Never Stop Creating: Driven with a Vision - Chris Hung (TheDRIVER)
For our next content creator feature on the ‘Never Stop Creating’ series, we’re still keeping within the world of digital media and car culture. We’re specifically looking at someone who aims to pickup where the famous anime/manga [comic] series, Initial D left off - and provide his own twist on the genre.
If there was one word I could use to describe the journey the next content creator has experienced, it would be ‘perseverance’ - a vision to make your dreams finally happen, no matter how long it takes, how many pitches have failed, or how many routes have led to dead ends. A textbook example of how sticking to a long term goal can eventually pay off; making the impossible - possible one day.
For this week, we’ll be focusing on a unique automotive media project you might have encountered - specifically, around 10 or such years ago when the first snippets made their debut online. A project that has resurfaced this past year as it has finally secured sustainable funding to allow it to come to light - as promised to those who fell in love with it in its early days.
A story about a ‘Driver’. And this week’s feature is all about the man behind that story.
Allow me to introduce Chris Hung - creator of the automotive animated series - & now comic book ‘TheDRIVER’. It's likely you don’t recall encountering that name before. But if you ever watched Marvel's Spider-Man, Vivo, The Mitchells vs. The Machines, Hotel Transylvania, The Smurfs, or the Academy Award winner ‘Spider Man: Into The Spider-Verse’? Chris was behind the scenes of some of these films, as a Lighting Supervisor for Sony Pictures Imageworks (SPI - for the past 17 years. Sound familiar now?
If not, then maybe you have encountered one of his early works back in the day on a webpage or forum. Perhaps under a name along the lines of ‘drifting animation like Initial D’. Or maybe you saw Chris’s name pop up on a print/online feature about ‘TheDRIVER’ roughly ten years ago, with the first trailers appearing on your social media feed or chats. Either way, you’ll get to learn more about the creator himself.
Even before starting his content creator career, Chris always had a natural affection towards cars. “As a child, I was obsessed with becoming a race car driver. By the time I’d figured out what I needed to begin a career in professional racing, I was a little too old to apply for a racing license.”
With a career in racing not looking sustainable at all, Chris pursued a career in CGI animation: attending the School of Visual Arts in New York City. But he still found a way to incorporate cars in his studies, notably in the form of his senior project in 2001 that earned his first bit of online attention. “I created an animated short about street racing titled “Extreme Limit”. That short gained myself a loyal following, which in turn drove a demand for more racing-inspired stories."
After graduating, Chris began his career in feature film & animation production. When he wasn't working his full-time job as a CGI artist on various feature-length projects, Chris continued to think of ways of how he could bridge his two interests: cars and digital storytelling. The seeds that would eventually grow to form the basis of 'TheDRIVER' in fact, began to surface around 10 years ago.
" 'TheDRIVER' was a byproduct of a night out with friends. The conversation drifted toward how sick I was of my day job and how eager to start my own animation project - "I wanted to make [my own] an animation about cars!", I remember telling my friends. “Just make an animated Fast & Furious…” My friend replied casually. I mulled over the idea seriously, then dismissed it altogether."
“Nah, too much violence, too many bad guys, and it isn’t about cars anymore!” “Then throw in a masked superhero and catch a street racer!” My friend retorted, without giving it much thought." Ultimately, this casual comment laid the foundation for how Chris envisioned 'TheDRIVER' to take shape.
"I then had an idea for a racing-inspired story that was counterintuitive to everything that the Fast & Furious films and Initial D had injected into mainstream audiences when they thought of car culture. In my story, the hero would rescue people from the perils of street racing rather than encourage them to drive recklessly. Of course, the hero himself needed to be a ninja behind the wheels: an anti-street racer who would use speed to demolish speed."
With a basic outline of what the story would entail, Chris then set about to bring it to life. "I invested all of my savings to create two animated shorts of 'TheDRIVER'. I dropped the trailers on YouTube, and promoted them at Comic Con San Diego along with various conventions and car shows. Both of these videos went viral. Car enthusiasts especially, based on comments we received online, loved the fresh appeal of the story; which had in some ways turned the rules of the game upside down.”
(A little fun fact too: Chris even got a magazine feature in a Hong Kong-based car magazine, CarPlus, as word spread out about his new project.)
And in case you are just learning about what Chris’s project is, here is a quick synopsis that summarizes it all:
“TheDRIVER is the story of brothers Jacob and Cody, who vow to punish reckless drivers when they nearly lose their family in an accident. Think Batman meets Fast & Furious with a raging itch to deliver justice — quick. Jacob, a valet boy, is an artist behind-the-wheel. Cody, his partner in crime, is a master illusionist. Together, they’re TheDRIVER, the new vigilante in town.”
But despite the massive support from fans online, ever so eager to see the next stage, Chris and his team struggled to find a studio to back their project. All of the major animation/production studios - even streaming platform giants like Netflix and Hulu were pitched to, but to no avail. The common reason for backing out among all of them: it was too niche and risky to market as an animated feature, whose primary audiences [of animation] are largely composed of families and children. Furthermore: aside from a summary of what the story set out to be, what a series of episodes would look like hadn't been thought out yet.
“We were told that our story was too edgy and mature. But we didn’t want to deviate from our original vision - we knew that the raw appeal of TheDRIVER packed with vigilante justice, speed, and mystery — had roped in our fans in the first place. After years of pitching our idea to studios, we realized that making an animated feature without a complete story was too difficult. Producing an animated series also calls for an extensive budget, plus it had been a few years since we released our first animated short [trailer].”
"We were told that our story was too edgy and mature. But we didn’t want to deviate from our original vision.."
