Homestar’s Show Runners, Part 2

A couple days back, we kicked of the Brothers Chaps interview with Mike, one half of the duo behind ‘Homestar Runner.’ His younger brother, Matt, now joins us for the second half, discussing DVDs, asset libraries, puppeteering and fanimation.

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.

6 Comments

  1. animonger October 4, 2006

    Great article, Aaron! The second part is as informative as the first!

  2. Further cementing the thought that they are living the life.

  3. Mukpuddy October 6, 2006

    Nice job, very informative!!! Yay Homestar!!

  4. CHF_4ever October 6, 2006

    Best interview ever! Those Homestar Runner guys are off of that hook, and Aaron’s interview skills are just as off of that hook (look out barbara walters – tee hee!)

  5. Someone should tell Matt that you CAN play the audio on just one frame in the new versions of Flash, you just have to hold down shift before you click the frame!

    Nice interview.

  6. my daughter loves the wii motionplus. We’ve enjoyed Wii motionplus games almost constantly since we got the motionplus. What games are your favourite?

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