Mandy B recently had the opportunity to sit down with the creators of Star Wars Gansta Rap video creators as they launch an updated version at Atom.com.
MandyB: What first sparked your interest with the Star Wars franchise?
Jason Brannon: I was 6 years old when I saw Star Wars and like any kid who saw Star Wars at that age and that time period, I was hooked on all things Star Wars: the movies and the toys. Actually the first time I saw Star Wars was about a year after it debuted and at a drive in theatre. It was the final feature and half way through the movie, the movie just cut off. My step dad was pissed and went to talk to the projectionist and basically the guy decided to call it a night because there were only 2 cars left at the drive thru! Imagine seeing a great movie and half way through the theatre turns off the movie and decides to call it a day! I was hooked from that point on.
Thomas Lee: Pretty much when I first saw the original trilogy back in late 80's. Most of my childhood is now a blur, but I distinctly remember totally freaking out when I first saw Vader going "Luke, I'm your father!". Those were the fun days.
MB: How did your interest transition into making these creative "shorts"?
JB: It was quite random in terms of making films. It all started with music actually. Chris Crawford and I use to make comedy hip-hop songs in the late 90's when we attended Indiana University. Being a couple of white guys, we mainly focused on comedy rhymes vs. "the thug life" and we would impersonate all types of charactersÖ. some exiting in popular culture and some who we created, like a Redneck Rapper or Psycho Murderer (obviously with a comedy "bent").
Chris Crawford: MP3.com was a new website where you could showcase your songs at the time and we uploaded our comedy songs and skits. At first we were excited because we got 50 downloads a day, then it was 200 downloads a day. That kept growing virally and we ended up being in the top 10 artists monthly for a few years, out of 300,000 artists, and we would get 15,000-20,000 downloads a day! We had a few million songs downloaded on mp3.com alone and millions more on Napster, Mozilla and other files sharing programs. You can still find Bentframe on file sharing programs.
JB: Then Bentframe fans started animating some of our skits and emailing them to me. At first I was working with a guy named Brian Beaton who was known underground as a Flash artist but then one day I got an email from Thomas Lee saying he liked SWGR so much he animated it. I'll be honest, I thought it was going to suck because some other fan had animated another Star Wars skit of mine and sent it to me and it was really poor production quality. I clicked on the link and I was really blown away - which is funny now, because the original SWGR (circa 2000) looks so cheesy in terms of the quality of the animation. Itís interesting to see that vs. the new film and think how much Thomas has grown in terms of animation. From that point, we knew animation was the best medium for our comedy songs and we morphed Bentframe into Bent TV. Our concept was a TV show that had our hip-hop comedy animations, which were to be fictional characters signed to our fictional record label. However it was too hard to execute and crank out a lot of material, because everyone has day jobs. It's just too hard to make animation if itís not your only day job. I do think the views and downloads Bent TV have had proves there's a market from what we do (comedy hip-hop animation). I am surprised no one in the industry has ever thought this would work, since Hollywood is so desperate they remake shows and movies like the Dukes of Hazard and Knight Rider. They are clearly out of original ideas (only a potion of our work is comprised of spoofs).
TL: For me personally, it started way back in the summer of 2000 in my first year of university as a visual arts major in Toronto, Canada (York University) when a friend of mine from the States excitedly forwarded me the original Star Wars Gangsta Rap song by Bentframe. I was so impressed with just how hilariously awesome it sounded that I wanted to have a crack at animating it as a music video. It was a big deal for me as a freshman in fine arts because I was pretty much just beginning to explore the different mediums to test my artistic skills. Back then, I had never even animated before, let alone made a music video, so you could imagine how surprised I was when the crudely animated (by today's standard) Star Wars Gangsta Rap of 2000 had generated so much buzz on the web that it became a watershed moment that has - to this date - led me to the career path that I'm now following - animation. Funny thing is, I've never even been a fan of hip-hop, but now I'm able to see its merits! Too bad I left most of my music taste back in the 90's, but hey, at least I can safely distance myself from 21st-century douchebaggery of Kanye West and Fiddy Cent!
MB: In what ways has the fan reaction surprised you?
