Greg Singer speaks with Cartoon Network, Atomic Cartoons, Augenblick Studios, Six Point Harness, indie animators Michel Gagnand Jayson Thiesson, Sandro Corsaro and Cliff Parrott, authors of the new book, Hollywood 2D Digital Animation, to learn how they make Flash animation look so good.
Once upon a time, in a land not too terribly far away, there beat a tiny dream in the hearts of independent animators. This was in the early days of the Dot Bomb Era, when inexpensive software was threatening to democratize the production and distribution of animation. Yet, perhaps it was all too much, too soon. While financiers and startups shook hands and agreed on the coming revolution, there was no real business model to support the golden goose once it laid its egg. Incubating properties online with hopes of hatching a fat deal in other media rarely proved successful. As far as major studios were concerned, the promise of the new software was a flash in the pan.
During the last few years, however, as more traditionally trained animators have become conversant with Macromedias Flash, we have begun to see the software emerging as a credible and viable production platform. Now, with a few outstanding examples of broadcast television animation being produced, its only a matter of time before theatrical and direct-to-DVD Flash features become commonplace, as well.
It seems like the early days of Flash animation are yielding to the glory days, as diehard visionaries have stubbornly persisted in their experimentation and cultivation of the medium. In this article, a handful of these patient and persevering pioneers speak about their experiences with the software, and how they foresee its future role.
The F Word
People do not generally think of Flash animation in flattering ways. A common assumption is that Flash animation is simple and crude, both in terms of its content and execution. As one artist observed, Using Flash is like using a baseball bat to play golf. It works, its about the right size, it does what you want it to do, but its not exactly what its supposed to be.
To be fair, when Macromedia introduced Flash in 1996, it was intended more as a Web development tool, not as a means for producing high-end animation. While the developers at Macromedia have always been supportive and open to feedback, incorporating animators suggestions into newer versions of the software has probably not been first on their mind. Compared to its primary user base, the number of artists using Flash for animation production must be small. Even so, with the momentum of recent history moving in its favor, word on the street is that Macromedia is poised to release the latest version of Flash with several new production valuable features rolled in.
In the meantime, artists are left to bend the software to their creative will. Innovation in its use is often limited as much by ones imagination for what is possible as by any technical complaint.
Independent artist Michel Gagné, who is well known for his conceptual design and special effects work on the likes of The Iron Giant and Star Wars: Clone Wars, years ago made a fun short film called Prelude to Eden. He is now in the midst of making a new short film, Insanely Twisted Shadow Puppet Show, with the help of Flash.
Teaming up with Jayson Thiessen, a talented animator in Vancouver, Gagné says, The main reason Im using Flash is because of Jaysons expertise. I was pretty much open to any software that could achieve the look I was after. The main challenge is to get the software to do what I visualize in my head. Jayson has already pointed out some of the limitations and were working on ways to come around them. I want to use Flash for high-resolution material so well definitely have to push the boundaries. Having said that, I think Flash is a really good tool for the style Ive come up with, since the show is all done in silhouette. My main goal is to keep the integrity of the vision. I want these shorts to be works of art.
Thiessen has worked on the Flash-animated series Mucha Lucha at Bardel Animation, as well as Yakkity Yak and Being Ian at Studio B Prods. He says, Flash is the best animation program for 2D digital that I know about, because of its simplicity. It doesnt take long for a novice to learn it and the functions are versatile. There is more than one way to do the same thing. Plus its cheap to buy and you can do an entire production, if you have the energy. The challenge is making the animation not look like it was animated in Flash. Too many people just slide around symbols and pass it off as TV quality. I treat Flash like just a fancy high-tech pencil and paper.
To prove his mettle and satisfy his own creative itch, Thiessen spent five months in his spare time creating his own Flash cartoon, Chubby Dee in Stale Sale. It is an excellent short film, and you can watch it online at GoldenRusset.com.
