Charging toward a movie, TV, or computer screen near you: Horseback Salad Entertainment
This is an interactive story about four young, interactive animators in Austin who interact in some awfully interesting ways. They have managed, over the course of two short years, to build and maintain the most creative and completely independent animation ministudio ever, in a town where it sometimes seems you can't drive your car down the sidewalk without running over a half dozen animators/Web designers/computer-graphics experts. (And, oh, how we've tried.)
It's also a story about, in declining order of specificity, Salvador Dalí's great, lost masterpiece; the implosion of Austin's dot-com bubble (and the resulting tsunami of free talent that -- even as this is being written -- has resulted in Austin being flooded with cheap geniuses); animated trivia games for interactive film geeks; and some of the most impressive animated music videos you're likely to ever see. And there are Kabuki snowmen. And kung-fu ninja robot-pimps, too. Possibly some foosball.
This is the story of HorseBack Salad Entertainment, the (very) little animation house that could, did, and wants to, really, really bad. And to a smaller degree, it's about something that could only happen in Austin, right now, right here, slightly left of center, where unlikely option Q bests likelier options A and B every time, blindfolded, with its one diminutive arm tied behind its back.
First things first: This is a story about animators and their animations. Many of the videos, animations, and artworks mentioned in this article can be viewed online, in whole or in part, at www.horsebacksalad.com. We highly recommend that you seek them out as you read along (if you have a browser handy) because, as we all know, a picture is worth a thousand words, and so therefore a 24-frames-per-second animation is worth, well, more words that you have time to read before dinner.
There was Human Code, the Austin-based interactive media developer that opened its doors in 1993 and closed them roughly seven years later after being acquired by Sapient Corp., a leading business and technology consulting outfit with an office in Austin. It was during the inevitable downsizing that accompanied the bursting of the dot-com bubble that a handful of Human Code co-workers, and one co-worker's roommate, decided that they'd had enough of the corporate multimedia rat race and opted out, finagling their severance paychecks into enough seed cash to start their own animation and multimedia firm. In no particular order, those four (handily illustrated below) were/are:
In the Beginning --
1) Yehudi Mercado: writer, voiceover artist, and up-front animator supreme
2) Hoyt Lindley: master of interactive design and collector of boomsticks
3) Steven Mullins: motion graphics and Macromedia Flash animator of the gods
4) Jimmy Tovar: head animator and quiet guy in the corner
In February 2001 -- working out of their homes -- the four formed HorseBack Salad, a "ground up" animation and multimedia firm whose chief claim to fame was and is its ability to generate unique results fast, whether the project is a music video, an animated pilot for the Cartoon Network, or a piece of educational software -- you know, for kids. With an animation style that occasionally echoes Jamie Hewlett's work for Brit hip-hop popsters Gorillaz and encompasses everything from their own projected animated shorts and series (this is where the kung-fu robots and Kabuki snowmen come in) to more serious (but not too serious) outings like their bouncy animated segment in local singer-songwriter Andrea Perry's "Simple" video, HorseBack Salad has initiated or had a hand in 44 separate projects: a whopping record considering they're the new kids on the block.
But before we really get going, since we realize you're dying to know, a word about the name.
"During my freshman year at UT," says Mercado, "I got really into the Marx Brothers' films and discovered that at one point Salvador Dalí had written a script for them called Giraffes on Horseback Salad. The name stuck with me all these years, and when it came time to christen the company, I remembered it as something unique and something that would probably stand out from the more conservatively named companies in town. And it has."
"But it's also caused some confusion from time to time," adds Tovar. "When we were getting started with HBS, we would go into a business meeting with some company at 10am, and we'd hear the receptionist saying something like, 'Horseback Sandwich here to see you,' or 'Horseshow Baby' or 'Horseback Racer.' One time we even got a call at the office from someone looking for horseback rides."
Mullins: "So of course we immediately got on all fours ..."
Comedy is a hallmark of both HBS's four-man team and their work, the warped spine of all they do. Their self-designed Web site, for starters, features a revolving line of company slogans: "We're Like the Wrath of Khan of Design Houses," "Formerly Rent-A-Piñata.com," and "Pants Optional" are but a few of the borderline Dada gags that go into the mix. Ultimately, though, it's the company's enormous skill at what they do that has earned them so many enthusiasts so quickly.
But back to the beginning: "Starting out was kind of scary," says Lindley, "because we didn't have any investors at all, not a single one -- we just kind of bootstrapped it and did it all with our own money. We ended up using our severance from Sapient, and, in fact, we were immediately getting jobs right off the bat. We worked from home for a year to build up enough money to get an office and everything that we needed, and then moved in here about six months ago."
