Fwoosh: Joe, welcome to the Fwoosh interview. This will be a bit back-and-forth. I’ll ask some questions, if there is need for follow-up on one of your answers, then I’ll zap you with some more questions. There also might be redundancy in the questions — the downside to a written interview.
I watched a few episodes of The Shell Show, specifically the one with Deadpool and the one with Falcon. But there are many, many more with DC Universe Classics and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. What was your inspiration for starting the show?
It was a few things, really. Years ago I interned at The Late Show With David Letterman as Paul Shaffer’s assistant, where I got to witness all the backstage shenanigans first-hand. And there’s a lot of shenanigans. I used that experience to inform The Shell Show, with the character of Gary basically standing in for me.
Also — and this shouldn’t come as a surprise to you — I have a lot of action figures. I started seriously collecting them in the early 2000s (the golden age of modern action figures) when I lived in LA, and I spent a lot of time displaying them. Or as I called it, “curating.” So whenever somebody who hadn’t visited before would come over to my place, I’d get the same question every time: “What do you do with them?” This was also around the time that The 40-Year-Old Virgin came out, and the action figure subplot in that movie didn’t help my cause any.
So eventually I figured if I used them to make a talk show, I would have an answer to the “What do you do with them?” question, which brought with it a whole host of other questions, as it turns out.
Fwoosh: Why stop-motion?
The Shell Show actually started as a web comic. I would take photos of the figures in various situations and add word bubbles and captions later. Nobody cared. Then this thing called “YouTube” came along, so I logged out of Friendster and figured I’d try my hand at animating because I’m a slave to trends.
When animating action figures, stop-motion is really the most natural way of doing it. I did experiment for a bit in 2005 with taking photos of a figure, then animating it in Flash. It was terrible.
I didn’t know anything about stop-motion when I started, and you can clearly see that if you watch some of the earlier episodes. I taught myself along the way, took classes, and made a point of meeting up with as many professional stop-motion animators as I could and learning from them. I know pretty much every stop-motion animator in NYC right now. Hell, I’m engaged to one.
Fwoosh: Your host … a customized Rocket Launching Spider-Man (Classic?) Man! C’mon! Get the guy an ab-joint and some ball hips and double-jointed knees. Kidding aside, give us some background — who is he? Where does he come from?
Everybody thinks Shell is a Spider-Man action figure. He does have a resemblance — Shell addresses it in some of the Mail Sacks and in the Spider-Man episode. I could probably upgrade him to a better-articulated figure, but at this point that would just look weird. It would be like giving Barbra Streisand a nose job.
I like his base figure because he has a lot of range of motion in the arms and hands, which is important if you’re sitting behind a desk for most of an episode. I did have to modify his shoulders and neck a bit to increase the range.
As for the character, Shell is a complete dick and a horrible person in every way … not unlike David Letterman. But he still serves as the straight man in about half of the episodes. He hates everything. Throughout the run of the series we’ve gotten some glimpses into his extracurricular activities, which include slave orphan rings, Russian brides, dead babies, necrophilia, mild cannibalism, poaching, tainted flu shots, nuclear espionage, and having Jonathan Frakes on speed dial, to name a few.
The conceit of the show is that he’s been a talk show host for a while and at this point in his career he’s annoyed by his guests more than anything. He resents not being as famous as Jay Leno, or even Carson Daly, which is understandable — I have a an old pair of socks more well-known than Carson Daly. It’s made him a bitter, bitter man.
As for where he comes from … that’s kind of a mystery. He worked briefly as a Jenga salesman before becoming a talk show host, but beyond that we don’t know much about his life.
Fwoosh: How long does it take it to produce an episode?
On average, about 2 months for a 5-minute episode.
Fwoosh: On the technical side, what equipment do you use?
I’m currently using a Nikon D90 with a 35mm Prime, a 60mm Macro, and an 18-135mm kit lens. I shoot in Dragonframe on a custom-built mount in my studio. I do spot edits using iStop Motion and iMovie, then move over to Final Cut for the polish. People are always surprised at how small the set is. I guess when you’re watching it, you don’t realize that everything’s in 6-inch scale.
The Falcon episode was the first one done using the D90. Everything before that was on a crappy camcorder. Camcorders have their advantages in stop-motion, mostly in speed, but they suffer from poor image quality. I’ll never go back.
