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Macromedia Flash: Cartoons By the People For the People

How Flash is Democratizing Animation

When Disney closed the doors of its Orlando, Florida animation studio in January 2004, many saw it as the death knell for traditional hand-drawn animation. Of the 18 big-studio animated films to be released this year, only a handful will be done in 2D animation and of those, only a couple will even make it into theaters, according to KeyFrame-Online.com. In 2001, the first Oscar for an animated film was given out and the 3D animated Shrek took the prize.

Since then, only one 2D animated movie snagged the award, 2002's Spirited Away. But like its hand-drawn predecessor, 3D animation is still expensive and requires copious amounts of computer power and animators. While big-budget 3D animated movies are the most visible step in animation's evolution, they only make up a small portion of the cartoons out there. Some of the most innovative, interesting animation is being created using Flash.

A Brief Flash History
The ubiquity of Flash can hardly be overstated - as anyone who has set up a new computer can attest, you can't go three steps on the Web without being prompted to download the Flash Player for your virgin browser in order to properly view the Flash objects embedded in the Web.

The object in question might be as tiny as a button or an ad embedded in a normal HTML page, or as elaborate as an animation or entire site constructed wholly in Flash. Once you've installed the player, though, the Flash becomes a seamless part of the Web, and you never think about it again.

But if you were to wave a magic wand that removed all the Flash objects from the Web, cyberspace would suddenly look like Swiss cheese. Great swaths of it would go black. There are one million developers using Flash now - a number that doesn't include the thousands of amateur animators, ranging in age from 15 to 50 years old, who are creating their own cartoons in bedrooms or small studios across the country.

Flash made its first appearance in 1995 as FutureSplash and was used to deliver animated content over narrowband Internet connections. Macromedia bought the company; since then, it's evolved into a complete Web application development program that can be used to do everything from creating animated shorts and interfaces for databases to creating interactive websites with MP3 audio and full motion video. There are over 515 million computers using Macromedia's Flash player, according to the company's Web site.

Flash Animation: Starting to Hit the Big Time
Long a staple of college kids and bored cubical dwellers who pass links to Flash sites around in e-mails, Flash animation is starting to hit the big time. Gregg and Evan Spiridellis, the creators of JibJab.com, were thrust into the national spotlight just before the 2004 presidential election with their Flash short "This Land," a parody of the song "This Land is Your Land" featuring animated versions of George W. Bush and John Kerry. There was a deluge of media coverage, with the political toon getting airtime on all the cable news networks and other big media outlets, as well as making its way to e-mail inboxes and message boards across the Web. After the election, the Spiridellis brothers followed up on their success with "Second Term," a celebration of Bush's victory sung to the tune of "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain."

But the JibJab toons are only the tip of the growing cartoon iceberg that Web surfers are careening into on a daily basis. Legions of amateur auteurs are using Flash to drive the animation revolution. Like a tiny digital snowflake, each Flash short is unique. Unrestrained by the bureaucracies and focus groups of big-budget studios, the political hang-ups of network censors and the shortsightedness of fickle advertisers, Flash artists are free to produce a dazzling array of short films and series as diverse as the individual minds they sprang from.

Consider Salad Fingers, a sickly-green human-vegetable hybrid with a British accent who loves to fondle rusty spoons and mutilate himself. Or Nylon Futura, a spunky redhead whose good looks halt an alien invasion. And then there's Bitey of Brackenwood, a mischievous goat-man who duels with a witch after breaking one of her flowerpots. The inhabitants of Flash Nation are a strange lot, but it's a story as old as the Web - put the means of production in the hands of the people, and they will make weird, weird stuff.

For their creators, traditional, hand-drawn animation is a memory, a cumbersome, expensive dinosaur that can't keep up with ever-changing technology. Flash is the future, they say, an emerging medium that, already enjoying a ubiquitous presence on the Web, is poised to take over TV, DVD and everything else.

Cartoons for the People
Tom Fulp, creator of Newgrounds.com, a popular Flash animation repository on the Web, said his site has 700,000 registered users, many of whom are frequently submitting original Flash content. Newgrounds receives more than 200 submissions a day. The shorts on Newgrounds usually run about three minutes in length and cover the gamut of genres, from "Comissioner Kong," a slickly animated neo-noir that casts a monkey as a police commissioner under siege, to the ridiculously offensive "Birds 'n Bees," a take-off of '50s sex-ed films that extols the joys of abortion. Users vote on each short; a high score will keep the file on the site, while a low user score will send the piece to the trash. Previously, the only reward for having a high user score was visibility on Newgrounds; now, Fulp said he's starting a monthly selection of the top five submissions, with each winner receiving $250, a T-shirt and an award certificate.

"I have always believed in Flash as an emerging medium," Fulp said in an e-mail interview. "Every year the submissions to Newgrounds continue to improve."

Games produced using Flash are also popular on Newgrounds. Fulp's game "Alien Hominid" has been played more than a million times since appearing on the site in 2002. Last year, it was redeveloped and made the crossover to the PlayStation 2 console.

Newgrounds started as a fanzine for the NeoGeo video game system in the early '90s. It wasn't until 1998 that the current form of Newgrounds hit the Web, just in time for the dot-com boom. Investors were dumping loads of money into sites like IceBox.com and others that were offering original Flash content.

"During the boom, a lot of big companies were investing millions in Web entertainment and not making a dime in return," Fulp said. "I know of several sites that spent over $20 million and never saw anywhere near the traffic of Newgrounds, which was being run from my college apartment."

One Flash series that got its start on Newgrounds is "College University." Created by Mike and Andy Parker, "CU" chronicles the adventures of Mike and Parks, two freshmen at the academically questionable College University, a place where monkeys teach monkey physics and Optimus Prime (of "Transformers" fame) is head of security. The series is like a cross between "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy," with heavy doses of smart-ass pop culture humor and non-sequiturs.

"Andy came up with the idea to base it in a college setting, and with obvious influences from 'The Simpsons,' it grew from there. We originally wrote a script for a 30-minute TV pilot, but when I discovered Flash, we split the script up, and I started adapting it for the Web," said Mike Parker in an e-mail interview.

More Stories By Larry Clow

Larry Clow is staff writer for The Wire (www.wirenh.com), a free weekly newspaper distributed at more than 200 locations up and down the New Hampshire seacoast, from Salisbury to Rochester, from Exeter to Durham and Kittery, and all around Portsmouth and everywhere between.

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