"Here" is in a nondescript little North Austin office park on Shoal Creek Boulevard. From the outside, it could easily be mistaken for the future location of Mike Judge's mythical Office Space sequel. Though it's surrounded by offices for low-level attorneys and assorted cubicle dwellers, a glimpse inside blows stodgy preconceptions all to hell. Painted in an anarchic scheme that fittingly rivals Dalí's less lucid fever dreams -- orange, green, other -- the small, four-room space resembles nothing so much as a miniature version of animation giant Pixar's famously nontraditional workplace, with the requisite foosball table taking up half of the "war room" and a series of PCs droning quietly in the company's two offices.
But long before the non-Martha Stewart interior design came into play, the company found itself working on one of its most ambitious projects while barely a week old: Question Authority.
If you've been to the Alamo Drafthouse Village lately, then more than likely you've seen HorseBack Salad's first and most complex project to date, a prefilm trivia game that engages audience members in an interactive geek challenge that's rumored to be so challenging that even Mercado, who came up with many of the Lord of the Rings and Matrix-related questions, rarely gets a perfect score.
The game uses armrest keypads, created by Brandon Hudgeons' Austin-based interactive company Internal Machine, to answer various questions posed by animated characters on the movie screen. It's unique in the history of prefilm entertainment in that, well, it doesn't suck. Most preshow visuals add up to little more than obnoxious covert advertising, while the only thing that HBS's game is out to sell is HorseBack Salad themselves. In the end, it took the better part of two years to complete.
"Brandon initially approached Hoyt and Yehudi when they were still at Human Code, and then Hoyt approached me," explains Mullins. "Basically, this company was founded on the prospect of doing Question Authority and an Andrea Perry music video. We kind of felt that would be enough to get our name out there and get the company going."
"And it was really important for us, as a company, to make this game character-driven," adds Mercado, "by having the silhouette of a character ask the questions and so on. It's a lot of effort, yeah, but the payoff is that much greater."
"Fortunately," continues Mullins, "everything that we bet on as far as 'will this be too much or too offensive, or will people just love the crude jokes,' sure enough, people just loved the crude jokes. We knew the Alamo was the launch pad from the start, and we ran with the idea that that audience would buy into this sort of thing. And they did. Possibly the availability of beer helped out on that."
Music videos have been a HorseBack specialty from day one, and former Human Code co-worker Andrea Perry's "Simple" was the first. Perry doesn't perform live, which made her initial foray into the world of videos that much more important for both her and label Trust Issue Records (founded by Doug Koeppe, yet another former Human Coder). Although Perry says she was at first hesitant to put herself in front of the cameras, Mercado's concept for the video -- a passionate love story set to a background of classic-style movie trailers and combining live action, graphics, and animation -- won her over immediately.
Videos, Music, and More
"Yehudi is a wellspring of ideas," she enthuses, "and I trusted their artistry. I don't think in terms of video at all, and so I just surrendered the whole thing to them."
One of HorseBack Salad's most ethereal efforts came with the assignment to create a video for local singer-songwriter Patty Griffin's single "Rain." The finished video has an animated Griffin performing the haunting ballad alone in a rainswept room, while outside a thunderstorm rages. Filled with the sort of bizarre angles and camera movements that give most animators a migraine, it was nonetheless a watershed moment for the company, and one of the better examples of how to make rotoscoped animation without resorting to Bob Sabiston's Rotoshop software, which was first seen in Richard Linklater's Waking Life and has since shown up everywhere from EarthLink ads to Paul Beck and Jason Archer's award-winning music videos for Molotov.
Mercado: "For 'Rain,' we were contacted by Traci Goudie, who was working with Patty on the video. Her concept was to have a rotoscoped, animated music video. Tracie had already shot the initial DV footage of Patty playing in her living room, and so to land the job I did some up-front sketches of how we would interpret Patty, with a somewhat surreal, outdoor background, with rain and clouds and whatnot. I ended up doing about three concept pieces, and then once we landed the project, they told us we had to get it done in about five weeks, which is not a lot of time for something like this. And as luck would have it, Jimmy, our head animator, was in Europe at the time, and had to rush home.
"The way it worked was like this: First, we imported all the DV footage, broke it up into scenes, exported each scene into a series of frames, imported each frame into Flash, and then basically traced on top of it. It's all done by hand, frame-by-frame, and it's very labor intensive. I painted all the backgrounds in Photoshop and kept everything on layers so that we could later import it all into Adobe After Effects, which is where we do all the camera movements and the special effects-type stuff.
"By the time we finished the initial first pass, without coloring, it took roughly three weeks to do the four-minute video."
