Cold Hard Flash Interview - 1 Dec 2005

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Some time in Winter 2005, The Brothers Chaps were interviewed by Aaron Simpson of Cold Hard Flash.

Contents

[edit] Transcript

Offensive content Warning: Language that may be considered offensive by some readers follows.
To view a censored version of this page, see Cold Hard Flash Interview (censored).

[edit] Part 1

Mike and Matt Chapman, hailing from Decatur, Georgia, have built themselves the equivalent of animation dream jobs. They write, voice and animate for a living - and distribute exactly what they want, when they want, to millions of people. It's an incredible achievement, and one that defies entertainment convention.

Early on in their web-careers, the Brothers Chaps, as Mike and Matt have come to be known, opted to go without advertising on their site. But don't worry - homestarrunner.com has given them complete financial independence, solely through merchandise and DVD sales. It's allowed the brothers an unusual amount of creative control for a hit series. But instead of using this freedom to break all the rules, they went against the grain. Since the mid-'90s, shock-value has driven millions of eyeballs to dozens of gross-out web shows and too-nuts-for-TV clips. Shirking convention, Homestar Runner and his pals are more G than some shows on Nick Jr., but it surely hasn't halted their success one bit.

Perhaps it's because Mike, 33, and Matt, 29, the creators of such characters as Homestar Runner and Strong Bad, are family-oriented. At the Flashforward Conference this past February, they concede that their "sister, dad and mom, and uh, inlaws" all get into the act; working in the Homestar Runner store and helping out around the office. Growing up, Mike and Matt's parents, Don and Harriet Chapman, were reportedly always quite supportive of their creative endeavors, and ever since 1999, the brother's family-friendly tastes have attracted a feverishly loyal following.

Now, let's get to that following for a minute or two. Their website, homestarrunner.com, is visited by hundreds of thousands of people a day. But the brothers supposedly don't know if it's 100,000 a day or 200,000, nor do they really care. You see, while other web companies and animators comb through the number of 'uniques' they get a day, The Brothers Chaps are busy being unique.

However, that won't stop the CHF research team (me), who spent tens of minutes scouring the web to come up with rough, unverified statistics. Drumroll, please....according to web-stats giant Alexa.com, Homestarrunner.com gets more traffic than starwars.com, pixar.com, southparkstudios.com, thesimpsons.com and handful of other high-profile animation websites.

WEBSITE ALEXA RANK
(on 08/06/06)
homestarrunner.com: 4,050
starwars.com: 4,207
noggin.com: 6,215
adultswim.com: 6,292
happytreefriends.com: 9,046
pixar.com: 13,127
pokemon.com: 15,692
southparkstudios.com: 22,204
dragonballz.com: 26,774
awn.com: 27,716
thesimpsons.com: 29,574
hrwiki.org: 35,203

In fact, the Homestar Runner Wiki, the collaboratively-run, online encyclopedia of everything Homestar, gets almost as much traffic at thesimpsons.com (more on the HRWiki in a moment).

But for how many fans they have (the same fans that send in over 3,000 emails a day), The Brothers Chaps have somehow avoided being heralded with awards and honors. Mike and Matt would probably say that they could care less (and that's probably true), but it's symbolic of how independent they've remained. They don't have agents, managers or press buffers. They turn down TV execs holding deals as if they were pan-handlers. The Brothers Chaps are Hollywood 2.0 - blessed with a huge audience, creative freedom, popular merchandise, and an address far from Hollywood.

Speaking of merchandise - the entire Homestar Runner empire is operated entirely off of DVD and merchandise moolah, and with hysterical products like The Cheat Commando Figurines, it's easy to see why. In fact, one of the more popular threads at the HRWiki Homestar Runner message board is titled 'merchandise wishes.' And if you're wondering what all of thee rabid fans are buying, The Brothers Chaps have shared that the Trogdor t-shirt is their best selling item, but their many DVD releases (see the CHF review) can't be far behind.

So what's their secret? Well, it's not the software. While Mike and Matt have always used Flash to make their many shorts, they famously don't keep up with the latest versions, and their proud of it. Perhaps the secret lies in their ability to loose themselves in the work. With no sprawling production teams to hire, no Hollywood hobnobbing to suffer through and no agents to please, The Brothers Chaps can just focus on the funny. There's a moment in the interview below, where Matt, the puppeteer in the family, explains his mental state during one of his live puppet recordings. He felt he "wasn't even there." This zen-like creative groove is just the thing Hollywood distractions so easily destroy.

Onward to the interview. Before we get this rolling, I'd like to thank the gang over at the Homestar Runner Wiki, whose carefully assembled database helped me immensely in researching this article.

So without further adieu, here's the phone interview I conducted back in the Winter of 2005 (Hey - I got busy!). It's a two-parter, starting with Mike.

