Flashforward Interview - 10 Feb 2006

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The logo of Flashforward 2006.

Matt and Mike Chapman, creators of HomestarRunner.com, will be presenting "How and Why Homestar Runner Cartoons Get Made" at Flashforward2006 Seattle. Learn more in this audio interview with Lynda Weinman: what it's like working together every day, why they still proudly use Flash 5, how they incorporate audio and video, how they are able to offer free content with no ads, the importance of interactivity, and what other projects they've worked on.

Twenty-two minutes and forty-eight seconds of pure Friday fun!

Contents

[edit] Transcript

[edit] Introduction

LYNDA WEINMAN: Hi, you're listening to the Flashforward Conference and Film Festival Podcast. The largest Flash user conference in the world, sponsored by Adobe Systems and produced by lynda.com. I'm Lynda Weinman, founder of the conference. If you'd like to learn more about Flashforward, please visit flashforwardconference.com. Listen to the end of the podcast for information on our upcoming conference in Seattle, on February 27th through March 2nd, 2006. In each podcast episode, I will be conducting a phone interview with one of our speakers, sponsors, or film festival finalists. In today's Flashforward podcast, I interview Matt and Mike Chapman, The Brothers Chaps, who are the creators of the homestarrunner.com website. They will be speaking for the first time at the Flashforward Conference and Film Festival on Tuesday, February 28th, from 3:45 to 5:00pm in Room 6B. This is their session description: "How and Why Homestar Runner Cartoons get Made: Take a step back in time as Mike and Matt Chapman show how they still use Flash® 5 to make the weekly cartoons featured on HomestarRunner.com. Learn the secrets and not-so-secrets of making a 3-5 minute cartoon every week. Hear about their six years on the web, watch some of their stuff, and learn how they've managed to make a living doing something they like."

[edit] Welcome!

LYNDA: {now over telephone} Well, it's really great to connect with you both over the telephone, I have Mike and, uh, Matt Chapman over the phone with me. Welcome!

MIKE: Hi, thank you.

LYNDA: Hey, we're really excited to have you at Flashforward, is this your first speaking gig at a technology conference?

MIKE: Absolutely.

MATT: We're very thrilled to be part of it and we're kind of... we still think it's sort of an accident, probably.

LYNDA: {laughs}

MIKE: Flashforward, since I think I maybe heard of it in 2000? Pretty much right when we started using Flash.

LYNDA: I know, I was, you know, looking at your bio and seeing that you started in 2000 and that's when the conference started as well, so we share the same birthdate.

MIKE: Yeah.

LYNDA: Yeah.

[edit] Flash discussion

MATT: Flashforward was really, I think that's what exploded {?} in terms of–

MIKE: Yeah, we got Flash 4 in, I guess, 1999, late 1999.

LYNDA: So had you ever done animation before you got Flash 4?

MATT: Yeah, we'd done it in lots of other forms, we'd done stop-motion stuff, we'd messed, you know, with just cel... very crude hand-drawn cel animation. Growing up we did a lot of that stuff. All very crude and not very advanced.

MIKE: We'd do stop-motion with a video camera where the smallest chunks of time you could give would be about two or three seconds.

MATT: {laughing} Yeah, you couldn't come anywhere close to frame-by-frame animation.

LYNDA: Well, I mean, those roots really show in your work, even though, even though a lot of people would look at it and say it's crude, I think people who are trained in animation recognize that there is artistry to what you're doing, absolutely.

MIKE: Well, thank you.

LYNDA: Yeah.

MIKE: So when we got Flash 4 we were pretty thrilled with how easy it was to, you know, to manipulate things and to sort of have this library you could pull from instead of having to redraw every time, so that was very nice, we were pretty- pretty psyched.

LYNDA: Yeah I think Flash started its life as a different product and it- it didn't have any interactivity at all, it only had animation and drawing tools, so it- it had- it had- it was the first program I ever saw that had onion skinning, it was called SmartSketch. {pause} And-

MATT: Onion skinning comes in very handy.

MIKE: Was that FutureSplash?

LYNDA: FutureSplash, there you go. That's what it was called, oops. {laughs}

MIKE: I did my homework.

LYNDA: You did what?

MIKE: I did my homework.

LYNDA: Yes you did. Um, and your- your memory is better than mine.

[edit] Family Affair

LYNDA: So, where are you guys based?

