Robyn Vinter 15th February 2019
“I’m not a dark person. I just find it interesting. I find it funny.”
David Firth is the creator of Salad Fingers, one of the most popular internet animations of all time. The videos, which were — and still are — one of the only true global internet phenomena, revolve around the existence of a grey-green, wasteland-dwelling character called Salad Fingers.
Macabre, disturbing and scary are probably some of the more common words used to describe the title character and the world he inhabits, though, as internet standards go, that’s misleading. It might even be more accurate to call him quaint, cute or even “nice”.
“He’s a nice guy,” says Firth, over coffee in Leeds where he lives. “I don’t think he ever actually kills on purpose. But there’s lots of evidence that he may have done.
“He’s like a cat. A cat will kill mercilessly outside but you still bring him in and cuddle him. It’s the same as Salad Fingers, he’s just a bit of an animal.”
It’s been 15 years since the first Salad Fingers video, where our antihero goes in search for the perfect rusty spoon (he likes the feel of them… it’s quite hard to describe, you really need to just watch it).
January saw the highly anticipated launch of Salad Fingers 11, five years after the last episode dropped and 15 years since the first became one of the original viral videos.
“The idea was never ‘there will be a story’ it was always just we’ve got this weird character and he’s probably in a weird house.
My friend called me ‘Salad Fingers’, so we just laughed about that for a while and then I went off and made Salad Fingers
“I was playing on the guitar,” Firth mimes his fingers on the frets. “My friend called me ‘Salad Fingers’, so we just laughed about that for a while and then I went off and made Salad Fingers based off all that sort of feeling around that time, and I didn’t expect anything.”
As the video got more popular, the friends — who you perhaps also know from Devvo, a similarly viral video series — felt under pressure to write more.
“So a bunch of us, well actually just two of us at first, we were just writing ideas and just doing the voice. We came up with a lot of ideas in that one session, some of the ones I’ve even made recently were still conceived in that early session. We were just throwing ideas out.”
The new video, titled “Glass Brother” has amassed nearly 2.5 million views a fortnight after its release.
“It’s like I’m fishing with some very obscure bait,” says Firth.
“But it gets them, and they really get hooked, so I think that means it’s cult.”
If you looked at my stuff when I was like 17, it’s so bad
Salad Fingers certainly has a longevity that is rarely seen on the internet. Perhaps the reason for this is that the series has evolved into longer episodes with a more coherent narrative.
In episode 11, we see Salad Fingers make a new version of finger puppet Hubert Cumberdale out of bits of human flesh he has lying around, and we watch as he’s taunted by his “glass brother”, a version of himself that lives in the mirror. It’s a complete and satisfying narrative — arguably irresistible now to Firth, who has come a long way, having made numerous other successful series and stand-alone animations, since his first foray into internet video.
It’s fair to say Firth’s work, though unusual and bleak, can be visually stunning. He has never formally studied art or design but his parents were both art teachers, so growing up in Doncaster, he had a good understanding of art.
“I never really needed to focus on it. It was just there,” he says.
“I just had to teach myself animation. If you looked at my stuff when I was like 17 when I was first drawing on a computer, it’s so bad, like, no one wants to see that.
“If people saw that they’d think, ‘oh, maybe I could be an animator too, because if he was that bad when he was 17 and somehow managed to improve, then anyone can’.”
Salad Fingers is far from Firth’s favourite project to work on, though he says it’s probably the best. When you’ve been working on something on and off for 15 years and improved considerably since then, how much can you afford to change the character, without losing what makes it immediately recognisable?
“The only thing I never really change is the face, and it does change slightly, but I feel like that’s part of the character is that face.
“You’ve got to do it gradually, just tweaks.”
It’s clear that an enormous amount of work has gone into the latest episode and it hasn’t gone unappreciated — there more than 30,000 comments on episode 11 — though he says if he was relying on YouTube for his income, he’d barely cover his rent. In the past, YouTube was a better source of income but it became “worrying to watch it every month”.
These days, creators are finding it harder to survive after YouTube made a series of changes that cut advertising revenue significantly.
“There was a golden age of YouTube and I think we’re past it already.”
While some creators are making money through affiliate links, Firth isn’t keen on selling out.
“I couldn’t live with myself if at the start of an episode I had to say something like ‘before you do this, click audible.com’ or whatever, because it would be there forever.”
Firth is now financially supported by his Patreon, which he runs on a per project basis, rather than monthly. The top reward, which includes artwork personally made by him, is set at $200 and is frequently sold out. Patreon means there’s less pressure for Firth to be releasing video after video — though it also means he was working on the latest episode of Salad Fingers, alongside other projects, for more than a year.
It’s perhaps the weirdness of Salad Fingers and his other creations that attracts a core audience of people who want to support him.
YouTube comments on “Glass Brother” include, “Such a beautiful episode” and “Salad fingers cuts out toxic relationships i’m so proud of him”.
Though, for every person who “gets” his videos there are plenty more who find them alienating or try to find deeper meaning.
There’s all these deep conspiracy theories about Salad Fingers
Brits tend to be better at taking them at face value, he says.