Another independent animator turned small studio honcho is the ever-affable Aaron Augenblick. Since 1999, the economy and efficiency of Flash has helped him and his team of intrepid artist-cohorts at Augenblick Studios to subsist on freelance jobs, culminating, most recently, in a colorful co-production with World Famous Pictures on Comedy Centrals Shorties Watchin Shorties. Before founding the Brooklyn-based shop, Augenblick had wearied of animation and retired to Virginia, where MTV tracked him down working as a night clerk at a Super 8 Motel. Since then, in balancing work-for-hire with personal projects, he has gone on to produce a series of praiseworthy short films that have played at festivals, including Plugs McGinniss: Seeing Eye Dog (2003), Drunky (2002), The Dignified Devil (2001), Dogface Calhoon (2000) and Ramblin Man (1999).
When he and a friend started the studio, they ended up using Flash even though their work was based on traditional methods. As Augenblick says, We realized early on this is a crude instrument that could be used for some pretty advanced stuff. Of course, back then, when you told people you were doing a project in Flash, it was like saying youre putting on a minstrel show.
Augenblicks favorite animation in the world is the 1930s Fleischer cartoons, and his films certainly have that old time quality. His work has a polished retro look so clean and precise that, by todays standards, it makes the dusty past look shiny new.
The assumption was that Flash animation was already going to be bad. With the Internet boom, all of the real animators were seeing it as the destruction of animation, says Augenblick. Being that I was from a traditional world, but also very friendly to technology, I could see how you could implement all of the traditional methods I had been using. It took a little bit of tweaking, but thats sort of how we approach this: pretending that were doing this on an Oxberry, but actually using Flash.
At Augenblick Studios, artists rough out their animation, hand it off to inbetweeners, and do everything else one would expect to see in a traditional studio. Augenblick says, We encourage lots and lots of drawing. The more drawing you can do, the better. What I think everyone is terrified of with computer animation is that were moving away from drawing, and people are just doing things with their mouse. But whats good about what were doing is that were drawing everything directly in Flash, and removing that distance between what you make and the finished product that you get.
He says, The ability to constantly pencil test is huge for me. Back in the day, when you would draw on paper, youd have to go to a pencil test machine and test it. At every second in Flash, youre constantly testing the movement of the animation. The more that we push things toward a traditional leaning, the more fun it is.
Augenblick does not want to be in a situation where he is not drawing on a project, and therefore he tries to keep productions small and individualized. He says, My goal with this studio is to have a small group of people where every person working on the show is a major facet, and has a major voice on the show. I dont want to hire a large team of slave labor, where one person draws an eyelash and another draws the big toe. The result is that we achieve a more personalized cartoon rather than what you might get from a factory assembly line process.
MTV has commissioned Augenblick Studios to produce ten animated segments for its likely-to-be-renamed Kid Show. The new program, scheduled to air in February, is a variant of Sesame Street, set up to look like a childrens show with puppets and stock footage and cartoons. Augenblick says, Theyre really into the retro look. Each of the animated segments usually parodies some animation from history, going back as far as the 1920s, to Hanna-Barbera, to G.I. Joe. Thats what I really get excited about in animation. Examining the design methods and animation styles of old cartoons is where I really have a lot of fun.
In recent years, as independent artists have forged ahead in their use of Flash, studio executives have slowly warmed to the idea of Flash animation. The software itself has not changed much, but perceptions have. In keeping productions local, greater artistic involvement allows for better quality work to be done in concert with a creators vision. Most of the major studios have taken on Flash shows, including Warner Bros., Disney and Nickelodeon. With the early success of Mucha Lucha, Cartoon Network in particular has been a harbinger of things to come, providing a venue for popular Flash-based shows such as Atomic Betty, Fosters Home for Imaginary Friends and Hi Hi Puffy Ami Yumi.
