Arts interview

James Ashby on Starpocalypse

SMBC Theater co-founder speaks with The Tech

James Ashby founded SMBC Theater with Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comics writer Zach Weinersmith in 2009, and they have just released Starpocalypse, the first of three planned web series.

The Tech: Were you always planning on making a web series or did the idea come after working on the SMBC Theater sketches? In your Kickstarter campaign, you initially asked for $15,000. What was the plan?

James Ashby: We really wanted to do something “science fiction-y”, but we never had the cash for it. With $15,000, we would have made a really fancy sketch or one episode of a web series. When we got $76,000, we were like, we gotta go all out. It’s a really exciting amount of money but also a scary amount of money because it means that our audience is going to expect something really phenomenal, as well they should, but also that maybe folks didn’t have a clear understanding of how little money that really is to do video production.

TT: How did you come up with the idea for Starpocalypse?

JA: Religion is based at least to some degree on a lack of logic, which makes it very fascinating and somewhat funny in some interesting ways. In the story of God talking to Abraham before Sodom and Gomorrah, God says, I hate the towns, I’m going to destroy them, and Abraham says, what if I can find a thousand good people? And God says, “Oh well, if you find a thousand good people, I guess I won’t blow up the cities.” “Okay, great, what if I can find 500 good people?” That idea of haggling with God about whether or not God is going to kill everybody seems hilarious to me. I liked the idea of marrying it with some of the tropes about ancient aliens.

TT: What parts of the series are you most proud of?

JA: Episodes 4 and 5, in the Hall of Science. That was all shot in a homemade green screen room in a very tiny office about 12 feet wide by maybe 20 feet deep. But it had a very small, kind of rickety, not entirely up to code balcony so that we could get all the angles we needed and all the various directions. All of the council pods are actually one pod: we built one pod, and we shot it a thousand different angles with different people in it, and we put all that together in postproduction. The same is true for everybody in that scene. All of those people were actually filmed separately against a green screen because that’s all we could afford to do, and we had to put that together later.

TT: What was the hardest part of making this series?

JA: For me, probably the hardest part was getting other people to join me in this crazy plan and keeping them inspired because, at the end of the day, after writing the script and making a few funny faces in front of the camera, we were out of the skill set that I had to contribute. I can’t do special effects so I had to beg a whole lot. We have really wonderful EFX people who donated their time and work because they really liked the idea and they wanted to help out. Without that, it would not have been possible. I’m working to build in a royalty system for Starpocalypse. All of the merchandise for Starpocalypse is going to be geared such that none of the money goes to Zachary, myself or SMBC Theater or the company. It all goes directly to the cast, crew and the effects crew that made Starpocalypse possible.

TT: What the production schedule was like?

JA: Physical production was about three months because it was done on weekends and around people’s day jobs because we didn’t have money to pay people and we couldn’t ask them to be homeless. Then we started postproduction. We had thought we had a couple of people lined up for special effects who ended up not being able to help out, and then we didn’t know anybody who could do this. I had to find a way to find people who could, and we got very very lucky. We posted a note on Zach’s comic and on our Facebook page to say, “Hey, we’re looking for effects people.” One of our Kickstarter backers sent me a note through the Kickstarter system saying, if you’re looking for people I’d be willing to potentially help out. He ended up putting in hundreds of hours.

TT: Do you know when the next two series are going to be out?

JA: When we started SMBC Theater in 2009, there was a real importance in updating every week. We were worried that if we disappeared for too long, people would forget us. But at this point, the cacophony online is just so overwhelming that it’s more important to have something really good than to have something constant and okay because people learn not to listen to you.

There are a couple different possibilities for the third series, but for the second we’re pondering a cartoon. Some time in the summer or fall we’re going to start talking about what’s coming next for SMBC Theater, and in the mean time, we’ll be working very hard on it behind the scenes.

TT: Are you going to be doing any more SMBC Theater sketches in the meantime?

JA: We’ve wrapped them up. If you look at sketch shows, four years is about how long you’ve got before it starts to get a little bit redundant. We made 170 sketches about all kinds of crazy weird topics and loved every moment of it. I’m really proud of a good 75 percent of them, so that’s not bad.

We’re going to be giving away the old sketches once a week for the next year until they’re all released into the Creative Commons, so that people are more than free to download them, remix them, chop them up, do whatever they want.