Lee Dannacher goes behind the scenes at shockwave.com, Macromedias spin-off entertainment destination, which is now defining the front edge of seriously fun web animation and interactive fare.
Theres a cultural energy splashing over the Internet these days, generated by the zillions of animated images coming at us with virtually every click, wherever we go. Decode the vast majority of this commanding imagery and youre apt to find the industry-leading technology products called Flash, Dreamweaver, Fireworks and Shockwave -- all created by the engineering genius of Macromedia, Inc. So why wouldnt these same guys want to show off their audacious, next-generation tools on a playground of their own?
shockwave.com, Macromedias spin-off entertainment destination, is now defining the front edge of seriously fun web animation and interactive fare. Following the age-old fundamentals of entertainment (engage and involve!), then applying them across a broad menu of audience choices (games, animations, music and creativity applications), the site now boasts over 13 million registered users. Launching just 8 months ago, its audience continues to multiply at a dizzying rate. More than 80,000 new visitors each day are taking the time to register with the site, personalizing it to their specific interests then playing around with the latest in shockwaves top programming choices.
We wouldnt be talking these kinds of numbers (here or practically anywhere on the web) if it wasnt for the break-through, ubiquitous Flash technology. Macromedias inventive authoring tool has inarguably become the industry standard for developers of high impact, vector-based Web sites that want to deliver stunning motion, sound and interactivity. To date, the Flash software player has been successfully downloaded by over 200 million users around the world. This means that veritably 90% of the people on the net now have Flash. Its compact format makes it accessible to users of any bandwidth on any Web browser and it currently ships with most leading operating systems and media players. This is, of course, a huge success story for Macromedia. And, in turn, these achievements are now electrifying the companys separate entertainment hub by stimulating traffic and fostering lucrative creative deals that could eventually cross over all media platforms.
Rob Burgess, Chairman/CEO of Macromedia and the indisputable leader of shockwave.com, sits astride these two companies, producing cutting-edge technology with the one -- then orchestrating its intersection with the imagination and economy of a full-fledged entertainment venue with the other. Joining Macromedia in 1996, Burgess says the idea of creating an entertainment site evolved gradually as "we started seeing the incredible traffic associated with Shockwave and Flash, and then we tried an experiment called shockrave. We were just putting clips of things like South Park onto the site and we found there were tens of millions of people that came. There was an audience -- and we could provide an art form that we thought the world wanted. So it was about a year and a half ago that we really figured we had an incredible opportunity here." With an increasing amount of animated shows streaming and pushing their way across the web, Burgess understands competition for "eyeballs" will be fierce. "I believe this year were going to see a huge break-out of entertainment on the Internet," he states. "I just think its ready for explosion." In no small way, his dual companies are primed to direct the blast.
Whats Playing Now
From its premiere last August, shockwave.com has commanded an impressive array of partnerships with media companies, entertainment leaders and interactive developers such as Comedy Central, United Media, Fox Interactive, Hasbro and Marvel. They have amassed a diverse compilation of cartoon classics including shows from South Park, Dilbert and Spider-Man, as well as original animations such as Radiskull, Eds Head and Spunky Productions The Beatless. On the music front, they offer a wide variety of visual music programming with MP3 quality sound and interactivity featuring content from Streamland Video and others. The games section currently presents ten classic programs from Midway Games (including Defender and Marble Madness), and by using Shockmachine (the sites unique download "center") consumers can save and play offline full screen Shockwave versions of these hits with a near-identical experience to that of the arcade. Also available are popular branded game titles like Missile Command, Centipede and Frogger, along with the uniquely created and popular 3D Real Pool. Included in the creativity area are greeting cards and two recently debuted applications: Toonmaker, where users can create personal cards and cartoons, then email them along to friends; and Puzzlemaker, which enables the viewer to turn their own photos into puzzles, add messages and send these individual creations out over the net.
Thugs on Film and Like, News, the two immensely popular series from powerhouse Mondo Media, have garnered such strong audience response that shockwave considerably broadened its relationship with the studio early this year. In making a substantial investment in the Bay Area production/distribution company, shockwave is looking to the successful Mondo team for a new fleet of original-to-shockwave series, the first of which are in production now.
Last November, in its first "big-name" creative deal, shockwave entered into a global strategic relationship for the licensing, production and distribution of original content from Stan Lee Media. The arrangement with comic book/pop culture icon Stan Lee includes shockwaves exclusive net-casting of his premiere web series "7th Portal," which came online March 1st of this year. As with Mondo Media, shockwave invested significantly in Stan Lees enterprise and so is additionally partnered in all further on and off-line syndication, merchandising and cross-over media potential for the world-wide "7th Portal" creations. This Flash produced sci-fi series, unveiling Lees new good guy/bad guy line-up of 14 action-adventure characters, has become an instant hit over the past few weeks and is currently slated for a first run of 22 five minute episodes. shockwave hopes to roll up a new Webisode every two to three weeks, with production taking place in Stan Lees own fully operational digital facilities. More possible franchises between the two companies are in development.