Following two decades of getting nowhere, Chris decided to take matters into his own hands. Noticing the success other niche projects had on crowdfunding platforms, Chris decided the next best thing would be to forget waiting for a media outlet to give them a chance - cut out the middleman, and applied to setup a campaign on KickStarter in 2020.
Along with making a few changes to the in-series universe (including updating the heroes' car from a R35 GTR to a Porsche), the team added another component to tell the story behind 'TheDRIVER': an original graphic novel [comic book]. “We decided to put pen to paper, finish our story, and deliver something physically for our fans to enjoy. We knew car enthusiasts around the world had fallen in love with the core idea of 'TheDRIVER', even though it was not your run-of-the-mill car themed adventure series. It was a story that celebrates driving, but it also calls out the dangers of car culture. So, we wanted to return the favor; to those who have supported us since the start.”
To make it ever more special for supporters, the team incorporated an AR (Augmented Reality) feature to some of the comic panels - literally bringing some panels to life to make up for a lack of further animated clips. For now.
Setting an initial goal of $8,888 USD, Chris and his team were met with surprise at how successful the Kickstarter campaign ended up; having hit its first funding goal & target number of pledges within one month of launching. By the end of the campaign on September 30, 2020 - more than 219 backers pledged $20,031 USD to help bring ‘TheDRIVER’ to life.
Chris admits everyone was taken by surprise on the final results. “When we first announced our project on Kickstarter, we were just dipping our toes in the water. While there was excitement in anticipation of what the project could achieve, we were also overwhelmed. Every single day, we were involved with a roster of things to do — content creation for the opening, collaborating with influencers and publicists, and keeping the momentum going at different stages of the campaign. We were so busy that we didn’t realize when we reached our goal and made twice the amount we’d set out to accomplish. Our success reinforced our belief in our vision.”
While some may be skeptical, transitioning the project from a traditional setup to one entirely funded and supported on a crowdfunding platform Chris feels, was for the better. Especially to get anywhere near getting ‘TheDRIVER’ finally off the ground. “From the start, we wanted to be able to give our fans exactly what they had fallen in love with. While relying on big studios did not pan out for us, that also meant we didn’t need to change our storylines, characters, and vision based on the whims of the market [what any higher ups felt would be ‘safer’]. Crowdfunding platforms like KickStarter allowed us to showcase our story without compromising our creative direction; making sure our long-term fans are still vested in the future of our project.”
Another advantage of going the KickStarter route aside from transparency on the production process? More opportunities to get fans involved within the creative process, especially for some of ‘TheDRIVER’s earliest backers and supporters who have hung in there for the past decade. Which could be done in the various perks in exchange for supporters pledging [donating] various amounts, anything from $5 USD up to $1,000 USD - the latter gets an opportunity for the sponsor to feature their own car in the comic book, the animated series itself, and an autographed poster of the protagonists posing with it. With everything else: comic book (digital/physical), wallpapers, sketches, and merchandise thrown in. Obviously.
Following the successful KickStarter campaign, Chris and his team are working hard on the next steps for ‘TheDRIVER’. “With positive feedback from Chapter One (Intro of the Phantom) of our Augmented Reality (AR) animated comic book, we’ve found a perfect way to tell our story without compromise. We are now preparing for a worldwide release of Chapter One in the coming month.”
“We are also gearing up for Chapter 2 of our next Kickstarter campaign, which will delve deeper into the main storyline of our superheroes. While we continue our work on the comic book series, we are also pitching our IP to studios, and exploring alternate means to make an animated feature film."
"We envision TheDRIVER to be a Marvel-like multiverse with individual stories [spin-offs] about different drivers and their never-ending adventures."
"Going forward, we want to create a thriving community of writers, designers, and animators excited to create exciting and thrilling driving-inspired tales. We envision TheDRIVER to be a Marvel-like multiverse with individual stories [spin-offs] about different drivers and their never-ending adventures.”
Despite the setbacks himself and his team have experienced, Chris appreciates the fact he never gave up on his dream - that remains firmly in mind as it did all those years ago when he brainstormed it. “I’ve always wanted to make animated films since I was in college, but there has been a dearth of opportunities in the field. CGI filmmaking calls for an extensive budget and so most studios are not willing to give a chance to bold, new ideas that come from the outside — even good ones.”
The journey has also allowed Chris to work with some major names within the car and anime industries to bring 'TheDRIVER' to life and connect with fans alike. "My team has partnered with some well-known automotive brands like Yokohama, Cusco, and Evasive Motorsports; as well as legendary supercar designer Horacio Pagani, to feature his cars in our comics and series."
"Ultimately, I’m simply using animation to express my love for cars and driving."
Addressing fellow content creators, Chris maintains that anything is possible - with the right mindset to keep believing in yourself no matter what obstacles might come along the way. “It’s imperative that as a creator you believe in your own vision - focusing on the stories you believe need to be told.”
“My advice to fellow content creators comes from what I’ve learnt behind the wheel - as long as you’ve got the steering wheel firmly planted in the palm of your hands, you can go anywhere.”
"It’s imperative that as a creator you believe in your own vision - focusing on the stories you believe need to be told.”
“You don’t need the permission of big studios or traditional publishing houses to drive your project for you. And no matter how carefully you plan the ride, there will be deviations along the way. You’ll miss a turn here, take the wrong road there, but those setbacks will fuel your ideas: it will broaden your horizons, and make the trip what it’s really about — ‘the journey.”
Oh, and if you are wondering what the man behind ‘TheDRIVER’ drives at the moment?
A 2006 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX (9) MR. And yes, he does track it.
If you want to keep track of further updates on ‘TheDRIVER’, follow their social media pages below! If you are also keen to get your own copy of the comic book or support the team, you can do so via their IndieGoGo and KickStarter page!
'TheDRIVER' team and respective social media/KickStarter/IndieGogo pages