The Next Wave: Animation on the Internet

Bob Miller interviews Frank Welker, a voice over legend. From cartoons to live-action, it is guaranteed you have heard his voice and probably not even realized. Was that a real parrot, dog, pig or Frank? Includes filmography.

At this years ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Expo 2000, held March 3 - 4 at the Glendale Civic Auditorium, AWNs very own Dan Sarto moderated a two-session panel discussion on the prospects and future of animation on the Internet. The short version of the five-hour seminar is altogether unsurprising, but nonetheless encouraging: broadband, Flash and you./p>

Weighing in at the event, with their collective, experiential expertise, were representatives from: Shockwave, AtomFilms, Film Roman/Level 13, Mondo Media, Spunky Productions, Harvey Entertainment and Toon Boom Technologies. (Stan Lee Media hailed from the audience.)

I am told that a similar discussion took place about two years ago, with various studio executives from around town. The question has been, abidingly, "How are we to make use of the emerging medium of the Internet?"

I can only imagine that with insouciant shrugs and a lot of hand-waving, the studio executives of two years ago casually talked of re-purposing existing properties for exhibition on the Net

Now, we see that the Internet is a bit of everything -- a place to exploit and reinvigorate old properties and a place to test new materials, a kind of proving ground before expansion into other media.

The honest and amusing truth is, nobody knows the answer. Everyone is trying to figure out what works, exactly. In some cases, as with AtomFilms, people are basically inventing a marketplace for themselves; in others, as with Film Roman/Level 13, they are bringing old business models to bear.

The Future Is Lurking

For the most part, in one form or another, we have been sitting around our campfires and hearths for the last several thousand years, telling our stories. Our televisions and computers are the modern fires around which we gather at nights, to share ourselves and to invent our world. With the Internet, this kind of cultural mythmaking becomes more mutual and participatory. Are we inherently passive listeners and observers? How long will it be before a new generation of audience emerges; before we accept, as a society, the transformation of our televisions into an interactive, co-created medium?

A lot of the actual animation being produced right now is "dumbed down" for todays technology, but everyone is anticipating the future. Shows are currently in development with the promise in mind of what fiber optics and broadband will allow. Philo Northrup, director of content acquisition at Mondo Media, says that their episodic shorts are all designed with the intention and ability of increasing in production value as the technology improves. Just as the laying down of phone lines in the middle of last century revolutionized communications for that day, so too will broadband technology usher in a revolution for ours.

Mondo Media tries to keep ahead of the fold with its top notch Webisodes such as Like, News. © 2000 Mondo Media.

Karl Kronenberger, president of Spunky Productions, says that he wants his companys programming to be different than that for television: "We want a very customized entertainment experience." What that means, in translation, is: with the technology available to us constantly and exponentially improving, it is possible to create characters and storylines that conform to the users preferences and circumstances. (There is a slightly intimidating, technical word for this -- "non-linearity.") The idea is that, depending on the context or data of the situation, an animated character could be customized, say, to look or to sound like us. (If we are from Texas, perhaps the character articulates with a southern twang.) Or depending on our interactive actions and behaviors, a character could be customized to respond to us appropriately. (Perhaps the animated character makes some timely quip or suggestion regarding our on-line selections.)

Eric Oldrin, senior animation producer of Shockwave, says: "Everyone is searching for the holy grail of interactive animation."

Even now, companies like AtomFilms and Shockwave are toying with this kind of dynamic animation. You will see, in the coming months, the introduction of such characters as Suckup Guy, and the Stock Market Psychic. You will be able to e-mail tailor-made animated characters right to your friends inbox, to taunt them with the dialogue, and look, of your choosing.

A Flash In The Pan?

Among Internet animators, Macromedias Flash is the product of choice these days, though, increasingly, other companies are putting out similar programs to compete with it. Why bother with Flash? As Karl Kronenberger says: "Flash just blows everything else out of the water." Flash has tie-ins to other software like Director and Generator, and it can even accommodate the import of 3D-generated imagery. Flash is an elegant vector-based (calculus-based) program, allowing for smaller file sizes, and thus a smoother streaming of data to viewers, unlike the oftentimes cumbersome bit-map files that require a huge amount of time to download. (And you thought math was useless.) Most importantly, Flash allows for that magical, desirous goal of interactivity.

Kronenberger explains that four years ago, "It might have cost $300,000 to get an episode on TV; and now, maybe for $50,000, someone can get a show out there. Flash has limitations of 10-12 frames per second, but it is incredibly cost-effective. For $25,000, one can produce a pilot show. And once all of the asset libraries are in place, future episodes might cost somewhere between $8,000-$12,000."

With the advent of broadband, DSL, faster processors and the whole hullabaloo, we may be able to get back up to 24 frames per second, as with traditional cel animation, but for now, Flash remains the most attractive tool for one very simple, pragmatic reason: it is the cheapest.

The Bottom Line

Despite ones love for animation as an art form, in the context of Hollywood, it is ultimately a business. The dollar dictates.

