There’s something quite unnerving about a lot of kids TV shows, whether that be the larger than life primary coloured creatures, the bizarrely off-kilter humour, or the often inexplicably surreal scenarios the characters find themselves in. And it’s precisely this premise that Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared takes and runs with.
Helmed by creators Becky Sloan, Joseph Pelling and Baker Terry – who also voice some of the puppets – the darkly comedic show first launched as a YouTube series back in 2011. Taking a satirically educational-cum-existential nightmare format, the short episodes quickly garnered a cult following. Starring Yellow Guy, Red Guy and Duck as the main puppet protagonists, Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared juxtaposes the apparent innocence of colourful kids TV with fever-dream horror, often switching between the two with hilariously unsettling rapidity.
Fast forward to now – over a decade since the show first etched itself into our minds – and Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared is back with a whole Channel 4 series. Expanding on the YouTube shorts, the six half-hour-long episodes amp up the charmingly unhinged reality and surreal situations that Yellow Guy, Red Guy and Duck find themselves in, learning about everything from jobs to family, death and more. Think Sesame Street as a warped acid-trip with a healthy dose of Cronenberg-tinged visceral body horror.
With the new Channel 4 season out now, Sloan, Pelling and Terry talk us through a series of snapshots from the series, giving some behind-the-scenes insights into the creation and incredibly crafted detail of the cult series. Read on for easter eggs, filming techniques and some, er, interesting fan art.
Joseph Pelling: Even though this is the first image we’re going to talk about, it’s probably the last thing we shot. Some of these more stylistic images, where you have the backgrounds become graphic flat backgrounds, we shot them using back projection. Which is fun, because it’s quite an old-school technique but it fits. It’s very theatrical and doesn’t lend itself to realism in any way. So for us, it’s a perfect tool because we were lucky to be working with this format where things don’t need to look real.
Becky Sloan: These bits are probably one of the funnest bits about the show. It’s a chance to dive into these other worlds and other styles. You can go into any different medium – 2D animation, CGI – and be really playful with it.
JP: This is probably too technical, but we did this interesting thing where we had to whip pan into the shots. Because the sets didn’t exist past the size of the screen, we lit the screens with back projection as this illustration. We also had printouts of that same illustration in the foreground in front of the characters so that when you whipped over them, you’ve got this kind of motion blur, in camera, of the same image, but in the foreground. You can use it to extend the set and that kind of in camera Gondry style, [which] is the kind of stuff that we love. We always try to do as much of that as we can even if you can tell it’s quite shonky and fake. It adds to the weird handmade-ness.
BS: The ties they’re wearing all match the colours of the characters, which is pretty cool. The art director went out of their way to do that, which is a nice touch.
BS: Me and Baker were on this set, because we have two sets up and running at the same time. We got really carried away dressing the set with loads and loads of fake silicone meat. Joe was on the other set and I remember hearing Joe over the walkie talkie saying, “We need to rein in the meat”. We were putting it everywhere – on the clocks, on the walls. This image was where we ended up, we needed to actually make it look like they’re cooking a shepherd’s pie not like they’ve like murdered someone in their kitchen.
JP: This was the end of the shepherd’s pie We‘ve Got to Get Things Ready song. Which was a fun sequence in terms of it being a bit in the episode where it’s not necessarily descending into something dark like in other songs or veering off into something more strange… but just becoming more stupid.
BS: That shot made me think of a typical last minute thing with the art department where we were like, “We need two chef hats quick, go find some! Or make one right now in five minutes”. There’s always so much stuff like that – where we forget what we need for a scene or think of stuff on the spot. We were shooting in a studio at Canada Water so luckily there were some nearby shops for people to go out on a mission to find all these random things we added to the list.
JP: I remember when we first started making these. Before we had a whole crew, we’d have maybe one person helping and everything had to be made prior to the shoot because obviously you spend your entire time on set just just trying to film it and puppeteer it. With this, half the stuff that actually needed to be made was being made in tandem with the shoot so we had this amazing workshop of of props and puppets being made right down to the wire.
BS: Every time the art department would be like, “Okay, we’re almost done”, it was a massive to do list and then never-ending stuff kept getting added to it. I remember being like, “We need peas! Punched out some felt peas and carrots”. “How many?” “I don’t know 100 peas?”. It’s quite mad on set.
JP: As an image this sums up some of the scenes across the series where we had to write dialogue and build up character between the three guys. In contrast to the previous two images, we couldn’t just rely on loads of prop based or visual jokes or adding in lots of things, because it’s just too many props. We had to try and write some quite nice weird little claustrophobic scenes. I like this scene where they’re discussing their own TV show, and then Duck comes in and does the three guesses thing. It makes you feel that they have a really horrible dynamic.
