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Flash graphics land prime time on TV

The entertainment industry is learning new tricks from the Web that could reduce costs and recast a widely used Net animation technology as a significant offline production tool.

The entertainment industry is learning new tricks from the Web that could dramatically reduce costs and recast a widely used Net animation technology as a significant offline production tool.

Despite early missteps in turning the Web into an entertainment channel, TV broadcasters have increasingly turned to the Internet as a talent pool to fill out their programming rosters. Just this week, for example, MTV Networks signed Josh Kimberg's 2-year-old Webtoon series, "Miss Muffy and the Muff Mob," to air in its fall schedule.

TV producers have been drawn partly to the offbeat scripts and characters that such shows typically offer. But increasingly they are showing equal interest in one of the main technologies used to create programs such as "Muffy": Macromedia's Flash animation tool.

"MTV coming to us for a show gets (it) a unified vision, with the ability to broadcast on TV and the Web," said Kimberg, 26, a co-founder of New York-based Bull's Eye Art. "That's compelling to companies that are trying to unify their content strategies and marketing budgets after the dot-com fallout."

Flash's ability to flow from the Web to television is aiding a confluence between mainstream and Internet media. While Hollywood grows increasingly enamored of Web aesthetics in mini-movies and Net-based film projects, Web designers are beginning to create works with Web technology for commercials, music videos and TV shows.

"It's certainly ironic," said Michael Gough, former chief creative officer at Quokka Sports, which developed most of its sites in Flash before it shut down last month. "Everybody once thought that they would be able to repurpose TV and put it on the Web. But it didn't work. Nobody would sit in front of the computer and watch a half-hour show.

"Now everybody is taking the Web and putting it on TV."

Macromedia's Flash for broadcast is the next step in a rapid evolution for the easy-to-use animation tool. In the last several years, the technology has overtaken design projects for the Internet, including everything from sites to cartoons, rich media advertisements and mini-movies. Now it's poised to influence design in offline media.

Musicians such as Beck and Duran Duran have already created animated music videos in Flash that can be streamed online and through TV. Duran Duran's new Flash-based video for "Someone Else, Not Me" was shown on MTV and VH-1. MCA Records developed an animated music video to promote one of its rap bands, Dice Raw, on the BET cable channel and the Web.

Hollywood is warming to the technology, too. Automaker BMW launched a Web-based film series styled in Flash, featuring the work of several marquee directors and actors, including "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" director Ang Lee and Madonna. In addition, Bull's Eye was nominated last fall for an Emmy award for its Flash-based, 30-second opening for The Rosie O'Donnell Show, which plays on the program's Web site.

In some cases, Net companies are starting to develop TV commercials in-house with the animation software. NetZero recently produced its own TV ads in Flash for broadcast, and they ran during the National Basketball Association playoffs on NBC.

High speed, low cost
Part of the allure of creating works with this tool is the cost and time savings.

"Because Flash is faster and because it streams on the Web and TV, you're getting an economy of means. You're able to produce something once and have it live on both mediums," said Bull's Eye's Kimberg.

Peter Delgrosso, a NetZero spokesman, said the company saved hundreds and thousands of dollars in production costs and "loved the way the ads turned out." The Internet service provider was able to save time and money because it used its own staff to create the commercials and ultimately had more control over the final product.

For MTV and Bull's Eye, creating "Miss Muffy" will cut the costs and lengthy production schedule typically associated with having to create an animated program in Japan, according to Kimberg.

"The savings is really in time. We can make a half-hour episode in three to four months, depending on the quality of animation, when it could normally take 10 to 14 months," he said.

For Web design shops, creating works for offline media will help them stay alive in the absence of online projects. Since the economic downturn, Web site projects are largely out of vogue compared with years past.

"Design shops want to get paid. However you can extend your skills to pay the rent, you will," said Jon Williams, a technologist at San Francisco design shop IO Research.

Also driving a convergence of media are techniques to build broadcast media for the Web and television, given that the works are relatively short. For example, a half-hour program for the Web and television could be created in Flash, but a longer film project has less in common with an online work, Web designers say.

What makes Flash attractive to online and offline animators is that it uses vector graphics instead of bit maps or photo images, which create large files and are slow to design with. The result in Flash is typically a high-speed animation show or Web site, thanks to its relatively small file sizes.

Offline, the technology is also an attractive alternative to the cel format traditionally used for creating animated films. For example, a Disney movie can take up to five years to create because of the thousands of cels required for one film.

Creations in Macromedia Flash 5 can be exported to a variety of video formats, including Apple Computer's QuickTime, RealNetworks' RealPlayer and AVI formats, which let producers use a single tool to publish to a broad range of mediums.

Introduced by Macromedia in 1997, Flash has a large following of designers and animators.

"We've got this big base of animators that used Flash from their start; they're comfortable with it," said Jeremy Clark, product manager for Flash. "Now that they've seen what they can create for the Web, they're trying to take it to the next step and see it on TV."

Clark said that more broadly, there's great interest from Hollywood in the animations on the Net.

"This may be the new creative frontier--to find the great creative ideas and bring them back to the traditional media," he said.

For MTV Networks, a unit of Viacom International, picking up "Miss Muffy and the Muff Mob" is an endorsement of this idea.

"Our goal is to continue to push the envelope of animated entertainment with new concepts and innovative formats," Abby Terkuhle, president of MTV Animation, said in a statement.

Bull's Eye's Kimberg said his company has already developed commercials and music videos in Flash. It has worked with bands such as Aerosmith, and it is creating a pilot TV show that will air sometime this summer.

His shop is trying to get a patent on its methodology for creating super-quick Flash for broadcast.

"It's not rocket science to take Flash to TV, but it's an art to make it look good," Kimberg said.