chool graduate Reb Stephenson and her Victoria-born partner Billy Reid started filming a YouTube children’s program, they had no idea if it would be at all successful.
Three years later, their musical video series Pancake Manor has received 65 million views from around the world.
“I didn’t think it would be possible,” said Stephenson. “It’s a small production coming out of our basement.”
Stephenson said the idea all started in Ontario in 2011 when she and Reid decided they wanted to combine their talents and create something that was uniquely theirs.
They were both already “dabbling” in making videos — he was making musical videos for teens and she was making travel pieces for her column in the Toronto Star — so they knew they wanted to go that route. Content, however, was another question.
Stephenson said neither of them wanted to get into making videos for an adult audience as they didn’t want to produce the edgy and controversial material that they believe does well in that market. So they looked to a younger audience.
Kids’ shows were “so much fun,” said Stephenson. “It’s so positive.”
She said that they also saw how children’s programming was “quietly sustainable” instead of subject to going viral one minute and disappearing the next. Plus, a children’s show would allow Reid, who admires Jim Henson, to use a couple of puppets he had designed years before.
“It felt right and exciting,” Stephenson said of when they set on their path.
Reid’s puppets are now named Zach and Reggie and are the stars of Pancake Manor. The orange and purple brothers’ (both voiced by Reid) main job is to sing original songs written by their creators.
Stephenson and Reid also occasionally make cameos in the films to speak or sing a line or two.
Unlike traditional kids songs, which Stephenson describes as “sing-songy and repetitive,” the music of Pancake Manor is influenced by alt-rock.
“We wanted to make something parents didn’t mind listening too,” explained Stephenson.
She said their influences vary from her love of 80’s sounding pop to his love of alt-rock bands like the Ramones and Weezer.
The couple record all of their music in their home in Victoria, where they moved in 2012. That’s also where they do all their video recordings in front of a green screen using a DSLR camera with video capabilities, and edit their work on Mac computers.
It wasn’t until 2013, however, that Stephenson and Reid decided to arm themselves with a plan and a vision for the show, quit their day jobs and focus on the project.
“It got to the point where we both felt we needed to be there 100 per cent,” said Stephenson. “It was frightening, but you have to take a leap of faith.”
She also said that their income is now based on advertising revenue produced each time someone views their videos on YouTube, and they’re at the point where they “don’t have to worry.”
They also make revenue off of DVD and CD versions of their show. Stephenson said they never expected to make physical copies, but there was a demand to meet.
Qualicum Toy Shop owner Shelly Ross, who carries the Pancake Manor DVD and CDs in her store, also sees this demand. In particular, she said parents are looking for kids’ music to play in the car.
“You can’t seem to buy a CD anymore,” she explained.
And for Ross, the fact that Stephenson is a former local was an added bonus.
As for the future, Pancake Manor continues to grow. Stephenson and Reid just released their third album, Colours, which includes a new character named Lulu. Voiced by Stephenson, Lulu the puppet will make her YouTube debut on Pancake Manor sometime in 2015.
“It’s a slow build,” Stephenson said of their journey, but “it’s incredibly rewarding.”