Deleting Their Trust: Animators Face Uncertainty After Cartoons Axed From HBO Max

Warner Bros. Discovery wants you to forget the existence of Infinity Train, OK K.O.!, Close Enough and other cartoons.

On Aug. 17, 2022 Deadline published a report that HBO Max will unceremoniously pull OK K.O.!, Infinity Train, Summer Camp Island, and over 30+ other animated cartoons and unscripted shows from the streaming platform. This devastating report was the first and only communication that notified animation creators and workers that, in a mere matter of days, all their art and labor will vanish off the platform; and in some cases, completely out of existence.

The unprecedented purge happened abruptly and mercilessly. As of Aug. 18 2022, the soundtracks for these shows are no longer available to stream or purchase, physical DVD copies have been discontinued, and perhaps the strangest part — Cartoon Network, Warner’s animation-focused subsidiary, has removed almost every single YouTube video and tweet mentioning the affected shows, as if they never existed. Summer Camp Island has a full unaired final season that no longer has a home, and Driftwood, an upcoming animated space opera about deforestation, was canceled merely three months after being greenlit.

It’s a grim situation with a lot of scattered information. We reached out to affected animators including OK K.O.! creator Ian Jones-Quartey to hear how they’re dealing with the recent changes, and attempt to understand the conclusive story of why this unusual digital eviction came to be. Warner Discovery did not respond for comment on this story.

This cartoon purge happened with such speed that some fans were in the middle of watching cartoons on HBO Max when suddenly, episodes stopped loading. Creators themselves don’t even have physical or digital copies of their own shows, due to a vague “company policy,” according to the animators Fanbyte spoke to. The only way to cohesively preserve their work may be to download pirated content of their own shows.

A few days ago Infinity Train (an HBO Max cartoon original) creator Owen Dennis wrote a blog painting a personal picture of the abysmal corporate management’s effects.

“The announcement on Wednesday of Infinity Train, OK K.O.!, Summer Camp Island, The Fungies, and many other shows being taken off of HBO Max was a shock to all of us,” writes Dennis. “Not just to fans, but to the creators and artists that made the shows as well. I had no idea it was coming, neither did any other show creator I’ve talked with, nor any of their representatives.”

Dennis is rightfully frustrated with Warner Discovery, calling its handling of the situation “incredibly unprofessional, rude, and just straight up slimy.” He later explains that Infinity Train is still lingering on iTunes and a few other services, but he doesn’t know how long they’ll stay there, or if fans will continue to have access if it ever becomes unavailable for purchase. Dennis doesn’t believe Infinity Train is gone forever, but right now, he doesn’t know its destiny.

Wait, Why Did Warner Discovery Cut These Cartoons?

Warner Discovery OK K.O.!, Mao Mao, Infinity

This mega corporate nonsense comes a couple months after Warner Media and Discovery, Inc officially merged into the media conglomerate known as Warner Discovery. A byproduct of that merger is the company morphing its streaming services HBO Max and Discovery+ into one uniform platform for 2023. Consequently, jobs and beloved shows are being sacrificed for a potential profit years down the line.

Warner Discovery has avoided giving an explicit answer as to why it removed these animations. The closest thing to an explanation is when President and CEO of Warner Discovery David Zaslav told The Wrap in an interview that the company is aiming to recover from $3 billion in losses, but he and the upper level “don’t know exactly how it’s going to work.” Even though this plan is ambiguous, one thing is crystal clear: this move is only concerned with lining the pockets of people who are already rich, and axing these shows could very well be a byproduct of a corporate scrounge to recoup losses.

Despite these cuts — ranging from CNN+ to the unreleased live-action Batgirl film to this recent wave of HBO Max cartoons — Discovery Warner has not made back the $3 billion. In fact, since the start of its poorly planned scheme, the company has fumbled $20 billion in market cap value.

It’s nauseating to see a corporation have this much power over art, and this sentiment is shared by many of the people affected. For one animation worker, who prefers to stay anonymous to protect their identity, the streaming landscape pulls everything away from creatives in favor of an elite few.

“Art is our culture and corporations own almost all of our most popular art right now. Should a corporation be in control of our culture, and thus, our history? They’ve proven time and again that they can’t be stewards of their own work,” says the animation worker. “That’s why you’re suddenly seeing creators talk about pirating their own stuff. Creators are sick of being the ones on the front lines of these company’s PR issues.”

The era of online streaming promises easy access to media, but it also removes the prospect of viewers owning the content they watch. It’s basically high-speed renting, and the conglomerates clutching onto these works could rip away access at any point. It’s easy to imagine a similar scenario with other forms of media, like video games, on digital game subscription services like Xbox Game Pass. Right now, we’re witnessing the meteoric faults of that reality within the world of animation.

