Here in the geek community, we are often flooded with images and ideas, from the corny to outlandish. With the recent passage of this year’s San Diego Comic Con, many were overwhelmed by the cosplayers, games, gadgets, and new superhero movies coming up. What’s not to love? It takes a lot to “arrive” if your hopes are pinned on making a career out of those nerdy things we all love. Well, they’ve all started somewhere. Here in Arizona there is a thriving nerdy community filled with creators from every walk of life. I want to sit down with them and share their promise with others.
Samurai High Dodgeball Squad is a 60-second animated short that has been posted online with Adult Swim for about ten days, and has garnered over 10,000 views already. It marries the old Nintendo Entertainment System style gaming with the super-powered anime genre for a quick amusing trip down nostalgia lane. James Jefferies, who admittedly reminds me a little of Wreck-it Ralph in a gentle giant kind of way, braved the oppressive Tucson heat to answer a few questions. Dan Reeves, the other half of the project, had the good sense to stay in LA and join me over the phone.
Next Noble Nerd: So, first things first, what was the inspiration for Samurai High Dodgeball Squad?
James Jefferies: Let me give you a little bit of background. In January of 2013, I was living in Los Angeles, interning at a company on the Disney lot called Mandeville Films, who produced the Muppet movies and The Fighter. I was friends with fellow Wildcat alum Dan Reeves who’s an assistant editor at Robot Chicken. They were having an internal program where they were going to solicit pitches for shorts from employees there at Stoopid Buddy Studios. Dan was coming up with two on his own, and came to me for collaboration on a third one: “Do you have any weird ideas?” And I was like, “well I always have weird ideas, you know let me chew on it.” So at night, I had just hacked my Wii and was playing an old-era 8 bit dodgeball game, and I was chewing on it and thought “you know, I grew up playing all these fighting games like Street Fighter and Samurai Showdown, et cetera, and I really like dodgeball, so what if we could come up with this thing that could be a vehicle for skewering all of our favorite anime tropes, but would also be this relatively open thing where you’d have the cast of people, the regulars, the home team if you will, square off against anybody, and you could do all kinds of homages and whatnot.”
Dan Reeves: I came up with two pitches on my own, and approached James for the third because I’ve known him for a while, but I’ve never had the chance to collaborate with him. We’re both into 80s movies and classic video games; a lot of the inspiration we draw from comes from the things we grew up on. I played a lot of Mega Man and I love dodgeball. It’s something we can all connect with because everyone grew up playing dodgeball in school, and everyone has a good memory of it. I think it provides a kinetic setting that everyone can relate to. We just wanted to make something fun that people would be interested in.
James Jefferies: So I came to Dan with this really skeletal thing, and he and I started bashing together ideas for characters and this, that, and the other things, and when the dust cleared we had this thing called Samurai High Dodgeball Squad. So Dan took that and submitted it with his other two pitches, and they ended up liking SHDS along with 14 other pitches from that program. So at the end of May, they gave us our money. Dan and I love these games—we just love animation, period. Looney Tunes, anime, everything under the sun, but neither of us are actually adept at drawing a damn thing, so it became this great thing of asking our buddies if they wanted to pitch in on this great idea. Luckily, a lot of our friends—and I mean this thing is packed to the gills with talented people—were willing to pitch in for low fees, if anything at all. It became this stone soup thing where I’m like, “hey I’ve got a big pot of water, hey you there, you’ve got some carrots, why don’t you throw those in?” It really was this awesome collaborative thing.
N3: Well, I was going to ask if it was something you’d been working on for a while or if it was a lightbulb moment, but you kind of beat me to it.
JJ: I only know the kinds of stories that I’m drawn to, and so the core idea for what this thing could be is essentially like the Fresh Prince of Bel Air meets the Bad News Bears. As in this sixteen-year-old half African-American, half Japanese girl was basically getting into a lot of trouble, except she wasn’t getting beat up, she was beating up the boys at her school. Her father didn’t like what she was becoming, so he sends her to live in lily-white California with a cousin on her mother’s side, and when she arrives at this new school she discovers that there is a co-ed dodgeball team coached by the world’s last living samurai. That’s the core of it.
DR: We knew we wanted the protagonist to be Akai, we wanted a strong female lead. Since we were pitching to Adult Swim, we looked at what they have now, and what they’re lacking. They don’t really market a lot to females or girls in general, so we wanted to make something that would connect to an audience they aren’t really getting to.