JB: The original SWGR films have had over 10,000,000 million views on Atom.com alone. When you add to that all the websites where it's at (unauthorized) we are pretty sure itís been seen 25 million times! When I made this, I remember thinking, "People are going to think this is the stupidest thing ever, or they are going to love it." It's hard to judge something you created because by the time the song was done, I had heard it hundreds of times.
CC: The other surprising aspect is all the fan made versions of SWGR. On Youtube I have seen hundreds of fan made versions, from high school talent shows, to girls sitting in their room lip-syncing it, to kids in a classroom reciting lines from the song. In a million years, I never imagined that would happen.
TL: The most surprising thing was that there are still people who insist the crudely animated (by today's standard) original version of Star Wars Gangsta Rap is better. I personally believe the new version - Chronicles - beats all the previous ones easily. On second thought, I guess I can sort of understand because, being a strict purist myself as far as Star Wars goes, I'd much rather adhere to the original series in my Star Wars-related works. Oh, and I saw this video on youtube showing some Star Wars fans in Australia on stage doing a re-enactment of the original SWGR song on stage. Yeah that was pretty wicked, and surprised the hell out of me.
MB: What is the working relationship between Atom.com and yourselves like?
JB & CC: Atom has been very, very supportive of us. They have pretty much allowed us to have creative control on nearly everything we produce and they promote our films and pay us royalties. They are a great outlet for aspiring filmmakers. Over 10,000,000 people + have seen our films at Atom.com so that speaks for itself.
TL: Although newgrounds.com is where Star Wars Gangsta Rap was originally discovered, Atom.com - after acquiring it - has, over the years, been instrumental in getting Star Wars Gangsta Rap the publicity it has been enjoying. For that I give them mad props. I personally am hoping that through the good folks at Atom, I can keep learning and growing and directing bigger and better projects down the road with even bigger budgets. Maybe someday I can create a series of my own or direct an animated film.
MB: Give us a time frame from inception to finish re: animation, voice overs, and the finished product.
JB: Thomas can give a clearer answer on the animation but it took him and his crew around 6 months to animate the piece. Thomas worked a full time day job and put in basically 80 hours a week between his day job and working on this film.
I moved from Chicago to Sydney in 2007 so Chris Crawford and I brainstormed via web conferencing a few times on the Ideas for the song. I flew to Indiana In April of this year to record this at Chris' studio because I had a trip home scheduled anyways. In truth, we wrote this new song in one evening and recorded the song the next day. I think it probably took Chris a full 1-2 weeks of creation and mixing to make the actual music. It was a quick turn around for the song vs. the animation. If we didn't have a day job, we could crank these comedy hip-hop songs out fast. Animating is another story because it's so time consuming.
TL: Since members of Bent TV live across different time zones, our collaboration was mostly done through telecommunication. Jason and Chris both worked tirelessly on the song, sending me improved versions after versions throughout its different developmental stages. During that time I drew, animated and planned future scenes on evenings and weekends, while I worked full time at my day job as an animator at 9 Story Entertainment in Toronto. So my mind was constantly on overdrive, and caffeine. I spent 6 straight months doing essentially 80-hour work weeks from mid-April to early October of 2009. I even used up all my vacation days to focus solely on the music video. Oh yeah, and I used to sleep 4-5 hours of sleep every night. I'm finally on vacation now, and going to Costa Rica soon with my girlfriend. Am I happy or is the Pope holy?
MB: Going into Chronicles, was there anything you set out to do differently, or was the formula pretty much the same?
JB: This was our biggest dilemma. For one, I came to the realization that no matter how good the sequel is, it would not top the original in terms of views. I based this on the fact that the original animation debuted in 2000 when Lucas still had 2 Star Wars films to release. We sort of had built in marketing with the Star Wars films being so hot in that time period. Everything Star Wars was red hot then.
Originally when we made the first SWGR, it was my intention to make a crude "gangsta" version with the Star Wars characters talking trash. I figured that is where the comedy would come from. Somehow, during the writing of the film, we kept it PG and basically almost perfectly summed up episodes 4 and 5 in a rhyme. That has a lot to do with Chris' organization skills when it comes to writing rhymes. He's really good at that and I sort of fed him lines and ideas as he didn't know a lot about Star Wars (I determined Chris didn't have a normal childhood because he had never watched the Star Wars trilogy until we produced the original). I had thought about having this sequel cover Return of the Jedi but then decided you can't just copy the old format. We decided it would be best to revert to my original version and have it be gansgta, with the characters talking trashÖ.well as gansgta as a PG Star Wars animation can be.