MIKE: We're based in Decatur, Georgia, which is just east of Atlanta.

LYNDA: And, um, this is a family affair even that extends beyond you two brothers, correct?

MIKE: Yes, pretty much everyone; our sister, dad and mom, and uh, inlaws, everybody helps out whenever they get a chance. Us two and our sister are full time employees. And everyone else pitches in when something needs to be done.

LYNDA: I'm sure you're all quite amazed by the success of this, do you want to talk a little about that? I mean were your parents always supportive of this sort... of your drawing and animation experiments and things like that?

MATT: Yeah, Mike and I, we, we always say that we had the sort of curse of having the parents that were too interested and too supportive of everything you were doing, and our dad and mom would drive four hours to see my crappy band play in college in a smokey bar {Lynda laughs at this}, stuff like that, and it was sort of like "I kind of don't want you guys to be here at a crappy club, I can't swear on stage then."

MIKE: "I won't be able to drink beers then."

MATT: Yeah. But, I mean obviously it was wonderful, and it was very cool our dad's a retired accountant, so Mike and I started tinkering around with Flash and when we got the website up it had a lot of stuff going, he kind of encouraged us to try and sell some t-shirts or whatever, he's definitely our biggest fan, and he's always supported us in all our creative endeavors. I think that's part of his thing, he definitely always wanted to be a writer and ended up being an accountant, so I think sort of through, you know, he was getting his creative jones through his sons, which we're totally cool with, so....

LYNDA: That's really neat. So you have a musical background as well as writing and drawing.

MATT: Yeah...

MIKE: Yeah, our musical background is just as mediocre as all of our other backgrounds... College rock band... "Technically..." What did you call it?

MATT: Trained? Technically trained?

LYNDA: Well, I think in some ways the mediocrity is the charm, because it makes it sort of... people can identify with the pure creative spirit that's coming out of Homestar Runner. You know, the stories and the characters and the humor I think are really approachable to most people.

MATT: We hope so.

MIKE: "Technically Proficient", that's what I was trying to think of.

MATT: "Technically Proficient"?

MIKE: Proficient, yeah, that's a hard word for me to come up with.

[edit] Why not upgrade?

LYNDA: So, speaking of Technically Proficient, what version of Flash are you guys using right now?

MIKE: Proudly using Flash 5.

MATT: Yeah. And have been since, since 2001 or whenever it came out.

LYNDA: Wow. Is there a reason why you have not upgraded?

MIKE: There's several reasons, and we'll let everyone know at the Flashforward conference what they are.

LYNDA: OK.

MIKE: Lots of little small things. We actually publish everything in Flash 7 still, and we'll get Flash 8 just because the compression is so much better, the filesize is generally about 30% smaller...

LYNDA Mmm-hmm...

MIKE: ...so that's always good. But there's lots of little minor things, like the color selection, and...

MATT: Frame selection, syncing...

MIKE: Yeah, see not only do we use Flash 5 but we use the Flash 4 timeline keyframing style.

MATT: Yeah, we set it, there's that setting, you can set it to Flash 4...

LYNDA: Right...

MATT: ...for frame selection, and we still use that actually...

LYNDA: I'm kind of with you, I really preferred the way that it used to work, and I set mine back too.

MATT: Yeah... It's, uh, I dunno, there's just something streamlined, and it's the sort of thing where we... probably if we just worked it for two weeks and just forced ourselves to use Flash 8 we would be fine, but, uh, I don't know, it's one of those old habits die hard situations, I guess. There's definitely a couple of things with syncing up dialogue that seems like it's way easier and we haven't been able to duplicate a couple of the things we've tried, we go in and, cause we... the newer Flashes are pretty customizable, and we actually had our programmer guy, Jonathan, went in and tried to make all these weird, like, presets and keyboard shortcuts to try and mimic everything that we do in Flash 5 in 7 and even that was still, like, several... we'd have to do like several little keyboard shortcuts just to do something you can do with, you know, one click in Flash 5. We keep wanting someone to prove us wrong and give us a copy of, you know, a new Flash that works exactly the way we want it to, but nobody's been able to do it.

LYNDA: Hmm! Well, I bet that could be arranged. {laughs} I think you're going to be coming to the source by coming to Flashforward here.