“I think because we had Monty Python, Chris Morris, Reeves and Mortimer and other thing that have a lot of weirdness that’s not explained, we’re just used to weird stuff that isn’t explained. And it doesn’t need to be explained, it’s a joke.
“I feel like Americans struggle with that because they need it to be explained, so they start theorising. There’s all these deep conspiracy theories about Salad Fingers.”
Stream of consciousness
To answer the “whats wrong with ur head lol” comments that pop up frequently on his videos, Firth attributes a lot of the ideas to being able to tap into a sort of creative stream of consciousness.
“Sometimes I have no control over the words that come into my head and I just find it’s not going to go away unless I write it down,” he says.
And, in answer to another common question, he’s not (usually) high.
“I don’t advocate the use of drugs, I wouldn’t do that, but I did once do a microdose of mushrooms. It was in LA, it was really hot. I just went outside in the sun and I was just writing rubbish. I didn’t feel intoxicated. It was just as soon as I put my mind to it, weird words came out. So just wrote it all down.”
He describes it as “like tuning into a radio frequency”. Sometimes coffee helps, or exercise, or the right kind of tiredness.
If you’re consistently inconsistent, you can get away with anything
This almost meditative state might go somewhere towards explaining the dreamlike storytelling.
“I like dreams because they’re inconsistent. And I feel like if you’re very consistent all the way through, and then you lose your consistency, it feels like a plot hole. But if you’re consistently inconsistent, you can get away with anything.”
It’s the flexibility of working alone with no producers that means Firth is able to create things that are so different to anything we might see on mainstream TV. The next step for him is to employ animators — he currently has more ideas and bits of writing than he’s able to create. And it does seem like there are always opportunities. He’s had interest from mainstream platforms, including Netflix.
Firth says he’d prefer me not to mention the names of his contacts — one thing he’s really not a fan of is name-dropping. Let’s just say that the creator of a huge Netflix animated series had been in touch with the suggestion of Firth having his own special.
“[The high-profile animator] messaged me and said, ‘I think would be good if you had a Netflix special. I know people, let me talk to them.’ And then he did. And they did. And there was some good back and forth. Then he was having more meetings and had a bunch of meetings on my behalf.”
I’ve been over to LA and had meetings and it’s always been like an amazing office. You go in and they’re all really excited
Realising he would need to come up with something, he started writing again, bringing back a series he’d come up with years before and still liked.
“Then, as usual, the interest petered out,” he says.
“The story is, if you want to do something in LA, with a production team, and for something like Netflix, you’ve got to go to like 25 meetings, not just one. I’ve been over to LA and had meetings and it’s always been like an amazing office, and it’s like, ‘oh, we made the Walking Dead here’, and everything like that. You go in and they’re all really excited. And then…” he shrugs, “it’s happened so many times. England, America.”
He has no doubt that if all he wanted was a TV spot, he could make it happen, though.
“You just need to keep going and going and going. So either I moved to LA and try and do that, or I just do what I do.”
Given that he has more than a million subscribers on YouTube, it’s odd that Firth hasn’t been pursued more aggressively by Netflix.
It’s even odder considering his subversive and dystopian writing is exactly what people are wanting to watch, with networks commissioning an endless stream of shows like The Handmaid’s Tale, The 100, The Rain, Colony and Jericho, to name a few. One of Firth’s most successful videos, a short animated film called Cream (about a cream that improves everything it’s applied to — to the point where someone who is submerged in it eventually becomes pure energy) feels like it has exactly the right mix of dystopia and social commentary to be developed into a Black Mirror episode.
In fact, back in 2006 Firth created some short animations for series one of Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe. “Which is weird because back then he wasn’t writing any of the dark apocalyptic stuff [of Black Mirror]. I didn’t even realise that was one of his things. He was writing TV piss-takes and angry snarky satire.”
One of the reasons Firth hasn’t pursued more television is that it often doesn’t pay that well for animators and doesn’t allow them to have the kind of creative control that Firth would want. Some of this he learned doing a series called Jerry Jackson for BBC Comedy.
“I could do as many dicks in that as I wanted. But there was one point where it said ‘fuck off’ on a blackboard and they were like ‘you can’t have that’.”
People aren’t offended, they just want to look like they’re offended
He has no concern about offending viewers with things like that, partly because he knows he wouldn’t even be drawn into the argument. “It would be people arguing with other people about it.”
“Also the fact is that people aren’t offended. They’re not offended, they just want to look like they’re offended.”
Similarly, Firth is baffled by the mock-fear reaction lots of people have to his videos. While he accepts some people probably do find his videos disturbing and even scary (especially as some of his viewers are probably children — something he has no problems with), a lot of the time it’s not a genuine reaction.
“They played a bit of Salad Fingers on the BBC Radio 1 Breakfast Show a few years ago and Nick Grimshaw was like ‘oh I’m scared! It’s horrible, I’ll have nightmares tonight’ — no you won’t, stop lying!” Firth laughs.
“It is just natural for people to lie and say they’re scared by something as if that’s some kind of achievement.
“You’re not really scared though are you? You’re scared if there’s a weird bloke following you down a dark road.”
Robyn Vinter 15th February 2019