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In the Future, We Will All Be Animation Filmmakers


If you’re a regular reader of the Brew, then you might already be familiar with the companies discussed in today’s Wall Street Journal article about the rise of quickly-made, and in some cases do-it-yourself, digital animation. The companies were Xtranormal, Next Media Animation, and Go! Animate.

The article raises all sorts of fascinating questions. For example:

1.) Xtranormal now charges users an average of $1 to make a cartoon and expects to begin turning a profit by the middle of this year. Could charging people to create short animated films be the future of making money from on-line animation instead of charging people to watch cartoons.

2.) How far are we from the day when artists and studios license their artwork to companies like Xtranormal giving fans an easy-to-use system for creating cartoons based on popular characters. Let’s say you could create your own cartoon using characters from Gnomeo and Juliet. It could happen, and I can’t think of a better way of allowing someone to interact with an animated character that they like.

3.) Multiple examples are provided in the article of development execs and producers who have contacted writers after seeing their work on Xtranormal. How long will it be before an animated series is sold in Hollywood based on the work of a writer discovered on Xtranormal?

4.) Richard Appel, one of the exec producers on The Cleveland Show, said of Xtranormal’s cartoons: “It’s a writer’s medium that’s cleverly found a way to get people to look at their screen and listen to what’s being said.” Is that really any different from shows like South Park or any of Seth MacFarlane’s series? In TV animation, the visual elements of animation have been de-emphasized to the point where they no longer matter (Chuck Jones’s infamous “illustrated radio”), and Xtranormal appears to be only the next step in that evolution. But will there ever be an easy-to-use animation tool that allows the masses to take advantage of animation’s visual possibilities?

  • M

    I remember Xtranormal when it was brand spanking new, it’s movie creation was free with only a few templates and already made characters (they had like 3 unavailable if you buy the membership, before membership became a requirement) and you can upload movies on there. I thought it was a regular site just to goof off and what, heck maybe in a couple years it’ll shut down but at least it’ll have a few fans along the way from now I thought. but here it is now (2 years or a year later that site’s been up?) popular now because of one’s guy film with two bears arguing about show business, and getting media attention because of a cheap way to now animate without all the hardwork?

    In short, it’s a cheap and lazy way to make a buck, ignores all of the hard work of it all and takes away the uniqueness of a idea for a commerical.Just click, type and scene.

  • “But will there ever be an easy-to-use animation tool that allows the masses to take advantage of animation’s visual possibilities?”

    The CG app writers have been trying to make animation easy-to-use in a hundred different ways ever since the Commodore AMIGA came out 25 years ago, thinking there was a horde of creative geniuses out there just lacking for accessible tools.

    But there aren’t hordes of creative geniuses out there.

    There *are* hordes of people wanting to do something sort of like something they’ve already seen, if they don’t have to work too hard and if it won’t take long.

    All the 3D app products are doing poorly now (one of them just launched an attempt to sell their formerly $500 product for $10) because everyone who is interested has tried it by now and found out it takes time and it takes focus, two things in very short supply among humans.

    Animation’s greatest visual possibility is to make previously unseen things. Programs that just offer you premade templates to fill out aren’t about that.

    • amid

      There may not be hordes of creative geniuses out there, but there are hordes of people who want to communicate their ideas. Some of the examples cited in the article, like the person who made a cartoon about quantitative easing, represent the unconventional possibilities when everyone is given access to easy-to-operate animation software. I’m all in favor of this. My question is when, or if, there will there be a tool that allows people to express themselves through visual means instead of simply decorating their scripts with moving graphic symbols. Xtranormal is a good first step, but hopefully not the last.

      • The Gee

        “My question is when, or if, there will there be a tool that allows people to express themselves through visual means instead of simply decorating their scripts with moving graphic symbols.”

        There’s already plenty of things which allow people to “express themselves” visually.

        When it comes down to animating, which is what you are getting at, Xtranormal is more of a toy than a tool. There’s a difference. It doesn’t matter if an insurance company has had commercials made using it or not. It is still more toy than tool.

        That point of what you seem to be expecting/wanting or whatever is something that is another form of a communication tool. Who knows if using point and click animation tools is a good form of communicating ideas. At this point, things like PowerPoint and Apple’s Keynote are examples of enduring tools that facilitate “expression” and which are widely adopted.

        Beyond that, is there a need for that?

        I am not impressed by the media firm that puts together crude, The Sims-like re-enactments of news events. I know it is entertaining for some. And, I give it a wide berth because of that. But, I don’t see even grand successes being made with Xtranormal or with video game acting/animation caputre or whatever (like, “Red Vs. Blue”) as being indicative of everybody suddenly doing push button animating.