Co-producing Atomic Betty with Breakthrough Films in Toronto and Teleimages Kids in France, Atomic Cartoons in Vancouver has used Flash on hundreds of shorts, including Dog in A Box with Two Wheels, Mondo Medias Thugs on Film and Chuck Jones Timberwolf. Mauro Casalese, one of the creators of Atomic Betty, says, In 1999, we started designing the series, and in 2000 we animated a short one-minute demo of the show using Flash because we couldnt afford to animate it traditionally. We never set out to make this a Flash show, per se. When our distribution partner came on board in 2002 they heavily pitched it as a Flash series with the intent of doing the work domestically.
Mike Moon, art director on Fosters Home for Imaginary Friends, says, The decision to use Flash came about during the development. All of the different production ideas that we were toying around with were things that would aid us in getting a better, higher level quality final product more unusual looks, more flexibility with the looks and the types of designs that we were able to animate. We also really wanted to use technology to do something different than a lot of the typical TV work we had been doing. So, that was the start of it. Flash, in conjunction with Illustrator and After Effects, just ended up being the logical choice that gave us the most design flexibility and allowed us to try all these different things. Not that it hasnt been without its issues, but we are thrilled with the results.
With television animation averaging about $300,000 per episode these days, the idea that Flash can produce shows more inexpensively is somewhat of a myth. However, with a comparable budget and in-house creative oversight, Flash animation at the bigger studios is being produced on an expeditious delivery schedule. Whereas a typical 22-minute television show may have eight weeks for animation, on Fosters with half of its episodes animated in Burbank, California at Cartoon Network, and the remaining half in Dublin, Ireland at Boulder Media the schedule has been abbreviated to a brisk four weeks.
The breakneck pace of the schedule demands that a lot of the work for the show is done upfront. The pre-production unit is not just designing the show, with its world of characters, backgrounds and props. They are creating the actual assets for the animation team to break apart, set up and animate.
Craig Kellman was supervising character designer on DreamWorks animated feature Madagascar (2005), and now serves as animation director on Fosters Home for Imaginary Friends. He says, The pre-production artwork is created in Illustrator, and so all of the files are already vectorized. We import them directly into Flash, and bend and stretch them at will. To save time, we can use Illustrator to help symbolize assets or we can build elements in Flash and bring them into Illustrator, for example, to apply brush strokes on characters. For Fosters, we have a special brush to make the line work look like its pencil-drawn or inked in some way, to distinguish it from the Flash stereotype of the perfect vector line.
Part of Flashs advantageous appeal is certainly its economy of use not only the ability to make changes on the fly, but also the ability, in the hands of a skilled artist, to repurpose elements within scenes to look completely unique. Ironically, todays Flash crews often do not have the luxury of time to delve into their asset libraries, even as the elements keep improving over the course of the season.
Flash allows for a quick production turnaround because once the raw artwork is in place, once an element is fully designed, there is no further need (or worry) to stay on model or cleanup or ink-and-paint. With digital assets, the continuity and level of detail is maintained throughout the pipeline.
Even something as seemingly burdensome as mouth charts, in Flash, becomes a blessing. Kellman says, If we traditionally draw mouth charts really nicely at the beginning of production, it makes a huge difference and improves the animation tenfold. Whats great about doing this stuff digitally is that you dont draw a mouth chart on paper and then have people look at it for reference and copy it. You have this situation where you can just pick those mouths and place them inside the head symbol. Since the show depends a lot on dialogue, if the mouths are weak, then a lot of the show is going to be weak. So, we work really hard on our mouth charts. Our initial charts were set up very much like anime, with the mouth stuck inside the face. Weve changed all that up. If you look at some of the later shows, we start using new mouth charts, moving the jaws and stuff. The show is constantly evolving and improving.
One of the big differences over traditional animation is that, with Flash, changes to elements can be done throughout production without a huge redundancy of effort. An artist can tweak animation keys, for example, without having to redraw all of the inbetweens that go along with it. In combining traditional inbetweens with Flashs motion-tweening, the effect is a potentially interesting hybrid of movement.
Kellman says, As long as elements are moving in flat space, Flash is great when you have a simple movement and you need a certain amount of fluidity. You can add more drawings when you need them. The only time it becomes more of an issue is when someone is turning in space. Then, you absolutely need a new drawing.