AARON SIMPSON: How do you guys decide who does what on the short.

MIKE CHAPMAN: As far as writing goes, we'll talk about what ideas we have. Usually the project timeline is very short, and we'll quickly get the broad strokes down. At that point we usually go take a stab at writing it separately. We both know the main points of the story, and then we take a look at those, and decide that his part works here and my part here. Then Matt goes and records all the voices and when he's doing that, I'm generally blocking the scenes. If I know there's going to be a scene when Strong Bad is in space, I'll go and get those background graphics together. And then once the audio is done, we basically split up the scenes. Matt is the better animator, so if there's scenes that actually have some action going on, he'll usually do those. And if a scene just has characters talking, I'll do those - like Strong Bad at his computer. I mean I can animate okay, but Matt generally will spend more time on each shot, and his little flourishes will look a little better. I'm more likely to have the characters just say their lines.

So after we finish ours scenes, we combine them, look at it, and make changes. For instance, we'll cut the line in half, add sound effects, or move a punch around. The last few hours are making changes like that.

AARON: Were you guys creatively collaborating earlier in your lives, before Homestar?

MIKE: Definitely. We grew up drawing, making comic books, making Super 8 movies in the mid-80s, and then we worked with a video camera. So, yes, we've collaborated pretty much all of our lives.

AARON: I know how brothers can get competitive. Does that ever get in the way of your creative process?

MIKE: When we were growing up, I definitely used to beat the shit out of Matt. But from a creative standpoint, we don't really ever get carried away. And if there is a part where Matt or I don't like the direction it's going, we just say it - "no I think that sucks, that's not funny. Let's do it this way." And we usually agree on everything, which makes it easy.

AARON: Have you ever considered passing some of the animation duties on to others?

MIKE: No, I think if we were gonna do that, we would have done it by now. Years ago, we'd always said that that animation would be the first thing to pass off. For me, that's the part I'm not as excited about. Writing is great, I love illustrating - but animation is especially boring. But since we've been doing it this way, at this point it would be a few steps backwards to get someone else in here. If we were going to do some other project, and start from scratch, we might look at that, but at this point probably not.

AARON: Is there an certain aspect of your work that's currently getting the most attention?

MIKE: For me, it's stuff with a unique visual style. Some people in the audience may notice that recently we've been paying more attention to the visual style.

AARON: Between your games, puppet shorts and the DVDs - which takes the most time to make?

MIKE: The DVD stuff definitely takes a lot of time. Especially the first time - we hired a friend (Ryan Sterritt) of ours to help make it. We basically had to learn from start to finish. It worked out great, and now we have a really great DVD author on our team of only 3 people.

AARON: What was the process like getting the shorts to DVD?

MIKE: It was around 6 months into the process, and we were watching some test DVDs and they just weren't cutting it. They were pixely and the colors weren't right, and at that point, we essentially started over. There's a program called SWF2Video that really helped us finish, and then we color corrected in After Effects.

AARON: And those DVDs are packed with Easter eggs...

MIKE: Ya, it would have been impossible to hire a company to do all that. There are just so many little nuances and hidden Easter eggs in the DVD. I'm sure Ryan (Sterritt - the DVD author) hates it but sometimes he'll author the DVD in some way, and in the last week, we'll say "you know what, this interface is going to change." And if he wasn't sitting right next to us, that would have been a pain in the ass.

AARON: How did you guys first team up with the band They Might Be Giants?

MIKE: Actually John Linnell emailed us. Before that, a fan sent us a picture of them with John Flansburgh, and he was wearing a Homestar shirt. And six months after that, John Linnell emailed and said he was a big fan and suggested we could maybe collaborate. It didn't hurt that I'd been a huge TMBG fan ever since college.

AARON: Of the 2 of you, who is the puppeteer?

MIKE: Matt, mostly. Primarily, because he does the voices, and most of it is ad-libbed.

AARON: You've been lauded on the internet, radio and TV for having an internet show that's relatively family-friendly. Have you ever gotten phone calls or emails complaining about the subject manner in your cartoons?

MIKE: Ya, there's always people. We'll get someone who misinterprets a short and emails us "what's up with the gay bashing?" So we'd send back an email, and it ends up being a 13 year old girl, and we explain the issue. And then she'll email back saying "you know, you're right." We've done that a few times, where people have sent us really angry emails. We'll email back: "No wait - calm down. This is what we're talking about."

AARON: I'm sure you get approached by a fair amount of people wanting to partner up. Is there one offer that was more outrageous than the rest?

