SAN DIEGO UNION TRIBUNE
Animators find a home on the ‘toon friendly Web
PAM DIXON 09-Jul-2000 Sunday
Joe Shields, a relatively unknown Michigan-based cartoonist who had been rejected by just about every newspaper and syndicate in the country, got fed up with the naysayers. He checked out the new Macromedia program called Flash and decided to use it to work his still cartoons into short, interactive film form and put them up on the Web.
The site, which he called “Joe Cartoon,” got noticed, but not in a spectacular way. “I was getting around 500 hits a day on my site,” says Shields, also known as “Joeman.” Shields’ fortune changed in the spring of 1999, when he posted his infamous “Joesterizer” animation, otherwise known as “Frog in a Blender.”
It is a wickedly interactive Flash animation that does just what it sounds as if it does: As you click on the buttons of the blender, the frog spins at higher and higher speeds until — well, you get the picture.
The final piece of the story came when someone bootlegged the Joesterizer cartoon from Shields’ site, put it in e-mailable form, and sent it to a couple of friends. Then kerpow! In a matter of hours, the cartoon spread across the Web like wildfire and became a bona fide Internet phenomenon.
“Overnight, we went to 400,000 hits a day. We were blowing up servers left and right; we went from paying $50 dollars a month for the site to $10,000,” says Shields.
Now, just more than a year later, JoeCartoon.com gets 900,000 page views a day, making it one of the most visited sites on the Web. Media Metrix consistently places it in the top 500 to 600 sites in the world, along with Yahoo! and other giants.
Joe Shields is hardly an unknown animator now. But the bigger difference is that while few can compete with his numbers, he has lots of new company, thanks in part to what he inadvertently did to popularize the medium of Web animation.
There is no doubt that animation that is created for the Web has become a legitimate, albeit nascent, art form and a business of its own. Traditional animators such as Bill Plympton have joined the ranks of those artists creating new works exclusively for the Web using both Flash and newer 3-D programs.
The big entertainment Web portals, such as AtomFilms.com and Entertaindom.com, have made plenty of room for Web animation. The sites host such artists as Plympton, Shields and popular animated series. And companies specializing in Web animation have sprung up, working to find the right business fit amid all the rapid change.
Young but important
Last month, the World Animation Celebration and Festival added a special three-day Internet conference to its traditional offerings. The overall buzz the event generated was that the Web animation industry is young, but important. “I think the biggest opportunity with animation on the Internet is to establish characters in a way that’s not so expensive and grow them online so they can migrate onto television and film,” says Terry Thoren, founder of the World Animation Celebration and the CEO of Klasky Csupo, the Los Angeles studio that creates the traditional animation series “Rug Rats,” among others.
Honkworm, a Seattle-based animation studio that produces high-concept content for the Web, has done just that. It has already successfully migrated several animated series from online to offline, including the hilarious “Fishbar” series, which began exclusively on the Web and then jumped to MTV.
“Storytelling on the Web is a unique and distinct art form from any others. It doesn’t have to do with the technology. It has to do with how people consume the entertainment,” says Johan Liedgren, CEO of Honkworm International. “We’re giving people access to entertainment at places and at times where they haven’t had access before. They aren’t going to carve out a time to just sit and watch. The entertainment has to come in shorter segments; its got to be short, punchy and very addictive storytelling.”
Liedgren’s views articulate a growing consensus about animations created for the Web. They are typically very short, between 10 seconds and five minutes, and the art itself is typically created in Flash, so the look is two-dimensional and focuses on close-up shots. Most of the animations, even if they are part of a continuing series, have a strong storyline that can stand alone. And a note to employers: Much of the Web animation is being viewed during working hours by folks using high-speed Internet connections at their places of employment.
While Honkworm is focusing on providing high-quality series and characters, Mondo Media is focusing on being a Web syndicator of animation. “We looked at the Web and came up with the syndication strategy that will allow us to flourish in this environment,” says John Evershed, CEO and executive producer of Mondo Media. “The production company-studio relationship is a brutal relationship, and we wanted to circumvent it at all costs.”
Mondo Media, which is known especially for its wildly popular “The God and Devil” show that plays on Entertaindom.com, has recently licensed its Web animation series “Thugs on Film” to the BBC.
Evershed, like the others, is waiting for the first global Web animation hit. “If somebody lands a `Peanuts’ on the Net, it will be in truly global proportions,” says Evershed, alluding to the way animation has taken off not only in the United States, but also in Asia and Europe.
The difference, though, is in the medium. Due to the popularization of wireless technology in Europe and Asia, most people in those regions watch Web animation on a wireless device.
In the United States, several companies are beginning to capitalize on the wireless market. As is happens, Flash technology works beautifully on wireless devices. Atom Films is using the new MPEG-4 multimedia compression technology (which such companies as the San Diego-based PacketVideo are pioneering) to bring 10- to 30-second Flash animations to Web-enabled cell phones and palm PCs. “Vinnie Vavoom,” one of the series that Atom Films ports to cell phones and other wireless devices, is created by the San Diego-based Web animation studio Hollywood Pixels.
Franz Krachtus, the creator of “Vinnie Vavoom,” says porting a Web Flash animation to cell phones is a matter of making the running time shorter, and focusing on close-ups so detail isn’t lost on the smaller screen size. “It’s basically just using a different compression scheme; you really don’t have to do anything different,” says Krachtus, who is also the creative director and founder of Hollywood Pixels.
Krachtus, like Evershed and Liedgren, believes wireless will become an increasingly important market for all Web animation. “We’re talking to a major wireless company to create entertainment for them,” says Krachtus. “It’s something we’ll be doing a lot more of — we think it’s a very important field to be in.”
Meanwhile, as animation that is produced for the Web, and even wireless devices, matures and increases in popularity, Shields is ignoring all the fuss. He just keeps plugging along quite contentedly, thank you.
“With the Web, one guy can draw his own audience and doesn’t have to worry about the middlemen or the other mediocre minds that are going to get between you and the public. It should be inspirational to frustrated artists everywhere.”
Well said, Joeman.
Pam Dixon’s column about technology and the arts appears the first Sunday of each month.