Internet animators star in a new medium, the 'webisode'

Posted: Friday, July 05, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- Joe Sparks is a minor celebrity to a subculture of college students and cubicle-dwellers who follow his ''Radiskull and Devil Doll'' toons from as far away as Japan.

From a compact apartment studio full of music mixers, computers and software manuals, Sparks blends simple software animation tools with traditional programming, storytelling and music skills to create shows in the genre of ''South Park'' and ''The Simpsons.''

Except that Sparks' ''webisodes'' are native to the Internet.

The dot-com bubble may have burst, but multimedia art still thrives online, where audiences hungry for authentic, uncensored creative content are enthusiastically clicking into original material.

With simple tools, including Flash from Macromedia Inc., programmers can create original cartoons, build fine art images or design games -- like ''Pound Osama bin Laden in a boxing ring.''

''Some little broke artist with a computer can dabble with art, music and movies now,'' said Sparks, who in former lives designed video games and played punk rock.

Flash software is also giving sizzle to corporate Web sites and powering so many e-commerce applications that people, perhaps without realizing it, frequently see demonstrations of Flash as they surf the Web.

Interactive games also have their appeal -- witness ''Yo Momma Osama,'' a popular Flash game created after Sept. 11 that allows players to shoot the suspected terrorist bloody.

Flash creations have appeared in online greeting cards, music videos, art museum installations, even the intro to the Rosie O'Donnell TV show.

Though other tools such as the programming language Java and 3-D software Maya are available for building 3-D graphics, Internet art and high-end animation, Flash has become the industry standard.

Software for viewing Flash is free and comes preinstalled on most personal computers. The package for creating Flash content costs $500, and Macromedia has sold about 1.3 million copies since the product's 1996 introduction.

Programmer Jonathan Gay began developing Flash in 1993 and sold his company, FutureWave, to Macromedia in 1996, where he still works.

Gay and others say the program is easy to use if one devotes time and patience. But it also can produce complex projects. It can take hours, for example, to make a decent cartoon.

Flash has some depth as a multipurpose tool, and developers can use its built-in programming language, Action Script, 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 in Austin, Texas, and other media festivals, and there exists an undercurrent of Flash artists determined to do their own, decidedly uncommercial thing.

For artists, 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, a New York company that trains Flash artists.

''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.''

Sparks -- who had worked with entertainment site -- 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 his story line, based on the sophomoric foibles of a pair of lovable demons, was on its way to becoming an Internet hit. Sparks now gets about 50 e-mails a day from fans, some of whom send him photos of their Radiskull tattoos.

''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 toons, 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, which owns Sparks's Radiskull cartoon and uses them to generate ad revenues.

Web toons have become popular at the -- shall we call it -- New Economy workplace.

''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.

Sparks made eight episodes of Radiskull, but because AtomShockwave still owns the franchise, he's moving on.

He is gearing up 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. But then again, popular appeal isn't necessarily the point.

''Hundreds of years ago, only kings could dabble in music and art,'' said Sparks, who dresses in black and wears his hair like la Elvis Presley. ''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.''


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