The Squirrel King Aims for All-Ages Transmedia Artcraft

In our hypermediated millennium, it's often (way) too easy to watch rather than make. The Squirrel King wants you to do both.

To achieve the merge, it's turning to Kickstarter to crowdfund a cross-demographic dive into a surreal handcrafted web series of lovers, aliens, catburglars and more -- including squirrels you can make at home with your own hands, and kids.

"I wanted to do something I could involve my kids in," explained The Squirrel King's rock-climbing mastermind Rufus Williams, who's writing, directing and co-producing the series with lead actor Justus Zimmerman."The important underpinning idea for our aesthetic is to see the artists' hand in the visual tableau. So simultaneous with building and shooting the series, we've been developing craft kits, and the squirrels are the first that we're bringing to market."

"It's funny, because we don't have a background in product design: I'm an erstwhile mathematician, and Justus once wrangled bears as a ranger in Yosemite," Williams added. "But what we have created is pretty outstanding on the toy side."

After pocketing a math PhD from Harvard and helming the debut indie thriller Butterfly Dreaming, Williams is making The Squirrel King a transmedia family affair in the mold of singularly arty standouts like Michel Gondry's The Science of Sleep and Aardman winners like Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep. It's executive produced by his spouse Paytre Topp, and yes, those are their crafty kids building nutty squirrels in the video promoting The Squirrel King's first Kickstarter campaign (above), which wraps this week with hopefully a larger haul than planned. That will help The Squirrel King's familial, friendly cast and crew share their love of making thousands of The Squirrel King's subjects with their hopefully thousands of investors.

"I wanted to take Aardman a step further, or take those amazing dream sequences in The Science of Sleep and make an entire show that way," explained Williams. "Instead of being art direction to heighten a specific moment, this becomes the world. The aesthetic is designed to be at once both accessible and awe-inspiring. The awe-inspiring comes from unexpected juxtaposition (right) and the deep-seated human appreciation for scale and scope, like a landscape of quilled trees."

"Most of our art direction consists of pretty simple crafts, which led to the idea of making craft kits to go with the series," he added. "They are the public's first way of physically engaging with this world of creativity and possibility." That material interactivity is central to The Squirrel King's mission, according to Williams, which is "all about inspiring creativity" rather than routine product placement.

"It boggles my mind that merchandise for Tinkerbell consists of a pencil with Tinkerbell's image on the side," he added. "Here's a character that tinkers, that's her charm. But instead of a bunch of widgets to play with, they give you a pencil? I want our products to inspire kids and adults alike to engage with their world in new and unexpected ways. The envelopes that the squirrels' limbs come in for instance will be made of seeded paper, so that once you've made your squirrel, instead of throwing out the packaging, you plant it! Flowers will grow! It's designed to open kids' minds to recycling and just generally rethinking the world around them."

After The Squirrel King's craft kit Kickstarter wraps this week, Williams and team turn to finishing off their surreal series proper. No easy task, given the unexpected juxtapositions and ambitious scope of the stop-motion indie spectacle Williams and team are creating. From pom-pom beds (above) to wider, weirder tableau (below) to the mysterious Squirrel King himself and his minions, The Squirrel King is shaping up to be a promising artistic party.

"We're still a little way off finishing the series itself," Williams said. "But after the Kickstarter campaign, we're going from prototype to real thing! If all goes well, people will have acorns under their Christmas trees this year and inside those will be wonderful craft kits and so much more. Beyond that, we're committed to finding a home and a partner to finish off the series, and we have a couple more products we'd love to launch."

But beyond the best laid plans of squirrels and humans is the primary goal of bringing creative, interactive, handcrafted entertainment to 21st-century viewers who are increasingly being fed a steady diet of desensitized programming. With a destabilized world looming ahead of them, today's kids are in desperate need of aspirational, optimistic artistry.

"I have kids and I'm aware of what they are watching, and I certainly struggle with how much," Williams concluded. "But my big focus is to give them alternatives that are more attractive for both media consumption and for engaging themselves. It's a tough goal, because I think we all have a lazy streak and it's a lot easier to sit and watch than create something yourself. What I think can be learnt is that when you create something yourself, the rewards and satisfaction are immense. It really is worth the extra effort, because our world is the marvelous place that it is because so many other wonderful people before us have nutted around creatively themselves. At heart, we just want to encourage people to come join that party."