[edit] Audio

LYNDA: So, you also use a lot of sound, and I'm curious, you know, what platform you guys use to author your materials, and what kinds of sound apps you use, and things like that.

MIKE: Weeeee... use, um, I guess, Adobe Audition now...

MATT: Used to be Cool Edit.

MIKE: Yeah, Cool Edit Pro. Um, so we just use Mobile Pre-Amp, um, USB Pre-Amp, to, uh, plug the mikes in, and just, uh, record it all in Audition and clean it up in there.

MATT: We have a little sound room here at the office, it used to just be me sitting in front—We always had a decent microphone just cause, with, you know, from recording our own home music stuff, we had at least a decent microphone, and, like, a four-track and stuff, and so, but it was still just me sitting at the computer, and you could hear Mike doing the dishes in the background, and like, lots of room noise and stuff like that, but now... {Lynda laughs} ...little sound room looks fairly soundproof, or at least soundproof enough.

LYNDA: Yeah, I think the audio sounds great on your site.

MATT: Thanks. You should go watch some of the early emails and you'll really appreciate it, yeah, especially with headphones you'll really appreciate how, how much...

MIKE: You can hear trucks going by...

LYNDA: Right...

MIKE: Dogs barking and stuff...

LYNDA: But, you know, I still maintain that adds to the charm here. I mean, I really think that part of what is the appeal is that, you know, people can relate to this sort of crudely-drawn stuff, and I love how you intermix, you know, sort of, a lot of just visual metaphors of like old, you know, black and white footage, and funny videogames, and it's such a, you know, collage of different files and influences, it's really neat.

MATT: Thanks. That's a, yeah, we always feel like it's fortunate we can always put whatever we want on the site, it's a nice sorta catchall in terms of any creative idea we can come up with, we can probably cram it into the Homestar Runner universe in some way, be it, you know, a hair metal band, or, like you're saying, an old crappy Atari game, or any of that stuff, just can somehow get in there, which is cool, as opposed to, you know, if we had set out to make it be just some sci-fi cartoon or something, where you're kind of pigeon-holed into a genre, so it's nice that way.

[edit] Video

LYNDA: Yeah, and I love the video stuff that you have on there too, with the sock puppets and, um... If you're not using more current version of Flash, how you're dealing with the video, I'm just curious.

MATT: We do all the, uh, all that from that's what, uh, we use, we're still, like Mike said, we're still using MX '04 Professional for the video stuff, we haven't gotten 8 yet, so we do all that, and we've got the Sorenson Squeeze, a little app that compresses the video even better, so we shoot the stuff and usually just export it out of Final Cut as an uncompressed AVI, we found we get the best results when it... what you put into Sorenson is completely uncompressed, and so it ends up looking better. Obviously we're still making... we try and keep them around a meg, so these minute-long or 2 minute-long things around a meg, meg and a half and they're just tiny and still fairly crappy-looking video, unfortunately, but we just don't want to mess with bandwidth just 'cause every... all the other content on our site is so much smaller than that, for the most part.

LYNDA: Well, it's really appreciated.

[edit] Advertising

LYNDA: I also think it's really neat that you don't have any advertising, I'm sure your site is popular enough to where you could make a lot of money with advertising, what has prompted–

MATT: We're promised that all the time.

LYNDA: Oh, I'm certain of it.

MATT: I'm still don't know... I still don't believe that banner ads can work.

LYNDA: Oh. Well, I don't have them on our sites either.

MIKE: That's not why we don't do it. We made that decision very early on, it's just... to not be interrupted, and to be... without links and other things bothering you when you're at Homestar Runner. We want your full attention, and I think people appreciate not... Even though I think, for the most part, people can block out banner ads, I mean everyone sees {?} going to sites with a million pop-up ads and banner ads and stuff and it's... you can get past it pretty easily but people definitely appreciate them not being there.

MATT: Yeah, we still hear that, which is good, it was nice that people recognize that pretty quickly, and...

MIKE: Also aesthetically, it's something that... it was a decision to just have this clean... we've got the large black border and we put everything in this little window, and I think it's just more aesthetically pleasing.

LYNDA: I totally agree with you. I think it's a luxury that, from what I've read about you, you're supporting yourselves through selling merchandise. Is that correct?

MIKE: Yeah. Again, we're lucky to be able to make the decisions based on that, we don't need whatever revenue banner ads would bring in.

