Flash Changed How We Communicate
I first encountered Flash in a rather indirect manner.
At the time I was teaching Macromedia Director at my College and, as a result, spent a lot of time on a newsgroup, Direct-L- to see what others were doing with the application that I could teach my students. One of the best nights I ever spent with that group was the night when the Director Product Manager asked us to try out a couple of new pieces of software- Shockwave and Afterburner- that would enable us to add motion graphics to web pages. The file format that enabled this was to have a profound impact on what was to come: the SWF. The first piece to be uploaded by a member was a blue ball that dropped from the top to the bottom of the screen. The next piece was a red box that moved across the screen. The underlying technology was a .swf compiled using Shockwave. A few months later there was a lot of chatter about this thing called “Flash” and the attention it was getting.
Shortly thereafter I got to hang out with the Director community at Macromedia Dev Con in New York in 1998. One of the highlights of this Conference was the “Birds Of A Feather”(BOF) sessions where we could gather with the product managers to discuss the product and afterward go bowling. At this particular Director BOF, the PM asked what we wanted to do and I quite snarkily said, “Let’s go punch out the Flash guys across the hall.” Everybody stood up, the PM turned white and we sat back down.
When I returned to Toronto, my Course Coordinator called me into his office, slid a copy of Flash 3 across his desk, and asked if I knew anything about this application. I said no and added my Director peers regarded it as more of a toy than anything else. His is reply was, “Well you better figure it out because you are teaching it next semester.” And so starts my entanglement with an application that changed how we communicate and the cast of misfits and creatives that made it happen.
I use the word “entanglement” for a reason. I wasn’t one of the misfits. I was more of a spectator who, like Peter Sellers in the movie “Being There”, for some reason, got to personally know a lot of them, learn from them, and take what I learned from them right into my classes. Along the way, I starting writing Flash books for several publishers, attending Flash conferences, and even doing the odd Conference session. To me, that was a huge benefit for myself and my students. It wasn’t until years later that I realized I had been granted the privilege of watching interactive media evolve into the web sites and apps that are so predominant today as that gang of misfits and creatives took hold of Flash and fundamentally changed how we communicate.
What they did still echoes today.
The Early Days
Back in 1998, it was still “early days” for Flash and the web was a jumble of nested tables. It was a new technology and, as misfits and creatives are wont to do, they took it out for a spin to see what it could do. The result was predictable. There was a lot of substandard, overdone, and bloated work out there which set the scene for the later negative impression of “Flash Sites”. Even so, there were sites that started to set the standards.
One of the first was good old Gabo Corp. This one arrived in 1997 with a bang. There was interaction and there was motion both of which were entirely new. The opening lines later proved to be prophetic: “You are about to enter a new era in website design. This is the new standard for all things to come.” The site was also met with quite a bit of skepticism. There were claims it was nothing more than a front for Macromedia to show off what Flash could do. Others claimed there was no Gabo when in fact there was- Gabriel Mendoza. What Gabe did was to provide future Flash Designers and Developers with a template to build on.
Did they ever.
In 1999 Balthaser Studios dropped their Flash site onto an unsuspecting internet. This site was a riot of colour, flashing text, audio, motion, spoken word, and anything else that could be thrown in to grab the viewer’s attention. You couldn’t have a more stark evolution of the Flash Site than comparing Balthaser with Gabocop. There is a straight line from Gabocorp to Balthaser and that line continued to include Wefail, 2Advanced, Presstube, and, of course, Yugo Nakamura’s classic MonoCrafts. If you study just these five examples, you see the roots of today’s web and mobile apps starting to take hold.
The original application — FutureSplash Animator — was designed to create fast vector animations or illustrations which were lightweight- vectors- and could quickly be loaded using a dial-up modem. That didn’t change when Macromedia acquired the product and rebranded it as Flash. Having a timeline sure helped.
