An Interview with Tina Alexander from How It Should Have Ended
There are numerous ways for an online content creator to define success. Sometimes success is defined as a number, such as 1.5 billion (and counting) views on YouTube. Some will say it comes in the form of building a worldwide audience, with over 6 million subscribers to your channel. Winning enough accolades and awards to fill a trophy case is another a sign of success. And sometimes, it’s fulfilled through self-employment, when the content you create and distribute is your means of income. If any of these measures define success, the YouTube channel How It Should Have Ended is incredibly successful. They’ve achieved them all.
Video Views: 1,522,836,220
Channel Type: film
How It Should Have Ended, or HISHE, started back in 2005 as the result of a conversation between friends, including HISHE founder Daniel Baxter. They were discussing how often films have necessary plot holes in them to create drama and bring about climatic endings. They found humor in how various scenes in popular movies would play out if the plot holes were logically filled out.
Back in 2005, webcomics were becoming a big thing, and Daniel was struck with the idea of an animated webcomic. It all started with some ideas they had for a parody of “The Matrix Revolutions.” A script was written. Daniel sat down and sketched out the basic art by hand, then followed it up with a voiceover, art scan and some time spent in After Effects. Shortly after its release, Daniel’s friend Tina Alexander joined the fray and How It Should Have Ended was born.
HISHE was not on YouTube at this point. The first couple of animations were shared within a circle of friends. In short time, the team decided to go online, and they launched HowItShouldHaveEnded.com. The early HISHE animations were distributed online using the DIVX format. There were definitely growing pains and lessons to learn in these early stages, but HISHE was starting to find an audience — in fact, the website was regularly crashing from the number of requested downloads. Tina and Daniel were starting to receive positive responses from all over; they knew they were onto something and it drove them to create more.
In 2006 HISHE got a call from California, congratulating them on having the number one video on YouTube. This was great news and the team was delighted, but there was a slight catch — no one from HISHE had uploaded any of their cartoons to YouTube. It was a revelation, and one that would save them from numerous server crashes. In 2007, HISHE launched their YouTube channel.
The heart of HISHE’s channel is their movie parodies, where they take a blockbuster, and true to their name, explain how it should have ended. It takes the collaborative effort of a small but powerful team to produce each of these shorts. The HISHE team of artist/animator Daniel, producer/writer Tina, and animator Chris Oldenburg work beyond their titles, wearing multiple hats to deliver each cartoon. They’re frequently joined by friends who assist with providing voice talent when needed.
The process to for each HISHE cartoon begins with an initial viewing of the film they’re planning to parody. “We watch it through the first time to enjoy it,” says Tina. However, it’s not just entertainment that they gain from that initial viewing. They get a feel for the style of the film and the identity of the characters. The first impressions they gain from the initial viewing helps the team stay objective as to which scenes will resonate with their own audience.
“The jokes have to work; otherwise we don’t use them,” Says Tina.
The HISHE team will then sit through multiple viewings of the film. They take the time to identify plot holes, character actions and pick up on the nuances of how the film is shot. Tina emphasizes the amount of the detail that Daniel replicates in each parody, down to mimicking the exact camera movement of each shot. It’s part of what makes HISHE work; it’s a detailed parody that mirrors the source material even as it’s scripted to go in its own direction.
After they’ve watched through the film to collect the details they need, Tina and Daniel start writing. It’s a process that takes about one week to complete. “We end up creating a massive script, that’s undoable,” says Tina. Cuts are made from this massive script to get it down to a manageable size, one that can be produced in a month’s time and doesn’t run on for too long.
“When we first started, the cartoons lasted about two minutes,” says Tina. She emphasizes that the scripts and animations now run longer, up to four or five minutes, and they have to work hard to contain them. Often, the cut material will show up in separate cartoons or some of the edited jokes will be put on hold and saved for use in future cartoons.