“These moves show that they absolutely don’t care about the artistic or cultural impact of a show, only money,” says the animation worker. “They’re all a bunch of greedy hoarders.”

The Confusing Realm of Animation Limbo

OK K.O.! Let's Be Heroes Creator Ian Jones-Quartey on HBO Max Cartoon Cuts Infinity Train

Despite the daunting circumstances facing the affected animation crews, OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes creator Ian Jones-Quartey stays optimistic in the face of corporate mismanagement. There’s a sparkle in his eyes as he talks with me in a video call about the future of animation, and the unexpected positives from Discovery Warner removing his cartoon.

“It’s bizarre and unusual. I’ve never heard or seen anything like this before,” says Jones-Quartey. “I’m really just happy for the outpouring of support from all the fans. It’s actually really funny because in the week before it got taken off, we saw the ending theme trend on TikTok. And it was funny to see it actually get pretty popular. A lot of people heard our song and asked, ‘What show is this from?’ and to see the show get pulled, like right after, is just kind of ridiculous.”

But even amidst this renewed enthusiasm, OK K.O.! faces uncertainty. The show is still available on Hulu due to a multi-year deal Cartoon Network made years ago, but Jones-Quartey tells me nobody on his crew knows the exact details of that contract’s length. Which means, at some random time, the show could cease to exist on that platform as well. It’s standard for companies to keep creatives away from the business side of the conversation — an unfortunate practice that leaves creators in the dark.

“Animation is a very powerful medium; great animated characters are immortal,” says Jones-Quartey. “The power of animation is a well kept secret by the industry. There’s always these waves of pessimism about the future of animation because of things like [Warner removing cartoons], but animation also proves over and over that it can’t be stopped that people will always be drawn to it. The perfect state for the industry would just be that the material is easy to consume, it’s easy to support the people behind it, and that the people behind the scenes are paid well to create things, you know, out of their own creativity.”

An Inspiring Storyboard for the Future

Summer Camp Island Julia Pott

Over the years, creators in the animation industry have been getting more access to healthcare with trust funds like the Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plans, as well as the formation of unions like the Animation Guild, which fights for better pay on par with what live-action crews make. It’s also becoming a more diverse environment for creators. But while industry change is positive, the pace is much too slow for Jones-Quartey and other creatives I’ve spoken with.

“I think this shift is gonna take a while, but we are on the way there. The creators of the shows are more visible and people know things about behind the scenes a little better than they used to,” explains Jones-Quartey. “I do think we’re a lot closer to people realizing, ‘Oh, there are human beings that are making this stuff. They deserve to be respected and taken care of, and they deserve a way for the work to be seen.”

With HBO Max pulling these cartoons into a bewildering streaming purgatory, many fans are falling back on piracy as a method to watch what they love. Jones-Quartey calls it a tricky situation; piracy lets people actually perceive the art, but there is no direct monetary support going towards the creatives behind it. He tells me that it’s totally understandable to pirate, but fans should also find ways to uplift the people behind the media they like. The anonymous animation worker I spoke with called piracy a “necessary evil,” especially since companies can remove access instantly, as we’ve come to see.

Bizarrely, this whole mess has led to unexpected promotion for OK K.O.!, Infinity Train, Mao Mao, and other affected HBO Max cartoons. Infinity Train creator Owen Dennis wrote in his blog that “this might, ironically, have become the best advertising the show has ever gotten.” Fans are tweeting, crafting art, and sharing these cartoons with everyone they know at a rapid rate. After the announcement of the removals, a few of these shows trended for days on Twitter. This vocal, heartfelt support contrasts starkly with the callous corporate cuts, and instills hope surrounding the future of animation.

These removals teach us that it’s on us, the people, to champion the art we enjoy, and make sure that there are spaces where it can be celebrated for years to come. These companies straight up do not care. Warner Discovery and other massive conglomerates can attempt to rip art from audiences, but they’ll never succeed in the long run. You can’t stamp out the everlasting flame that ignites creators and draws in swarms of fans. The affected shows will live on and inspire others despite Warner Discovery’s efforts.

“Be your own creator. Tell your own stories, just because you want to. Don’t wait for somebody else to tell you to give you the permission to tell the story,” says Jones-Quartey. “Have your own characters and your own stories. Write them down, draw them, keep them in your head. Make sure that you’re a creator because you love characters and stories, instead of just creating for a company. Once you prove that you can do it on your own, industry gatekeepers won’t be as difficult to face, because you’ll already know that you can do it with them or without.”