Two animators that gained initial traction were Joe Shields and Joe Sparks. When Sparks released Radiskull and Devil Doll it was a clear indication that the animators were starting to embrace Flash. The market seemed to agree as Radiskull and Devil Doll became viral hits. At the same time Joe Shields, aka Joe Cartoon, hit the web with the classic Frog In A Blender. Another viral hit that established Flash as an animation tool.
It wasn’t just established animators that were drawn to Flash. In 2006, the then 17-year-old Alan Becker released Animator vs Animation which became and still remains an Internet classic.
It wasn’t all fun and games when it came to Flash animation. I recall being astounded at Yasuto Suga’s Ray of Light and especially with the flowing motion of the girl’s dress.
As Yatsugo explained in the first volume of New Masters of Flash by friendsofED (2000), “The effect is created by redrawing the entire dress a split-second after the frame that came before it, and then the next frame and the next, and so on until the entire animation loops”. Classic frame-by-frame animation using low weight vectors, at least for me, had arrived.
The interesting thing was Flash animation was not tethered to a web browser.
Chris Georgenes was using Flash to assemble entire episodes for the Cartoon Network among others. When one medium (Internet) jumps to another (Television) you know it is here to stay. Chris is still producing work using the current incarnation of Flash, Adobe Animate 2021.
Animation also took hold in Flash Sites. Once the industry got over “spinning globes” there was increased attention paid to the world around us. Among the first to embrace Flash as a marketing medium were the entertainment companies. One of the first to grab my attention was a site designed to promote a Joan of Arc movie. Though I can’t remember the exact date and title what caught my attention was a shield-shaped sign that swayed in the wind and had a “creaking” sound attached to it as it swayed in the wind.
Another site that caught my attention was the site for the movie Shrek. Designed by Eric Natzke, the metaphor was a giant medieval book, and to navigate through the site one turned the pages. This wasn’t a typical “Click/Swap” page turn. You dragged the corner of a page to turn the page and as you dragged the page curled revealing the content of the next page. To say this caught the attention of the Flash community would be an understatement. In response, Eric published a “How To” around how he did it, and the next thing we knew page turns were showing up everywhere. If you encounter a mobile app or site where you turn the pages of a book, you can thank Eric. (As an aside, according to Eric, Apple thought the technique was so good they slapped a copyright on their version of the technique.)
Of course, Hollywood embraced Flash and the application became yet another promotional medium for their movies. One of the first I encountered was Donnie Darko created by Hi-ReS!. From then on, if there was a movie release there was the inevitable Flash site.
I am going to finish this brief overview with a piece that pulls together all of the techniques presented in this section and is a good example of the progression of Flash as an animation tool from Frog in Blender to the Drum Machine from Tokyo Plastic from 2007.
Founded by Sam Jones in 2002, here’s what he had to say about the company a few years later: “The internet was a simple empty space back in 2002. No Facebook, no Instagram, no tweeting, there was, however a small thing called Adobe flash. It was a pretty amazing piece of software and I used it to create a website called tokyoplastic. Animation, sound design, Japanese strangeness, and bloodied robots…” All of the techniques that are so common in today’s mobile and internet universe.
Was there one person who showed what Flash could do? Yes.
Hillman Curtis was a Flash Savant. Get together with any of those who were there in the early days and the Hillman stories flow. Hillman died of colon cancer in 2012 and at the bottom of his obituary in the New York Times is a quote of his that succinctly defines his legacy: “The reason for designing new media is simple — to subtly and quietly change the world.”
I first encountered Hillman’s Flash work through an interstitial ad he created for HP. The thrust of the ad was to present HP’s humble roots from a rented garage in 1938. Narrated by then CEO, Carly Fiorina, the ad started with a very simple animation of the garage revolving. It was the simplicity and subtlety of the piece that appealed to me. In a Flash environment where “over the top” was the norm the subtlety of the motion and Carly’s calming narration were a welcome change.
