Michael S. Daubs – Subversive or Submissive?

User-Produced Flash Cartoons and Television Animation

Introduction

A number of prominent media scholars including Peter Lunenfeld (2000, p. 71) and Lev Manovich (2002, p. 4) have shown that advances in the technical capabilities of personal computers, combined with the increasing ubiquity of Internet access, have allowed the computer to become a single site for the production, dissemination, and reception of media texts.  Lunenfeld in particular contends that this convergence allows for the creation of new, alternative media forms and the ability for formerly passive mass media consumers to become active user/producers, blurring the formerly clear line between media audiences and producers. Amanda Lotz similarly claims that digital media give users the ability to dismantle mass media’s “bottleneck of distribution” (2007, pp. 148-149). Others assume an ideological revolution is taking place, making utopian claims that the capacity to produce and distribute media content outside of existing mass media structures allows for greater control and independence, which in turn has a profound influence upon the production of culture. For example, Lisa Parks (2004, p. 142) claims the “cross-pollenization” of television and new media might generate possibilities for social transformation, while Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin (2000, pp. 73-75), Henry Jenkins (2006, pp. 3-7), and  Nicholas Negroponte (Andrejevic, 2004, p. 38) all presuppose that digital media allow users to challenge television’s hegemonic, “top-down” control over cultural production.

Many of these same scholars also predict a radical transformation in, if not the total collapse of, centralised mass media such as television. Anna Everett even claims that the “advent of the digital revolution in late-twentieth and early-twenty-first-century media culture apparently confirms both Jean-Luc Godard’s belief in the ‘end of cinema’ and other media critics’ claims that we have entered a post-television age” (Everett, 2003, p. 3).  She further asserts that this digital revolution represents “the rise of a new cultural dominant, one marked by the digital convergence of film, television, music, sound, and print media” (Ibid, p. 8). Everett’s argument in particular demonstrates that discussions of new media are not simply about technology, but rather involve a larger discussion about how these technologies can alter a society and its culture.

It is difficult to argue that the potential for interactivity and participation the Internet offers is not a significant experiential change from the “old” medium of television. However, claims that “ordinary citizens” are able to participate culturally and politically through media production suggest the contemporary realisation of what Walter Benjamin (1991, p. 1064) calls the Urvergangenheit—a mythic past with a classless and egalitarian society. The promises of new media espoused by positivists such as Everett, Parks, and Jenkins evoke this past, suggesting a future in which cultural divisions and hierarchies will be eliminated and seemingly construct a dialectic in which centralised mass media were necessary for the development of technologies that would lead to a later revolution in media production. Jenkins, in a comment that explicitly equates participation with empowerment, even chastises those who take a more critical view, claiming the “politics of critical utopianism is founded on a notion of empowerment; the politics of critical pessimism on a politics of victimization.  One focuses on what we are doing with media, and the other on what media is doing to us” (2006, p. 248).

However, John Caldwell demonstrates that, despite the challenges presented by new media, “television as an institution has proven resilient in adapting to a series of fundamental economic, technological, and cultural changes” (Caldwell, 2004, p. 43), but also acknowledges that user/producers have “substantively transformed what television looks like” (Ibid, p. 47) in a digital age.  Indeed, television has been appropriating many of the aesthetics of user-produced texts meant for distribution on the Internet despite having neither the same interactive capabilities nor the technical limitations that influence the aesthetics of Web media projects. Several scholars have detailed how television news readily assimilates or remediates the aesthetics of informational websites, partially in an attempt to replicate the immediacy of their information-dense layouts.  For example, Lynne Cook (2005) conducted an aesthetic analysis of several television news broadcasts and informational websites in the United States, demonstrating an increasing visual similarity in the structure and graphic representations these media employ.  June Deery makes a similar observation, stating television news is imitating the look of information-dense websites, using split screens and news tickers in what she calls the “CNN Effect” (Deery, 2003, p. 162) Anna Everett (2003, pp. 10-12) also comments on the changing aesthetics of television news, suggesting that the crowded screen image, multiple news areas, text bars, and news tickers are an attempt to create an information rich environment and compete with (and simulate) Internet sites. The Toronto news channel CP24 exemplifies this in the extreme, with a screen area broken up into as many as eight distinct informational areas including spaces for live video and news reports; the current date, time and temperature; the upcoming weather forecast; live traffic camera feeds; news headlines in a text format; sports scores; and as many as three spaces for the display of stock prices and market averages.