BS: It’s nice that every episode starts in that way. A bit of calm before all the chaos, like a typical kid show. The sky outside the windows is real, it’s all in camera in case anyone was wondering. The fridge is riddled with Easter Eggs.
JP: Mainly, it’s just a nice moment between them. And that sets up the theme of the episode being about them. Not really understanding why they hang around together. Because if they’re not a family, then what are they? That idea came from us talking about kid show episodes where you’d have a generic kind of kid show where there’s a bunch of creatures that live together. It’s not really explained why they live together or how they know each other. We thought it was funny that they addressed that quite full on.
BS: Like that Candy and Andy thing we’re obsessed with, the Gerry Anderson show that never made it ’cause it’s so creepy. It features mannequin dolls called Candy and Andy and they have panda bears for parents. It was very inspiring for Lily and Todney… maybe too inspiring. There’s hardback collectible books you can get on eBay. And I bought a few and one of them had the scrawlings of a demon inside, all the eyeballs scribbled out in red.
BS: It was fun working with the VFX guys who were doing all these animated bits and writing a list of objects that were a mixture of really random or mundane and a few easter eggs from the show for the people who knew the YouTube series. Some of them are so quick you wouldn’t really even notice it.
JP: It looks quite similar to what we did with episode four of the YouTube series where the digital world is this quite naff looking clunky gridworld.
Baker Terry: In hindsight, we shouldn’t have done that, because it’s very disrespectful to the digital world. It’s more important even than the real world at this point or it is the real world rather.
JP: True, I feel more real online. Another technical thing that we always have trouble with is that we can’t really use green screen or blue screen very effectively, because the characters are blue and green. So we end up having to rotoscope loads of bits which is probably not a problem that most people have on a regular shoot. Duck doesn’t work on green screen and Yellow Guy doesn’t work on blue screen and Red Guy wouldn’t work on pink screen so I think we had to have loads of different strips.
We kept changing all the little jokes in there, that don’t massively change the story, up until the last minute or even after we shot it. Because you can get away with really easily dubbing over characters, especially Red Guy, and we’d get tired of the jokes so it’s quite an irritating process.
BS: Looking at the script for so long, by the time it comes down to filming we’re like this is so not funny anymore. But then to someone who hasn’t heard it before they might laugh at it so sometimes it’s a bit dangerous to keep changing it and you lose some comedy gold.
JP: It only made sense for us to do this episode later in the series because it’s about one character getting tired of everything, getting tired of the format that he’s stuck in.
BS: This was Red Guy’s episode, wasn’t it? They each have one episode where the story is slightly more focussed on them. This was Red Guy trying to escape their world and failing.
JP: It’s a good example of why expanding the show so it was set within this whole little town of characters, which we had talked about before, wouldn’t work. This kind of episode wouldn’t have worked because the whole point is that he becomes aware that he’s only really able to go from room to room. It’s a good example of why we wanted to keep it claustrophobic.
BS: The train comes out of the fireplace. That still was probably one of the funniest moments for me, that little crappy remote control train coming out of the fireplace. It was going to come out of a mouse hole at one point.
JP: Didn’t someone ask us if it was a reference to a Magritte painting? There’s a Magritte where this train comes out of a fireplace. We were like, yep.
BS: Originally they were all going to be rocking out with these colourful electric guitars but then we thought it’d be quite funny if Yellow Guy just has a really shit guitar that’s just made of cardboard and we don’t paint it or anything. I remember giving that task to Beattie [Hartley] in the art department: “you’ve got 10 minutes, I don’t want you to spend any longer on it”. She came back with that and it was perfect.
BT: Lots of the nicest almost unspoken details are from Beattie right? She did so much.
JP: Because we shoot everything with puppets we have all these rigs for the puppeteers. Which means we can’t move the cameras so that we can then get a clean version of the background and paint out the puppeteers. But if you add lighting, it’s such a dangerous thing to do, because you end up changing the background. I’m amazed that we managed to do it on this because it must have been quite a lot of post-production to clean it all up.
BS: Any wide shots like that, where you can see them standing, we have to rig them. It takes quite a long time. That’s one of the unique things about the show. In most puppet shows like Sesame Street it’s always from the waist up. We’ve always been keen to show the floor and do wide shots which is more of a challenge to shoot but that adds to the magic of puppetry.
This isn’t really linked but it’s just quite funny that all the fans are obsessed with drawing the characters as humans and shipping them – which is making them have sex with other characters and stuff. Really sexy drawings of Electracy, it’s so weird.
JP: No, it’s not. It’s great. We love it. Keep doing it.
BS: We love it, it’s bizarre.
JP: I love it. My family loves it.
BS: Yeah, that’s a whole rabbit hole of fun to explore.
Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared is available to watch here.