As I said earlier, there are hundreds of Hillman stories. Here’s mine:
In 2001, I happened to be in New York attending a Macromedia product demo and learned that Hillman would be talking to the local Macromedia Director User Group in Macromedia’s New York office. I managed to get there early and it was rather amusing to see the attendees pepper him with questions about Director instead of his subject, Flash. I leaned over to the guy next to me and said, “He looks like he is going to explode.” He agreed and at the end of the evening, I discovered the guy next to me was Ian Kovalik the Creative Director for Hillman’s agency.
I managed to get myself invited over to the agency for a tour the next day and, in many respects, that tour, for me, was life-changing. One thing I learned that day was Hillman had a habit of wandering the agency, stopping at someone’s screen, pointing to something on that screen, and saying one word, “Justify”. This wasn’t a bullying tactic. It was ensuring that everything on the screen was there for a specific reason. If it couldn’t be “justified” it was gone. It was the secret behind that elegant HP interstitial that so impressed me. It was something I had presented to all of my students since and they became used to me pointing at their screen and hearing,” Justify”.
I was also starting to explore the use of video in digital media. I had seen a couple of videos Hillman had done in Flash and couldn’t figure out how he did it. So I asked him. Turns out the solution was simple. Hillman told me he ran out the jpg or png sequence of a short clip, stuck the frames on the Flash timeline, and looped them. With that simple explanation, video, for me, arrived in Flash and set the stage for today’s streaming media environment.
In early 2002, I happened to be at a Flash gathering in my home town Toronto. As we broke for lunch, the Flash Product Manager corralled a couple of us and invited us to lunch at a restaurant up the street. Over the course of that lunch, he mentioned he had something he wanted to show us and swore us to secrecy. He then opened his laptop and said, “I would be interested in hearing what you think about something we are working on.” He launched the .swf and a short video started playing. Thinking it was nothing more than a jpg or png sequence I said it was quite interesting but so what. He then explained it was an actual video playing through the Flash Player. It was simply astonishing and there is a straight line from that rudimentary video over burgers in a restaurant to the use of video in today’s web and mobile development. I might also add that line runs straight through YouTube and, to a certain extent, Zoom.
Before that demo over burgers in a Toronto restaurant, a video was a “thing” on the web but it was also a colossal pain in the ass. Though png and jpg sequences were a sort of solution, they were limited to a few seconds in duration when it came to Flash.
Longer videos were more difficult and frankly couldn’t be used in Flash. That was due to competing video players, formats, compression standards, and so on thanks to the browsers.
With that demo we immediately saw the implication: Flash could play on any browser and now, so too, could video.
As Flash Video took hold, the videos started getting more complex and longer, the Flash Communication Server was released in July 2002 and through the use of Actionscript the rudiments of today’s streaming environment came into being. YouTube immediately got into the Flash game and it wasn’t until a few years ago that any video you watched on YouTube wasn’t compiled into a format used by Flash.
In 2007, Flash Player 9 was released and exploded across the internet. Using the mp4 format, the player introduced full-screen HD video which turned our computer screens into video screens. Another innovation was the use of “Alpha Channel Video” which allowed video content to interact with Flash or other content in the background.
Even though Flash was now a video medium, I can’t overlook the fact Flash had been a purely artistic medium almost from its inception.
Art for the sake of art
As Flash was gaining acceptance as a marketing tool, creative artists discovered Actionscript and embraced code as an artistic medium. One of the heavyweights was and still is Joshua Davis. Why code? As Josh said in a 2006 Wired profile- The Chaos of Joshua Davis: “Code is just as artistic as using paint and a brush,” he says. “Besides, I don’t see the point of painting the same way a bunch of dead pricks did in the 15th century.” Pure Josh.
My first exposure to Josh was during FlashForward2000 when he won an award. His site, Once Upon A Forest was one of those sites where I honestly didn’t “get it”. What I did “get” was the amazing use of colour and his mysterious character, Maruto. In accepting he mentioned he had told his mother that if he won he would take off his shirt. He did, off came the shirt, and the huge Koi Fish tattooed on his back were revealed. At the same time, I found myself drawn to another forum, dreamless.org. This forum, hosted by Josh, contained a minimal design with a hidden registration page that drove visitors crazy but it also became a hub for graphic artists and designers.