Television news programs are essentially trying to compensate for the lack interactivity by presenting as much information to the viewer as possible.  This exchange of aesthetics is a part of a process which Bolter and Grusin (2000) term “remediation,” or the representation of one medium in another.  The basic premise is not new.  Writing in the 1970s, Marshall McLuhan (1994) noted that newly developed media always refashion and reform the structures and content of older media.  Users of a new medium actually depend on this exchange to assist with their acclimation and comprehension.[1] However, Bolter and Grusin (2000, p. 105) are careful to say that remediation is reciprocal rather than linear. In other words, while new media can and certainly do remediate the aesthetics of older media, so-called old media can also remediate the aesthetics of newer media.  Television has been engaging in this “aesthetic remediation” since the introduction of the Web in the mid-1990s.

The Birth of Flashimation

Adobe Flash, a software application used to produce Web-friendly animation sometimes referred to as “Flashimation,” provides a perfect opportunity to examine the role of aesthetic remediation and claims to revolution in media production. One of the first professional animators to experiment with Flash was the Canadian-born John Kricfalusi, who originally gained fame as the creator of the popular television cartoon The Ren & Stimpy Show (1991) which aired on the US children’s network Nickelodeon. However, after the introduction of a controversial character named George Liquor, Nickelodeon fired Kricfalusi in 1992, claiming the content of his cartoons had become inappropriate for its youthful audience (Sullivan, 1997; Furniss, 2007, p. 202).  To add insult to injury, the network retained the rights, allowing Nickelodeon to continue producing new Ren & Stimpy cartoons without Kricfalusi’s involvement.

To reassert his creative freedom and gain independence from corporate control, Kricfalusi turned to a previously untapped and uncensored technological resource—the Internet.  In fact, the animator saw the Web as his salvation and “the future of everything” (Tanner, 2001). He started his own animation studio, called Spümco, which debuted its first Flash-produced Web series called The Goddamn George Liquor Program in October 1997.  Maureen Furniss (2007, p. 199) notes that the two primary concerns related to censorship on American television are taste and control—moral concerns in terms of taste and access concerns in terms of control.  Kricfalusi’s shift to the Internet allowed him to ostensibly escape these concerns. George Liquor is certainly full of imagery, vocabulary, and characters that would be deemed unfit for broadcast on television in the United States including, among other things, the title of the show itself and a detailed animation of a dog passing excrement.  Though he produced only eight one-minute episodes of the program, Kricfalusi became the first of a growing body of professional and amateur animators to produce Flashimation.

In the process, he may have inadvertently inspired a new aesthetic form. Flash cartoons use a series of techniques designed to minimise file size, such as vector—rather than raster—images, automated “tweening” or “in-betweening” to connect “keyframes,” and a symbol library of elements that can be repeatedly used within an animation without greatly affecting file size. As a result, Flashimation tends to feature flat geometric shapes with clean outlines, simple colouring and shading, smoother animation than that usually seen in cel animation, and a large number of repeated animation loops or cycles. The combination of these elements leads to a unique and easily-recognisable Flashimation aesthetic.

Flash software is relatively inexpensive and also highly available.  It allows a single person to easily and affordably create a piece of animation that would have once required a team or studio and expensive equipment to complete. Vlad Strukov (2007, p. 131) notes that Flash not only allows for decreased production time for independent animators, but also allows for immediate control over animated work.  Thus, Flashimation is frequently positioned as a democratising media form that allows those outside traditional media to produce independent, personal, and potentially revolutionary media texts.  After Kricfalusi’s original experiments, a rapidly growing number of amateur user/producers began producing short cartoons for the Web. Internet sites that feature Flash cartoons available for viewing and download were established such as Newgrounds.com, a popular Internet Flash portal launched in 2000. The cartoons and games featured on sites such as Newgrounds are often produced by independent Flash animators including many amateur user/producers still in their teens and lacking any formal training or previous animation experience. Whereas Kricfalusi turned to Flashimation as a rebellion against corporate control, the following wave of Web animators seemed to view Flashimation as an outlet for personal expression. Taking advantage of a lack of censorship, these user/producers paired their crude animations with equally crude jokes, coarse language, violence, and sexual content, positioning Flashimation as more seditious than television animation. The Flash aesthetic thus came to signify a subversion of mass media—specifically, television—and the centralised power and censorship these mass media represent.

