We can’t brag enough about our biggest competitive advantage: Our people. They’re some of the smartest, most talented, most interesting people on the planet – and we’re not exaggerating. In fact, if you knew even half the things our employees are up to in their spare time, it would blow your mind.
The Secret Life of RV series reveals some of the coolest things our employees are doing outside of work. (Read: THIS is where we blow your mind)
Secret Life: Austin Light
RV Content Lead & Web Designer/Internet Celebrity & Published Author
One of our most senior copywriters at RV, Austin started in January 2011 and has written copy for dozens of brands. He’s also branched out over the years to incorporate his other loves (art, design and education) into his day job. He’s the mastermind behind our caricature posters for Red Talks, the designer behind several websites for brand partners, written a TON of internal on-boarding materials, designed infographics and shirts and has even helped animate videos for the company.
Q: To be clear, this particular success didn’t come out of nowhere. You’ve been quietly doing some big things for a long time. Mind sharing some of those first?
A: Sure. Prior to this book I’ve gotten to do all kinds of cool things—I illustrated a billboard for Frontier Communications, illustrated a children’s book for the city of Yuma, Arizona, wrote countless websites, and took on dozens of other small projects, like drawing commissioned portraits for families and designing wedding invitations.
Q: For most (normal) people, one of those jobs is enough to fill a plate. How did you find time to 1) Master all of those skills in the first place and 2) Make them a part of your every day job?
A: I’m never not working on something. I like to have goals and big projects to work toward, both professionally and personally. I was one of those learning nerds who went straight from undergrad to grad school, and even now I’m almost always in a class of some sort. I just finished an advanced character design class at Schoolism.com, and last fall I was in a mentorship class through the Oately Academy with Nickelodeon painter Sarah Marino.
I love writing and art because there’s always forward progress. You can’t really master them. There’s always something you can get better at, and it might be slow and steady, but you can see the progress as you improve. I might be addicted to that learning and improvement loop.
Q: Let’s talk about Movie Title Typos. How did it come about?
A: The Movie Title Typos drawings were started as something to do for Inktober, a daily art challenge created by artist Jake Parker. It’s simple: just draw something with ink every day of October, and post it online with the hashtag #inktober. (Nerd alert: I love art challenges like that because you get to improve your art along with thousands of other people.)
Anyway, I needed a subject, and my coworker Ed suggested I use the “movies with one letter missing” thread on Reddit. It was a 2011-2012 thread with a bunch of movies with a letter removed. I drew a new movie everyday, wrote my own description, then posted them on Instagram. The first one I drew was “Obocop” (below).
Each picture on instagram got maybe 25 likes a piece, which was great to me. At the end of the month Ed told me to put them all in a single gallery and post them as a group to Reddit—he said it would go over well (I was thinking maybe a couple hundred likes). I’d never posted on Reddit before and was a bit intimidated, so I sought out Taylor, a Reddit-savvy coworker, who helped me get them online.
Q: And that’s where you blew up the Internet.
A: The response was insane. Within six hours I had over a million views. I hit the front page of Reddit, and the emails started pouring in. People wanted shirts and posters, websites wanted to run the gallery, celebrities were tweeting about it. It was insane! Ed suggested I set up a pre-order form to collect emails from people interested in buying stuff (since they were just sketches, and I didn’t anticipate this, I didn’t have any merchandise). I set up the form and by the end of the day had more than 1200 email addresses. I…didn’t get a lot of Red Ventures work done that day.
Q: Permission to name-drop here. Tell us some of the coolest places/people that featured your work. What was that like for you (bonus points every time you use the word ‘bonkers’).
A: It was bonkers(1)! (And yes, MTV quoted me saying that and used it as their headline). Celebrities like Robert Downey Jr., Molly Ringwald, the late Wes Craven, and George Takei all shared it on social media. Chris Hardwick used several of the pictures and jokes as the final segment on an episode of @Midnight. Waking up to those tweets and then watching the show, and seeing Chris and Donald Faison (from Scrubs!) use my art as prompts for hilarious jokes was…bonkers(2). Dozens of websites ran my gallery too. Everything from Esquire, the Huffington Post, even the PGA (they ran Jurassic Par). The response was so positive, and a little overwhelming. Definitely an unforgettable week. I still look back at that week of instant Internet fame and can’t believe it happened. Babycenter ran an article. Babycenter!
I always wanted to know what I’d look like with tattoos… http://t.co/MzrGLKEGhQ
— Molly Ringwald (@MollyRingwald) November 8, 2014
Q: (Two points, not bad.) What happened next? How does one go from being an Internet celebrity to being a published author?