JJ: We’d written up all the little bios for characters that appear, and the challenge for us, after we hashed all this out, was how to squish it down and convey it in sixty seconds. So given how little time and money we had, I’m pretty happy with what emerged. I mean, I’m just ridiculously proud of the amount of effort everyone put in; people really burned the midnight oil on it. When we did the voice records, it was basically a group of people I know from the University of Arizona, BFA acting students, and we got to do the recording at the studio where they do Robot Chicken. Alfred Molina was there an hour before us. I actually got to drink water in the green room—I’m used to bringing water to the green room from my time at Conan, so that was a pretty damn cool day.
N3: You kind of touched on it, but did you have clear-cut characters or archetypes in the beginning, or did they evolve over the production process?
JJ: Speaking for myself, Dan has kinds of characters that he’s in love with and you can particularly see that in terms of the little guy with the goggles. We have grand plans for him. We definitely want there to be an ongoing Tom and Jerry thing between him and the big guy, the big jock, douche-bag Todd. I grew up watching Terminator films, Aliens, this, that, and the other things. I’ve always been real drawn to strong female heroines, so that was always going to be something I’m drawn to making or writing.
DR: So we knew we wanted Akai to be the lead, and we wanted her to be strong, not just emotionally, but physically. We thought the best character to bounce off of her would be Todd, who’s this alpha male who thinks that he’s entitled to everything (even women), and obviously Akai won’t have any of that. We had character points and just kind of filled it out as we went along.
N3: So how did you settle on the style of SHDS?
JJ: If you really sat and started picking that thing apart, there’s probably eleven different goofy things at work. At the time, I reacquainted myself with newer anime shows because I felt like I hadn’t watched anything in a long time. One of the first things I started watching was Naruto, so that’s why all the uniforms are orange. Kids love Naruto.
N3: And everyone loves Goku, so orange again. Did you sample your 8-bit music, or have someone compose it for you?
JJ: Dan and I are both huge fans of Scott Pilgrim and the XBox Live video game. I have a really good friend in New York City who has his own music composition service called Plunk Productions. So I ran the idea by him and asked if he could come up with something remotely Anamanaguchi-sounding. So he sent me a sample, and I was like ‘oh so you totally can’. That one element of it was actually the one completely smooth element of the process. The music that you hear in it is literally the first thing that he came up with.
N3: So you mentioned you have plans for the little guy. Is this a series you’d like to keep working on, or do you have other plans in the works?
JJ: Right now we have zero in the way of concrete plans, but Dan and I have continued to write, and we’re hopeful that if this thing continues to draw enough viewership, they (Robot Chicken) will be willing to talk, and we can crank out another few shorts and see where it goes from there. While Dan and I are always throwing around ideas, we don’t have any concrete plans for anything else at the moment. We’re kind of invested in this.
DR: We really do have a larger story we’d like to tell here for Samurai High, and we’d love to get to tell it. We have another script that we’re boarding right now, and the short-term plan is for more shorts. If we get to make them, I don’t think they’ll just jump us into a series. Depending on how well it does. We really want to delve into each character and let the audience get to know them. The Pilot that’s online right now is very fast-paced: it’s a minute, and gives you a brief idea of what the show could be, but we’d really like people to get to know the characters. Get to know the roster. Other than that, we have a whole series planned out, more or less. We have a large story we’d love to tell if we get the chance.
N3: Do you think this has the potential to become a recurring short with them?
JJ: I really think it does, because I can kind of see this really long evolution for it, but very little of that is under my control right now. All I can do is continue to write.
DR: It’s hard to tell with Adult Swim. They’ve been a little vague on the details about what would happen next. They told us the more views it gets, the better chance it has of doing something, but we don’t know what that something is. Obviously we hope it’s getting to create more content with whatever they would allow us, but we don’t really know what the future has in store for us. We’re working, we’re writing, and we’re just trying to proceed as if we’re going to get to make a bunch more of this because that’s what our end goal is.
N3: So from the time Dan said “hey, do you have any ideas” to the time it became the product it is now, how long did that take?
JJ: So that first phase, from where they accepted the pitch to sitting us all down and handing us a check for production money, took about five and a half months. Then our actual production took from June to the middle of September.
DR: From the time we pitched it to the studio to the time it aired, I’d say it took maybe a year or more. Most of that being the studio’s decision process. They had a lot of pitches and content to sort through, and they didn’t take everybody’s pitches. That took time, scriptwriting took time, voice record took time, everything takes time. It was slow-moving in the beginning.
