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The Aesthetics of Internet Animation

Think Web tools are restrictive creatively? Think again! Chris Lanier, creator of Wildbrain's Romanov, explains why, in the vein of comics, they are actually a source of freedom.

Wildbrain.com features the hit Web cartoon Romanov. See a clip! © Wild Brain, Inc.

The creation of art at the limits of technical innovation is bound to produce a fair share of both epiphanies and headaches. You know you're in deep when you start having difficulties telling the two apart.

I've just completed a three-month run of a cartoon made for the Internet. The weekly 2-3 minute animations were made in Flash; because Flash allows for modem-friendly transmission of graphics, it's moved to become the vanguard of Web animation software. Despite its graphical efficiency, however, there are a number of constraints the Flash animator faces: issues of bandwidth, frame rates and processor speeds. I've tried to treat these obstacles as opportunities, as a spur to creativity.

Every limitation implies its own peculiar liberation. There is a point at which the effects of Shakespeare's sonnets are achieved as a result of, and not despite, the form. Robert Frost famously said that writing free verse was like playing tennis without a net. There's a huge difference between self-imposed aesthetic constraints and technical constraints, but it's an attractive operative metaphor. At times, making Web 'toons has been like playing tennis with a net five stories tall, while using teaspoons for rackets. It makes for invigorating and absurd sport.

Limitations Equal Freedom

The most profound "liberation" effected by the limitations of Web animation is the removal of the burden of spectacle. In the middle of blockbuster season it's impossible to avoid the conclusion that cinematic technology is in a headlong rush to overwhelm the senses. The unspoken assumption is that any movie could be improved if, instead of merely hearing and seeing it, we could also feel, smell and taste it. Whether, during a dinner scene, we should be tasting what's on the hero's plate, what's on the love interest's plate, or some combination of the two (problematic if the hero's tucking into his chocolate mousse while the love interest is still dallying with the Salmon fillet), is something best left to the aestheticians of the future's sensoriums. As an audience member, it's hard not to feel like a lab rat with an electrical wire inserted into your brain's pleasure center. Culture has become a pornography of the senses.

The burden of intense sensory engagement is lifted simply because, for now, on the Web, it's technically unattainable. It's a strange "cutting edge" that looks like a throwback to other, older technologies where "cutting edge" animation looks like sub-par Jay Ward-era Rocky and Bullwinkle (or reaching even further back, Colonel Bleep). For now, it is novelty enough to find movement in your Web browser, it needn't be particularly smooth or robust. This has the immediate effect of lowering the budget for animations; they can be done quickly and cheaply, because they can be done crudely. This removes the layers of bureaucracy that traditional animation has had to contend with, allowing for wider freedom of imagination. It also foregrounds the importance of good writing. And it provides opportunities for subtle effects of imaginative transference.

The Comic Comparison

In this regard it's helpful to think of comics, a communications medium that's thrillingly low-tech. (I actually moved into animation through an interest in comics.) Comics are often considered an orphan form -- the hapless urchin begging at the darkened peripheries of the movie palace. This is to misunderstand profoundly its genius. Few reflect on its efficiency as a visual language: draw 200 pictures in comics and you have a book. In animation, you only have 8 seconds.

There has been much press about comics migration to the Web (some have even touted the Web as the savior of comics), but much of it seems misguided. Yes, the Internet has provided a fertile arena for iconographic and "cartoony" art, as navigation and design elements, but these are artifacts of style, not coherent effects of a medium. In fact, as the display of these cartoonish drawings tends to be temporal, and not spatial, they're no longer comics: they've been cannibalized for animation. The driving notion behind this is the same one that drives cinematic spectacle: the comic would improve if sensory information were added to it, namely motion and sound. It's considered an improvement that we actually hear a gun going off, rather than reading the word "bang," and that all of these fantastic characters can speak in their own voices. But to date, this alchemy has not produced any better comics, just stilted animation.

A comic emits no sound, but it is not truly silent: when you read it, you hear the voices and sound effects, and see the action paced to your own rhythms. The story takes place inside your head and is more "real" because of it. For example, you don't have to worry about bad voice acting throwing a scene off as the characters aren't actors, but projections of your own psyche. Animation takes place on a screen, entirely outside of you; comics starts on the page, but it ultimately "occurs" half outside you, on the page, and half inside, in your mind.

In short, the technical "additions" to comics are actually subtractions of imaginative involvement. Comics are a profoundly collaborative medium. It draws you into an imagined world through the efficacy of "closure." It presents you with a series of discreet images or "moments," and you must piece them together in a narrative flow.

A Different Interactivity

Take a crude example: first, we see a panel of an angry mouse, his arm cocked back, a brick clutched in his hand. In the next panel, we see a cat, lying prone on her back, a welt raised on her forehead and a cracked brick lying in halves at her feet. The brick has certainly met up with the feline cranium (Heisenbergian metaphysics left temporarily aside), but where has this meeting taken place? The quick answer is in the "gutter," the white space between panels one and two. However, the truer answer is: within the reader's head.

The "gutter" is spatial, but, applied temporally, it becomes an edit. Both the gutter and an edit mark out the boundaries between self-contained semantic units, the panel for comics and the shot for cinema. Some degree of "closure" is necessary to piece things into a narrative in both cases, and both the "gutter" and edit can be used to either extend or minimize the amount of closure. In a comic, staying with my above example, you could insert another panel between the first and the second, showing the brick fused to the cat's forehead, in a moment of perpetual contact, throwing off a handful of frozen stars. In a film, you could have a 3D POV shot of the brick leaving the mouse's hand, tumbling through the air and striking the cat. You could have an x-ray shot of the cat's skull fracturing. The Dolby sound system could wallop your eardrums. You could even employ a friend to whack you over the head with a two-by-four at the moment of impact for complete authenticity. However, to have a shot of the mouse cocking his arm back, followed by a shot of the cat lying supine, a welt on her forehead, etc., is far more suggestive. Instead of providing a sensory stimulus, you've presented a puzzle for the audience to solve.

Abstracted Storytelling

Of course, this brick-and-cranium example is crudely mechanical. The extension of closure becomes far more exciting when, instead of being applied to mechanical causalities, it is applied to ideas. Taking the notion of closure from comics, where it is explicit, and applying it to cinema, where it is less obvious, we can push animation into the territory of a lucid, complex picture-language. In this manner, animation can deliver us into a world where the differences between words and shapes are blurred: a world of motile (and perhaps even emotive) hieroglyphics.

In this regard, I pay more attention to the progression of images than I do to fluidity of movement. I try to articulate sequences of imagistic comparisons and contrasts, to render abstract ideas into concrete forms, and to nudge concrete forms into the realm of abstraction. I utilize text not to explain, but to suggest -- to begin a thought that the audience must finish.

So finally, I've come to accept (or rationalize) the technical limitations of Web animation as a departure point for greater imaginative investment. Through juxtapositions, comparisons and transformations, meaning is made. The aesthetic spark is not one of spectacle, but of making connections; drawing information and images together into constellations of meaning. Of course, this causes me to view the advent of broadband with a degree of trepidation, hoping that the pipeline won't simply be a lab-rat wire, aimed directly at my helpless ganglia. In the meantime, I'm happy to cultivate an aesthetic approach that draws viewers into a created world by appealing to their curiosity and to create puzzles that find their solutions in poetry.

Chris Lanier is the creator of the Web cartoon Romanov, running on www.wildbrain.com.

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