        For the most part, entertainment is made up of more who watch or take in than those who make and put out*.

        Push button music creation hasn’t taken off yet, has it? Even with the music industry being weak in the knees….
        *I know….i know…there are hobbyists who’ve embraced the notion of Making. Sad, because they just have yet to admit that it is less of a movement than it is a bunch of peope who have become their dads. Other than that, it ain’t spectacular; it is just a matter of course.

      • That presupposes the masses know it’s possible to express thoughts and ideas in pictures and not just words.

      • Cyle

        People have been expressing thoughts through pictures since the beginning of time, and continue to do so today. I think the point is that the tools for organizing those ideas and sharing them on a larger scale have not been yet been refined.

      • Mr. Critic

        To do so and to know one is able to do so are two very different things. As someone below said, they already invented it and called it a pencil.

      • The web made blogs for the non-creative, non-genius hordes who want to communicate their ideas.

      • Shawn

        Power Point! All that animated clip art zooming in and off the screen, those fancy transitions. Wave of the future. In fact, I’d say most of my professors have been expressing themselves through visual means (and flying clip art) for years.

  • 2011 Child

    If the animator values the quality of work, there is and will be no tool ever that will make the process take just a few hours! The non-creative viewer may not see a difference, but this kind of animator will. I do not see these services prosper any time in the future.

    • Cyle

      I don’t think Amid meant to say this kind of animation is supposed to compete with the animation we’re used to discussing like a Disney/Pixar Film, animated short, or cartoon TV show. It’s more like the animation version of YouTube- a simple way for people to communicate and share ideas through a medium. Just as most user generated YouTube videos aren’t intended to be professional films and most blogs aren’t written by professional writers, a user friendly animation tool wouldn’t need to recreate professional animation as long as it was effective in communicating ideas.

      I really like the idea of a basic animation tool that allows people to manipulate moving pictures in a simple, intuitive way. It wouldn’t threaten the traditional animation we’re used to in any way, but could allow people to communicate in ways they previously weren’t able to. Plus, there’s always the chance that it provides some benefits to independent creatives similar to how indie filmmakers have taken advantage of YouTube and other tools that weren’t necessarily intended for professionals.

  • Yes, that tool is the pencil.

    • I would agree… that since its inception, animation has been democratized… because anyone can pick up a pencil and make a flip book.

      The question is: why hasn’t that happen?

      1. No Audience, No Incentive:
      I guess, prior to youtube, the tools for mass communication were inaccessible to the masses. But now, since broadcasting is universally available to everyone with a computer, there is a great incentive to share your story with the world.

      2. The Pencil is Intimidating:
      For some the pencil is intimidating… its not that people can’t draw, its that many people are afraid too. (The book, “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” goes into detail about the psychology of drawing….).

      3. Hand Drawn Animation is Time Consuming:
      Using a pencil to create animation is a lot of work… even if you’re using stick figures.

      So, sure the pencil is a universal too, available to everyone – but has it “democratized animation”? No.
      But the computer has. The only barrier the computer presents to the democratization of animation is what many call: The Digital Divide, i.e. affordability. But with public libraries, the growth of broad band and non-profit plans to give cheap lap-tops to poor communities… this digital divide is slowing fading.

      • T

        I disagree that the computer has democratized animation- you still need to learn how to animate and how to use the software, which can be quite difficult and time-consuming. I think people assume animation is easier with a computer, but it’s just different from traditional methods. The cost of a computer and software plus training via classes, dvd’s, or books can cost the same or more than traditional materials. Animation is just a laborious medium, period. These programs that do readymade templates aren’t really creating animation, and the people who use them aren’t really filmmakers.

      • You miss the point of this whole conversation thread… services like Xtranormal (and others) are the force behind democratization. I agree with you, learning Maya, creating assets, moving splines in the graph editor, lighting & rendering, etc… all very tedious. But Xtranormal takes care of 95% of that… it enables someone with no CG software experience to create an animated film…

        So here’s the test:
        Have a friend with no animation experience create a short film with Xtra Normal… time him/her.

        Now copy that film using the CG software of your choice.I think you will find that A. using out of the box software is very challenging, and B. web services such as extra-normal make it very easy.

        I’m not arguing aesthetics or versatility here… Xtranormal is limited in both respects.

        I’m just saying, Xtra-normal enables someone with no animation and/or software experience make an animated film. Hence: democratization!

