It was during the U.K.’s first COVID lockdown, in May 2020, and London-based standup comedian Matthew Highton was watching TV with his wife, Katie. An episode of NCIS came on, and Highton quipped that the intro shots were so generic that they could have been pulled from some royalty-free stock footage website.
An idea popped into his head. The next day, Highton fired up Adobe Premiere, logged into the stock footage website Storyblocks (“All the stock you need”), and began his scavenger hunt for footage. More than 10 hours later, he emerged, bleary-eyed, with a re-created version of the intro to sun-soaked, angsty early-2000s teen drama The O.C. for his online audience.
Since then, Highton has painstakingly re-created the intros to other perennial turn-of-the-millennium favorites: Friends, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and most recently, The Simpsons. The results are weirdly nostalgic, strangely recognizable, slightly unsettling, and oddly popular with the people who come across them on Twitter.
It took a day, but here it is: The Simpsons intro recreated using ONLY stock footage. pic.twitter.com/f7gxh16LVC
— Matthew Highton (@MattHighton) February 3, 2021
“This was never meant to be more than something that’s a bit silly,” Highton told Digital Trends. “You’re scrolling through your timeline and you go, ‘oh, that’s funny.’ But people really seem to like them. The comments that sum them up best are ones where people post something like, ‘Mom, can we have The Simpsons?’ ‘But we’ve got The Simpsons at home.’ It’s like one of those knockoff videos or DVDs where your mom and dad are like, ‘This is it,’ but really it’s not.”
As far as I’m aware, Highton is the first person to re-create turn-of-the-millennium American TV show intros using stock footage, the purposely generic archival footage that’s used by filmmakers to save them the time and money of shooting new material. But his idea of stock footage remakes is perfectly in keeping with a long history of internet projects.
Remakes, so the mainstream narrative goes, are objectively terrible. They’re the creative equivalent of a soulless zombie, its humanity having vanished long ago, lurching into the multiplex (remember those?) in a desperate search for money. The New York Times has dismissed remakes as an “age-old temptation” in the “sausage factory of moviemaking” that refuse to give up the ghost, despite accusations of “desecration” from discerning fans of the original property being remade.
But the flipside of the “remakes are garbage” argument presents itself through the remix culture the internet has helped hone. This is the world of sampling, mash-ups, Machinima, and YouTube Poop (no, it’s not as scatological as it sounds), all of which take original works and pay homage to them, while creating something undeniably fresh in the process.
In 2005, the editor Robert Ryang cut a trailer of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror movie The Shining as a cheesy family comedy called Shining. Caught up in the riptide of early YouTube, it became a prototypical viral video. Several years later, Ivan Guerrero, a YouTuber who goes by the name whoiseyevan, crafted a series of popular “premakes,” imagining what popular movies might have looked like if they were made in another time, such as 1984’s Ghostbusters in 1954.
More recently, there is the next-generation film criticism of the excellent Red Letter Media, which grew out of the genius 70-minute “Harry S. Plinkett” review/dissection of 1999’s Star Wars: Episode 1 by independent filmmaker Mike Stoklasa.
Highton’s work is just the latest in this irreverent mutant strain of internet-spread pop culture criticism. The intro picks that he has made are interesting because, with the possible exception of Friends, each reconstructs a show that was, itself, endlessly self-referential.
The Simpsons is full of movie references and leans heavily on the fact that viewers are familiar with either specific TV and movie scenes, or at least the tropes themselves. Buffy followed in a similar vein, while even The O.C., despite the overwrought teen angst, was wryly aware of what it was. “Here we go,” says Seth Cohen in one episode of the show. “Hours of mind-numbing escapism.”
Re-creating them pays tribute to a past that doesn’t seem that long ago, but also reminds us just how much has changed in the interim.
“It’s interesting because these kinds of intros kind of disappeared from TV,” Highton said. “There was actually a very short window of TV with the kind of intros that work for this. It was the ‘80s and ‘90s and, by the time you hit the 2000s, it was all getting a bit more stylized. For example, Lost was just a logo.”
Nothing makes this point more than the immediately iconic intro to The Simpsons, a show that is now 31 years old. Its fourth-wall-breaking intro depicts the family rushing home to catch the start of their favorite television show. Could anything seem more anachronistic in an age of on-demand streaming? There’s a good chance that some of the people enjoying his videos don’t even remember a world in which this watching shows at a preordained hour was a real thing.
“I’ve spent, for some shots, 20 minutes trawling through footage; sometimes it’s 30 minutes, an hour, just to find something that’s on screen for less than two seconds,” Highton said. “But when you find the thing that matches it, it’s really satisfying.”
He noted that the process of editing the finished works is a weirdly monotonous one, highlighting the strange twilight world of stock footage. “It’s all things like, ‘three women, happy; three ladies, happy; happy women; happy group of women,’” he said, describing a typical search. “You’re constantly writing the same thing but with more tweaks. One of the odd things is, because it’s all done on metadata, they’ll have these incredibly long titles [for the video clips] to try and hit all the search criteria. So instead of ‘man sat on bed,’ it’ll be ‘man sat on bed, quizzically thinking about the weather outside,’ because there’s a window in the shot and you can see the weather.”
In his videos, he presents the remakes side by side with the original, giving the user two separate, but connected, windows to keep an eye on. “There’s a real sense of the uncanny,” he said.
“One thing that I love about the internet is that, for all the horrors that you get on there, it’s still this open thing,” Highton explained. “Fifteen or 20 years ago, if you had an idea, there was nowhere to put it out beyond just showing your friends. Now you can put it out into the world, and it’ll either miss or go big. I really like that there’s now a place for everything.”