My next exposure to Josh’s work was at a presentation he did in Toronto in 2003 where he demonstrated how he created his “machines”. In many respects, this was also my exposure to interactive prototyping as Josh explained how he would create a “machine”, study its programmatic motion and then tweak its code to create something a bit different. Though it was originally known as Programmatic Art one could draw a straight line from this genre to the current Generative Art and Cryptoart movements of today.
Another artist who moved things forward was Brendan Dawes out of Manchester, U.K. As one of the leaders of the generative art movement, I was first introduced to his work through saulbass.net which Brendan created in 1999 using Flash. As I later discovered when we first met both he and I were huge fans of motion graphics and especially the titling sequences in movies. Naturally, Saul Bass was one of my absolute favorite designers and I spent a lot of time marveling at how the site was pulled together.
One of my favorite Brendan Dawes stories involves my students. Brendan was speaking at FlashintheCan in Toronto and during one of our chats, I asked if he would be interested in talking to my students. He was initially reluctant because he was flying home and didn’t want to miss his flight. That all changed when I told him my College, Humber College, was only 10 minutes from the airport.
Brendan entered the class, much to the surprise of my students, and spent a few minutes answering Flash questions and so on. Then he asked them if they would be interested in seeing something he had just created. It was Cinema Redux
For those unfamiliar with this work, Brendan showed the class how he ran Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 film, Don’t Look Now, through a simple slit-scan program using Processing and saved the resulting frames which he then assembled and printed out. What caught the class’s attention was Brendan pointing out that you could follow the scenes by simply looking at the color changes as you scan across the images in the poster. Imagine my surprise a couple of years later when CinemaRedux was added to the Museum Of Modern Art’s permanent collection. Brendan still, today, is producing generative art such as this current piece, Typographic Data City Istanbul.
When it came to pure Programmatic art, the work of Jared Tarbell at the now-defunct levitated.net had to be among the best of class. Many started with a white background which could grow into a forest of trees or a riot of swirls and curves. Today his day job is as one of the founders of Etsy.com, you can get a sense of his work at Complexification.
One surprise to me was how code as an artistic medium has roots that go back a bit further than Flash. Another popular generative artist I have had the pleasure to know is Mario Klingemann aka Quasimondo out of Germany. I once asked him how he got started and he told me about the underground code clubs that had sprung up in Berlin, Germany. A bunch of coders would gather somewhere and show their work and share their code.
This has naturally influenced his work such as this piece, Sketchmaker, from 2007. As Mario describes Sketchmaker: “It is trying to answer the question if a computer can autonomously create images that “look like art”. It tries to achieve that by using an evolutionary process that gradually evolves images towards an appearance that looks more like known art than just random noise or non-artistic images.”
Flash also became a serious data visualization tool thanks to Actionscript. In many respects, the intense focus on Data in today’s UX/UI environment with interactive dashboards, for example, has its root in Flash. As one Flash user told me, “Data is only a series of numbers, Tom. Why not use them?” One of my favorite demos of this technique was a piece I had pulled together that used shapes and colours that changed based on the amplitude value of the audio in Dave Brubeck’s classic “Take Five”.
My most memorable demonstration of that piece was presented in 2008 at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing, China. I explained how the data in audio was nothing more than numbers and as such ran through the code that accomplished that task.
When I ran the demo, the students reacted as though I had revealed the secrets of the universe. The enthusiasm was palpable as they suddenly realized they could “play” with data. A couple of days later I was told a couple of the students who had attended the demo were DJs at local clubs and using this technique to entertain the crowd.
I raise my visit to China not to brag but to reinforce the point, Flash as a creative tool was spreading around the world.