LYNDA: Yeah. I kind of have the same philosophy in my site... we have our ways of making money, Flashforward sells tickets and that's how we survive, and lynda.com has its own way. I suppose we could all be extra greedy and get the ad money too, but if it's already working, and it's a really nice experience for your end-user, to me it's well worth it to keep them off.

MIKE: Yeah, advertising is a necessary evil, and if it's not necessary, then it's just evil.

LYNDA: Then it's too evil, definitely.

[edit] Projects

LYNDA: So have you been offered any other kinds of projects? I'm sure your site has caught the attention of some network execs now and again, has anything tempted you to get outside the web space?

MATT: Nothing... I mean, we would have done, probably, by now, I mean we've definitely opened... left as many of those doors open as possible, when we hear from people at networks and studios and stuff, but so far there's nothing, like I said we're still having so much fun, and it's fulfilling us creatively at this point, we haven't gone off and done other things. Though, we have... we've gotten to do couple of music videos for bands that we like, which is cool...

LYNDA: I know, I saw the They Might Be Giants one.

MATT: Yeah, we got to do that, and we got to do a video for a band called "Folk Implosion" that we're big fans of, and so that's been really cool, and we have lots of friends in bands and so we've messed around with doing videos for them, or wanting to do that same sort of thing, and that's fun, that seems like something we can do and it's not as time-consuming as...

MIKE: Just little small projects that you can do for a month and then...

MATT: Yeah, as opposed to writing a feature or starting some other cartoon on a network or something like that. At this point I dunno, it's just a hard sell for those people, because it's my brother and I screwing around in our crappy little office by the bowling alley, doing whatever we want on whatever time schedule we want, or...

MIKE: We were watching Wrestlemania 3 this morning.

MATT: Yeah, Mike brought in Wrestlemania 3, an old tape from 1985 that we found at our parents' house. So that's what we were doing today, as opposed to "we need 22 episodes of the Strong Bad cartoon by such-and-such a date, and this producer's gonna give you notes, and make sure to plug this advertisement, and..." it just seems like there's no contest.

LYNDA: Yeah, I can see the trade-off there.

MATT: At the same time, though, there could be a point where we're ready to do something like that, and if you approach it from that aspect then it's fine, it's just as opposed to doing... Knowing that you're getting into that, I think we would be okay, but at this point, changing Homestar Runner to be something like that would definitely suck.

LYNDA: And I think a really strong dimension of Homestar Runner is the interactivity that we haven't talked about too much, but you do have a lot of Easter eggs, and ways that your audience interact with your work, so how important is that to what you're building here?

MATT: That's always been a huge part, I mean it was definitely something from the beginning that we wanted to reward the repeat viewer and the curious viewer with these little secrets and stuff, and it was really cool to hear after the site had been up for several years, and we met some people that were fans of the site, and they had no idea that there were these Easter eggs, and so we were already on to Strong Bad Email number 70 or something, and they're like "Are you telling me all 70 of those Strong Bad Emails had hidden stuff that I've never seen?" and we're like "Oh, not all of them, but most of them." That was really cool, to see that there are people that like it 'cause it's funny, 'cause there's definitely people that that's the biggest part of the draw for them is that they like this hidden stuff, so it's funny, when... if we don't do as many Easter eggs in a cartoon we'll...

MIKE: Barely hidden anymore. We need to start hiding them more, it's so effective that... {mocking voice} "Oh, there's only one Easter egg this time..."

MATT: That, and plus the fact that Strong Bad Emails are from real fans, so there is that direct connection with... Strong Bad picks an email and it's some kid's email, and he puts it on the site, I think that's pretty cool too.

[edit] Inspiration

LYNDA: I totally agree, and it seems like that was... maybe, I could be wrong, but was that more the genesis for a lot of the early cartoons, and is it still? Where do you find your inspiration, besides the emails? The emails are great fodder, and you've done a wonderful job with them, but I'm curious if your creative process has changed at all, if you find influence from places that you never thought you would and things like that.

MIKE: I just get inspiration from whatever crappy TV reruns we were watching, or bad Nintendo game, or some thing that some kid in third grade said 20 years ago that we still repeat over and over again...

MATT: Or the guy at the diner that's now demolished that had half a mustache...

