ANIMATION WORLD MAGAZINE - ISSUE 5.9 - DECEMBER 2000
UrbanEntertainment: Siting A Skyline Across The Net
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Are blacks and whites finally living in harmony, or is it The Man's Hallucinatrometer? You can find out in episode nine of Undercover Brother. © Urban Entertainment.
Painters On The Scene
John Ridley could not sound happier in describing his first experiences in Net animation. On Undercover Brother, he says, "It was literally from the time I got the first script in and the time we got up on the Internet was about three weeks. It's a very streamlined process and one of the great things about working with UrbanEntertainment is that they don't develop. They only pick up things that they want to do. Once I pitched the idea to Mike and he approved it, we were good to go. They're there to really help the artist," Ridley continues, "and that's what is exciting about working in the Internet. It's not about the money, it's about having the opportunity to be creative and have people support your creativity." That new attitude was especially relevant with his second series Those Who Walk In Darkness which stars a black, female lead. "When I first went out with this property," he says, referring to making the rounds at traditional media studios, "the first thing that people always asked me was, 'Does it have to be a black woman?' And I'd say, 'Well, no it doesn't have to be a black woman. I choose to make her a black woman.' That never came up with UrbanEntertainment -- and that's actually one of the things that was very attractive to them because they know that that is an audience that's not being served. So, they had more incentives, not less, to go with this property. And obviously, I'm very gratified about that."
Ridley is also enjoying the 'smallness' of Web production, elucidating how his world in television series is replete with huge crews, revolving directors and tons of writers. For his Net series, on the other hand, "If I need to make a phone call, I don't have to call 50 people. I can call Mike and say, 'Hey, can we change this,' or 'Add that"...and it gets done." Ridley speaks highly of Flip Your Lid (the studio animating both his series) saying, "They do a great job and they're very creative people, as well." Same goes for his voice actors, he states. "When they go in, they know the kinds of things that I like and they are not afraid to come up with some ideas that are also very funny on their own."
Tina Andrews' Sistas 'N The City portrays four African-American women in Urban's fifth original series. © Urban Entertainment.
Tina Andrews is also elated by her first time out in animation and Internet production. Her adventure began when Jenkinson approached her last June. "One of the things that I was lamenting about at the time," she says, "was the fact that we couldn't get any really cute, quirky black shows to be committed to on the networks. I would say, 'Where are the black Ally McBeals? Where are the black Providences? Where are the black Sex in the City's?'" And when Jenkinson replied that that was just the kind of material she could develop for UrbanEntertainment -- where she would have complete autonomy to do whatever she wanted to do and say whatever she wanted to say -- those were golden words. "For somebody who is very controlling," she laughs, "this was music to my ears!" Working with Flip Your Lid through the design stages was very stimulating as well, especially given Andrews' own artistic endeavors in painting and photography. "I was very specific about what I wanted the girls to look like in terms of skin colors, hair texture, hair length and features because I wanted a representative cross-section of a lot of different types of black women." The animators didn't disappoint her, nailing the final designs down within the first few drafts. The art of animation has been a fulfilling trip for her overall, Andrews declares. "I will tell you that what's the beauty of it is actually designing and creating those characters and seeing them exactly as you envisioned them as opposed to going out and trying to cast someone to come up to that vision. It's like having someone actually paint your fantasy and giving it back to you!"
In episode one of Sistas 'N The City it's one of those "booty-call, gee-I-hope-my-friends-don't-find-out" things. © Urban Entertainment.
Sistas 'N The City is influenced heavily by Andrews' continuing interaction with her own long-time girlfriends and she incorporates much of their true-life humor and characterizations into her series (including their Friday night card games). Directing the voice recordings herself assures Andrews that the characters will remain true to each one's distinctive attitudes and distinguishing vocal deliveries. She's thrilled with the incredible talents her four main actors bring to each session -- where they also voice all the other female parts in the series, as well. Andrews, who had her own prominent acting career early on, remains untempted to jump in front of the mike for this series. She laughingly responds to that idea with, "Oh no-no-no, it really is enough to be executive producing, directing the episodes, writing the episodes and overseeing as much of it as possible!" However, she then trails off with, "There is one character coming up in a wedding sequence, though..."
For her initiation into Internet series, what has also proved crucial for Andrews is the ease with which Web production can be handled. Virtually all the scripting, animation, design and track edits can be zipped for comments and approvals via e-mail files, allowing her to keep up with the voluminous amount of other work on her plate (including a hip-hop version of The Wizard of Oz, a mini-series on Coretta Scott King and an upcoming tour for her book depicting the sixteen year journey of the making of the Sally Hemmings film). Although she says that the tricky part of her Webisodes is writing storylines in just four pages, it's readily apparent that she's enjoying every minute of Sistas 'N The City -- describing her stint with UrbanEntertainment by saying, "It really allows me to stretch in new ways and sort of exercise new muscles that I would not have done in conforming to offline television and film work."
City Scaping The Future
Jenkinson excitedly talks about the upcoming 'version two' of the UrbanEntertainment site. "It will definitely incorporate much more community and much more opportunity for feedback and, even to some extent, interaction with the more popular characters," he says. He believes audience response is increasingly vital to their operations not only because of its helpful direction for the shows' creators, but it gives the company valuable data with which to arm themselves when they go out pitching their shows for offline possibilities to the television and feature studios. What sets UrbanEntertainment apart from so many of the struggling destination venues is that -- because of their offline sales and distribution of films -- they have had a solid revenue stream from day one. As their online offerings expand, however, Jenkinson is naturally looking closely at developing all other revenue potential including syndicating their series as re-purposed programming (e.g. for interstitials), rich media advertising, sponsorships and product placement opportunities. Additionally, the company is involved in several proof-of-concept structures where they will be providing content to emerging technological platforms -- thereby positioning themselves and creating the relationships that will ensure them an early place in tomorrow's entertainment environments.
Urban's Cisco and Ripple deliver film reviews with flavor. © Urban Entertainment.
The important consideration in building a new online forum, Jenkinson thinks, is in how to approach both long and short term assessments. "Every decision becomes that much more complicated because you're dealing with rapid obsolescence and opportunities you'll have to forego if you're already locked into something else." He concludes that, "The biggest challenge that faces all of us is the ability to maintain flexibility and scaleability while at the same time putting into place things that make for a viable and long-lasting enterprise." New challenges notwithstanding, Jenkinson is having a great deal of fun working within the new freedoms of Net production. "Here, we make things and immediately get feedback and so the process feels so much more productive than anything that I'm accustomed to. It's very exciting to get up in the morning knowing that I'm going to achieve something today. It'll either be great or it'll be bad," he laughs, "but at least I'll know it very soon!"
Devoted viewers can now be heard offline mimicking the signature closing for each Cisco and Ripple movie review, where the duo asks the audience: "Who can you trust?" In rolling out its daring, energetic and innovative programming, the brothers' very own Netcaster, UrbanEntertainment, is assuredly answering the call.
Lee Dannacher, currently based in New York, is a supervising producer and sound track director of over 350 half-hours of television animated series, along with numerous home video and film productions.
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