break from every character saying nonsense.

BT: He might be my favourite actually. I think I’ve changed my mind because he’s…He’s sensible and together until he isn’t, so it’s quite nice to let himself build himself up a bit and then tear him down!

Is there anything you’re able to reveal?

BT: What about one of the characters knows how to ride a horse?

BS: Is that true?

BT: Well I don’t know - they know how to do it. But we can reveal that can’t we?

JP: But not which one it is. We don’t even know which one.

BT: They never told us. They never did it.

JP: We’ve still got music in the show!

BT: Still got music.

BS: Still musical. I don’t know what we can reveal that’s interesting but doesn’t give too much away.

JP: We can reveal that the show exists.

BT: Didn’t we decide a while ago that the twist was going to be that the characters were actually really massive?

JP: Yeah we decided they’d be three times the size of a normal person.

BS: Oh, what about the pirate ship?

BT: Pirate ship. We might finally get a glimpse of the exterior of the pirate ship. Been begging for that for decades.

BS: Plus some new characters.

Is there any more you can tell us about what happens behind-the-scenes, how the series is made?

JP: We worked with some brilliant additional writers. That was really good for us because they were people who really got the show. Like Sam Campbell, Megan Ganz and Tash Hodgson.

BT: 100%. Sam was there from the beginning of the TV version of this so his DNA and voice is deeply in there and had a huge effect on everything. He is such a unique person working with him was like having access to some kind of funny bank.. And then Tash is like, you know you get to a point in a project where you hit a wall, so her fresh eyes and her unique voice was just an amazing help as well and Megan who was our Script Editor over the entire series, she was incredible at helping us with episodic structure.

BS: I think at one point we had 25 episode outlines that we had to whittle down to six and it was definitely so useful having other people with other skills who were a bit more experienced to help with structure and piecing it all together.

BS: I guess talking about the art department team a bit. With the YouTube series it started off with just me making the puppets and I’d never made puppets before, I wasn’t an experienced puppet maker, hence why they look so strange…So the show developed and grew. We worked with a lot of people, built up a team of talented puppet makers and model makers and I think that helped so much just to move the show forward and make the puppets function better as well. We were able to use proper mechanisms, even some animatronics and stuff like that, though without losing a lot of the low fi creepiness of the YouTube series.

BS: With the characters. We’ll do the designs first and then we start to make them and then they might change or develop depending on what they need to do. Some characters we would literally just be like ‘shit, we’re filming this tomorrow, we need to make this character’. We don’t always have time to design it, it will just be a bit freestyle and that’s really fun I think. Just being able to have all the materials there and a really talented team where you can create something out of nothing. And sometimes we would come up with new ideas on set that had to be quickly implemented.

BT: Like a stupid quick joke where we think it will be funny if for one second Duck says, ‘I’m bald’ and then turns around and is suddenly bald for no reason.

BS: So you just have to go to someone in the art department and say, ‘can you just make a silicone bald patch for Duck?’ and they are like ‘what, just cut into his head?!’ and I’m like ‘yeah, just go for it, we need to shoot it now!’. And they’re just like ‘ok, fine!’. It’s so random the things that pop up. But fun. Probably stressful at times but fun.

BT: We should say that our first AD Mark, he was long suffering but we wouldn’t have done it without him. He’s the last person to get the thanks but he deserves a big one. We were filming across multiple sets, we had stop motion going at the same time. The shoot was three months, midsummer…three and a half months and Mark planned it out and pushed it along in a remarkable fashion, he was long suffering but ever supportive and adaptive. It was quite a remarkable ballet dance of logistics.

BS: Yeah.

BT: To get as much done as we did in the time – remarkable.

BS: Yeah.

BT: And then when we had to do our pick-up shoot he had COVID so he couldn’t come, so I take it all back!

JP: And why did we have to do a pick-up shoot? His fault!

BS: It’s true, let’s not include him!

What would you say to viewers coming to the series for the first time?

BS (to JP): You said they might get confused!

JP: So my message is: don’t get confused! Please!

JP: or I would say ‘it’s got puppets and music and animation’. What’s not to like about that?

BT: If I didn’t know the show and you tried to recommend it to me like that, I’d go nuts! It’s got music?? In the show??

BS: It’s got standalone music videos! It’s got other directors creating 2D and stop motion animation segments for the music sections in the episode. They are nice little standalone music videos! It has an eclectic visual style that's distinct and different from anything else you’d normally see on TV. We hope!

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