Tyler Funk, showrunner for the Vine series White Ninja, courtesy North of Now
The White Ninja lives life in strange six-second bursts.
He hurls a cat that refuses to fetch a stick; eats a worm; attempts to sell avocados to a hippie; tries to impress a date with a squawking clarinet; falls in love with a fish and — in an unusually controversial segment — develops autism after “immunizing” himself with a needle he finds in the park. None of these adventures, incidentally, require the stealth or martial-arts mastery that his name suggests.
Describing the surreal humour of White Ninja is no easy task. But it was that sense of the absurd, plus a vague suspicion that savvier thoughts occasionally lurked beneath, that first attracted filmmaker Tyler Funk to the character back when he was star of a crudely drawn webcomic out of Saskatoon.
“There are parts of it that are just really stupid, which is really awesome,” says Funk, a 27-year-old Banff native who bought the rights to the character last year. “I say that in the best way: you can turn your brain off just to laugh. And there are other ones that are pretty clever. I think it was something that just felt new and fresh every time. You never knew what you were going to get into, except the unknown. And I think that freshness kept me coming back as a fan and made me fall in love with the character.”
White Ninja is now star of his own animated series developed for Vine, a social video platform where users share six-second video clips. To voice his peculiar protagonist, Funk enlisted some star power in Paul Scheer. The American actor and comedian is best known for roles in the sitcom Fresh Off the Boat and the FX series The League, but has also earned an up-for-anything reputation for dabbling in newer technology when overseeing the improvised comedy special Crash Test on Vimeo or hosting the surreal “Sylvester Stallone” Podcast.
“He was a guy I was so excited to work with,” says Funk, who now lives in Victoria. “In university, I watched a lot of (The League) and thought he was really funny and had such a lovable voice. It let the character get away with things that don’t always seem nice. But he has such a likable voice that he brings a real warmth to the character.”
Scheer’s involvement has helped boost the profile of White Ninja, which is fast approaching Vine-sensation status after hitting 10-million loops (Vine terminology for views) in late December. The series was recently profiled on the Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy blog. As of now, 23 episodes are available on Vine.
Still, Funk admits pitching the idea was no easy task. Vine was founded in 2012, which makes it a relatively new phenomenon even in the fast-changing world of social media.
The pioneering aspect of telling stories in six-second instalments is what attracted Funk to the platform, but this also meant he had a lot of explaining to do. After securing the rights to White Ninja in early 2015 from Saskatoon creators Kent Earle and Scott Bevan, he was given a significant grant from the Independent Production Fund, which specializes in funding web series.
“The first big challenge was just explaining to people the concept,” Funk says. “No one had done a narrative Vine series. So it was this idea that I had been holding onto. My elevator pitch was reinventing the Sunday comic. That’s how I would explain it to people.”
Growing up in Banff, Funk and his older brother Kevan — also a filmmaker — were often put to work in their parents’ theatre company. Funk jokes that this exposure to the stage helped cement the brothers’ interest in film.
Funk was a high school student when he discovered White Ninja, which began life as a webcomic that Earle and Bevan created in 2002. It became a cult favourite and lasted 10 years, eventually running on popular humour website cracked.com. Funk would read it online in Social Studies class when he was supposed to be surfing the web for news stories. He always thought it would make a great animated series. So after attending the University of British Columbia’s film program and directing a number of short films, he pursued the idea.
Funk used the IPF money to put together a writing staff of seven people, who would contribute six episodes per week over the spring and summer. Bevan wrote 30 new episodes for the series and Funk chose another 10 from the old webcomics to animate as part of “Throwback Thursdays.” Scheer’s voice work was done over one day in Los Angeles. The other voices were recorded in Vancouver. Sixty episodes, which will be released three per week until April, have been made.
Funk says the plan is for White Ninja to eventually move to television, with the Vine series acting as a primer to garner interest. He says he hopes to get a sponsor to help monetize the Vine series for next season. As for what adventures await White Ninja in the future, Funk says there is still plenty for him to discover.
“He really sees the world as a seven to 10-year-old boy in a lot of ways,” says Funk. “He’s sort of preteen. He not really aware of sexuality, there’s no drugs or swearing. I think the interesting thing about the show is that it can be funny for people our age to watch it — like the needle one and stuff like that — that younger kids may not get. But it’s not really jumping into a lot of adult issues.”
To watch White Ninja visit vine.co/WhiteNinja