In a 1912 discussion of art and form, Wassily Kandinsky wrote, the “form is the outer expression of the inner content… Necessity creates the form” (1984, p. 157).  Kricfalusi believed that turning to the Web was the only way to produce cartoons with characters and content that would be considered too crude or too “adult” for television.  Here we can see an application of Kandinsky’s claim; if form is simply the outer expression of content, then Flashimation as a form signifies “content not meant for television” or even “content that subverts television.” As Manovich states, the aesthetics of Flash media projects are “much more than the product of a particular software/hardware configuration… They exemplify the cultural sensibility of a new generation” (2005, p. 66). In short, Flashimation and its user/producers represent a new, emergent culture, one that challenges the dominance of centralised mass media—particularly television—and increases creative freedom. This construction positions Flashimation as more akin to early experimental animation from the likes of Hans Richter, Emile Cohl, or Winsor McCay than television animation.

Flashimation’s Roots in Television Animation

Media scholars have yet to adequately demonstrate whether or not these notions of independence and democratisation are well-founded. I argue the assumption that Flashimation is somehow independent of television animation is flawed, ignoring the complex—and in many ways, hegemonic—relationships between the supposedly “liberated” Flashimation user/producers and the institution of television. Furniss is correct in stating that “industrially and independently produced animation are not completely separate modes of production, but are in fact interrelated in complex ways” (2007, p. 29).  For example, most of the techniques Flash uses to reduce file size are borrowed from the limited animation frequently seen on television in the United States from studios such as Hanna-Barbera.  While the consistency and smoothness of the mathematically-calculated vector shapes and movements make Flashimation aesthetically distinct from hand-drawn animation, the layers in Flash are a virtual representation of the stacking of celluloid sheets or cels used in traditional 2D animation, and limited animators would often create a library of cels with common gestures such as walk cycles and facial expressions to save production time and costs—a precursor to Flash’s symbol library.  Even the terms “keyframe” and “tweening” are derivatives of Hanna-Barbera’s system of limited animation, in which lead animators would draw the important, or key, frames of an animated sequence, and lower-level animators would be given the task of connecting these frames by drawing those in between (Solomon, 1994, p. 237). This close relationship between limited television animation and Flashimation demonstrates how “digital media can never reach [a] state of transcendence, but will instead function in a constant dialectic with earlier media” (Bolter and Grusin, 2000, p. 50).

In the case of Flash, the relationship between new and old media is embedded in the software itself, including the various menu options, tools and toolboxes, and other pre-programmed features from which the application is composed.  As Manovich further explains, just as

“early fifteenth-century Italian painters could only conceive of painting in a very particular way—quite different from, say, sixteenth-century Dutch painters—today’s digital designers and artists use only a small set of action grammars and metaphors out of a much larger set of all possibilities” (2002, pp. 70-71).

Manovich (2002, pp. 117-127) further suggests that digital tools have a direct, negative impact on the creativity of media texts, in that the use of design software leads designers to approach projects through a series of “cultural filters” that limit the imagination. Manovich’s argument has merit; it is certainly possible to produce robust animation using Flash, but Flashimation’s encoding of television animation in its menu system problematises the notion that it is inherently an independent and distinct cultural form and suggests user/producers, voluntarily or involuntarily, approach their work with an internalised television perspective.

The influence of television can be seen even in elements not directly influenced by menu options, such as the movement of objects and characters through the image frame or stage. Similar to limited television animation, user-produced Flashimation tends to feature mostly horizontal and vertical movement, with only minimal movement along the theoretical z-axis.  Motion is also almost exclusively linear, avoiding curves or more random movement. For Anna Munster (2003, p. 136), the Flash aesthetic removes the concept of image from “space” and instead introduces the concept of “image time.”  In contrast to early animation, in which the primary concern was the movement of objects through a Cartesian field, movement in Flash animation is used to ensure objects relate with each other in time. This is a stark contrast to early 20th century experimental animation such as McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), which featured realistic movement and perspective changes along all axes.

