In the past few years on YouTube, the animation community has blown up with new and exciting artists and storytellers. Among these expanding channels is Illymation, helmed by Ilyssa, a 21-year-old animator on YouTube who, in just one year, has gained a loyal and dedicated audience of one million subscribers.

Illymation channel icon

Subscribers: 1,108,482
Uploads: 15
Video Views: 31,896,096
User created: Sep 1st, 2013

Illymation’s growth is shocking given how hard it has become to break through on YouTube nowadays — especially for animators — but when you watch Illy’s animations, you can see why people are drawn to her content.

What lures people into her channel initially, she suggests, is morbid curiosity. Her creativity shines through as she tells me, “Girl talks about somethin’… You’ll wince a little bit at that somethin’, but you’ll watch it. It’s kind of like when you walk outside and you see a really mangled squirrel, and you’re like, ‘I should probably look into that.’”

When watching it though, viewers will feel relief, thinking, “Thank god there are jokes.”

Vulnerability is at the core of Illymation

Part of what makes Illy’s animation stand out in this growing genre is her openness within her content. “I think what people want right now is authenticity because I think that’s something on YouTube that everyone knows that’s what they want, but they know at the same time too that that’s not what they’re getting… I figured stories about yourself and, I guess for my channel, kind of vulnerable times, I think that’s what people want.” One of Illy’s most popular series, in fact, is a narrative about her experience in an abusive relationship.

Ilyssa wearing a red shirt with red flowers in the background

This raises the question of how to be truly authentic and vulnerable when sharing with a huge audience. Ilyssa explained how she navigates setting a boundary while creating personal videos about her own life. “I’m still trying to figure it out because what I’m trying to do is get deep and personal and tackle subjects that aren’t always fun to talk about…. If I can’t find a moral or a reason to say, ‘This sucked, but here’s why it’s gonna be okay,’ if I can’t find that, there’s no use talking about it. Otherwise, I’m just putting out this sad time, and I’m not helping the cause.” She also handles potential breaches of privacy by being mindful of which details are mentioned about the people and places she’s illustrating.

She hopes that by being so genuine and honest about her own experiences can, in turn, help others who may be going through the same thing. “Unfortunately, [abuse] is something that affects so many people,” she said. “Me putting it out there doesn’t feel like I’m ripping off some kind of bandaid for everyone to infest. It just feels kind of like putting the hashtag, Me Too. I went through this, too. It’s not saying, ‘I’m the first person to go through this’ or ‘listen to my story, it’s crazy, you won’t believe what happened.’ It’s saying, ‘I know this is happening to other people and it’s scary to talk about,’ and I’m just trying to start the conversation is all.”

Cartoon version of Illy's family, with a young evil looking Illy in the back seat
Ilyssa connects with fans with relateable animated storytime videos like Evil Thinkgs I Did as a Kid.

Illymation’s origin story

Even before starting a YouTube channel, Illy had already begun pursuing her interest in animation by majoring in it at college. “I must have been really itching to do something for me outside of school,” she recalls. As for why she turned to YouTube specifically, she said, “Part of it was just trying it out to see where it would go.”

She began by working for another well-known animator, Alex Clark. Though that experience, she learned the programs and videomaking process and decided to begin some YouTube animation projects of her own. She values making animation over other forms of content on the platform because she finds a sense of control in scripting and animating and having the freedom to make changes, rather than only having whatever footage you were able to film prior to editing. Now, it has become a huge facet of her career. Ilyssa hopes to continue doing animation online as a career for the time being, as it gives her the freedom to explore her own ideas without the influence of others. Eventually though, she hopes to break back into the traditional animation industry.

Illy and friend taking at a table in a restarant
In one installment of Ilyssa’s series on her abusive ex, she meets up and bonds with another woman who also had unpleasant encounters with the same man.

From idea to upload

Her general process for animating is working on multiple projects at once. “If I’m animating, I’m trying to think of more video ideas.” For outlining ideas, she prioritizes using word processing software that autosaves. “I’ve made the mistake too many times of using something that doesn’t autosave.”

Wham Bam, in about a month, you’ve got a video!

As far as pulling from her own experience for ideas, she said, “I’m kind of racking my brain for things that made me sad that don’t make me sad anymore and trying to figure out why that is. Or things that make me sad that I can now joke about, which is an even further take on, ‘I’m really not sad about this anymore. I’m very okay.’” She likes to introspect to discover how she got from the immediate sadness to feeling okay, so she can figure out how to portray that in her animations. “I think that’s the path that is hard to see when you’re in that awful moment.” She strives to be the evidence that things will be okay for other people, regardless of where they are at right now.

When she has her idea written out in full, she then moves her script to Google Docs to add comments describing what the scene will look like. Creating backgrounds comes last, where she’ll use a sophisticated and creative color coding system in the script to indicate patterns in the background, like scenes where her character is against a white background. “Any excuse to color code something pink, I’ll do it,” she laughs.