With millennium-type madness, shockwave has continued to hurtle forward with new content deals, lining up a surfeit of traditional major league talent eager to spread their wings around animated web cartoons. Beginning last December, they signed Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of the South Park phenomenon, to develop a series of 39 animated shorts that will begin airing sometime this spring. The 2-3 minute stand-alone animations will be produced by Parker and Stone with their own in-house production unit. shockwave has been working closely with their artists, helping to bring them up to speed in the latest Flash animation techniques. As with other new and classic programming, the campaign surrounding Matt and Treys original concepts will include featuring them in shockwave.com games, greetings, puzzles and other creativity gear.
Following soon after the New Year, award-winning film director, author and animator Tim Burton (Batman, Beetlejuice, Nightmare Before Christmas) coupled with shockwave in announcing the production of 26 episodic shorts based on Burtons character Stainboy, who appears in his book, The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories. Hoping to debut the series by summer if not sooner, shockwave is facilitating the series by helping to marry Burton with an outside digital studio knowledgeable in Flash formatted production. There, he can artistically create and control the shows. Burton said ina company press release that he was really excited to be making this move with shockwave, stating, "Although Ive worked with high-end CGI in several films, the interesting thing about Flash technology is how it brings computer animation down to sucha personal level."
Last month resonated with another huge Hollywood A-List announcementwhen shockwave reported a deal with Oscar and Emmy award-winningdirector, producer, screenwriter James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, As Good As It Gets, executive producer of The Simpsons) and his company Gracie Films. Brooks will provide 300 minutes oforiginal animation to air exclusively on shockwave.com, the styleof which will be developed as they go along. Talking with DigitalCoast Weekly, Brooks said he plans for the new offerings to be "loose"and "experimental" and is very excited by the fact shockwave doesnt want to constrict their artists with television-type formatting. Hes free to base the length of the programming solely on the needs of the story, whether thats with one-offpieces, 3 parters or 40 parts, whatever is best for the storytelling. Brooks did mention, though, he plans for everything to be under five minutes, adding "We might have a Birth of a Nation thats seven minutes long, but thatll be our epic." During the announcement, Burgess emphasized that shockwave wants all its artistic partnerships to remain passionately free and flexible. "They can make any kind of program they want of any length and they have complete artistic control. They dont have to hold any meetings before they put something out." With plans to begin airing Brooks shows sometime next fall, Burgess feels,"It will be a great day for the Internet when programming from Gracie Films premieres."
Another heavyweight announcement was made at the Yahoo! Internet Life Online Film Festival two weeks ago when shockwave revealed that avant-garde filmmaker David Lynch (The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks) will develop an exclusive series of animated shorts entitled "Dumbland" for the site. With plans to bow in early summer, Lynch laughingly told Variety that the shows will be intentionally crude, but "sophisticatedly" so. He explained that he began his artistic pursuits as a painter and spent some time experimenting with stop-motion animation. Lynchnow intends to learn the fundamentals of Marcromedias software,stating, "Flash animation is really something. Im going to try to do it myself."
Joining the parade of celebrity deals is Joe Shields, who rocketed to Web prominence by way of his Internet hits "Frog in a Blender" and "Micro-Gerbil 2001." Joe Cartoon, as Shields is also affectionately known, signed a comprehensive deal last month which will encompass shockwaves featuring of 13 existing animated properties from his joecartoon.com venue, as well as ten original animated concepts to be created for and debuted exclusively on the shockwave site. It wasnt too long ago Shields was designing T-shirts for a living and he readily credits Macromedia technology with dramatically shifting his artistic direction. "Flash 4 changed my life by making it possible to create characters that can come to life," he stated, adding that hes excited about the chance to create for an even larger shockwave audience. Burgess is extremely pleased to be adding Shields to their line-up, saying, "Joes work is a fantastic example of new art forms taking advantage of the unique characteristics of the Web."
Cutting a wide channel through both traditional and new media worlds, Burgess has deployed a modern day shock troop to search for the best material and cultivate the brightest artist relationships available. Among them is Stefanie Henning, heading up shockwaves five person LA bureau as VP of Content Acquisition. With a varied background in production and talent representation, including a five year stint with ICM where she co-founded the agencys new media division, Henning is scouting everywhere for shockwaves diversified content of music, games and animations. She feels they have a decided edge in todays competitive Internet space, citing shockwaves strong technological infrastructure and proven capabilities in driving traffic as the deciding forces that set them ahead. On the creative side, she says, "A lot of what were trying to do is create a new paradigm for building entertainment and what that means is giving the creators the autonomy and the creative freedom to basically build what they want to build." Although the celebrity agreements get most of the press, Henning says, "Were closing twice as many deals with up and coming people who were excited about nurturing and building new brands with online."