Fwoosh: How many frames per second do you film?
Fifteen, which is really all you need for web stuff. If TV comes a knockin’ I’ll bump that up to 24. But shooting in 15 allows me to work at a faster pace.
Fwoosh: Is it difficult to keep track of what position arms/hands/characters are in?
No, Dragonframe takes care of that by allowing you to review any frames you’ve already shot, and through a feature called onion skinning. That creates a ghost image of the previous shot over the live image, so you know how much to move a piece.
Fwoosh: You’ve got a ton of props; this is a great way to utilize the pack-ins and other crap that usually get tossed to the bin. What’s your favorite regularly occurring prop?
I do have a ton of props. So many props. Last year I went to Japan to get more props. The best ones are the ones that came with the old Muppets figures from Palisades — just amazing stuff. They also made the best playsets I’ve ever seen — I use their Swedish Chef kitchen in the TMNT episode. But my favorite prop would have to be Shell’s gun, which he primarily uses to shoot his guests in the face. That’s sort of become his trademark. The gun came with a Merv figure from the Sin City line, I think. It’s a great gun, I hope I don’t lose it.
Fwoosh: I did some googling and noticed that you did some collegehumor.com stop-motion work. What was that experience like?
That was during my quest to learn as much about stop-motion as possible. I was brought onto that project by a cute animator I met while taking an animation class at SVA. Three years later I asked her to marry me. Find love through animation, kids!
That project in particular was a spoof of The Nightmare Before Christmas; all the characters were what we call “puppets,” about 10 inches tall, silicone bodies with wire skeletons. It’s a different skill set from animating action figures. After that, I worked on a similar project for Amnesty International, but at the end of the day I’m an action-figure guy. That’s what I’m most comfortable with.
Fwoosh: Do you ever refer to the great stop-motion or claymation greats for inspiration?
No, that would just depress me. I can’t come close to what someone like Henry Sellick does. The stop-motion is really just a vehicle for me to tell some pop-culture-based jokes in poor taste. Let’s see Henry Sellick do that.
Fwoosh: What do you do for a living?
My background is in film and TV. For a while I was the guy responsible for those crappy trivia questions you see if you show up to the movies 20 minutes early.
These days I’m writing for a variety of kid’s cartoons for international clients, as well as a few older-skewing projects for Finland and Brazil. It’s all in English; I’m not some weird linguistic Rain Man.
During the school year I teach a stop-motion animation class at a private elementary school. I don’t do it because it pays well — it doesn’t — I just do it because it’s fun, and being around kids keeps me hip and with it.
I’m also in the middle of developing an iPhone app. It’s a game utilizing my particular brand of humor; it should be available in the first half of 2014.
Fwoosh: Do you Fwoosh? What’s your username?
I’m on Fwoosh all the time, and your Facebook updates in particular have resulted in a number of purchases that will be showing up on the show at some point. I don’t comment on message boards though, I’m more of a lurker, though I may make an appearance if your readers have more questions. My username is ThatsNotAMoon.
Fwoosh: Anything else you want to add?
Just some shameless self promotion. Please check out the show! Visit Shell online at TheShellShow.com, Youtube on channel TheShellShowLive, and on facebook at facebook.com/TheShellShow. And if you like what you see, write Shell a letter! He’ll probably respond and definitely insult you if you have a funny-sounding name. And if possible, please share links to your favorite interviews with 1.5 million of your friends. That would be really helpful.
And yes, the Star Wars Black series will be making an appearance soon. I’ve been waiting a long time for Star Wars to show up in 1/12 scale.
The Shell Show became a member of the Channel Frederator Network earlier this year, and I just finished relaunching all of the classic episodes. Well, except for the 3-part Holiday special — that’ll all be up by the end of this month.
Oh, and thanks for not mentioning Robot Chicken.
Fwoosh: Thank you for your time!
My pleasure, thank you!
Fwoosh: Check out these links and some more comments below from Joe!
And here’s some of my favorite recent episodes:
Also, this month I’m relaunching the Holiday Special, which I made about 3 years ago. Part one is here:
Last but not least, I thought I’d send some pics of some of the stuff I talked about in my answers to you. A few shots of my action figure collection (a very small part of it), and what the studio tends to look like in the middle of shooting.