The Internet may appear like a new medium, but in terms of its marketing and distribution, it seems to be following the same basic principles and models of cable and early television. Francisco del Cueto, product manager for Toon Boom Technologies, speculates that currently animation on the Internet is in the same condition as cartoons on television 25 or 30 years ago. No one quite understands the possibilities for the medium yet; we are limited by technical considerations and the content is varied and simple.

Richie Rich has a resurgence on SpunkyTown.com, but will he be speaking French in the not so distant future too? © & TM 1996 Harvey Comics Inc., A Harvey Entertainment Co.

But the Internet serves the function of being a huge test market; it is a kind of facile development tool.

While there are smaller efforts geared toward businesses or education, much of the animation being done naturally involves entertainment. Karl Kronenberger says, "You can reach more people than you do with TV; you can do it faster and with the same or better quality." Spunkytown, as a Web site for children under 12, has the unique challenge of juggling the education, entertainment and business values of its shows. Market research suggests that 85% of its content is being watched by children with the supervision of their parents. It is not a trivial hurdle: how does one integrate content intended for kids with e-commerce intended for adults?

Dan March, executive director of new media at Harvey Entertainment, agrees: "We approach the Web a little differently. Targeting kids, the demographic is a completely different business on-line." With children, there are no credit cards, the advertising is not the same and federal regulations preclude collecting e-mail addresses. "The economics of the Internet are working against us," March says.

So, how are people generating income?

Dean Terry, senior vice president of creative development at AtomFilms, explains: "Youd be surprised at the enormous amount of money that can be gotten from a product mass-introduced on the Net." AtomFilms just recently celebrated the one-year anniversary of its launch, and much of its financial success is directly attributable to its sales of DVDs and videos.

Kate Connally, manager of content acquisitions at Shockwave, summarizes: "There are different streams of revenue: banner ads; special corporate sponsorships; product placement (which is a little more involved); pay per view, and pay per save (in the future); syndication (licensing your material out to other sites); and the big payoff -- ancillary media (television, film, games and merchandising)."

"Basically," Connally says, "we are incubating properties for better success in other media."

The Mighty Animator

With all of this discussion about business models and marketing strategies, one member of the audience asked pointedly, "What about the animator? How will animated content on the Internet benefit us?"

The producers and directors answered with assurance: "The ultimate culmination will be the resurgence of the storyteller."

Along with other Internet animation companies, Level 13 is looking hard for original content that it can add to its line-up, which features shows like Tripping the Rift. © Film Roman/Level13.net.

The short end of it is -- the Internet is hungry for content. Eric Radomski, executive producer at Film Roman/Level 13, says: "Content is king. All the speed and technology doesnt matter if you dont have good stuff to show people." Radomski suggests that the Internet is a way of "backdooring network TV." Level 13, he says, is a means of having fresh eyes on the entertainment industry; of diverging from the modus operandi of the networks.

Eric Oldrin, of Shockwave, agrees about wanting to "bust out from the old bureaucracy. Its a full-time job, and a headache, to find good content."

Bill Shpall, also of Film Roman/Level 13, knows that everyone has an idea -- the next greatest, genius idea. But he also knows, from experience, that maybe 1 out of every 300 ideas will be successful with respect to how an audience responds. How does one go about finding, and cultivating, the right idea?

Again, no one knows the answer. There is no formula for predicting the whims and fancies of the publics appreciation. But this is the good news: even the studio executives agree

The Internet levels the playing field. Independent and entrepreneurial animators have as much opportunity for exposure and distribution of their material as does anyone. With the Internet still so novel, everyone has the occasion to be heard: either in getting their own ideas out there, or in pitching them to existing companies.

If there is any one thing to be taken away from the seminar, this would be it: these fledgling on-line studios are definitely approachable. If you want to pitch stories, if you want to be an animator, then go. Get involved now. The Internet is craving your ideas and talent.

Many animators and students came to the Animation Expo looking to show their talents to animation companies. Courtesy of & © ASIFA-Hollywood.

In The Beginning, The Word Was "You" Flash. Flash. Flash. So you dont know how to use Flash? You come from a traditional or design background? There are no worries. As an aside, and to conclude this article, I wanted to share with you the real heroes, the true harbingers, of Internet animation: companies like Toon Boom Technologies.

Toon Boom helps to integrate and converge the traditional animation pipeline with the particularities of the Internet. Toon Booms software was created with the concepts, process and management needs of traditional animation in mind. You can take your drawings, scan them in, clean them up, ink and paint them and vectorize them -- all with one program. Voila. Your work is ready for the Internet. Toon Boom designed their software for both the consumer market -- "a one person shop" -- as well as for the production houses.

So? Now whats your excuse? What are you waiting for? Go animate some cool stuff for cripes sake!

Gregory Singer grew up in Maryland and studied biology there. After a tour of service in the Peace Corps in Kenya, he finally wandered his way to Los Angeles, where he is presently a graduate student of film producing at Chapman University. Mr. Singer is also the assistant editor of the Animation Journal, a peer-reviewed scholarly journal devoted to animation history and theory.

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