One key thing is we paid homage to classic hip hop songs or artists in this new version so you hear hints of Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Digital Underground, Public Enemy, The Beastie Boys, Ice T, Rob Base and Skee Lo. In the original I only had one classic hip hop line which was "knock 'em out the box Luke."
TL: When I decided to take on this project, I envisioned it to be the culmination of 7 years of mostly self-taught knowledge of flash animation, plus 2 years of experiences of working in a real animation studio. Not only did I redesign all of my older SWGR characters and assets with the help of my cousin Yun, I also hired 3 additional animators - Tim, Nic, and Oliver - to make my stress-filled life much easier. Seriously, without them, I would still be working on SWGR:Chronicles through Christmas.
Like with all my previous works, I basically had creative control over all the visuals, and I communicate my visions the best I can to all those who I hired to help.
MB: Are there plans for another Gangsta Rap in the future?
JB: Really, it comes down to time and money. Basically because we all have day jobs and all live in separate countries. If this was our day job, I am sure Chris and I could crank comedy hip-hop songs out 24/7.
Itís so hard to produce an animation when you have another day job. Thomas had the help of a small team of animators and it still took 6 months to make this film. Ideally, we need a situation where we make enough where Thomas can have the animation be his day job. Then the animation would get done much, much faster and Thomas wouldn't have had to be committed to the mental ward where he is now recuperating.
TL: Gangsta Rap, as I've come to find, is a great medium for comedy. I certainly wouldn't mind working with Jason and Chris again on another song in the future. But hopefully it won't be Star Wars themed again, because at this point, I believe we've finally milked it to death.... Or have we?! Dun-dun-dun!! Seriously though, I think it's unlikely we'll do anything Star Wars any time soon. But we'll see.
MB: Alright, come clean. Geekiest thing you own or do?
JB: Well I don't do this any longer but I use to do some freestyle rhymes while impersonating the Star Wars characters. That's how Star Wars Gangsta Rap was born and that is pretty damn geeky in the world of hip-hop.
TL: Geekiest thing I do, I have to say is watching anime and reading manga. What can I say, I love that stuff. My girlfriend is not into it, but I can't help it. Hehe, I read and follow Naruto and Bleach weekly and religiously. I've also recently finished the masterpiece Shigurui in both manga and anime form. I just like anything that's well-animated. That said, I'm also geek for Pixar. Geekiest thing I own? Hmm, maybe the Buddy Jesus figurine I bought from Kevin Smith's shop in Red Bank NJ. I also have a rack of Samurai swords, but don't worry, I will never ever pull a "Star Wars Kid" with any of them!
MB: Are y'all watching the new animated series, Star Wars: The Clone Wars ? If so, how are you enjoying it thus far?
JB: I have only watched a couple of episodes but I live in Australia now and if it's on here, I haven't really tracked down when it's on. I am a purest in that, I prefer the original Star Wars Trilogy hands down to anything in the Star Wars universe.
TL: Honestly, I've been working so much that I pretty much tuned out everything for the past 6 months besides my anime and manga habits. I had been so saturated with Star Wars every day that I didn't really need to immerse myself in more Star Wars material. I might try to catch up on Clone Wars when I get the chance, the animation seems cool.
MB: Wish list time! If you were in charge of the upcoming live-action television series, what would it be about?
JB: Once again I am uninformed here. I am not even sure what the new show will cover but if I could choose, I'd want it to cover after Return of the Jedi and follow the exploits of Han Solo but then it wouldn't be the same when they have someone else playing Han Solo would it? No one could ever do Han Solo as good as Harrison Ford.
TL: A live-action Star Wars series? Well, I'll probably want to work with Jason and Chris again on it! I'm pretty sure whatever ideas they have I can visualize. If I had it may way I'd probably do a spin-off about the adventures and escapades of Boba Fett.
MB: Thank y'all so much for participating in our TF.N Interview Series! For those that haven't seen the newest Star Wars: Gangsta Rap "Chronicles", get thee to an atom.com!