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Animation on the web -
Vulgarity rules ok?

When Tex Avery, in his trademark style of extending a verbal metaphor, dropped the jaw and popped the eyes of the zoot-suited Wolf, in his cartoon Red Hot Riding Hood in 1943, he was unaware that he was unleashing a nouvelle vague of cartoon vulgarity. Not 'crude' as in the cartoon's drawing style, (Avery's animator Preston Blair and model designer Claude Smith were masters of their graphic art. The sexy bump and grind of 'Red'  was uncannily 'realistic' ), but crude in the boundaries of taste that was considered acceptable to a mixed audience.

The effect is still being felt over fifty years later in some of the less tasteful borders of Ren and Stimpy, Beavis and Butthead and South Park. In a twist that Avery couldn't have anticipated, his legacy is becoming strongest on the web.

This observation is not from a position of years of close study, it's hot and current. Six months on the Web truly is like a year in the culture 'outside', and while we've been watching the potential for web animation for some time, it's been Macromedia's Shockwave offerings of Flash and Director that seem to have triggered a flood. The new Macromedia Shockrave site's 'toons' section seems to have new examples daily, each one gets slicker and pushes the medium a bit further. What bugs me is that it a lot of it doesn't seem to be funny.

Yep, it's that hungry old Jimmy the Idiot Boy. Copyright SpumcoI 'm sure you've been following the ongoing episodes of Kricfalusi's Goddamn George Liquor and Jimmy The Idiot Boy (and his hunt for a sponsor). I've applauded Kricfalusi's concept of web based entertainment and I even supported it just before Christmas when I went to the Spumco web site and ordered some 'Christmas cards' for friends.

When I played my 'free' card back, the picture and sound jerked along as usual, but the animation art was slick and detailed. When the soundtrack synched it was a professional bit of Flash animation. Yet after it, I was left feeling flat and awkward about what my friends would think of the sick jokes.

Well, they didn't comment about it at all, and that of course made me think somehow the problem was me and I wasn't getting the Spumco humour. At its base, I guess I was scared that it was just a sign that I'd lost it somewhere with age, and my taste was out of sync with a younger world.

Worse is that I might have been missing something in the intellectualisation that's obviously part of Kricfalusi's operating rationale behind his cartoons. There's a constant homage to Tex Avery that's been carried on from his early Ren & Stimpy series, (Nickelodeon dropped him as director after the first run episodes) up to his latest work.

I didn't consider a possible third option that I was right, that it was vulgar and laboured. I dismissed the experience, saying I should have known what to expect, and went back to work.

shock.gif (8683 bytes)With the launch of the Macromedia Shockrave site, with its entertainment focus and growing playlist of short animation including segments from South Park, old Peanuts videos,  Dilbert,   and Lenny Loosejocks ( that yet to be funny wonder from Down Under!). I started to examine the web animation experience again and was forced to face up to all the sick and silly jokes all over again.

My conclusion (hardly earth shattering) was that many of the reservations I have about this kind of animation on the web, come not from the vulgarity but directly from the limitations of the Internet and the PC presentation software. Onscreen web presentation is slow and machine dependant (a problem video and cinema presentation don't have).

This impacts directly on the one element that Avery understood so well (as do Kricfalusi et al in their TV shows),  which is timing. Pacing is absolutely essential to how even an absurdly over-the-top gag works, and is why a string of jokes can be crude and yet the total effect is funny not vulgar. Slowed down it just offends.

Avery had a rule of thumb that said 'if you want the audience to register a pose or gag, you only need five frames". At 24 - 25 frames a second for film and video, that's a fifth of a second. He knew that was all it took for the audience to see the falling anvil before it flattens someone, or to register a gag title. With a fully loaded Director movie you could get that control on a computer screen, but with current streaming animation and video formats, forget it.

Have a look at the Real Video classic animation clips from Warner Bros. I don't know what it looks like on ISDN but at 56k it's a slide show. The cartioons that work best rely on audio gags or some memory of the actual cartoon to fill in the obvious gaps. Now click over to the Shockrave site and compare the South Park web animated episodes with their Quicktime and MPEG clips on Comedy Central or in the broadcast TV conversions popping up on fan sites.

The (Temporary) Solution

None of this matters a hoot to fans of the TV shows who are happy just to see their favourite characters on their computer screen. If you are using the web as Kricfalusi and his friends are so that they can sell their ideas to network TV, I hope the character's jokes don't turn the program buyers off before they see the video versions of their humour.