Flashimation Moves to Television

With this in mind, it is not surprising that animated cartoons produced with Flash have begun to appear on television. In some cases, content created for Internet distribution is appropriated and redistributed on television, particularly cable networks. Other Flash-produced projects are made specifically for television, in many cases supplanting traditional cel animation.  This aesthetic remediation is taking place despite television’s lack of the technical limitations (namely bandwidth) that influence the aesthetics of Flash animation. The first examples of Flashimation for television include adult-oriented programs such as Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law.[2] This show not only incorporated Flash into the production process, but also appropriated other characteristics of independently produced Web Flashimation such as crude or sexually suggestive language and visuals. Recent shows such as The Ricky Gervais Show (2010) on the US premium cable network HBO continue this trend. While television cartoons have sometimes been a source of social criticism, offering mildly subversive examinations of family life and social issues, the critiques offered are usually presented within the nexus of network and commercial demands (Tueth, 2003, pp. 134-140). The Simpsons (1989), for example, explores the cultures of minorities and openly mocks representations of “perfect” nuclear families from 1950s sitcoms, but still generally reinforces middle-class values. Early television Flashimation challenged these values more directly, but tended to be scheduled in late-night blocks of cartoons such as “Adult Swim” on the US cable channel Cartoon Network.

The introduction of children’s shows produced solely in Flash such as Mucha Lucha (WB; 2002-2005) and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends (Cartoon Network; 2004-2009) is just as interesting. Flash is now becoming more widely used in television production, with dozens of children’s shows animated in Flash.  The use of Flashimation on television, particularly for children’s programming, works to subsume it as a part of general television animation, explicitly a benign version of animation that lacks even the restricted but “sustained satire on American mores” Paul Wells  attributes to television cartoons such as The Simpsons, King of the Hill (1997), and South Park (1997) (Wells, 2003, p. 30).  What had begun as a seditious form, rebelling against corporate interference, censorship, and the dictates of “polite” society has effectively been appropriated for the maintenance and promotion of traditional values, thus encouraging a cultural association that minimises its revolutionary and subversive potential in the hands of user/producers.

Aesthetic Remediation: Making the Subversive Submissive

These examples demonstrate what Tarleton Gillespie calls the “precarious relationship of allegiance, rivalry, dependence, and transcendence” between television and digital media (2003, p. 117). Arguably, one of the reasons television production is incorporating the aesthetics of user-produced media is practical—they can be produced faster and at lower cost. However, intentionally or unintentionally, the use of the aesthetics of user-produced media in the television production process has a distinct cultural effect as well, one which illustrates a hegemonic relationship between television and new media.  In short, if the aesthetics of user-produced media represent the rise of a new cultural dominant as Everett suggests, then “old” media’s assimilation of their aesthetics is a direct challenge to the emergence of this new culture.  Everett’s language recalls Raymond Williams’ (1977, pp. 121-127) discussion of dominant, emergent, and residual cultures, in which he suggests a society’s dominant culture always attempts to assimilate—rather than dominate—the emergent.  As a result, those within the emergent culture feel a sense of validation rather than repression.  Thus, the emergent culture willingly submits to the dominant culture in a classic representation of hegemony.

Television’s aesthetic remediation of new media is one manifestation of this theory, in which the act of remediation is seen by user/producers as recognition rather than a challenge to their autonomy, thus strengthening television’s ideological position as a cultural dominant. Television further benefits by capitalising on the cultural association of the Flashimation aesthetic with egalitarianism and democratisation, which conceals its hegemonic nature.  The aesthetic remediation of user-produced media has also aided the television industry’s colonisation of the Web and pursuit of niche audiences previously considered the providence of the Web, helping to naturalise the Internet as supplementing rather than supplanting television. This colonisation leads Lotz to suggest that television distribution patterns may have changed, but television content “remains a particular category of programming that retains the social importance attributed to television’s earlier operation as a cultural forum despite the changes of the post-network era.” (2007, p. 37).

This latter example not only positions television as a cultural authority in deciding what is significant enough for television broadcast, but also as an authority and de facto cultural judge of Internet content as well. Here, the experiential differences between television and the Internet actually work against user-produced media’s ability to challenge television’s cultural authority. Tara McPherson (2002, p. 465) is correct in stating that the Internet is subjective, allowing users to explore personal interests and tastes.  By comparison, television’s long history as a cultural institution that offered limited viewer control has allowed the medium to function as “both forum and ideological enforcer” (Lotz, 2007, p. 32). Television maintains those roles, but the guise of participation provided by aesthetic remediation undercuts the revolutionary potential of digital media. At the same time, Flashimation’s aesthetic remediation of television animation can actually work to reinforce rather than challenge television’s position as a cultural dominant by structuring television as a foundational cultural source for user/producers. This relationship resembles Jenkins’ (2006, p. 133) definition of “interactivity,” in which possible actions are pre-structured rather than true, open-ended, independent participation within a Habermasian public sphere. Essentially, the terms of production, even for user-produced media such as Flashimation, are dictated by television as a cultural form.

