Newgrounds – Completely Blockheaded

Author: Tawl | Interviewee: The-Swain

Newgrounds has its share of unique, unusual, and just plain weird characters. Among those is the creation of Michael Swain, you will know as Blockhead, now among the most recognisable toons on Newgrounds. Recently I was lucky to get in contact with Michael and really get inside his mind, to find out what exactly makes a creation like Blockhead tick.

First of all Michael, thanks for taking the time to do this interview, with the rate the Blockhead cartoons come out you must be a reasonably busy person. Let’s start right at the very beginning. Tell us about yourself, who are you, when did you first pick up flash, what made you decide to start, etc?

We’re all friends here, so you can call me Mike. Or Swain. Yes, Swain will be good. Well, where do I start without going dull on you? I’m twenty-four and a graduate student at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. It’s a great setup for someone like me who spends so much time animating. My schedule is very versatile and I can find plenty of time to squeeze in a bit of cartooning wherever I can. Anyway, I first started learning Flash in August of ’05 or so, and that was for a whole lot of reasons. I first got the idea after watching Firth’s “Burnt Face Man” series over on Newgrounds. Like so many other Flash cartoonists before me, I thought to myself “Hey, I could do that! In fact, why haven’t I already?!”

Seems to be the start for a lot of animators, seeing something and being inspired. What program of Flash do you use and do you have any other programs that help you animate?

I’ve moved up to Flash 8 recently, and I was already really proficient in Adobe Photoshop before I picked up Flash. You’ve probably noticed how much favour I gave to .JPG backgrounds in my earlier cartoons. I was in love with the pixel at the time, and it was tough giving it up in favour of the Flash vector, which is much cleaner. Now I try not to go beyond Flash for my graphics. As for audio, I use Cool Edit Pro 2 for editing and recording and Cakewalk Home Studio for my homemade MIDI songs.

In more detail, when you animate, what tools do you use to draw? Do you use the line, pen or pencil, or have you got a graphics tablet like some other animators?

I’m an avid Wacom tablet user, something I picked up especially for my journey into the Flash world. I find the brush tool to be my best friend in animating, but in future projects I plan to explore the pencil and line tools. So far I’ve been scared to death of touching them! It takes a lot of finesse to perfect their usage, and I just haven’t practiced with them yet. But mark my words: I will. I will. The reason I started off with the brush tool is because that was the apparent tool of choice for Chris Voigt, the talented dude with the Greasy Moose series on Newgrounds. I liked the clean look of his later work and was convinced I could go the same route with a little practice.

And for the really inquisitive, you seem to mainly use frame by frame to animate, am I right? What frame rate do you use?

You’re right, I like drawing individual frames for characters and objects whenever possible. I dunno, it just feels like real animation to me, so I try not to “cheat” by tweening when a frame-by-frame (FBF) animation would look nicer. It’s not that FBF is any better than tweening, but they each have pretty definite purposes in my mind and I don’t let one do the job of the other. My frame rate in all of my cartoons so far has been 18 – not too few to be choppy and not too many to demand hundreds of needless hand-drawn frames when fewer would suffice.

We’ll move onto you animations themselves. Blockhead is your main, well only, series (Time Squad is a trilogy) on Newgrounds. From what I can see from your site, Blockhead has quite a history. Care to sum it up in a nutshell for those who haven’t seen it?

Sure, I can recap it one more time. Way back in elementary school, I’d say at the age of 11 or 12, I used to spend my class time doodling little Mega-Man-style levels for video games I dreamt of making some day. A couple of my friends got into it too, but none of them were very good at drawing and the pictures they penned for me were horrible. I mean really bad. One such drawing that someone showed me was a dinosaur of some kind, maybe a brontosaurus, but where its head should have been was a circular smiley face. The drawing was so bad and yet so hilarious that I have never forgotten it. Blockhead somehow spawned as a mockery of that drawing. I started to make little notebook paper comics featuring the character all through my early teens. Then I brought the character back for a few weeks at the age of 18. He made his final return as a Flash cartoon in ’05.

Blockhead gained quite a large amount of popularity when you started posting it on Newgrounds. Did you expect it to be so well received?

I was intimidated when I submitted my first Blockhead toon to Newgrounds. I expected that a few people out there like myself would think it was hilarious but that the majority of folks wouldn’t give it much thought. I never expected my work to have actual fans. The support of those fans is really what’s helped the series to improve. To any Newgrounds user who has ever wondered if their reviews can be helpful: they are! I owe a lot to the people who took the time to tell me what they liked about my cartoons as well as what they didn’t.

Blockhead wasn’t originally intended to be a large ongoing series was it?

You can guess by my having labelled the first cartoon “Episode 1” that I planned to make at least one more, but I never would have thought I’d go as far as I have. I have big plans for other Flash projects in the future, but I’m in this for the fun of it and one project is no better than another so long as I’m enjoying doing it. I’ve stuck with Blockhead this long for that reason.

For anyone who has actually watched any of the Blockhead cartoons they will notice that they are very, very random. Where do you come up with the story ideas?

