Grandmasters of Flash: An Interview with the Creators of Flash
At this past Friday’s Annie Awards, Jonathan Gay, Gary Grossman and Robert Tatsumi, were awarded with The Ub Iwerks Award. These three computer programmers are credited with creating Flash, the animation and interactive content software that helped ignite an animation revolution.
According to the Annies website, The Ub Iwerks Award is presented to “individuals or companies for technical advancements that make a significant impact on the art or industry of animation.” Iwerks is remembered as a brilliant animator, but in 1933 he borrowed parts from an old Chevrolet and invented the multiplane camera, which allowed animation teams to achieve what appears to be a deeper, almost 3D environment.
The software we now know as Flash also rose from humble beginings.
The year was 1993, and Charlie Jackson, Jonathan Gay, and Michelle Welsh had established FutureWave Software, and with an initial investment of $500,000 they set their sights on the emerging market of pen computing. From their little office on Vickers Street in San Diego, the team hoped to make drawing on the computer easier than drawing on paper.
Their first release was called SmartSketch, and in late 1994, Gay posted to a Usenet board that “experienced computer artists will find that the flexibility of SmartSketch’s free form approach to drawing makes it an excellent companion to their high-end drawing application.” Due to some market shifts, the software didn’t sell very well, but after listening to the marketplace, they decided to incorporate animation into the product. By the summer of 1996, the team was ready to ship a new version, which they called FutureSplash Animator.
The following months would prove that their hunch was right – pen computing was indeed emerging, but, more importantly, web animation was ready to bust wide open. After major destinations like MSN.com, The Simpsons website and Disney.com adopted their FutureSplash Player (the precursor to the now-ubiquitous Flash Player), and on January 6th, 1997, Macromedia announced that they had “acquired FutureWave, the developer of FutureSplash Animator, now renamed Macromedia Flash, and integrated with the Shockwave family of multimedia players.” [Read more about the history of Flash at Adobe.com]
A subsequent acquisition of Macromedia by Adobe added Flash to the leading family of design and animation tools. Today, according to the Adobe website, the Flash Player is “the world’s most pervasive software platform” and the software is “used by over 2 million professionals.”
The majority of these professionals are using Flash to create interactive content, websites and rich media advertisements, but the emergence of Flash also supported a revolution in character animation. In the 1997, John Kricfalusi, the creator of The Ren & Stimpy Show, launched the first animated series – The Goddamn George Liquor Program, ushering in a new generation of independent animators. [See the Cold Hard Flash interview with Kricfalusi]
And with dozens of TV series, and even a few feature films, created with the software, Flash has made a significant impact on the animation industry as a whole.
Gay, Grossman and Tatsumi now work together at Software As Art, and they recently joined me in an interview about the early days, their favorite online cartoons and what their new venture will soon reveal.
AARON SIMPSON: There are surely millions of artists around the world using Flash to draw and animate. But hundreds of millions of people use Flash to watch video or build web applications. What user-markets were you guys aiming at when you built SmartSketch/FutureSplash?
JONATHAN GAY: The goal with SmartSketch was to make drawing on a computer as easy and enjoyable as drawing on a piece of paper. We felt paper would always feel better and be more accessible kinesthetically, but we hoped that if we added intelligence to the computer to help edit and create a refined drawing, we could compensate for the inherent clumsiness of the computer.
At Siggraph in 1995, we were trying to sell SmartSketch as a drawing tool with Calcomp drawing tablets (editor: still sold as the GTCO CalComp DrawingBoard). Several people suggested that our drawing tools would be good for animation and rotoscoping. Our first reaction was that would be too small of a market for the accessible tools we knew we could build. We were also intimidated by the giant, loud and very busy Animo booth towering over us across the aisle.
On animation – the avenues for distribution were video tape, CD-ROMs and television. The barriers were all too high to sell much animation software in those channels. But at the same time, the Internet was just starting to gain momentum and we thought this growth would make distribution of content easy enough, thus creating an interesting market for animation software. We also realized that the limitations imposed by slow modems would mean that a simple animation tool would have a chance to compete with more sophisticated software. That led us to add animation to SmartSketch.
AARON: Other than Animo, who were your competitors in this pen-based design and animation market back in 1993?
JON: For SmartSketch drawing software, Freehand, Illustrator, and Corel Draw were our competitors. We were unique with our support for pen and tablet drawing, but it was very difficult to convince people that our easier drawing tools were worth learning. In the early animation market, the competition was mostly about how you delivered your content in the browser. There our competition was Animated GIF, Java, DHTML, Shockwave Director, and mBed. Java and DHTML were the scariest for us but at the end of the day, they were never reliable enough in the various browsers and DHTML never had an audio solution.
AARON: In the late 90s, how rapidly was the FutureSplash plug-in adopted?
JON: In the early days, we never really knew how we were doing with plug-in adoption. Download of the plug-in has always been a big issue for Flash. One early driver of the plug-in download was the Netscape site which had a directory of available Netscape plug-ins (see the archived Netscape page at archive.org). People would go to the directory, see our plug-in and then come to our web site and download it. We were getting 20,000 hits per day in late 1996 mostly from that site. At the time we had no idea if we should feel successful with that traffic. The other major driver was the Microsoft MSN web site. In August of 1996, we got an e-mail from someone at Microsoft asking if they could download our ActiveX control from the new MSN web site they were building. We agreed without really knowing anything about it and were quite surprised when a couple of months later, the MSN site had a major launch and FutureSplash was a key part of their content. They felt FutureSplash’s vector animation was the only way they could get the television-like experience they wanted on the site. I still think Microsoft was crazy to do a major site launch with technology from a tiny company in San Diego they had never met. When Disney made a similar bet on FutureSplash, we talked to them for a year with multiple visits to their offices and a contract before they launched their site. Ever since, I have really respected that strength of Microsoft’s aggressive culture and how they were good at trusting and working with their third party software developers.