Michael Yanover, VP General Manager of Series and Show Content, splits his week between LA and San Francisco, managing both the creative and business sides of acquisitions and show productions. With business and law degrees under his belt, he worked with Dark Horse and later Marvel Comics before starting his own studio where he produced series for comic books and episodic television. In early 1998, recognizing the potential powers of the Web, he created an award-winning, community involved Internet site called "Temp 24-7" which brought him in contact with the Macromedia group. Excited about their future net entertainment plans, he became shockwaves early point man in Los Angeles, bringing in branded shows for online distribution including Austin Powers, Inspector Gadget and Pink Panther. Although credited with handling the companys first high-end talent deals, Yanovers first love is to stay close to the artistic side of things and so he is now focusing on the creative areas dealing with the toons and their development. When asked what motivates him personally, he responds, "The most exciting thing for me is to crack the new talentto find the new voice and to also crack not only the new voice - but the new way of telling the story on the Internet."
As Senior Animation Producer at shockwaves San Francisco base, Eric Oldrin sits at the core of the companys production activity. With a Web-focused background, he first worked with Mondo Media in fully ramping up their Flash production capabilities before signing up nine months ago with the burgeoning shockwave site. Oldrins depth of experience with budgeting, scheduling and producing Flash animated series is invaluable in shockwaves commitment to offer continuous support and knowledge to all their content creators. Although mostly working with external studios for the sites varied programming, Oldrin says they do have incredibly talented in-house artists and creators as well, with the company total now over 100 in number. The expansion will undoubtedly continue, he thinks, because, "We want to have new content in peoples faces as much as possible. We want to be a place where people know they can come and see new exciting experiences on a daily basis." He exclaims, "Were rocking here!"
Adding It On Then Taking It Off
Adding on to last months deluge of major content agreements, shockwave introduced two new entertainment art forms with the launch of Shockwave Singles and Shockwave MixMakers. The Singles are a new visual format for music videos combining full screen Flash animation and MP3 audio compression. The MixMaker application, with technology and content from Beatnik, Inc., enables fans to remix the guitar, vocal, drums and synth elements of a song. Sharing the same launch date, the MTVi Group (a leading music content company) partnered with shockwave to provide the sites first Internet radio services. Online now, they are delivering a wide variety of Radio SonicNet stations to shockwave visitors through a co-branded radio tuner hosted and served by MTVi.
The extremely innovative virtual device called Shockmachine was introduced at start-up last year. This technology "unit" enables the viewer to take selected games, cartoons, puzzles and greeting cards and play them offline in full screen format. The user can download and store hundreds of titles in conveniently designed cartridges, place them in designated carousels, rename, reorganize, add, remove and control the playback like a VCR. Creative author deals will designate which titles will be accessible for this "take-out" vehicle, with scores of content currently available for downloading. Shockmachine is causing a lot of buzz and has become vastly popular with a large audience of game and cartoon aficionados -- not the least of which are the traveling ones looking for fun while trapped without an Internet hook-up on planes, trains and automobiles.
Forward Motion Similar to Macromedias consistent technology up-dates, the shockwave.com site is in constant evolution. A next generation design was recently launched which now offers visitors a kind of immersive "home theatre" feel. Entertainment consoles appear giving viewers a choice of differing environmental background themes. Sensitive to each persons location, these set designs morph into appropriate looks for either morning, afternoon or evening viewings. New navigation has been designed with "anywhere-to-anywhere" pull down menus, allowing the audience to jump instantly around to their favorite content. Just like Macromedias intent with the imminent release of the next Flash version (Flash 5), shockwave continuously strives toward taking the viewer experience "up."
Artists Unite Rob Burgess has repeated many times that shockwaves vision is "to be the United Artists of the Web." His enthusiastic mantra has spread like wild-fire throughout the companys troops, becoming gospel to many and feeling like heaven-has-landed to scores of artists longing for just such new relationships. Burgess says, "The kinds of deals that were trying to do are deals where we all share in the success. We provide distribution. We provide capital. We provide technology advantage and we want long-term participation. But we would like the artist to have creative control and we want them to have long term participation as well, so that if they do a hit, they really benefit."
shockwave is gambling that the "takeaway" from distributing such a powerful breadth of expressive freedom will be a massive and loyal Internet audience. With Macromedias foundation, Burgess seems well positioned to lead this new company -- with its bevy of known and newly discovered creators -- in interpreting the future of our amusement.
Lee Dannacher is an animation producer/sound track director of over 300 half hours of television films, as well as numerous network and video holiday specials. Currently based in New York, she is freelancing in audio, project development and new media productions.