Some films are harder to write for than others. Tina says, “We sometimes get help, especially for series with big fan bases.” HISHE has an intelligent audience that’s in touch with the films they parody. Chris helps to research the various franchises through Reddit and other online communities. It’s how they’re able to play off of various internet conspiracies, like including Darth Jar-Jar in “How The Phantom Menace Should Have Ended” or including comic book references to Captain America as a covert agent of Hydra.
As the script starts to take its final form, Daniel begins to work on the art. The animation technique used for HISHE is a form of digital puppetry. Character art and backgrounds are drawn as separate elements in Adobe Photoshop and then rigged and animated in Adobe After Effects.
A crucial element of the production phase is the audio production. HISHE works with a composer to to score their cartoons with original music, while maintaining the identity of the parody. This is essential for the parody to be true to the tone of the original source while not violating any copyright laws. The vast majority of the voice acting is done by the team and their friends, sometimes enlisting the help of peers from the YouTube community who specialize in impressions. While Daniel accounts for close to seventy-five percent of the voices, Tina has grown quite adept at acting out several of the characters when called upon. “Honestly, it’s not something I ever set out to do,” she states, while she does find the role is fun to take on.
The entire production process takes approximately three to five weeks depending on how intricate the animation is. When Chris joined on in 2014, it helped to make the process more efficient.
There’s a balance to be had when running a YouTube channel. On one side it’s important to put out the absolute best product possible, on the other side is the need to consistently deliver content to the audience on a regular schedule. Tina acknowledges this dichotomy, “Yes, I’m probably more the one to push [the team], ‘we need to get something out.’ While Daniel does a real good job at making sure everything is perfect and how we want it.” It is a balance and she believes it’s most important to give their audience a quality experience. It’s a commitment that HISHE maintains by spending many hours producing their cartoons.
Over time, HISHE has developed their own comedic takes on several pop culture icons. The basic premise of the HISHE channel is parody, and the heroes who show up in the Super Café series of shorts have taken on a life of their own. The big blue boy scout isn’t so much the Man of Steel as he is a self-confident do-gooder with a slight phone addiction. On the other hand, the dark knight will take every opportunity to proudly confess, “I’m Batman.” He isn’t the campy embodiment of Adam West’s version of the character; he’s a self-absorbed and insecure twist on Christopher Nolan’s Batman. He’s proud of his identity and well-attached to the useful gadgets of his utility belt.
Writing comedy and developing parodies involving famous characters on a recurring basis is no easy task. “The jokes have to work; otherwise we don’t use them,” says Tina. HISHE relies on their audience to know the characters, and this gives Tina an opportunity make jokes with the characters that extend beyond their movie incarnations. “Chris read a rumor on Reddit that Captain America might get killed in Civil War, so he appeared ghostlike in the background of our Amazing Spiderman cartoon.” There are deeper references as well, such as the recurrence of the other superheroes teasing Captain America about his theme song from the ‘60’s Captain America cartoon. Their anthology of jokes builds up over time and across cartoons as the characters develop.
Like most online content creators, HISHE observes their metrics through the tools built into YouTube. This allows them to evaluate how well they connect with their audience. “Those first 24 hours after we release are critical.” Tina says they still pay attention to total views, although many on YouTube are relying more on view time to evaluate the connection between their videos and their audience. Tina explains that with short format cartoons, views are just as, if not more, important than view time. One of the metrics that Tina feels is a significant indicator of a video’s success is its number of shares. “It’s one thing if somebody likes the video, but if they care enough to share it with others, that really means something.”
Another metric that’s important to HISHE is the number of subscribers they have, which currently sits above 6.5 million. It’s a number they work hard to maintain and grow. Half of their subscribers are outside of the United States. Tina explains how YouTube’s subtitle feature has allowed them to extend their international audience. “Subtitles have been great, where our fans can submit other languages. Within a week or two [of a release], we’ll have ten other languages [available].”
