Homestar’s Show Runners, 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-90′s, 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.

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.

That’s the end of the Brothers Chaps interview, Part 1. Check back in a few days for part 2, featuring Mike’s brother Matt.

4 Comments

  1. Mukpuddy October 3, 2006

    Woo Hooo, great stuff, can’t wait for the 2nd installment!!! The Chaps rule!!!

  2. I’m jealous, I wish I could make a living from making my own independant cartoons! Looking forward to the second part of the interview!

  3. The GagaMan(n) October 3, 2006

    These guys are truely living the dream.

  4. pretty cool guys. didnt know any this before so thanks alot for the interview! :)

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