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Let's Get Animated
Time to add some movement to cartoons on content sites

Nearly a decade since the birth of Web publishing, you've got to wonder: Why don't more content sites carry animated cartoons?

Three factors loom large: Holding down expenses in this cost-cutting era. The fact that fewer than one in six home users have high-speed broadband connections. And many of these newfangled moving cartoons are (shudder!) controversial.

To which I reply: Bosh! In many cases, the cost is a pittance. Tens of millions of us check in to news and content sites from offices with fat broadband pipes. As for controversy, its absence is what makes most news sites dull as doornails.

More important, though, is the principle involved. There's no excuse for limiting your cartoon offerings -- whether they're political op-ed cartoons or comics -- to transplanted print cartoons in a digital, interactive medium.

There are signs the winter of animation hibernation is nearing an end.

Cartoonist Mark Fiore puts it well: "This is a totally different medium, and you can do so many things you can't do in a newspaper with animation and interactivity and sound. It makes my heart drop when you go to a news site and you see a cartoon that worked beautifully in print but just sits there on screen at 72 dpi (dots per square inch). It's the worst of both worlds."

Cartoon animation on the Web comes in several different flavors, depending on its simplicity or complexity.

One approach is to add motion to a traditional op-ed cartoon with an animated gif, as in Bill Mitchell's jabs at Al Gore or Arthur Andersen on CNN's allpolitics.com. 

A more complex approach is to give animated life to the traditional editorial cartoon format, as the Boston Globe's  Bruce Hammond does five days a week and the Washington Post's Pat Oliphant does once a week in his The Animated Oliphant.

More elaborate still is a cartoon that turns into a three- or four-minute movie short, replete with an animator, animation director, voices, sound engineer, producers and my third cousin Harry the gaffer. For instance, take a wild ride with Don Asmussen's politically incorrect Al Qaeda Employee Handbook

It appears that animated cartooning is entering a new phase. In the Web's early days, it was about just throwing new kinds of content up there, and if it moved (push this button to make something happen!), all the better. Macromedia's Shockwave and then Flash came along and added layers of sophistication to animation, but also presented download and bandwidth issues.

When the Great Content Rollback hit beginning in 2000, artists and animators were among the first on the chopping block at online news sites, while animation centers like IceBox (which recently went to a subscription model) and HotWired's Animation Express saw their vision of Web as Entertainment Empire go down in flames.

Now, there are signs the winter of animation hibernation is nearing an end. The comics sections of Salon and Slate recently bulked up their animation offerings. SFGate runs Fiore's weekly animated cartoon. Animated toons (or links to them) are among the most popular viral e-mails. And over in Europe, sites like Germany's Netzeitung are running animated rings around their U.S. counterparts.

Joan Connell, executive producer of the Opinions section for MSNBC.com, which runs Hammond's five original animations per week, as well as other cartoons, says, "Hammond's work demonstrates how the genre of animated political cartoons has matured in just a few years."

The early days of animation: No Flash needed

Back in 1996 an editor at FoxNews.com needed a caricature of Dan Rather, surfed the Web with a search engine, and spotted Chris Hiers' online portfolio. Not long after, she offered him a job working out of his home in Atlanta drawing editorial cartoons and illustrations for the site. (Boy, those were the days.)

Hiers, 41, thinks he may have been the first person to create an animated gif cartoon for a news site, using GIFmation. "I was familiar with the use of the technology for animated ads, and the idea occurred that it would be neat to set up cartoons utilizing this," he says by phone.

"The average online connection then was 28.8kps, so the emphasis was on keeping artwork minimal. Editorial cartoons are quite the art form because they have to be generated in one panel, and this let you bring in three or four frames of movement to give it a more developed comic-strip type of humor."

His Cartoonery archives store a lot of the cartoons from the golden age of editorial cartooning, the Clinton era, such as Wag the Pup, which made the rounds during l'affaire Clinton-Lewinsky and received so many millions of hits it knocked the server offline.

"I think animation can be a wonderful addition to any
news site,"
Chris Hiers says.
"It seems like a natural direction, to provide something you can't get in a newspaper."

Hiers fell victim to News Corp.'s round of layoffs in late 2000 and returned to full-time free-lancing. Switzerland's NetSurf and the Jewish World Review have run some of his no-frills animated cartoons. He still doesn't use Flash, which takes some love and care to master, and now generates most of his income from illustration work.
 
"I think animation can be a wonderful addition to any news site," Hiers says. "It seems like a natural direction, to provide something you can't get in a newspaper. The novelty may be wearing off for some of the more elaborate Flash cartoons, which can be 1 to 3 megabytes in size, but I think there'll always be an audience for small, topical, 80-kilobyte animated cartoons."
 
Another early dabbler in animated cartoons was the Orange County Register, which provides an archive of nine Shockwave toons by editorial cartoonist Mike Shelton and art director Jocelyne Leger. (A few of the panels are temporarily out of action.)

"We were dabbling with animation on our computers long before the Web came along," Shelton says. "We started doing a few by the seat of our pants after the paper began emphasizing its Web presence."