She also thinks about the narration at this point: “When I’m writing, I read things out loud, because that is how I know it’s gonna be presented, so I think about the delivery of things.” After all of this pre-production, she throws it all together and uses the software Toon Boom to animate the characters, and “Wham bam, in about a month, you’ve got a video!”

Scripting for Illy is the most exciting part of her process: “That’s when I feel most motivated, and kind of like daydreaming and knowing that the daydream will exist.” A close second to scripting is uploading. “After three or four weeks of taking my time on this, I can just upload something and take the weekend off and hang out.”

When she’s not working on her next big project, she enjoys swimming — an old high school pastime — to get away from the pressure of creation.

cartoon version of an angry blonde lady in an SUV
In Cussed Out by a Stranger, Illy artfully expresses the bemusement we all feel when confronted with an unexpected barrage of insults.

Roadblocks and challenges

The process of creating animation is not all smooth and easy, though, despite how passionate Ilyssa is about it. The time it takes to put together an entire animation is no joke, and then there is the pressure from the audience to have videos posted. “I do feel really bad when people are like, ‘Where’s the next video? Tap tap, where is it? I am just as distraught as you are.” It takes the occasional break from the comment section for Illy to remind herself that it’s okay to take time between uploads.

Not only does she face pressure from her audience, but she also has to deal with her own internal imposter syndrome. In regards to her channel blowing up within the past year, she says, “It’s really exciting, but what consumes me more is the anxieties and fears of messing up, because I feel like I don’t really have room to mess up… I do step back and go, ‘Come on, this person is putting twice the amount of effort as I put into mine, this isn’t right.’”

Another huge issue for any creator with a large audience is hate comments, which can be detrimental to a person’s confidence in making videos.

It took me a while to stop looking at the comments; that’s all i would do every day.

“When you get a certain amount of attention on YouTube… at some point you just have to stop reading the comments,” Illy says. “And deciding when to do that is hard, because 9 times out of 10 people are saying something nice, but that 1 time is gonna bring you down. It took me a while to stop looking at the comments; that’s all I would do every day.”

For the first hour or so after putting out the video, Illy watches the comments come in and interacts with fans in the comment section; the first viewers tend to be the most dedicated ones. She also believes that people who are passionate about her work will reach out in the form of making fan art or sending tweets.

Ilyssa and her cat Luigi
Ilyssa frequently draws her Japanese bobtail cat, Luigi. He’s included in her channel icon and appears in several videos.

Advice to fellow animators

For people looking to make their own animations on YouTube, Ilyssa had some concrete advice: If you’re able to get out to a convention to hear the experiences of other creators and experts, and ask questions, Illy promises it will really help you learn the ropes. “I learned a lot by going to VidCon and listening to their panels, which I know is something you have to pay for, but if you can, I recommend it.”

Another big aspect of gaining traction on YouTube is putting a lot of thought into thumbnails. With YouTube’s constantly fluctuating algorithm, it can be extremely difficult to grab a viewer’s attention and make them click on your video if they have never seen your channel before.

“A thumbnail that has bright colors and a bunch of question marks and circles — maybe that will be good, but you just have to think, ‘What is it that nobody else is doing? Maybe a simple thumbnail will work.’ … You could make an amazing video, but if the title and thumbnail just throw people off, they’re not gonna click on it.”

For the amount of time that animators spend making their videos, it would be a shame to miss out on viewership just because the thumbnail wasn’t intriguing enough or didn’t set the right tone.

Looking ahead

So what’s next for Illymation on this wild YouTube journey? Illy says she hopes to be going to as many conventions as possible, including VidCon Anaheim 2019, where she’s a featured creator for the first time! “I would love to meet people because I get a lot of emails and DM’s and people sharing their traumatizing times and stories with me, and I think it would be a lot more meaningful to talk to these people in person.”

I want to be more in touch with how people feel when going through bad things.

She also hopes to make more videos about personal stories that will be able to help viewers see that they’re going to be okay. Her upcoming projects include an animation about a trip to Japan and a video for her grandmother. Illy adds, “I wanna talk about periods. I think that will be my biggest monetization problem this year…”

But beyond AdSense, she’s also working with sponsors and businesses that could be helpful to her specific audience. “I want to be more in touch with my audience and I want to be more in touch with how people feel when going through bad things.”

Ilyssa’s light-hearted yet meaningful content will definitely continue to spark intrigue and promote healing for her rapidly growing audience. We can all expect to see Illy gaining more and more recognition, all of which she notes will make her mom so proud (Illy charmingly requested to have a shoutout to her mom at the end.)

Chatting with her one-on-one highlighted how genuinely bubbly and radiant she is, not just in her art but also in her personality. The authenticity that Ilyssa demonstrates, even in such a potentially masking form, is the kind of quality that makes any creator appealing to an audience.

Though her journey has only just begun with a stunning spike of attention, Illy has clear intentions and is embracing her role in helping people get through tough times with her artistic talent.