The ultimate answer is the mythical broadband web with full speed video replay. But there are of course many other styles of animation that don't rely on the rapid pacing required for absurd or ridiculous gags and are still suited to the web. Christine Panushka's ongoing selection of art animation at Absolut vodka shows off how the short form animation on the web can work (if you're prepared to download the Director clip and you keep it small). There are interactive formats also on the Shockrave site that point to a possible new entertaining 'web' style.

Another option is to reducing the visual demands and make the soundtrack and its synchronization carry the jokes. Here the Real Video / Flash marriage is a format that has a lot of promise, as you'll see if you compare the 'straight' Flash and the Real Flash versions on the Shockrave site.

The punchline.

The trap is that Macromedia's Flash is such a clever program, and outline vector illustration looks so much like conventional film animation. Because it does, we all try and make it do things the web can't support yet. We're still at the technical level of the animated gif or the five panel strip and yet our hearts want everything to be as slick as the MGM animation was over fifty years ago.

An image from Avery's 1948 cartoon Lucky Ducky resonates here. The characters in a frantic chase scene race past a sign, and when they come to a stop a few seconds later, realise that they, and the scenery, have turned into black and white. They stroll back to the sign which tells them that 'Technicolor ends here' and step over the border back to colour.

Sure we're getting good at compression and streaming formats and you'd have to kill to get my copy of Flash 3 away from me. But there are some styles of animated humour that are still out of reach.

I think we've been running so fast with web animation that we've gone backwards. It's time to turn around and read the signs, to work out what works on the web and what's best left to video.

Fred Harden

Tex Avery - The MGM Years by John Canemaker

Tex Avery: The MGM years, 1942-1955.
Text by John Canemaker. Published by Turner Publishing.  Available in Australia and

This book appeared in 1993 in a French edition by Pierre Lambert but only the beautifully reproduced original images and layout are retained in the Turner Publishing 1996 version. Canemaker produced a completely new and definitive text on Avery who died in 1980, sadly working as a gag man at Hanna-Barbera on their Saturday morning TV fare.
Other Avery texts still available include Tex Avery. King of Cartoons by Joe Adamson and the section on Avery in Of Mice and Magic, a history of American animated cartoons by Leonard Maltin.

lenny.gif (2481 bytes)
The Edis Bros  'slapstick adventures' of the
'hapless Lenny Loosejocks'.

Two Vulgar?
The Wild Cartoon Kingdom magazine interview of Mike Judge (Creator of Beavis and Butt-head) by John Kricfalusi (Creator of Ren and Stimpy)

Kricfalusi' s Rationale
Funny Drawings: The Fleischer Cartoons. Article by John Kricfalusi on the Spumco site.


John Casimir's SMH article on Kricfalusi's Goddamn George Liquor and Jimmy The Idiot Boy

Gary Larson's Tales from the Far Side animation (directed I think by Marv Newland and shown recently on SBS one Saturday night) suggested an approach for an animation style suited to the technology available now on the web. I watched with interest to see how successfully he could adapt his single panel gags, so that they were improved by movement and in being played out over time. Larson did it simply by animating his static single frame gags (panning across still scenes, limiting action etc.  and then revisiting the situation with another visual variation so they became a running gag through the program. This milks the situation in a way that he couldn't do in his daily newspaper frames without looking repetitive. The thought ocurred that cartoon strip artists, working up a five panel gag into animation have a better chance at producing forms of animation that work within the limits of the web. Although I hate the voices, the Dilbert animated 'translations' on the Shockrave site work because they depend on the story.   The demands of the animation are reduced to a slide show presentation of the panels with speech, which is about where our technology works best at the moment.

(There's some irony in the fact that the South Park TV cartoons look like they've been (amateurishly) animated in Director. Their limited style works well in Flash)

Need some animation resources on the Web? Here's some favourites.

Because you are reading this, you know of course that the web is a different mass audience to TV or cinema. Sure there are still impressionable kids in front of the computers, just as there were in those seats in the theatre.

You choose what you view on the web according to your own taste and needs. If it's, then you've actively selected it and can hardly be offended by what you get. At least not in the same way as if it was an unexpected intrusion in some other entertainment program. If CyberWetNurse hasn't blocked the sites along with the porn, the web should provide an ideal home for all kinds of animated entertainment once thought marginal.

To ToggleThis! SiteThere's always a technical fix lurking and ToggleThis! seem to have a speed advantage by downloading the animation positions of their characters before you hit the site. There's a brief overview here.

Lucky Ducky 1948. Copyright MGM