Haha, well, the short answer to that is drinking and sleep deprivation. The long answer is that I like to laugh at the situational comedy of the world around us. I’m talking about the things people say and do everyday, and some of those things are just plain funny even if they don’t seem that way when you first run across them. My stories (the comedy-oriented ones anyway) are my way of showing people why certain things are funny. What you call “random” is actually just the language I use to express it. To me it’s not random at all. Then again, I am probably also insane.

Do you see a bit of yourself in the Blockhead characters? Would you say your more like Blockhead or the conscience?

My actual conscience, the little voice telling me what to do and what not to do, is a lot like the Conscience in the Blockhead series. I sometimes get pissed off at myself for doing or not doing certain things regardless of how good of an idea those things seemed at the time. I’m sure there are plenty of people out there like that. As for Blockhead, I’d say that by default I am probably at least a little like him. I do write for him, after all.

Fair enough. Does Blockhead have any hidden meanings at all? Do you believe Blockhead the idiot deep down inside every one of us?

What Blockhead means today isn’t the same as his definition from a few years ago. I’ve heard a lot of viewers call Blockhead an absolute idiot and I’ve heard others claim that Blockhead is more of a genius than most people give him credit for. I think they’re both right and wrong for the same reasons. Blockhead’s personality is the embodiment of ill decision without consequence, of bliss through ignorance, and of knowledge without responsibility. Sure he acts like a moron, but doesn’t he always seem to get what he wants? For that matter, has he even once had to pay for his actions? As a whole, Blockhead himself is my example of a perfect world. He is that world. But as for his ultimate purpose…well, I suppose we’ll just have to see how the series develops, now won’t we?

Moving on to Time Squad set in…..uh…..all over the place. What was the inspiration behind it? Were you influenced by ‘Back to the Future’ at all?

Influenced? Great Scott! That’s putting it lightly. Actually, the series was inspired by the Back to the Future ride at Universal Studios here in Orlando. If anyone hasn’t experienced it yet, then I recommend you do. They stuff you inside a six-seater De Lorean and you get to chase Biff Tannen all across time. I included the flying car scene in Part 1 for that reason, and my Scientist character’s metallic flying automobile was inspired by Doc Brown’s time machine.

Ha, Great Scot, good response. For those who don’t know it was the catch phrase of Doc Brown from the Back to the Future trilogy.

In comparison to Blockhead, Time Squad can be deemed as a serious film. But of course Blockhead is in there with his random humour. Was Blockhead always going to be included or did you think he had to be there for comical reasons?

Time Squad was just a joke between me and my friend Dan about a pretend film featuring Blockhead where, in the preview, you get to watch him riding a velociraptor for absolutely no reason. I now judge that the exact moment when I decided to turn Time Squad into a real cartoon is probably when I lost my mind. Needless to say, I somehow figured that our zany musings were enough to write an entire feature, and it took me all of December 2005 to flesh out a script. But remember that it was always going to be centered on Blockhead.

Time Squad did end itself nicely but still left enough mystery to carry on. Do you plan on Time Squad making a return in a sequel?

I’ve got a general premise for a follow-up, though I may never have the stomach to make it. Assuming I do, it may or may not include Blockhead. I hope that doesn’t make it less awesome.

Hmm, no Blockhead? That would get mixed responses.

When you look at the first Blockhead episode and compare them all the way up to your most recent one, (Currently episode 7) the art and animation improves greatly. Do you think you will continue to improve or have you reached a comfortable zone?

I think I’ve started to solidify my style, but no one ever really finishes with learning a skill. We all get better at what we do the more we practice it. But I do expect that Episode 7 is a pretty good example of what everyone can look forward to from Blockhead in the future, and I’ve got the Time Squad project to thank for any improvements in my work.

Your first cartoon of Blockhead was submitted on the 25th of September 2005, your most recent release is episode 7 submitted on 1st of June 2006. On top of that you have the trilogy Time Squad released in between. That’s 7 shorts and a 3 part feature, making 10 toons in total, released in between 9-10 months. How do you get your cartoons out so fast?

Man oh man, if someone had told me from the outset that 10 cartoons in 10 months was considered fast, I might never have started! Of course Time Squad took nearly five months to complete, and I might have gotten up to Episode 15 with Blockhead by now if not for that. But if that’s considered fast, then I confess that I owe it to my dedication. I’m lazy only up to the point that I start working on something, and in the immortal words of Michael Richards as Kramer in Seinfeld, “I don’t back off until it’s finished.” I hate leaving things undone. It bugs the heck out of me.

Tell Newgrounds one thing that they will not know about yourself but you would like them to know.

Let’s not share this with too many people, but I like talking to myself when I’m alone. My previous roommates have sometimes asked me to keep it down when I have friends over late at night, but I haven’t got the nerve to tell them that no one was there but me.

Yes, we’ll keep that between us. Now I’m struggling to think of more things to say. Uh, what’s the weather like? *Cringe* This might be a good time to wrap things up.

Thanks for giving me the chance to revel in my insanity, big guy; you’ve got some great questions up your sleeve.

No problem. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us. Any last words you want to say?

Yes, I’ve got some advice for the readers out there. If you haven’t already, go buy yourself a set of tongs! If you’re creative, you’ll find that they really can do anything. In fact, name something they can’t do and I’ll tell you why you’re wrong. I call this the Swain Challenge.

Thanks for the interview!

( source : )

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