A: A lot of people in the comments on Reddit said they’d buy a book of my jokes and illustrations. So my initial idea was to use a service like Blurb and publish my own, then if it sold well, approach a publisher. Then someone at work reminded me that Chronicle Books publishes quirky coffee table books like this, so I looked into them. They have an open submission page where you can send a book pitch and it says they have a response time of around three months. What did I have to lose, right? I sent a one-sentence email with a link to my Reddit post and asked if it was something they’d be interested in. I received an email back an hour later asking to set up a phone call. I chatted with my editor Steve the next day and he asked me to take some of those sketches to finished images so he could pitch the book at his next meeting. Two weeks later I had a book deal.
Q: That happened fast!
A: No kidding. They wanted the book out by Fall 2015, which meant I had about four months to make it. It was a grueling schedule, but as my mentor, Sarah Marino, told me, when the book people ask, you say yes (they’ve got rigid schedules), even if it means drawing on Christmas. And I definitely drew on Christmas. And on a plane, and in restaurants, and every day while I ate lunch at work.
Q: Wait, AND you’d just had a baby, right? How on earth did you balance all of that work on top of an RV work schedule AND a young family?
A: Yep, I have two boys, and the youngest was only about 9 months old when I got the book deal. I would get home from work, play with my kids for a few hours, put them to bed, then draw till about 12:30-1:00am. Then get up around 6:00 the next morning (my wife leaves for work around that time), draw a bit before they woke up, then get them ready for school and go to work. My wife, Brooke, was an amazing help, not just with the kids, but with the late night pep talks and never-ending encouragement. It was a lot of hard work, but totally worth it.
Q: Let’s talk more about that. What’s been your favorite part of this whole experience?
A: My favorite part has been seeing the reactions to my work. I’m not out to make life-changing literature that makes you question the meaning of our existence. I just want to entertain people. If my book makes someone laugh, I’m happy. So when I see a person look at my art at a comic convention and they just start cracking up, it feels amazing. When my art went viral, I got an email from someone saying her father had just passed away and he loved movies, and my art and jokes gave her a much-needed laugh during a tough time. I saved that email, and every one like it. It’s not just validation; it really does make me happy to see someone’s mood lift because of a silly picture I made.
Q: This has been almost a life-long goal of yours hasn’t it?
A: This book is definitely a bucket-list item for me. When I was 24 I made it a goal to have a book on the shelf at Barnes & Noble* by the time I hit 30. I spent the next six years attending writing conferences, taking art classes, and of course, making stuff. Sure, the part where I got the book deal sort of fell in my lap, but making the book was a ton of work, and I spent years getting to that point. I didn’t technically hit my goal after those six years: my first book isn’t a novel, but a book of silly illustrations and jokes, and I’m not 30, but 31. But, ehh, I think this is close enough!
Q: Uh, we definitely agree. What went through your mind when you held the first copy of your book in your hand?
A: The first time I held my book, my wife snuck in and took a picture of me. It was a proud moment for sure, and I’m so glad she captured it. I just sort of nodded my head at each page thinking, “This is not bad. You did it, and this book is kind of great. Way to go dude.” I think I developed a weird talking to myself habit with all those late nights drawing.
Q: So the book comes out TODAY. (Congrats!) How is it different from the original Internet sensation? Did all of the original typos make it into the book?
A: There were 31 pictures in the original post on Reddit and more than 50 in the book. Not all 31 made the cut for the book—I think more than half of them are actually new, just for the book. Even the ones that came from the original post have been rewritten and redrawn. I worked with my awesome editor at Chronicle, Steve Mockus, to make sure everything was as funny as it could be.
Q: Can you give us a sneak peek of what you’re working on next?!
A: Next up I have a signing in Charleston at the Mt. Pleasant Barnes & Noble on October 3rd with comic artist Babs Tarr—she does Batgirl for DC, among many other awesome things. Then I’ll be at New York Comic Con at the Chronicle Books booth to sign books. I’ll also probably be at Charlotte Comic Con in December.
For the launch I put together a video of my process. My wife interviews me over it. The picture is one I did just for that video—Ad Max: Fury Road. If you’re into that behind-the-scenes stuff, you can watch that, and also read the post on how the cover came together.
I like to keep a lot of plates spinning. I have a YA novel—a modern-day take on Aladdin set in high school—I’d like to get published. I’m also working on a freelance character design project, I’m teaching writing at Winthrop University, I’m finishing up some sketches for a children’s book, and I’ve already written outlines for possible follow-ups to Movie Title Typos. Oh and I also work full-time at Red Ventures.
Q: Please refer to the earlier question, Re: Normal people schedules.
A: I swear I’m not a work-aholic! I still sit down and marathon shows on Netflix like most people, I just have a sketchbook in my lap while I do it.
Q: Thanks Austin for taking the time out to answer our questions in the midst of a bonkers (3) schedule!