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FLASH ANIMATION
Associated Press Joe Sparks appears with his animated creations “Devil Doll” and “Candy Angel” at his home in San Francisco. Sparks, who worked with entertainment site AtomShockwave.com, was laid off last summer like many other dot-commers, but not before making a big splash with “Radiskull and Devil Doll.”

Associated Press

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.

Business sizzle 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.

Development, marketing 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 AtomShockwave.com - 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 AtomShockwave.com, 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."

On The Net: Joe Sparks: www.joesparks.com

Macromedia Inc.: www.macromedia.com

Flash Film Festival: www.flashforward2002.com

Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Who are these guys? A glimpse of four better-known Flash programmers:

Name: Todd M. Rosenberg

Location: New York City

Site: www.oddtodd.com

Specialty: Laid off by AtomShockwave last summer, Rosenberg created OddTodd, a Flash toon celebrating the life of a laid-off dot-commer. With more than a million hits and $10,000 donated to his tip jar, Todd had to return some of his unemployment benefits to the state of New York.

What he does and why: "Somehow they know from watching a cartoon that others have had a tough time finding a job. … Even if I get a job, I will keep the Web site and keep making cartoons."

Name: Joe Shields

Location: Grand Rapids, Mich.

Site: www.joecartoon.com

Specialty: A former T-shirt designer and cartoonist, Shields sells advertising space and markets his toons and interactive games. Visitors can beat up Osama bin Laden and run cute frogs through a virtual blender. Shields - whose Humvee has splattered gerbils painted on the sides - is the master of road kill gimmicks, and the site is not for animal lovers.

What he does and why: "Deep-seated anger over the loss of a puppy to Niagara Falls. His leash broke while I was joyously swinging him in a circular motion about my head. It was horrible … I don't wanna talk about it."

Name: John Kuramoto

Location: New York City

Site: www.twinkleland.com

Specialty: A former comic book writer, Koromoto knows the art of telling a story in animation. He teams up with comic book creators to convert high-quality comics to Flash animations and do creative work on contract.

What he does and why: "It all starts with the drawings and the ideas. We want to work with the best artists we can find … We want to bring traditional animation values and character animation into our Internet cartoons."

Name: Joshua Davis

Location: New York City

Site: www.praystation.com

Specialty: A trained painter with tattoos all over his body, Davis produces fine art for museums. With Flash, he built an e-mail voodoo doll that people can spin around 360 degrees and insert with stick pins.

What he does and why: "I sort of define the rules, the boundaries, the paints," said Davis, who travels worldwide teaching his Flash techniques and serves as an instructor at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. "Really what I do is play God."

Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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