Tina explains how they were disappointed when YouTube changed the channel UI so comments were no longer posted by the subscribers on their front page. “It’s great to see the comments, especially immediately after a release.” However, she does find the top comment feature to be useful. She states, “it’s helpful to see what the audience is responding to and to see what they’re saying about it.” This helps the team to understand what their audience wants, and they use that information to help plan for future animations.
HISHE enjoys the interaction they have with their fans, through YouTube and in person. It’s something they wish they could have more of on other platforms but with such a small team, that produces so much work, the majority of their time is committed to producing HISHE shorts. However, the instant feedback they get from fans on YouTube is one of their greatest indicators of success. “Anytime it gets an overwhelming response, it’s a great feeling. Everytime. Meeting fans who have been around for a long time is amazing and flattering.”
Comic Con is an annual pilgrimage for HISHE where they meet fans and celebrities alike. They’re encouraged whenever they meet fans of their channel, especially those who have been there from the beginning. “We were at a conference once and met a fan who’d been following us for years. We all hung out together throughout the weekend and parted ways like we’d known each other for a long time.”
There are some fans who come as surprises. James Gunn has shared his approval of what HISHE did with “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and Damon Lindelof found their parody of “Prometheus” to be entertaining. Both are great acknowledgements, but there’s one fan who’s iconic. “Stan Lee says that he wishes he’d come up with the idea for HISHE, which was insanely flattering!” When asked, Tina confirms that Stan the Man is a fan of their work. He even voiced his own cameo in one of their Spiderman parodies.
Movie parodies aren’t all that HISHE does. They’ve gone beyond and started to create their own animated shorts that stay within the realm of cinematic parodies called Hero Swap. It’s a what-if scenario proposition, such as putting Iron Man in Gladiator. There are behind the scenes videos, featuring speed painting screen captures from Photoshop as they develop their characters. It’s a steady stream of content. Tina emphasizes the importance of getting content out on a continual and consistent basis. HISHE has a dedicated and committed audience, and in turn, HISHE is committed to meeting their expectation of new animations on a weekly basis. In the online world, currents move swiftly, and the tide of an audience can turn, finding new sources of entertainment if their subscribed channels don’t deliver.
Fortunately, HISHE has found a way to provide for their audience.
One big move to provide more content was the launch of a new channel, HISHE Kids in January 2015. The goal of HISHE Kids is to provide entertainment for the whole family. An endearing series on the HISHE Kids channel is the Fixed Fairy Tales. It takes the basic HISHE premise and turns it on to familiar children’s stories such as “The Three Little Pigs.” The task of executing original animation on a weekly basis is a challenging task for a small team. Providing for multiple channels is something that would be difficult to achieve, even with Batman’s utility belt. Tina acknowledges the challenges a second channel presents and shares that the HISHE Kids channel is something they’d like to grow in 2017.
“We’d like to grow a lot in the next two years — work with some young college students and artists who want to learn and grow with us. We’d like to get some fresh ideas and fresh talent,” says Tina. One of their goals is to develop an original show that’s not a parody.
Parodies can be challenging, especially when they’re released for the entire world to consume. Copyright laws are established to protect intellectual property but there are stipulations that allow for fair use with parody. “Definitely, we have to know and understand the laws.” HISHE has released over 250 videos in their existence, with almost all containing a multitude of characters from other sources. Only twice have they been challenged legally for their use of parody. In one instance, it was an easier and better choice to change the content. But in their second challenge, they fought it and won. HISHE works with lawyers to make sure they are in the clear. “Our lawyer reviews everything to make sure they’re okay to defend our work. If they are, we go ahead with it.”
When asked what advice she would give to any up and coming YouTuber, Tina said, “HISHE is rooted in friendships. When you’re passionate about it and pursue it with people you care about, all the better. You need encouragement and people in your life to lift you up and help you along the way.” That’s what makes the product better.
There are numerous ways for an online content creator to define success. Many are measurable, but true success is subjective; it’s something defined by those who work for it. If success is measured by doing what you love, with your friends, while being surrounded by a community you enjoy and care about, then How It Should Have Ended has achieved an incredible wealth of success.