      • Also T:
        I have plenty of friends and family (like everyone else)who are clueless to the animation process. When they see the Xtranormal Geico commercial, or come across an Xtranormal spot on YouTube they have no idea its based on a template. They call it animation regardless of how its created.

        Plus, Xtranormal is perfect for many people (especially kids and those who can’t afford expensive software) to get their feet wet in CG storytelling.

        So it’s a belittling and pretension to say they are not film makers and/or animators because their tool is different than yours.

        You have to understand: as technology advances the industry will change. Crowd sourcing, open source, social networks, cloud computing, and data-base driven animation will change the CG animation industry and our notion of how CG films can be created. Of you course you invested a lot into learning CG (time, training, books, classes, etc…) so I can understand your discontent with XtraNormal & similar techniques – many 2D animators felt the same way when CG came along.

      • Even seasoned animators sometimes forget that animation – without a good gag or story – is just pretty pictures that can move. Family Guy makes me laugh and that’s OK. If someone without animation skills can use Xtranormal to present information in a more compelling way, it’s a good thing.

  • Remember when Icebox came out in the early days of Flash?
    I thought that it was great that if someone had the program, and an idea, they could create an animation and maybe get it in front of people’s eyes.
    I think that if these sites help get people in touch with their creative side, great. Much like the way Flash was, these are just the baby steps.

  • Dimitri

    As long as the visual bar stays in the gutter for tv cartoons, creators will remain content “decorating their scripts with moving graphic symbols”, as Amid wrote. Yet in a way, we are returning animation to its most primitive roots using inexpensive digital technology. If the people who painted multiple legs on animals in the Lascaux caves to indicate movement had our quick and dirty ability to really make them move, we may never have had to endure “Hulk Hogan’s Rock n’ Wrestling” as a civilization.

  • Those Xtranormal cartoons are awful looking. I guess they’re good enough for non artists, but you’d figure by the time the programs became sophisticated enough to create a real cartoon that program would probably be Maya or Flash anyways.

  • Gray64

    This remeinds me a bit of the sort of thing they were saying about publishing at the onset of Internet culture, that the internet would allow people to comminucate their literary ideas without having to go through a publishing house’s submissions process. The revolution had come, and we’d see all manner of new and different works. But we haven’t. What we’ve learned is the submissions process is there for VERY good reasons, and most people who think they’re avant-garde and revolutionary and creative really just aren’t. The democratization of technology has taught us that, even armed with the most advanced communications tools ever created, most people just don’t have anything interesting to say.
    I imagine these Xtranormal productions WILL make money, but the cartoons will be more along the lines of vanity things. A few will probably break out and be interesting, but I really doubt that most will even attain flash-in-the-pan status.Once some OTHER new and shiny venue to communicate to the world what you had for breakfast this morning shows up, most will probably gravitate to whatever it is. There is no substitute for passion armed with talent, training, and skill. And there never will be.

  • I guess its just like how Camera are so easy to get now, EVERYONE has one and EVERYONE thinks they are a photographer or filmmaker!

    • Sure everyone has one but that doesn’t make everyone a filmmaker.

  • Jeffrey Simonetta

    I know the game company, Valve, allows fans to make their own animations using the models of their characters.

    Here a fan made short using characters from one of their games, Team Fortress 2.

  • NC

    What I find funny is that everyone that I know who isn’t an animator is completely unaware of the existence of Xtranormal or any of these “tools”. To be honest, I don’t think this will be bring about a revolution of creativity. I think this will soon fade away. If you ask most people whether they’d make their own films or watch films they’ll probably tell you they’d rather watch. Also, I bet you if anyone tried to make a show with this technology it would probably flop, people do want SOME quality.

  • chipper

    Seems like a fun enough program to play with. Of course, you can’t make your own Pixar movie in an evening, but it seems pretty harmless. Reminds me of Lego.

    But I’m not an artist (tried for many years to get into animation school, finally took the hint and gave up), so I’m not sure how valid my opinion on this is.

  • Some of the funniest animated videos I’ve seen over the past couple of years have been generated at XtraNormal. Much of the humor, however, arises from the stilted nature of template-based animation using computer-generated voices.

    Xtranormal’s plan to charge money to make movies with its service is bad. Nothing on the internet should cost any money ever. It’s just wrong.

    These are Xtranormal-based interstitials, strung together in a row to reduce their humorous impact:

    • Gray64

      Well, if nothing on the internet ever cost money, ever, you’d see a lot less on the internet. I don’t find anything wrong with people profiting from their efforts. The internet is, literally, all things to all people, so it isn’t “wrong” to profit from something you’ve placed on it for public consumption.

