SAN FRANCISCO – The dot-com boom may be bust, but multimedia art still thrives on the Internet, where audiences hungry for authentic, uncensored creative content are clicking through “webisodes” in droves.
Using Flash animation software, programmers can create original 5-minute cartoons, build fine art images or design games where people can pound Osama bin Laden bloody in a virtual boxing ring.
A number of artists have attracted cult followings, and some are drawing enough of an audience to make money through advertising and subscriptions.
Macromedia Inc.’s $500 Flash animation software isn’t the only multimedia tool available for building 3-D graphics, Internet art and high-end animation. But because it is so easy to use, Flash has become the industry standard.
For artists exploring this medium, the Internet has obvious appeal.
“Unlike being an unpublished novelist or underground painter, with tools like Flash, you can distribute your work to millions,” said Stewart McBride, president and founder of United Digital Artists in New York. “You can be a Vincent van Gogh of the Web and actually be known in your lifetime. With traditional media that is not always possible.”
The audience for Flash toons is small — hampered somewhat by the slow growth in fast Internet connections — but has potential, since Flash player software comes installed on most personal computers.
About 1.3 million copies of Flash have sold since 1996. During the dot-com boom, many corporations used it to give their Web sites some sizzle. Flash is used in online greeting cards, music videos, art museum installations, even the intro to the Rosie O’Donnell TV show.
Much of that corporate money is harder to come by nowadays, but Flash artists are still out there, trying to revolutionize art, cartoons and online entertainment.
“Some little broke artist with a computer, can dabble with art, music and movies now. That’s what’s happened,” said Joe Sparks, a former punk rocker and pioneering video game developer who dresses in black and wears his hair like Elvis.
Sparks — who worked with entertainment site AtomShockwave.com — was laid off last summer like many other dot.commers, but not before making a big splash with “Radiskull and Devil Doll.”
He whipped up the story as a demo and put the rock-n-roll toon — which he wrote, narrated, animated and composed — on a Web site, telling a few colleagues to check it out.
Word spread and two weeks later Radiskull had 100,000 page views. His story line based on the pair of lovable demons was on its way to becoming an Internet hit.
“I never got quite a visceral first reaction to anything I have ever done,” said Sparks, who created the breakthrough CD-ROM video games “Total Distortion” and “Spaceship Warlock” in the 1990s.
Sparks says even he doesn’t quite understand the appeal of his 10-minute webisodes, in which Devil Doll rides a Harley too large for him, tries hard to be bad and smiles innocently when doing evil.
“Joe has become kind of a cult hero for a lot of people,” said Scott Roesch, a vice president at AtomShockwave.com, which owns and makes ad revenue off Spark’s toon.
In his apartment in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, Sparks works in a compact studio full of music mixers, computers and software manuals. He gets up to 50 e-mails a day from fans, as well as photos of their Radiskull and Devil Doll tattoos, Halloween costumes and children’s coloring sketches.
The college students and cubicle dwellers who follow each webisode often recite lines from the show such as, “We’ll be back to kick it later.” In Japan, a company is planning to market hundreds of 10-inch stuffed Devil Dolls, candies and other merchandise.
Flash toons create traffic for AtomShockwave.com. The Web entertainment spinoff of Macromedia now has about 45 employees, down from 170. But Roesch said the business is stabilizing as advertisers pay to reach subscribers who generate 18 million unique page views a month.
“We have this kind of coffee break phenomenon where people take a break, watch a movie or animation and then go back to work,” Roesch said.
Programmer Jonathan Gay began developing the product that would become Flash in 1993. He eventually sold his company, FutureWave, to Macromedia in 1996, where he still works.
Flash has some depth as a multipurpose tool with its own programming language called Action Script, which developers use to improve features on corporate Web sites. Macromedia wants to market the software more toward those practical (translate: profitable) corporate uses, such as interactive online tours for car dealers.
Meanwhile, Flash art has been recognized as its own category at South by Southwest and other film festivals, and there is an undercurrent of Flash artists determined to do their own, decidedly uncommercial thing.
Sparks is gearing up this month to launch “Dickey and Jackie,” a toon exploring a simply drawn world of preschoolers against a backdrop of rock music.
People may hate it — he won’t know until he puts it online for the world to see. Then again, popular appeal isn’t necessarily the point.
“Hundreds of years ago, only kings could dabble in music and art,” said Sparks. “Now, there’s a lot of opportunity for people like me who are loners and like to chisel stuff out and share it with others.”
Here’s a glimpse of two better-known Flash programmers:
Name: Todd M. Rosenberg
Location: New York City
Specialty: Laid off by AtomShockwave last summer, Rosenberg created OddTodd, a Flash toon celebrating the life of a laid-off dot.commer. With more than a million hits and $10,000 donated to his tip jar, Todd had to return some of his unemployment benefits to the state of New York.
What he does and why: “Somehow they know from watching a cartoon that others have had a tough time finding a job. ... Even if I get a job, I will keep the Web site and keep making cartoons.”
Name: Joe Shields
Location: Grand Rapids, Mich.
Specialty: A former T-shirt designer and cartoonist, Shields sells advertising space and markets his toons and interactive games. Visitors can beat up Osama bin Laden and run cute frogs through a virtual blender. Shields — whose Humvee has splattered gerbils painted on the sides — is the master of road kill gimmicks, and the site is not for animal lovers.
What he does and why: “Deep-seated anger over the loss of a puppy to Niagra Falls. His leash broke while I was joyously swinging him in a circular motion about my head. It was horrible ... I don’t wanna talk about it.”