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Toons of the 2000s: DVD and Digital Distribution – Part 3

by on December 6, 2009

You are reading Part 3 of DVD and Digital Distribution.
Part 1 | 2 | 3 | Go back to the Toons of the 2000s Intro.

We’ve been talking about the new methods of distribution as it pertains to traditional animation – that is, the shows produced and distributed from the animation companies.  These are usually produced and designed with television or film in mind.

However, there is another trend running counter to this.  The Internet is possibly the first mass platform that the public can not only consume, but also contribute to.  By merely placing the product on the Internet, a huge audience can be attracted to it.  Some of the more striking success stories of the 2000s consist of animated material distributed primarily or even entirely through this new platform.

This began – perhaps unwittingly – with the rise of Flash in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  At first, Flash was merely a tool to make ads livelier and web pages flashier.  The possibilities of the software quickly became apparent, and a select few people began to use the software for more than just “Punch The Monkey And Win $100” advertisements.

Flash is a very powerful piece of software upon mastering its very high learning curve.  It’s also the perfect tool in creating frame by frame, fully realized animation on the cheap.  Those looking for a more powerful animation utility could also utilize more specialized applications such as Adobe After Effects or Toon Boom.

The end result was that animation, largely Flash engineered, quickly became part of Internet culture.  That’s not to say that most of this animation has been done *well* – there are plenty of instances of people just showing off the basic tween functionality of the software.  However, the basic tools to create animation were placed in the hands of the masses.  In theory, anyone can now create a cartoon on a shoestring budget.

One of the first – and still one of the most prosperous – hubs of flash content is Newgrounds.  It’s one of the original paradigms of user-generated content.  While founder Tom Fulp created the site to showcase his own creations, with the addition of a “Flash Portal” the site evolved into its current incarnation.  The site maintains a very strict quality policy for newly uploaded content, and many budding animators have gotten their start on the site.

There have been several notable web animated series – Happy Tree Friends, Matt Wilson’s Bonus Stage, Niko Anesti’s Geoweasel – yet one in particular casts a long shadow over all others.  Homestar Runner is one of the Internet’s most unique success stories.  It has spawned a CD release, several video games, and a line of licensed merchandise, while existing entirely on the internet and shunning all advertising.

Mike Chapman originated the characters in a children’s book published in 1996.  When Flash came to the fore in the late 1990s, Mike and brother Matt decided to experiment the software using those characters. 

Homestarrunner.com went live at the beginning of 2000 and featured an array of shorts and longer-form cartoons.  In 2001, the Strong Bad E-Mails were introduced, introducing weekly updates.  Then the cartoon began its rapid ascent.

The Brothers Chapman operate in a method unlike many other websites.  The site does not carry any advertising of any kind – operating costs are covered by merchandising revenues.  While there have been spinoffs into other media as well as DVD releases, the creators have reportedly turned down two offers to create a Homestar Runner television series.

With the overall move to broadband and increased bandwidth capacity overall, video delivery on the Internet finally became feasible.  While the major studios unveiled their own efforts, independent producers also entered the fray.

Fred Seibert’s Frederator studio was one of the first to create an online outlet for animators.  It launched the first cartoon video podcast, Channel Frederator, in 2005.  Artists of all countries and skill levels are invited to submit content to the podcast, which has garnered over 200 installments in its first five years.  These shorts are not featured for money or payment – the site did not offer a stipend until this year, and even that is fairly low ($50).  Rather, they gain exposure from being featured on the site and podcast. 

Other sites have since popped up in the same vein as Frederator, such as Cartoon Brew TV from Jerry Beck and Amid Amidi.  iTunes has an open podcast availability system, making it easy for artists to broadcast their work to a wide audience.  Artists can also sidestep the podcasting system altogether, and release their works on YouTube, DailyMotion, or the other various video sharing websites.

One artist, Nina Paley, decided to do just that.  If you’ve been following this project, you might have seen our list of the Top 5 Animated Features of this decade.  Her Sita Sings The Blues was our #1 pick.  In the Decade Of Pixar, that’s an impressive achievement.  It’s more astonishing when you notice that she has made the film available, for free, over the Internet into the public domain.

Sita took years to create and was animated entirely by Paley on her own computer, using a mixture of Flash and After Effects.  Paley was influenced by Indian culture, 20s Jazz, and her own painful breakup – the finished film is a unique mixture of all three.  Sita’s voice is largely that of singer Annette Hanshaw.

The most significant aspect of that film arises from that voice.  Nina Paley fought with the publishing companies and record labels for years in order to be able to release the film without breaking her own bank.  Through this process she developed new, differing ideas about copyright and control of content.  Sita Sings The Blues is available to all to watch and broadcast, and has been aired on TV (by PBS affiliate WNET).  And even with the nonexistent price tag, Paley has made money from the film – $55,000 and growing.

The future of animation may not be Pixar or Disney, but Paley and those of her ilk.  Nearly all of these major Internet animation efforts are helmed by small teams – in many cases, one animator.  As Sita proved, these films can stand up to the efforts of a Pixar or Dreamworks and come out ahead.  The next John Lasseter or Brad Bird is perhaps typing at a keyboard right now and fiddling around in Adobe Photoshop.

The old system of distribution is experiencing a fundamental change, or even a fundamental collapse.  Perhaps the studios and filmmakers did not expect the DVD to change viewing habits so radically, yet it did.  While they attempt to make lightning strike twice with Blu-Ray, the audience has seemingly moved beyond that towards Internet.  As the studios attempt to create a working distribution model, individual artists are changing the rules.

In ten years, this will probably seem very quaint – perhaps we’ll be seeing films from our next-door neighbor streamed into our new direct-to-brain content delivery system.  As the last ten years have shown, distribution is now constantly evolving.

You are reading Part 3 of DVD and Digital Distribution.
Part 1 | 2 | 3 | Go back to the Toons of the 2000s Intro.

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