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Spastic for Spazzco

Spazzco Animation Studio (http://www.spazzco.com) makes no bones about its intentions. As stated on its home page, "Spazzco loves cartoons. And we love the Internet too. But we're not going to align your company's back-end systems integration … we don't even know what the hell that is! Hey, we make cartoons here."

Spazzco's creative mandate is to produce quality shorts that stay in the "cartoon frame of mind," says Dana Muise, founder and creative director of the San Francisco-based company. Even as a business, Spazzco attempts to stay in a cartoon frame of mind, as demonstrated by their strict policy mandating "ScoobyTalk" on Fridays.

With their minds mulling over cartoon culture, the animation studio almost forgets it's web-based. "We kind of think of Internet delivery as incidental. It's not really on our minds," says Muise. Nonetheless, the Internet is largely responsible for the studio's creation.

Spazzco was founded earlier this year in San Francisco after Muise noticed a growing demand for Flash animation on the Internet -- a demand currently superseding the market for traditional frame-by-frame animation. Muise decided to leave his job and start Spazzco on his own.

Muise previously worked with the Cartoon Network, and he knew whom to contact at the organization to get Spazzco noticed. At the time, the site was looking to acquire 50 new cartoon shorts for its current promotion, "Web Premiere Toons." CartoonNetwork.com liked his original pilot, "Ape Lab", but they weren't ready to pay for it.

After CartoonNetwork.com expressed interest in his animation short, "Ape Lab," Muise had one week to come up with as many story pitches as he could. He created a half dozen or so, and the network agreed to contract Spazzco for three cartoons: Journey to the Center of My Dog's Head, Time E-Lapse, and the Bickleshnotz County Flying Club.

Muise then faced the challenge of rounding up a staff and fitting them into the limited amount of affordable office space in San Francisco. He hired two additional people, and contracted animators to complete much of the work offsite.

The First Stage of Production

Spazzco hired storywriters and musicians to compose an original soundtrack. After the story was scripted, actors were hired to supply character voices. "A lot of animators do the scripts for us too. Its pretty much like any other voice over job, but they have a professional studio, and they do a really good job. Even in MP3 compressed format it sounds really good," said Muise.

In scripting the cartoon, Spazzco took into consideration the fact that Cartoonnetwork.com targets an audience between the ages of 5 and 12, whereas the typical demographic target for web animation is 18-35. Therefore, Spazzco followed CartoonNetwork.com's strict script guidelines banning guns, death and obscenity. Spazzco submitted their work to Cartoonnetwork.com over the Internet for approval.

In addition to hiring actors and musicians, Spazzco drew rough storyboards of the cartoon and hired a background artist. Although many studios forego this traditional method due to an increased file size, Muise feels it adds a classic look to the cartoon.

Still, the company does cut corners to keep the file size reasonable. "Its tricky to notice, but we use a lot of the same backgrounds. We just flip them upside down," says Muise. "It's a give and take. We had to drop a lot of the backgrounds. The hand drawn stuff doesn't really stream well - it's just too big."

Pulling it Together

Once the final script has been approved, recorded, and the storyboards are drawn, it's time to put the pieces together for the Animatic -- the coordinated combination of scanned storyboards with the sound file containing the voices. This rough sketch allows creators to review the plot and determine if any elements of the cartoon are unnecessary. Again, this is done to keep the file size as small as possible, allowing faster load times for low-bandwidth viewers.

Before the cartoon is finished in flash, the sound engineer adds special sound effects, similar to those used in cartoons on TV. Once the effects are synched with the dialogue and storyboards, the components are imported into Flash for final review, and subsequently exported into the MP3 format. Muise noted that while Flash is not a sound-editing program, it does provide adequate control for the artist.

The State of Animation

The CartoonNetwork.com instructs people creating new cartoon characters to envision the new characters standing next to Yogi Bear. If the new character looks right at home, but is still contemporary in its own way, the goal has been achieved.

Muise believes, with all of the animated content sites popping up over the last year, there is a shortage of quality material. Each content site is attempting to outdo another, and the result is a great market for creative, quality animation on the Web.

"It's a supply and demand problem right now," says Muise. "We're riding the wave. It's a great time to get into online animation."

An additional benefit for Spazzco was the low start-up costs associated with Flash animation. While they did purchase several computers, Spazzco was spared the cost of a traditional down-shooter camera, which can run as much as $10,000.

Nonetheless, it is important for small animation studios to keep the rights to their work whenever possible. Muise cited the example of Joe Cartoon. One day Joe was a lone animator working on a cartoon of a frog in a blender. The next day people all across the Web fell in love with his cartoon. Joe Cartoon was offered a series on Shockwave.com and started a company based on his one hit cartoon. "The rights to that one little cartoon are worth quite a bit now," says Muise.

What's Next for Spazzco?

Spazzco has won the respect of CartoonNetwork.com and is currently producing a new interactive cartoon based on "Wheelie and the Chopper".

"It's a bad 70s cartoon that the people at Spazzco see some potential in. There's some really funny and weird stuff in our library of characters," says Sam Register, vice president of creative services with CartoonNetwork.com. CartoonNetwork.com has the rights to several unknown cartoon characters, and they are trying to reintroduce them to the Web in a contemporary light.

"For us, it is all about developing characters and creating new brands," stated Register.

According to Register, the CartoonNetwork.com's goal is to create a new art form that is interactive content, but not a video game. The site is preparing for a day when toons can be traded via cell phones and the Internet, creating a buzz around their releases. The site is moving towards cartoons that draw viewers in by challenging them to get to the next level, which may be a buried link in the cartoon. At any rate, the companies producing cartoons for the future will need to have a firm grip on creating interactivity, says Register.

CartoonNetwork.com recently redesigned their site and traffic has spiked significantly. They are currently utilizing their position as the online arm of a television network to run simultaneous promotions, increasing their audience penetration and the value of the advertising. If the AOL/Time Warner merger finally goes through, the TimeWarner-owned CartoonNetwork.com will have an even larger online presence. Spazzco and other small firms capable of creating quality, interactive animation will likely benefit from the initial need for even more new cartoons.

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