Flash vs. The World
Before 2000, the Flash community was rather cloistered and most of the work was presented to local user groups or through online chat. There was a sense it was being adopted and used around the world because one could flame up a browser and check out this site or that. The true scope of Flash’s reach really became evident to me when the 2000 edition of New Master of Flash was released by friendsofED, a niche publisher that produced books focussing on design, interactive media, and so on. As I leafed through the various sections written by the Flash Masters I couldn’t help but marvel at how widely the use of Flash had spread. There was Andries Odendall out of South Africa, Yugo Nakamura out of Japan, Brendan Dawes out of the U.K., Olivier Besson out of France, Ivo van de Grift out of the Netherlands, Tomasz Jankowski out of Poland, and so on. In leaving through that volume and the subsequent Volumes 2 and 3 one sees the glimmerings of much of what we take for granted in today’s web and mobile environment.
It was also the year 2000 where the Flash community got exposed to the world through the FlashForward conference and later on FlashForward in Europe, the SparkEurope conference, Brighton on the Beach, and Flash in the Can. They became the events where one could be exposed to and learn from the best. It was also at these conferences where the attendees could socialize with the presenters and where the presenters could socialize with each other and from both of those encounters knowledge, competency and creativity spread across the globe and down to the local user groups and classrooms of the world.
The User Groups
At this point, I am going to narrow the focus here from a global perspective and talk about the importance of the local Flash User Groups. One I was intimately involved with was FlashinTO from my home town, Toronto. It is a great story.
In 2001 one of my fellow faculty members, Gayle Hurmuses, popped into my office at the College and told me we might have a problem. She was participating in a chat group and one of the participants, Shawn Pucknell, mentioned how he would like to put together a Flash Riot. This wasn’t the first time Shawn had crossed my radar. I was at FlashForward2000 and, during a break, there, leaning against a wall of the Masonic Temple’s courtyard, was this tall, lanky blonde-haired gentlemen. When I noticed he was from Toronto I introduced myself to Shawn, chatted for a bit about Toronto, and moved on.
During that Flash Riot discussion, there was general agreement there would be a gathering and Humber would cover the cost. This was the first I had heard about this and I called Shawn to arrange lunch in Toronto. Over that lunch, the foundation of what was to become one of the largest Flash Groups on the planet- FlashinTO- was laid and from that User Group, Shawn created an international Flash Conference- FlashintheCan- which has since morphed into one of the world’s leading Creative Conferences - FITC.
The great aspect of the monthly FlashinTO gathering was that it drew in creatives from a variety of industries and students from the Colleges and Universities located in Toronto and allowed them to interact with each other in a social setting. It was also the venue where a lot of local Flash Designers and Developers such as Simon Conlon, Hugh Elliot, and James Eberhardt were given the opportunity to present their work. It was also not unheard of to have Rob Burgess, then CEO of Macromedia or various Flash Product managers and Evangelists join us.
FlashinTO was just one group but they were springing up all over the planet and they, more than anything else, helped to connect local design communities and provide an educational and knowledge-sharing opportunity at the local level.
There are times where I have felt like King Canute ordering the ocean’s tides to stop. I have been complaining, quite forcefully for years, that the Digital Media industry is quick to celebrate the ‘new” but rarely acknowledges how the “new” got to be “new”. Our business has a history that is rarely if ever, celebrated. Think about it. Digital Media profoundly changed how we communicate and the misfits and creatives, some of whom are in this piece, did things with Flash that had never been done before and blazed the path to today’s web and mobile media environment.
They truly were the “crazies” Steve Jobs talked about in that famous Apple ad. They took a simple piece of software and asked a simple question: “What can I do with this?”. By refusing to “stay safe” they rejected the status quo and constraints of HTML and handed us the games, page turns, data visualizations, interactivity, video, and new ways of marketing films, cars, and any other product you can think of that are so common today.
I agree. They were crazy … like a fox. Working individually or collaboratively this bunch of misfits and creatives discovered new ways of communicating through their work. Then they shared what they had learned with others and those others, around the world, built upon what they had learned and embedded those lessons into their communities.
So don’t mourn the passing of Flash. Instead, celebrate those who got us here. Flash was nothing more than a tool or as Josh Davis said, “Code is just as artistic as using paint and a brush.” But what a brush!