Conclusion

The emergence of grassroots media forms such as Flashimation is often cited as evidence of the democratising, if not revolutionary, potential of digital media.  Positivists such as Jenkins and Parks believe that the ability for “ordinary citizens” to generate and distribute content outside of established mass media structures will allow them to siphon control of cultural production away from corporate-controlled media. While it would be mistaken to ignore that the Internet and digital media production tools do allow for the independent production and distribution of content with a previously unmatched level of ease, television’s aesthetic remediation and appropriation of user-produced Flashimation demonstrates its resilience in the face of such challenges. Television, rather than falling prey to grassroots media, is constantly reified as a cultural dominant.

In discussing television’s aesthetic development in a digital age, John Caldwell (2003, p. 131) refers to Web animation as “TV-wannabes.”  While he does not elaborate, I suggest this claim implies that many people producing these Flash cartoons are simply replicating a television aesthetic more than discussions of the form’s potential for democratisation and independence suggest. Theories that espouse the emancipatory potential of new media are often based upon the idea of television as a mass medium, which ignores the medium’s adaptation to a post digital age; television may not attract the mass audiences common to the 1950s, but its influence over aggregated niche audiences remains dominant. The purpose of this discussion is not to discourage user/producers from generating material and content, nor to suggest that user-produced content is somehow inferior.  Rather, it is hoped that this discussion will inspire those in new media production to re-examine the nature of their work, and challenge those who promote the democratising potential of new media to reconsider the assumptions they have about the inherent independence of user-produced media.  Manovich (2002, p. 15) suggests that there needs to be an avant garde exploration of new media in order to understand its capabilities.  I agree, but add that this exploration must not only be technological, but also cultural, political, and historical.  The potential for democratic, user-produced media does exist, but user/producers and media scholars must resist the temptation of assuming production is equivalent to revolution. In doing so, positivists risk losing the opportunity to understand how user-produced media can initiate true social change. Indeed, the equation of production with democratisation actually serves to reinforce rather than destabilise television’s dominant position. This does not mean social change through media production is impossible. German media scholar Jeffrey Wimmer reminds us that “the technical possibilities new media provide do create the framework for a transformation of the public sphere, but it should not be assumed through a model of technological determinism” (2007, p. 141).[3] Change is instead a social process, and an awareness of the complex and often incestuous relationship between television and new media is a necessary step in the full realisation of the potential of digital media.

Michael S. Daubs is a Media Studies PhD Candidate and Lecturer in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Canada. His research interests include visual culture and aesthetics, convergence and remediation, and the democratic potential of user-produced media. This paper was presented at Animation Evolution, the 22nd Annual Society for Animation Studies Conference, held at the Edinburgh College of Art, 9-11 July, 2010.

Notes

[1] For further discussions of the role of familiarity in adaptation to new media, see Everett, A., 2003. Digitextuality and Click Theory. In A. Everett & J.T. Caldwell (eds.) New Media: Theories and Practices of Digitextuality. New York: Routledge, 3-28; Weinberger, D., 2002. Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web. Cambridge, MA: Perseus.

[2] Four seasons of this programme were produced by Williams Street Productions and Turner Studios and were originally broadcast from 2000-2007 in North America during the popular “Adult Swim” cartoon block on the Turner-owned cable channel Cartoon Network in the United States, and a similar block called “The Detour” on Canadian cable channel Teletoon. Early episodes were created using traditional, hand-drawn, cel animation before the animators turned to Flash for the remainder of the show’s run.

[3] Original quote reads: “Die technischen Möglichkeiten schaffen somit zwar den Rahmen für einen Öffentlichkeitswandel, aber es ist nicht von einem Technikdeterminismus-Modell auszugehen[.]“ Translated by the author. Emphasis in the original.

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© Michael S. Daubs

Edited by Amy Ratelle and Caroline Ruddell

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2 Responses to Michael S. Daubs – Subversive or Submissive?

  1. Mark Walters says:

    This is a great read! I learned a lot from this article.

  2. Lots of thanks for you article, it is very helpful and I appreciated that.

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