Once we get the main poses, the standard full turn from pre-production, we can do a lot with them, filling in those blanks using Flash mainly. We do use the tweening feature, but in a way that doesnt seem so. Meaning, were not taking the entire model and just squashing and stretching it, and having long tweens that look really artificial. We try to keep them shorter, moving the model around frame-by-frame, using onion skinning to follow an arc and make sure the curves are correct.
In between those drawings, it takes a lot of finessing to make it look right. Theres a certain amount you can disguise in Flash if the timing is snappier. If its a fast turn, you can pop to another view pretty quickly, and in between you can kind of stretch your artwork. But on slower turns, you have to move all of your features within one element, and you have to start sliding things around in a way where it looks natural. If we need to create a really strange inbetween or smear that Flash cant create, well draw something like that. But, for the most part, well do all that stuff in Flash. Its just that it can be used incorrectly or it can be used correctly. We try to take a traditional stance with all of this stuff and not cheat too much.
Even when applying fundamentals of traditional animation, not all shows are suited to Flash production. A crisp, flat graphic style is where Flash really shines, in a similar vein to the limited animation of Jay Ward, UPA and Hanna-Barbera. So says Cliff Parrott, co-author of the recently published Hollywood 2D Digital Animation: The New Flash Production Revolution. Having learned to animate with Flash alongside artists like Tony Grillo and Rob Lilly at Flinch Studio (Tim Burtons Stainboy), Parrott is now animating on Hi Hi Puffy Ami Yumi at Renegade Animation in Glendale, California.
Sandro Corsaro, who co-wrote Hollywood 2D Digital Animation with Parrott, learned about Flash from Robert Reinhardt, the author of the original (and aptly named) The Flash Bible. Corsaro says, I think what Cartoon Network and Renegade Animation are producing in Flash is fantastic for the business. I have enjoyed watching Flash flourish in a number of various entities. Colleagues such as Kevin Lofton, Pete Michail and Milton Pool all bring unique styles to Flash and the projects they work on. They inspire me to push Flash forward as a viable way of producing animation domestically.
Technically, Flash can be used for the entire process of production, though it is still sometimes controversial to make use of the software for, say, storyboards and animatics. With some studios using new Wacom computer monitors to draw directly on the screen, the board frames are used as guides for setting up scenes and subsequently animating.
Flash allows for a good blend of traditional and digital techniques. In some respects, perhaps as an oversimplification, its method of manipulating imagery can be viewed as technologically robust cut-out animation. Models are moved around as jointed puppets under a virtual camera, without having to redraw them countless times; without having a number of artists to reinterpret them.
In making economical use of assets, it hearkens back to an earlier era of television production. Corsaro says, I watch a lot of the old Hanna-Barbera shows to test production techniques in Flash. When I interviewed Iwao Takamoto for my first book, The Flash Animator, I showed him how to animate with Flash. He picked it up right away. It makes sense since Flash works on the same principles he helped pioneer at H-B almost 40 years ago. It was an amazing experience to watch him draw on the tablet.
For some artists, the constraints of the program are a source of frustration, whereas for others the challenges are a jumping-off point for innovation.
Aaron Augenblick says, I would hope that I never made any creative decisions based on the limitations of Flash. I do get a lot of inspiration from different things that we can do, though. When were all working here, everyone is always discovering new kinds of tricks. Flash is great because it encourages experimentation. People talk about the Flash look of things, but it really is a platform where you could do a lot of different things: the typical Flash, vectory look with thick and thin lines; or the no-line look of Fosters; or manipulating photographs like cut-out animation. Its a fun program in that way.
Art director Mike Moon of Fosters says, All of those pencil lines you see in the show arent scanned lines that are vectorized, but actually just digital lines that can be manipulated in Illustrator. Weve also used Illustrator, in places, to animate some assets to get certain looks that are more difficult to achieve working purely in Flash. So, for instance, in the pilot theres an octopus tentacle. We create that octopus tentacle as a brush in Illustrator, and within that brush its got several colors and strokes and textures and details, and that can be applied to an animated center-line almost the way a 3D object would work with a spline. Then we can import those frames into Flash, and have the freedom to further manipulate it or bring it right into After Effects for compositing.