      • Considering things rationally, of course I agree with you. However, rationality is easily trumped by I DEMAND EVERYTHING FREE NOW.

        If this fun & tasty philosophy ultimately results in the cessation of web-delivered entertainment, maybe I’ll finally have time to clean the apartment.

  • Michael F.

    The quality of the XtraNormal productions will more than likely be based on the writing and dialogue used. The animation is not something interesting, just there for people to use.

    There was one series of videos with this that a like; there’s a pretty entertaining series on YouTube involving Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney II and Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown debating how they can do things. It essentially shows just how bad of an owner Mike Brown is.

  • Isaac

    Only now after reading Richard Appel’s quote did it occur to me, animation writers use the visuals solely as a vehicle for their words. That’s like live-action using actors solely as spokespeople. It ignores all of the elements that an actor’s looks and performance add to the words.

  • Kitschensyngk

    I tried joining Xtranormal recently in hopes of filling my new YouTube account with something other than music video mashups.

    I was turned off immediately when I found it cost money to download characters and scenery and to get the video published. Nothing turns me off a website like finding out they’ve started charging me to visit it.

  • Arthur F.

    I think the article’s assertion is an interesting one and especially when comparing to tv animation of the talking-heads style (what was once “dialog driven” become meanwhile just “talking” …) But I’m not sure this concerns animation per say, the essential qualities that seperate the desire to create animation from other methods at some point. I think it’s more about connecting to editing and database-culture that interent promoted. It’s much more thinking like from the point of view of an editor at this stage. Which is more the analogy today, we are receiving alot of pre-set or pre-shot setups, and should bring them into combinations to fit “our script”. That’s a kind of consumer driven idea of creation, rather than producer and creater driven. Each system has the chance to be converted into a kind of art form of its own and this too. But what it sounds closer to so far is the early era of hip-hop culture without the artists – I mean in terms of how music was used. Songs were broken down into phrases and gestures, a list to be drawn upon like samples to be used in new ways (rather than just playing one after the other in a line). Sequencing improved on that in the studio of course. That in turn was matched to a new way to narrate or voice over or with that new structure. So I don’t see that here yet in this new form, I see more of a poor imitation of a cinematic or televisual form, which sounds like the “democratization” of creativity, rather than letting creativity discover the new format within and work with that.
    I think it could come, but I’ve never put my money on the “mass” nor “fans” deciding a general creative axiom. That’s just contradiction in terms. It’s still about the director’s vision to make something more than a glorified puppet show. But I do believe this is a kind of half-step web-culture, because it’s missing the porn factor. Once the porn industry gets into this for the obvious reasons, then you’ll see the massive leaps in advances, due to desire and users, rather than creativity.

  • fbako

    I hope there will be more than just animation filmmakers. I hope it will be varied.
    I hope animation is not only for children and family, but also for other adults.

  • Xtranormal is a real-time animation program which grew out of the machinima movement (real time animation in video games) over the last 10 years starting with Quake. I’ve been involved in machinima for almost as long and the promise of professional machinima has never really materialized. Frankly, this is an amateur phenomenon, but amateur mean’t as “doing something that you love”. Keep the profit element out of this kind of creative work, IMO. I run a machinima film festival every year and we had over 200+ entries from all over the world and a good percentage of them were interesting, creative films.

    Xtranormal is just one of the newer programs to surface (in addition to Muvizu, iClone and Moviestorm) outside of video games, but serving a similar group of people.

    I think Arthur F.’s comments pretty much sum up the debate for me.

  • Boris Badenov

    In Soviet Russia, cartoon animates you!

  • Dan Ang

    Try not to get too upset, animators. The live action folk have been dealing with everyone thinking their craft is easy enough for anyone to do for much longer.

  • Mike Luzzi

    Regarding point number 2:

    Studios are not going to want people putting words into their characters’ mouths and inevitably making them do crude things. There is a lot financially invested into the “brand” of these popular characters. All of their revenue depends on selling merchandise etcetera and I don’t see Viacom, for example, letting people use a SpongeBob avatar any way they want for their films.

    Not to say that some better looking avatars won’t be created but I don’t think anyone can expect any Mickey Mouses or Bugs Bunnies up there any time soon.

  • Here’s someone using this technology to make fun of Fred Phelps: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LsfUp9DcwB0

    Personally, I think I did a slightly better job without using this program:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bfqneuy_X6A ;)

  • Lamont Wayne

    It’s interesting to read all these comments and then only two months later there is this huge switch in opinion in regards to GoAnimate.