Taking the computer and animation world by storm over the last six years, Flash has affected the kids biz to such a degree that production industry buzz is now focused squarely on entertainment properties that have the ability to slide across TV, the web and video game platforms.
The growing popularity of Flash entertainment has resulted in increased exposure for independent properties and opened up a new category of production. Specifically, the key in convergence production is not taking the property one way or the other, but making the content interactive-exploiting properties in TV and web animation portfolios in a creative way, on- and off-line.
New York-based Visionary Media has been active on the web animation scene since 1997, but the company actually staked its ground in February 1999 with WhirlGirl, the first independently produced web series (at www.whirlgirl.com) to be licensed by a major U.S. net (Showtime).
Airing on North American tubes for the first time in fall 2002, WhirlGirl is an example of a completely Flash-animated property making the TV crossover. And even though it developed a strong Internet following, TV was always its intended destination.
Visionary Media CEO Buzz Potamkin says a project like WhirlGirl and the tool it is rendered in represent a renaissance in creativity and subsequent TV production. With traditional animation, much of the actual rendering work is parceled out to service companies overseas in order to keep budgets down. But this cost-saving method breaks down the creative process. ‘North American studios just do the up-front and the out-back work, and what happens in between is done elsewhere in the world,’ says Potamkin.
The point, he suggests, is that while the quality of traditional animation has improved in North America, distance has developed between what he calls the core creative team and the final product. ‘Very little of the actual product of the core creative team winds up on-screen. The initial drawings and material end up as blueprints and guidelines for the international studio to follow.’
Conversely, Flash unites the creators with the rest of the production team and translates to cost savings. Of the hundreds of eps Potamkin has worked on over the years-between 1991 and 1996, he held the titles of executive VP, executive producer and head of TV at Hanna-Barbera, where he produced Dexter’s Laboratory, Johnny Bravo, Cow and Chicken and The Powerpuff Girls-the majority have been done overseas. ‘Because of all the management labor, editorial labor, overseas labor and the freight costs, the budget ended up tripling [in these cases],’ he says. Since Flash fosters tight in-house creative collaboration, Potamkin is able to produce high-quality television animation at under US$200,000 a half hour.
And yet Flash itself isn’t the Holy Grail of convergence methods. ‘We’re not alone in having found that Flash is not absolutely perfect for what we want to use it for,’ says Potamkin. ‘What we’re talking about is a signal modification that allows for the Flash output to be utilized in a video environment. There are lots of ways to do that, and I don’t think that broadcasters care how each of the studios do it, as long as we show up with a piece of video that’s broadcast quality.’
Although Visionary is purely focused on WhirlGirl for the moment, four or five other projects are currently in development, the details of which were unavailable at press time. However, they will all have a strong interactive component because, as Potamkin points out, ‘for us to have a business that thrives, we’re going to have to respond to the mainstream popularity of interactivity.’
Kidcasters are also responding to escalating demand for interactive convergent properties. Ramping up for its second Toonami Total Immersion Cartoon event, Cartoon Network will present Lockdown this fall.
Airing September 17 to 21, Lockdown consists of a Nintendo-sponsored serial TV special that coincides with a multi-player role-playing game on cartoonnetwork.com. Each day, viewers retrieve codes on-air that they use on-line to help save Toonami’s computer-generated host TOM-and the programming block itself-from destruction.
The Intruder, last year’s Toonami Total Immersion Cartoon event, posted a 1.9 Nielsen rating with kids nine to 14 (up 50% from the same time last year) and a 1.6 rating with six- to 11-year-olds. In terms of on-line hits, Toonami.com experienced a 72% increase in traffic from the previous week.
Sam Register, senior VP and creative director of Cartoon Network Online, says the network is working on developing more Flash-created properties. The bottom line, he says, is that cartoons converge better than any format-other than news. Certain characters, no matter how they’re animated, translate and slide easily between media, but the process is facilitated by animation tech like Flash.
Register admits that there are many other technologies animators could use, such as product from companies like Cambridge Animation Systems in the U.K., Toon Boom, US Animation or MediaPegs in the U.S., but when talking about taking an Internet property to TV, the tool du jour for both creators and target audiences is still Flash. ‘What we don’t want to do,’ Register emphasizes, ‘is exclude a whole bunch of potential viewers by making them fetch a plug-in or sit through a lengthy download. That might just be a barrier to entry instead of a tool.’
Another consideration is what comes next. Webisodes have achieved some success, and the fact that Flash has the ability to produce near broadcast-ready animation offers a huge boon to small production houses. But in terms of actual convergence production? ‘It means producing a television show and an on-line component that reinforce each other, creating a cyclical relationship,’ explains Steven Comeau, president and co-founder of Collideascope, the Halifax, Canada-based digital production house that created Ollie’s Under The Bed Adventures for Canadian animation net Teletoon.
While Comeau uses technology like Flash to take properties from the Internet to TV, he feels the need to qualify what he considers convergence. He suggests that you can approach convergence development two ways. The first involves selling ad banners and buttons around a web short. But in light of last year’s dot-com closure-fest, those archaic web ad tools have largely been abandoned in favor of stickier techniques like adisodes and sponsored games that are enough of a draw in their own right.
The second tack concentrates on using the Internet as an incubator for television content. The expectation here is not to generate web ad revenue, stresses Comeau. Rather, ‘the payoff is being able to migrate that concept into a television show.’ But using today’s animation tech to simply stream content on-line completely defeats the purpose of employing an interactive medium like the Internet, says Comeau. ‘What we did with Ollie was make all the TV show art interactive so that kids could further explore worlds they saw on TV,’ he explains.
And yet the Net is just a tool, says Comeau, like Flash. The web isn’t going to give you an edge over anyone else, he says, suggesting that just because you have something good on the web doesn’t mean you can compete with ‘the high-powered execs from Disney that are still pitching to broadcasters.’ And while the Net and Flash have opened doors to indie content creators, allowing them to build niche fan bases, Comeau remains doubtful whether these fledgling audiences are enough to convince broadcasters to greenlight the concepts for TV.
Collideascope is currently working on an ITV/webTV version of the Ollie series that will be embedded with Internet-enabled content. Users who have a special set-top box will be able to tap into web activities on their tube screens. This initiative should be completed later this year.
The company is also working on a kid-targeted, on-line, educational property called Eco-Lab with the Banff Centre of the Arts. Described by Comeau as a combination of Tamagotchi and Sim City in an on-line environment, Eco-Lab goes into production this fall.
With savings in time and cost, greater creative collaboration, easy media crossover and incredible penetration (Macromedia boasts that Flash has a 96% on-line penetration), Flash seems like a dream come true for convergent production players. ‘It’s a powerful tool and you can do some wonderful things with it, but it’s not solving one fundamental and perpetual industry problem-too many great ideas, and not enough broadcast slots.’