For some of the animation itself, you can get certain effects by making a characters body a brush in Illustrator, and then bring it into Flash, says Craig Kellman. So, if we draw a curvy line and apply the body brush to it, it turns that line into a characters body based on that curve we just drew. That helps our animation look fluid. You can do it with a leg, a hand, an entire body. Like three characters stacked together under a trenchcoat, you can make a brush for them to move them all as one body in a series of S-curves.
Moon says, Honestly, Im not seeing a lot of limitations. The animators are doing such brilliant work. At this point in time, I cant imagine producing a 2D show not somehow using this process, or a slight modification of this process. Im sold. Obviously there are issues I would change, little production issues, but creatively, what were doing now, I wouldnt change a thing.
Because the whole Fosters world is created with the same drawing tools (Illustrator, initially), there arises an interesting problem for the directors in achieving the separation they want among its characters, backgrounds and props. Moon says, Thats something were constantly fighting with, to get that separation, whereas in a traditional show you have the obvious separation between traditionally or digitally painted backgrounds married with flat character art. Given that there are so many characters in play with so much line work, weve really pulled the backgrounds down tremendously, trying to go with a monochromatic palette a lot of times. On the other hand, we wanted these really decadent backgrounds with a lot of intricacy to them. It involves striking a balance between really simple color styling and really complex design. Right in the middle there is a good balance.
Because the backgrounds are prepared in Illustrator, every detail of every element has its own integrity, existing on its own layers within the program. Those layers can be brought into After Effects and composited using a 3D camera, creating a sort of infinite multiplane effect. Theres a lot of stuff like that were really not taking advantage of to its full extent, just because of time, says Moon.
Also, with their scalability, the digital assets can be used across a variety of platforms, whether for television, online, or, nowadays, mobile phones. Working with the same models and the same animation elements, the integration among media is theoretically seamless.
Moon says, With Fosters, really, I think were just scratching the surface of what can be done with this. There are so many possibilities in terms of looks and production design, so many techniques and processes nested in there. I think, as a first step, we were really successful with it. Everyone has done an amazing job. Just when I think weve hit a ceiling, things just keep getting better and better and better. It never ceases to amaze me what these guys are able to generate. So, Im really interested to see how this mindset evolves and affects things in the future.
Naturally, one of the keys to success in producing quality Flash animation is in pulling together the right team. In the heart of Hollywood, Six Point Harness Studios has assembled a crackerjack crew of humble and talented artists who are thinking big. Opening its doors only a year and a half ago, Six Point Harness is already hard at work on several top-tier pilot projects for Nickelodeon, Klasky-Csupo, Disney and Fox.
Brendan Burch, one of the founding artists of the studio, says, Its mostly because of Flash that we felt we could start our own studio. Weve figured out all of these different structural aspects for putting files together in Flash that really speeds things up, tremendously. And there is definitely a big hole to fill as far as Flash production goes. Mondo Media, Renegade Animation, Cartoon Network, Atomic Cartoons there arent really too many people that do it well. We try to erase the line between Flash and traditional. People call it Flash animation, and are expecting some kind of Flash animation, but its not the case with us. Youre going to get something thats well animated.
A pilot episode for Fox Network of The Phil Hendrie Show was produced by Six Point Harness in whirlwind time, and, true to Burchs word, it is impressively good. Six Point Harness had also animated the opening title sequence of DreamWorks live-action feature EuroTrip, which, according to some, is the best part of the entire movie. In fact, the audience opinion of the movie drastically improved among focus test groups with the addition of the Flash-animated title sequence.
Burch feels that Flash is ready to make the switch from short to longer forms of animation, and that more people should begin considering using Flash for HDTV and features.