N3: How many people worked on it?
JJ: If we are including voice talent, then I want to say twelve people. And that’s the thing, we had an unusually high number of characters for such a short short. Dan and I actually did voices for it, in addition to the voice talent.
DR: Yeah, we basically brought in a bunch of people way more talented than us. We had a board artist, the animators obviously, Dave Neff made our music, voice actors. James and I did voice acting, I played Denny, just one of the silly side characters. We wrote and edited together, but we had people to do everything else to help us along the way.
N3: What setbacks did you guys experience during the process?
JJ: The only real trouble we had was early on, it was pretty trouble-free once we got the team together. Here we were, sworn to produce a piece of animation, and neither of us knew how to animate. But we knew people who did, and I thought the idea was fun and instantly accessible, and I felt that if we just sat down with cool people that we knew and told them about it, they would be game. All the worry and freaking out about it came much earlier in the process. Once we knew who was on board, it wasn’t that difficult at all. The guy who actually did our storyboards, a guy by the name of Tom Smith, his short was called Beach Bros, that was the first of the Stoopid Buddy Shorts, and ours was the book end. It was just one of those strange awesome natural collaborations. It’s oddly sophisticated, because it draws on all these different things, but at the core of it it’s really easy to communicate what it is. You have this thing built around an elementary sport that everyone played as a kid in school at some point. It’s got a lot of fancy window dressing but it’s this really simple thing at the end of it. Physical comedy and a ridiculous span of references.
DR: I felt that the time constraint was a little rough, the approval process took a while, so by the time we got approved to animate, we really didn’t have a lot of time. We got together with our two animators and went over the battle plan. Luckily, they were completely on board, got what we were going for, and just dove into it. I would have loved to have had more time to work with them, more money, more resources to really just finesse everything and make it perfect. In the short time we had I’m really proud of what came out.
N3: So last question that I absolutely wanted to ask: Do you have any advice for other indie creators?
DR: Just create stuff. In the beginning, what you’re writing probably won’t be that great, but it’s a process of trial and error. You have to continually hone your craft. No one is going to drop an opportunity in your lap to create something out of the blue. You have to work at it and create opportunities for yourself. Keep coming up with ideas. It’s not easy, but it’s really rewarding, and a lot of fun if you actually get the chance to make something.
JJ: Just do things, whatever you like doing, just friggin’ do it. It’s been really interesting. Adult Swim reposted our link on a Friday and then reposted it on Facebook on Saturday, so of course looking at feedback there are always some people who love things and some people who hate things. I think that holds a lot of people back, the fear that people are going to say that their stuff sucks. The only people that are actually going to tell you that your “stuff sucks” are people who are frustrated they aren’t making anything themselves. Anybody else who is actually cranking out art or this and that is going to identify with you and just go “well, I’m not sure I see what this means, but I know what they are going for.” They might even have some constructive criticism. So, yeah, the only people who outright tell you that your stuff “sucks” are the people who are mad at themselves for not making anything. We’ve had a lot of positive feedback, but the science of making something viral on the internet is like the modern old wives’ tales of our time. Everyone has something to add.
N3: A watched post never trends?
JJ: Exactly! You have corporations worth billions of dollars trying to corner the market on this thing, and they can get it to a certain extent, but then some guy turns the camera on his cat and it outpaces all of their efforts combined. You never know what’s going to sew itself into people’s heads. It’s not like throwing a dart at an invisible dart board, it’s like you’re throwing fifty darts at a dart board that may or may not be on the other side of a football field. Have at it. We’ve had a lot of really awesome support from friends and family, most of the work was trying to just make the best sixty-second short we could. People will either dig it or they won’t.
N3: Anything else you want to add?
JJ: I’m just ridiculously pleased at how everything turned out. The records in the studio were stupidly fun, our animators worked their asses off to make it look as good as they could in the very narrow amount of time they had. Everybody just really bought the idea and got it, and that’s the most you can ask for.
Please give Samurai High Dodgeball Squad a watch and share if you liked it.
Co-Creators/Producers/Directors James Jefferies Dan Reeves
Storyboard Artists Tom Smith Mike Moran
Animators Ari Grabb Joey Majdali
Backgrounds Danica Davies
Music Dave Neff & Tyler Whitlach (Plunk Productions)
Voices Bri Gigér Samantha Bowdren Mike Reasor James Jeffries and Dan Reeves
Editor Dan Reeves
Lead Concept Artist Ryan Metcalf