MIKE: We get tons of cell phone offers - for ringtones and mobile-episodes. These people just don't get it. We're scratching our heads - have you even looked at our site? We'd never do that. It's the grossest thing I could think of - selling one minute Strong Bad Emails for cell phones. These people say "you'd be surprised, people would do it." And we're thinking that's not the point - we know people will do it. We don't want them to do it.

Oh, and there was one caller who wanted to give us $10,000 a month for banner ads or something. And you know someone had just tipped them off - "Hey, you should check out this Homestar site." And they look at it for 5 minutes and call us, "We like your Strongman character."

AARON: Have you ever had fans try to locate your office and try to swing by?

MIKE: There have been a few people peek through the blinds. We're right next to a bowling alley and one day someone saw all the Homestar stuff in our office and knocked on the door. They asked us if we were big Homestar fans.

AARON: How was your experience at Dragon*Con?

MIKE: We've never been to a 'Con before. We'd always shied away from those because of the fanboy aspect of them. But it was alot of fun. Far less creepy and far more fun that we'd imagined.

AARON: Do you think any of your projects will move onto another platform? Maybe a broadband show or perhaps a video game.

MIKE: I don't think it's gonna happen. The way we do things is very immediate - we make cartoons and put them up three days later. There's very few projects we do that are long term, but I'd say doing a video game, or something for Gameboy - that would be something that we'd be interested in doing. But we've never licensed our stuff out, and we'd have to do it in-house, and the timeline would have to be quick. But I really don't think that's gonna happen.

[edit] Part 2

AARON SIMPSON: Do you think most people find the Easter eggs on your DVDs?

MATT CHAPMAN: We've met people who've seen 60 or 70 Strong Bad Emails and we'll mention the Easter eggs and they're like "wait, you guys hide stuff in them?" For years now, we've been checking the fan forums to make sure people were finding them. But the Message Board fans are the super Homestar nerds, and we sort of took it for granted that everyone knew there were hidden things.

AARON: You just released a new DVD.

MATT: We're calling it 'Everything Else: Volume 1.' It's all the shorter cartoons. Volume 2 will feature the Big Toons and other stuff like the Halloween shorts.

AARON: What made you want to put out DVDs in the first place?

MATT: Several fans had said we should put our stuff on DVD so they could watch the animations on their TV and not have to get on the web all the time. Plus, we were realizing that things aren't going to last forever, so just for our own archival portfolio, it's a nice way to preserve all that stuff.

AARON: Do you have plans to release your work in any of the new disc formats?

MATT: Well, with Flash because it's all vector, you can export to whatever size you want. Our process works like this - first we make an uncompressed AVI that just looks gorgeous. But, for instance, a Strong Bad Email will be about 10 gigs. To get it onto a DVD you have to use so much compression, and we end up with some loss and artifacting. To test these things we have this really old shitty DVD player, and then we have a DV-out into an HDTV - it's the low end and the high end. And when we started looking at our stuff on this really nice set-up we quickly saw some artifacting. It was discouraging, but then we'd watch it on a regular TV and it would look really good. So I popped in one of the 'Lord of the Rings' DVDs and watched it on the same HD setup, and even there we could see some artifacting. I guess its just a necessary evil of DVD compression. So maybe we could put out perfect versions of each Strong Bad Email as a 100 DVD set.

AARON: Is there a character you find most fun to animate?

MATT: I'd say Homestar. For one, he's got no arms, which is great. And his head is simple - a closed mouth, an open mouth and an 'Oh' circle mouth. So it's really easy to make him talk. Mike will tell you that if you see a scene and Homestar just sits there and talks - he animated that. If Homestar is talking and waggling all around and talking - that's me. It's fun to force yourself to get emotion from such a simple character. Homestar is essentially a glorified stick figure.

AARON: What kind of animation tricks are you using now that you weren't doing 6 or 7 years ago.

MATT: Early on, we relied on motion tweens, where you'd set point A and B, and the software would fill in the blanks. Now we're much closer to doing frame by frame animation. Beyond that, we're always trying new graphic styles - bringing in a blurred JPG background and then we'll do a rack-focus. We've been doing that for years, but if you look back at the earlier ones, we weren't animating quite as much. And now the quality has gone up a little bit more, but the time we've put into it has tripled.

AARON: There must be thousands of symbols and assets in the Homestar Flash library.

MATT: We're actually pretty bad at archiving all the artwork. We actually do have a couple master libraries filled with all the parts of each character. During the production of a cartoon, we'll make a new Strong Bad glove that looks a little better, or animates easier, but we'll forget that we did that. So when we go to make a new cartoon, we'll forget that me made that new asset. So we have to start searching.