In helping to create broadcast and feature quality Flash animation, Sandro Corsaro says, When Cliff [Parrott] and I began working on Hollywood 2D Digital Animation, we wanted to write a book that would explain why Flash is creating a production revolution in animation. We had to delve into both the business and creative side of Flash production, tackling subjects that both producers and animators could learn from. A producer can learn how asset management works and an animator can learn how to budget a Flash feature.
Parrott says, I had known for some time that Flash would eventually, if used correctly, become a powerful tool in animation production. We both felt that the wave of Flash animation was about to crest and the time was ripe to put a reference manual together. We decided that the book would not only explain the production process, but should also give a reader insight on shortcuts, interviews with industry professionals and advice on other subjects incidental to a Flash-based production.
Artists continue to experiment in mixing Flash with other programs such as Maya, Corel Painter, Illustrator and After Effects in order to expand the creative horizon of 2D digital animation.
Burch says, We looked at other software, but Flash still has the crown for simplicity. Its slowly gaining acceptance by the networks and its keeping production local. As far as our clients are concerned, its more efficient. If they needed a project in six weeks, we could turn it around fast. An absolute advantage that our clients enjoy is being able to do retakes and potentially the next day, or in the next couple of days, seeing what you asked for.
As Flash matures as a viable platform for production, artists are going to push the aesthetics of the animation. In anticipation of a shortage of qualified Flash animators, some of Six Point Harness team has been teaching a class at CalArts to prepare students for what appears to be a burgeoning opportunity. Burch says, One of the biggest things Flash has going against it, right now, is there are very few people who know how to use the program well. One of the more important things in teaching Flash, in my opinion, is structural integrity people being able to work in the same files that somebody else worked on, because there are thousands of different ways to put your animation together in a Flash file, but only a few ways to get it done optimally.
Along with other enthusiastic Flash creators, Burch is helping to pull together a 2D digital production users group in the coming months. Burch says, Because there are so few Flash strongmen in town and because everyone is doing something different with it, people are always learning insane things about the program shortcuts and tips and tricks. We feel very strongly about sharing some of those things among each other, because the tool will just continue to become more important to Macromedia, to artists, to the studios. I think Flash is going to continue to grow, with beautiful cartoons being made. We just want animation to be better, for cartoons to be the best they can.
So, yes, the buzz within the Flash community is that Macromedia is soon to release a new version of its software, codenamed 8Ball. The rumors are that most of the new features will be filters, like drop shadows and transparency effects. While acknowledging that Flash is first and foremost a Web development tool, artists nonetheless wish for many improvements, including better lighting and camera control.
Author and animator Corsaro says, I sneaked a peek at 8Ball and must admit I am very impressed. There are some major additions for Flash animators this time around. For the past few years, Flashs enhancements have often been geared to programmers and action scripters. The broadcast market will certainly expand with 8Ball. Certain looks that required going into After Effects and Photoshop will be present in this updated version of Flash. Thats all I can say before a Macromedia henchman pays me a visit.
Like many artists, Mauro Casalese of Atomic Cartoons is not beholden to Flash. He views it simply as a tool, not a panacea. He says, Presently Flash affords us to keep work in-house for creative control and for employing local animators, but, like anything else, I do foresee competition from proficient overseas studios eventually making it cost-prohibitive to keep the Flash animation here. We have a window for who knows how long and we will take advantage of that for as long as we have it. After that, who knows what is around the corner technology-wise, but well be ready.
Across the continent in New York, Aaron Augenblick says, Were going from a position where, to make animation, you had to have a lot of funding, you had to have a lot of people involved and this, that and the other. Now, anyone can do it. That doesnt have to be a bad thing, necessarily. The best thing that could happen is if new voices were heard in animation right now. Because, if theres any problem with animation and animation history, its that it sort of feeds off itself a bit too much. People are still feeding off the same cartoons that everyones seen. Everyone is trying to make the new Warner Bros. or the new Disney. What we need is something absolutely, completely new.
Greg Singer is an animation welfare advocate, eating in Los Angeles.