Shelton, 51, estimates it takes about 20 hours for them to complete a single animated cartoon. "Readers have always really liked them. We've neglected animation recently, but we plan to do much more of them in the future."

Toward that end, Shelton and Leger are learning Flash and taking animation classes at the Art Institute of Orange County. "We're trying to raise our skills to a higher level," he says, adding that a syndicate has expressed interest in their animated work.

Tom Tomorrow: End of road for his animated toons?

Dan Perkins, who draws under the nom de toon Tom Tomorrow, can be excused for being somewhat diffident about online animation. His 12-year-old This Modern World print comic strip is carried by more than 120 newspapers. He has published five cartoon anthologies. He took home the first-place Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for Cartooning.

And his Web animation?

"For me," he says, "the return for the investment I put in seems rather skewed. My cartoon is just me working on it and it's read by millions. With the animation, there's a whole team and all this money poured into the project and no more than half a million people have seen it. In some ways, it's just another ridiculous Internet thing."

Perkins, 41, who lives in Brooklyn, has just completed his last animation short with the FlickerLab studio and his syndicator, San Francisco's Mondo Media, under his current contract. "Unless someone writes a check, it's begun to feel more like a drain," he says.

"You're basically producing a three-minute movie," Dan Perkins says. "The idea of trying to syndicate it and get people to pay a fee to run it is a perfectly reasonable business model -- for anything but the Internet."

"This Modern World" is the top-billed attraction in Mondo Media's lineup of mini-shows. Its animation is carried mostly by portals and entertainment sites, including Lycos, Yahoo! Broadcast, iWon, MSN, WindowsMediaUnderGround Online, Atomfilms, Shockwave, WB and ifilm.

At its peak, Perkins and his team were cranking out a new animation every two weeks. "You're basically producing a three-minute movie," he says. "The idea of trying to syndicate it and get people to pay a fee to run it is a perfectly reasonable business model -- for anything but the Internet."

Perkins has published a weblog over the years and recently began using Blogger to keep in touch with his fan base. "My work is heavily dependent on news stories a lot of people have never seen," he says. "Before, I'd get dozens and dozens of e-mails asking, 'What the hell are you talking about?' Now I can frame the issue in my weblog and point to the news stories."

Perkins is unsure about his future involvement with animation. "Those of us in the digital elite have broadband connections, but most people are still hooking up at 56k tops, and the cart has momentarily passed the horse."

As for Perkins' syndicator, Mondo Media, spokeswoman Christina Chavez says the company hopes to expand its topical cartoons (like the popular God & Devil Show) beyond its two dozen portal and entertainment partners by attracting the interest of online newspapers. "The cost can be a small licensing fee or barter exchange, or it could be free if they give us good placement," she says.
 
Mondo occasionally places ads within the animations, but it's more keen on building a mailing list of customers to eventually sell merchandise relating to the shows, she says.

Cooking With Bigfoot: Crude, crass and clever

Greg Beato, who created what he calls "the goofy, lowbrow cartoon" Cooking With Bigfoot last June, is now trying to build audience awareness "after trying a million unsuccessful business models," including syndication.

Beato initially targeted the Web sites of alternative weeklies and radio stations, offering them the strip for $50 an episode. "I got virtually no response," he says. "I'm not a sales person, and I don't want to spend all my time trying to sell this thing. The trouble is that newspapers are used to buying syndicated comics and columns for 10 to 15 bucks a pop."

He works with Todd Gallina, an animator in Southern California he has never met, and says, "We're definitely at the indy, low-budget end of things." He pays the animator, sound engineer and the voice actor out of his own pocket and estimates it costs him $1,500 per episode.

Beato, 37, who used to write frequently for Suck, figures that since Bigfoot isn't advertiser-friendly, "the best way to get viewers is to give them something cruder and crasser than they can get on network TV or in newspapers. HBO was built on nudity and violence."

Greg Beato: "The best way to get viewers is to give them something cruder and crasser than they can get on network TV or in newspapers."

He makes an interesting point about the logic of incorporating more animation on news sites. "Look what's happening in the field: All the major sites are putting bigger, visual, motion-oriented ads on their sites because that's what advertisers are demanding. Readers find them annoying, because ads designed to be viewed are being plopped down in the middle of sites designed to be read. But if those sites carried animated cartoon series, they'd have a much better context for delivering rich-media ads."

Bigfoot received 36,000 unique visitors and 100,000 page views last month, and a handful of people forked over some dough for its premium subscription offerings.

Doing it right: Germany's Netzeitung

Netzeitung, the first German Internet-only newspaper, publishes about 110 articles a day -- and an animated political cartoon every weekday since November 2000.

Timo Wirth, in charge of the cartoons, says by e-mail from Berlin: "We try to transform the traditional journalistic form of political cartoons for the new online medium and enhance it with new possibilities."

The cartoons are created by free-lance cartoonists who come from an independent comics background. Five of them currently work regularly for Netzeitung, and they're paid a rate similar to that of a free-lance journalist, Wirth says.
 