There's a symbol of The Cheat - a reverse view - that's the same one we've been using for 4 or 5 years - and it's terrible! His proportions are off - he's way skinnier than the Cheat should be - and the line is real chunky. I think Mike drew it and scanned it in and then traced the bitmap - which we don't do anymore. We draw everything right into Flash. So it's really kinda gross looking. Over the summer, we made a new one - but we keep forgetting where that new one is saved. We need to organize them better. We should get an intern or something.

AARON: How do you currently go about finding props or backgrounds from old episodes?

MATT: It's funny - we ended up using a really exhaustive fan site - the Homestar Runner Wiki. We'll be asking ourselves, "when did we make the orange spoon?" The Wiki is a searchable database, so we'll just search for 'orange spoon,' and it pops right up - "it's in Strong Bad Email #63." And then we noticed the Wiki was having a pledge drive so we donated to it. We probably use it more than the fans do so we figured we should try to keep it alive.

AARON: You still use Flash 5. Why is this the best version for your production process?

MATT: It's the way you can select colors and frames. And Flash 5 is the best for lip-syncing. When you click on a frame in Flash 5, you hear that exact frame of sound, which makes it real easy to animate. We tinkered around with Flash 8 and couldn't get it do work the way it does in 5, so we stopped messing around with it. We've had people tell us they could get Flash 8 to work exactly like Flash 5, but who knows.

We got to talking to the Flash developers, the guys who actually make the software - and it was awesome. Sort of like meeting your makers. But it was funny, they put it us a beta test team for Flash 8 along with developers and information architects, and we didn't understand a thing they were talking about. We'd just email them asking "can you make it more like Flash 5?"

AARON: People seem fascinated that you don't have advertising on your site. What's your reaction to that?

MATT: I'm surprised that they're surprised. When we started, we knew we were taking a risk, as it seemed like every site needed advertising to get by. But at that point, we weren't trying to make Homestar into a business. Looking at the industry, I wish our no-banner ad stance had caught on more, especially now that ads are sneakier than ever.

AARON: Had you done any puppetry before the Homestar puppet shorts?

MATT: No, we'd never really done any puppetry - at least no more than a kid does growing up. We just have a friend who is a puppeteer and makes puppets. We've always thought all along that there were these different Homestar universes. Like there's an old 1930s version (click the reels) of the cartoon, and there's the Stinkoman Japanese version of it. So we chose the Pee-wee's Playhouse-style variety show to mess with. We keep the length of these around a minute, because of bandwidth issues. A 6-minute Flash cartoon can be 1.5 mbs, but with video, a minute ends up being about 1mb.

But we think we've only scratched the surface of what we'd really like to do with the puppets. We could make some hilarious set, and have a human host and group of kids - I don't know.

AARON: Tell us about Homestar's day hanging out with They Might Be Giants.

MATT: I don't even remember that day. Because I was mostly interacting with the band through a puppet. I think of that whole experience through Homestar's eyes and when I watch that stuff, I feel like I wasn't even there.

We occasionally email back and forth with John and John. Hopefully we'll find a way to collaborate again in the future.

AARON: Do you ever get fan animated stuff that appeals for you?

MATT: We've gotten a couple things over the years. As they say "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," but some of these submissions were from really young kids - like 12 year olds. So they're just learning Flash, and it's awesome. And if making your own Homestar fan cartoons is the way you want to learn Flash, then do it. But Mike gets cringy and embarrassed watching some of them.

We're not trying to sound spoiled, or "people like our stuff so much that they're making these things for us." I guess it's dealing with the geek factor. There's people that like your stuff so much and it's just kind of overwhelming and hard to deal with. But on the other hand, there's plenty of fan pieces like The Cheat Theme Song. It was a song made by fans from Alabama who call themselves The Skate Party. It was hilarious. It sounded exactly like something we would do. For the longest time people thought it was us, which was great.

There's also an acappella group called DaVinci's Notebook that did an old-timey barbershop song called 'The Ballad of The Sneak'. So there's both ends of the spectrum - some of the stuff is exactly what we would have done or better, and we actually want to use it or collaborate, and then there's the other stuff.

But for the most part, we kind of stay away from the fan stuff - it's a combination of being afraid that it will be bad and we'll feel bad about not liking it. And then what if it's even better and funnier than what we're doing?

AARON: Would you see yourselves doing this 20 years later?

MATT: Definitely. If not exactly this, then something like it. Our work is mainly short form, and when we feel Strong Bad Emails are getting old, we can quickly jump into something else. Anytime we talk about wanting to do some other projects, we figure we'll do it the same kind of way - put a few years into it, put it on the web, and if it's good then people will start coming.

But this is as good as it gets, you know, the fact that we make a Flash cartoon for a living. Look at 'Happy Tree Friends' - you can buy their DVDs in Best Buy. Those guys have distribution deals. We just don't want to deal with agents and managers. The fact that we're supporting ourselves and we get to hire friends and family is amazing.

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