MIKE: Yeah, we use that... we went to this really depressing lunch, this diner was terrible, but our waiter had half a mustache, and it was such a bad lunch that I was determined to get something out of the lunch, so we wrote this person with half a mustache into one cartoon. That's where our inspiration comes from, people with weird facial hair.

LYNDA: Well I think a lot of people do struggle with "How do we get ideas?", so it's really great to hear that you just look everywhere...

MATT: They're all around you.

MIKE: There's definitely times when we're struggling for an idea, and it's hard to force it sometimes, sometimes when you force it it works... by doing the Strong Bad Emails every week we sort of gave ourselves this deadline, and there were lots of times where that affects the writing process, the fact that we've got to get this up in six more hours, whereas if we were just doing it leisurely I think the product would have been different. I think sometimes that works for you and sometimes that can work against you, obviously.

LYNDA: Absolutely. Well, one of the things we like to do at Flashforward is inspire everybody, and part of... probably the most inspirational thing of all is the film festival – I've had many people tell me after being at the film festival that they left the conference and created something that they didn't think they would have created had they not seen it. So I'm looking forward to your session inspiring a lot of people. I realise that you're not gonna teach anybody how to do animation, or ActionScript, but I don't really think that's the role of having people like yourselves... what you're doing is so successful and effective and compelling and... you have so many fans, I live in a town of 8,000 people, and I see people walking around with your tshirts on, which to me is a sign of something and... obviously you could never have expected to have done this, since the Internet was so new in 2000, and not very many people have achieved what you guys have achieved.

MATT: Yeah, it was pretty cool to see... I mean, not in a negative way, but... that we'd outlasted some of the other sites. There's usually... a lot of them are still up, flash cartoon sites that were popular back when we first started... they're still up, but they're not putting up new... they haven't been putting up new in forever, or they went to subscription service and things like that. The fact that it's 6 years later, and we're still just doing the same thing, just giving it to people for free if they want to see it, maybe they'll buy a shirt, maybe they won't. It's a source of pride, for me, anyway.

LYNDA: As it should be.

MATT: You go back to icebox.com and... what are some of the other ones? I forget, there's some old ones that were the big heavy-hitters back in the day that we'll go back sometimes to look at and just be like "Wow, remember that?" We're older than them now, that's pretty cool.

[edit] Goodbyes

LYNDA: Well, you should be proud, and we're actually also really proud that you're coming to Flashforward and I know lots and lots of people are excited to see you, so in advance I want to thank you for agreeing to come, and...

MIKE: Do you look like the lynda.com logo?

LYNDA: Um, well, my husband gets upset with me, he drew it when... because occasionally I'll change glasses or cut my hair... the logo's 10 years old... I remember the first time I changed my hairdo, he was like {indignant} "Well, you don't like your logo any more." But I actually do probably look like my logo, I mean I wear glasses, and... yeah, I have the glasses part. My hair is probably a little shorter than that logo right now. And I've aged 10 years.

MATT: Thanks so much for inviting us, we're very excited.

LYNDA: The feeling is mutual.

MIKE: Been to Seattle before?

LYNDA: Yeah, Seattle's a great city, a lot of people haven't been there before, and it's one of the reasons why I wanted to have it in Seattle, I'm just of the belief that the whole conference experience should be stimulating, and we've had a history of going back and forth from the same two locations for a long time, so I'm hoping that getting people out to a new city is gonna add to the inspiration and stimulation of... learning new things and doing something new, so we can not wait to have you. Thank you for being part of the podcast, and we'll see you in Seattle.

MATT: Fantastic.

MIKE: Yep, great.

LYNDA: Thanks.

MIKE: Thanks, Lynda.

[edit] Closing Comments

LYNDA: {back in a studio} The Flashforward conference and film festival brings together the best minds in the Flash design and development community, in a four-day conference and international film festival. With the release of Flash 8 and the new focus on Flash as a platform, Flashforward offers knowledge and inspiration for everyone in the Flash community, whatever role Flash plays in your life and work. Join us and over 1000 Flash designers and developers in Seattle this February. If you'd like a discount to the conference, please enter the code PODSEA3 when you register. We hope to see you in Seattle, it's going to be an outstanding show. For more information, visit www.flashforwardconference.com. Flashforward is produced by lynda.com, home of the online training library, an online training resource that has hundreds of hours of Flash training and other training in the digital arts. Thanks for listening to the podcast, and we hope to see you in Seattle.

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