And how did Griffin react?
"Well, from what we heard," says Mullins, "when she was shown an early test, the story is that she cried when she saw it."
Mercado: "A good cry, mind you."
HorseBack Salad might have done some 40-odd projects since their inception, but only one of them seems to be on the Austin Music Network every time you turn it on, and that's Austin pop-punk band the Riddlin' Kids' rousingly goofy "I Feel Fine." Created in tandem with animator Lance "Fever" Myers, late of the much beloved Gals Panic and the man behind most of the band's hyperactive album art, the resulting video mixes live-action footage of the band playing in a babe-heavy pizza parlor with animated segments of them wooing assorted females, a takeoff on Patrick Dempsey's 1989 teen sex comedy Loverboy.
A.D.D. Is P.U.N.K.
"The directors had called up Lance since he did all the cover art," says Mercado, "and told him that they wanted these animation sequences to be in his style. He then called me up, and I told him to say yes, 'Say yes no matter what!' and so he did. Lance and I then went back and forth with the directors on what the animation should be."
"There was one problematic transition right at the end of the video that they were trying to figure out," adds Tovar, "and Yehudi threw together this just-perfect transition in 45 minutes flat. It was a perfect idea at the perfect moment accomplished in minutes, and as silly as it sounds, that's the perfect example of what we can do. Each of us, whatever our specialty, can think on his feet and get things done far more quickly than at larger outfits where things like that usually have to go through channels and so on."
For his part, Myers calls Mercado's video-saving transitional moment his "favorite part of the video."
"It only lasts about a second, which doesn't seem like much, but it totally makes the video and was accomplished in, like, under an hour, which is just amazing in this field. And it worked perfectly! It saved the video, literally, because, you know, it makes us look bad if the video looks bad.
"What's great about HorseBack Salad is that each point man is really special in what they do," Myers says. "They each have a unique ability, and yet they can go to bat for the others as well. Other places have a lot of guys that can do one thing really well, but the guys at HorseBack Salad are like the SuperFriends, where they each have their own power and they're really good at it, but they work together. It's a pretty unique situation seeing as how it's only four guys."
The field of animation is experiencing profound growing pains these days. In the wake of the box-office success of Dreamworks' Shrek, many of the larger, California-based film studios are repositioning themselves away from traditional 2-D animation, while those on cable -- specifically the MTV-owned Cartoon Network -- are heading in completely the opposite direction, with vividly 2-D programming like The Powerpuff Girls and Samurai Jack, which, while they have rich, vibrant graphics, focus as much if not more on their stories than they do on blasting out any new animated territory. But then, cartoons with savvy, snarky storylines are new animated territory, if you judge them by much of Disney's recent, less-than-stellar fare.
Smaller Is Better
"The thing with us," explains Mullins, "is that, as far as our approach to everything we do, we're extremely new-school. We've had times where we'd go and talk to ad agencies, and often they've never even heard of a process that we use all the time. Macromedia's Flash is the quintessential Web tool these days, but we use it for that only about 10 or 15 percent of the time. For us, it's simply the ultimate drawing tool. It's got a timeline so that you can animate in it, and nowadays you can even drop video into it, or sound or music or voiceovers. We try to figure out the most efficient way to the end product without necessarily getting caught up in the more traditional approach."
"Too often in this business," adds Mercado, "it's a bunch of people wasting their time with needless things. We keep it small and efficient, and when clients show up, we get right down to business and get it going. No frills, that's our motto."
Along with, "Dangling Babies Since 2001?"
"Well, yeah, there's that, too."
Perhaps the biggest key to HorseBack Salad's success lies simply in the fact that they're in Austin. Having done time at previous multimedia companies like Heart of Texas Productions, Human Code, and Sapient, they're connected to a network of local friends involved in all aspects of the industry. It's not just Austin's film and music communities that help each other out when help is needed.
"That's totally true," says Mullins. "There's a lot of things we do that at times require using other people's resources, and thankfully Austin is a really unique community in that aspect. You've got a lot of laid-off people who immediately got it together. A lot of them left, and went to Los Angeles or wherever, but an awful lot of those people ended up coming back, too. Somehow there's still a lot to do here.
"People ask, 'What are you most proud of?' and the answer is, 'Doing it on our own.' We've done it all with no investors; we have no debts; there's no venture capital involved. Our only bill is our monthly phone bill."
Tovar: "Keep it small, that's us. What's funny is that I would never have thought that these are the three other guys I'd end up working with, but it's worked out perfectly. It's the perfect number for foosball."
Mercado: "Foosball, definitely. No Razor scooters here."