Animated cartoons are more suited to the Web than traditional static cartoons because Flash cartoons include movie and sound elements, Wirth says. "They can tell a complex story using interactive elements. Users can send e-mail to the artist or choose from three different endings."

Pick a door, for instance, in No Newspaper Today from the cartoon duo Laska Comics. One of the site's most popular series, No Newspaper Today, features the adventures of a little dog that tries to fetch the print newspaper but meets barriers along the way, as in the episodes  Hot Day, PacmanHarry Potter and Halloween.

Most of Netzeitung's cartoons center on German politics, with this September's general election a hot topic now. A second major topic centers on the entertainment industry and celebrites such as Boris Becker and Britney Spears. Terrorism and President Bush make frequent appearances as well, as in 
Totally Secure and The Axis of Evil.

Users' reaction? "Most readers like them a lot and write to us that they especially like the new animated form," Wirth says. "Generally, I think users are more critical about animated cartoons because they look at them more intensively. I think Flash cartoons, films and games will become very popular in quality newspapers and magazines online."

Master of the viral cartoon

Don Asmussen, editorial cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle, has a few animation war stories. He created Like, News for Mondo, and he churned out one episode every week for 60 weeks. "We were a team of four people turning out a four-minute animation every week for a year, which I highly don't recommend," he says.

Today, he's down to one political animation a month, such as CNMTV's The Israel WorldEnron: Facing the Music and The Al Qaeda Employee Handbook, which received 1.5 million views within weeks of its debut in January. His cartoons appear on Salon, Slate and About.com and as "virals" sent by Mondo to subscribers.

During the animation craze's go-go days, it cost $4,000 to $10,000 to create each episode at Mondo.

Don Asmussen: "Where else would I get a chance to animate? Not TV, not the movies."

Today, it's a more modest effort, with Asmussen as writer and animation director along with an animator, sound person and voice talent. Asmussen says it takes him eight hours to write a script, eight hours for the drawing and eight hours to storyboard and direct a single episode.

Asmussen's work often makes the rounds as a viral, or e-mail that gets forwarded from person to person. "I've gotten e-mails from people I haven't talked to since high school in Rhode Island. And they say, hey, your work just showed up in my in-box."

Asmussen, 35, says he's surprised more editorial cartoonists haven't turned to animation. I suggest that may because it's too complex if you bring in teams of people and multi-thousand-dollar budgets.

Has Asmussen considered doing less ambitious animation that he could pull off by himself?

"For me, a lot of the simple animations -- press a button and go to the next thing -- don't really engage the viewer," he says. "It's when it gets more fully animated that it gets more interesting. With this, I get to learn about sound and segues and all the insides of animation. Where else would I get a chance to animate? Not TV, not the movies."

A one-man animation crew

The future of animation on content sites may look a lot like Mark Fiore.

Fiore's animations have appeared in SFGate for the past 18 months -- it's linked from the site's front page on Thursdays -- and Salon and Slate have added his work to their comics pages in the past few weeks. MotherJones.com and WorkingForChange.com. also run his weekly syndicated cartoon.
 
Most of his animations run 30 to 45 seconds, and they're laced with a deft comic touch, as in his inspired swipe at former Enron CEO Ken "Kenny Boy" Lay.

"I hate computer animation that looks like computer animation," Mark Fiore says.

The 32-year-old San Franciscan creates his animations by himself -- no animators, sound crew, no talent flown up from L.A. It takes him about two days to crank out a Flash animation, and he averages one to two per week. He does the line work with brush and ink on paper and scans it in, and it takes about 10 to 35 drawings per animation. "I hate computer animation that looks like computer animation," he says.
 
Fiore tilts left politically, though he tells of the time he received a request from an editor at a conservative political site who spotted one of his works and told him, " 'I like your caribou animation on Anwar. Can you draw one for us from a more conservative point of view?'  I told him, 'Take a look at my site. I don't think I'm the guy for you.' "

Like print cartoonists, Fiore finds that black and white political issues make the most effective animations. "A lot of the environmental issues or Bush policies are so blatant, it's not hard to find material. I'm of the mind that chopping the tops of mountains off is generally a bad thing to do. What's harder are the gray areas, like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. You don't want a cartoon with a lot of caveats scattered throughout it."
 
Fiore, who's got 79 animations in the bank, is surprised at how lucrative free-lance cartooning has been. He makes slightly more than he did when he was a full-time editorial cartoonist with the San Jose Mercury News last year.

Fiore doesn't fancy himself as the maker of film shorts. "There's some great stuff out there, but I just can't sit through a long animation. When I'm at my computer, my attention span is even shorter than when I'm watching TV."

He also likes to add an interactive element "to get people involved, so they're not just watching a movie, they're doing something. The goal is to entertain people but also to engage them with a not-so-subtle propaganda message."

Senior Editor J.D. Lasica hosts a page of online resources on his home page at jdlasica.com. He also writes a popular weblog, New Media Musings.

E-mail contact information for the artists mentioned in this story:
Bill Mitchell
Chris Hiers
Greg Beato
Timo Wirth
Dan Perkins
Don Asmussen
Mark Fiore