Netscape on the other hand did not really think about how to support their third party developers. They had some good early excitement with Netscape Plug-ins but Netscape decided that Java was a much better solution for browser extensions so they basically abandoned their plug-in developers by not making it easier to download and install plug-ins. This might have been okay, but they could not get Java to work reliably or fast in the browser. I still think it’s funny that we were able to build a decent version of the Flash player in Java for Internet Explorer but we could never get it to work in Netscape. Macromedia finally solved the plug-in problem for Flash by paying Netscape to bundle the Flash with browser downloads. I was always frustrated that Netscape did not develop a solution for all plug-in developers until after they had lost their developers. I think if Netscape had just solved a few problems with their plug-in support, we might have seen browser-based word processors and spreadsheets many years ago.
We always had the fear that we would be put out of business by a problem that would make it too difficult to download the player. But it turned out that as long as websites were developing compelling content, and developers were insisting to their clients that they needed Flash to build a compelling experience there was enough demand to help us get the player into peoples’ browsers.
AARON: Is there a short that you consider the “first animation” completed using FutureSplash?
JON: My first thought is the online detective series Spike Webb. They animated things like a telephone moving as it rang but this site was one of the first to have good looking content that worked within the early limitations of slow computers and download speeds. Smashing Ideas in Seattle did some of the best early animation, and of course the The Goddamn George Liquor Program was a revelation for us – to see a talented artist creating drawing in our tool.
JON: In the early days of Flash, one of the best parts of the job was being amazed by the work being done by developers. Every day, we’d look at the Shocked Site of the Day and hope it would be a Flash site instead of a Director site. It was always a highlight to see what talented people were doing with the tool we were creating.
ROBERT: John K’s work always stuck in my mind as one of the first high quality animation series done in Flash.
GARY: Joe Sparks’ work on Radiskull & Devil Doll holds a special place in my heart. I was really surprised to see such a funny, well-done cartoon coming from a fellow employee of Macromedia, but the fact is, Macromedia had a lot of creative people like that as employees. And Joe is a talented musician, so the songs really rocked! The DJ often played Devil Doll songs at Macromedia holiday parties. I still have a plush Devil Doll in a box somewhere.
AARON: When working on these original applications, how did the three of you split up the work?
JON: I focused on the graphics engine in the player and the drawing tools. Robert focused on building the UI in the authoring tool and Gary created ActionScript.
GARY: Jon and Robert are the real original developers who were there from the beginning, with Robert writing the authoring tool’s user interface, and Jon writing the graphics renderer, curve and shape math code and the browser plug-in. I joined Macromedia in 1998 right after Flash 3 shipped. Even after three versions of the software, the team was quite small – less than 10 people. Jon and Pete Santangeli were leading the team and had a loose, easy going management style. Robert once shared something with me that captured their modus operandi: “Good programmers are like racehorses. You have to let them run.” So, there was a lot of flexibility about what you worked on, and I made an effort to learn about all the different parts of the software; from Robert’s user interface code to the low-level code that Jon wrote. I was originally hired to work on the Player, but I ultimately found myself working on the nascent scripting engine. It was a role that I basically carved out for myself with the blessing of the team leadership.
AARON: Wacom’s Cintiq tablets helped bring your original pen-based drawing vision to life, and now with an affordable 12″ model, artists the world over are drawing right into the monitor. What are your experiences with Wacom products?
JON: I have fond memories of working with Wacom in the SmartSketch days to get good support for graphics tablets in the product. The revenue that we got from bundling SmartSketch with Wacom tablets in Japan paid a good chunk of our bills.
AARON: In recent years, Flash games have really taken off. Jonathan, with your background in gaming, did you foresee this development when you started creating SmartSketch?
JON: At the outset, I didn’t foresee the importance of interactivity in Flash. The animation engine in Flash was inspired by my experience with games, but I did not expect that we would have the programming resources to invest in building a good interactive engine. Fortunately, we were able to gradually add interactivity into Flash, but only after we learned what our users needed and our engineering team and code base grew. One of the craziest Flash movies I remember was someone building a pinball game in Flash 2. The only interactivity in Flash 2 was the timeline, button objects and “go to frame” actions so the author of this game added every possible ball position to the movie. After seeing that, I instantly knew that our users, using only these simple tools, were creative and stubborn enough to do amazing things.
ROBERT: The button feature was a last minute addition in FutureSplash Animator. That is why the UI is so crufty with the four hard coded frames – one for the up, down, over and hit area. I am always amazed how long that UI has lasted.
GARY: The magic of building software like Flash is that the users are creative, artistic individuals and the way they use the software can surprise you. That said, it’s also remarkable when you see how features that you implemented or contributed to influenced how the product is used, sometimes years later. When I worked on ActionScript in Flash 4 and Flash 5, that got people to begin building highly interactive Flash games and Web applications. Even more significant was the addition of video in Flash MX (version 6). Jon was a big proponent for adding video to the product, and the way he did it was classic Jon: no thick chrome around the video window the way other video players did it; no slew of codecs to download and manage; no built-in advertising or channels pushed on the end user; essentially, a completely unobtrusive and customizable video experience, and one that Just Worked, thanks to the wide distribution of the Flash Player. At the time, in 2001, I remember people saying that this was going to become the ubiquitous video player on the Web, and sure enough, within a couple years it had become the Web standard for video. In 2008, it still is.
AARON: So it wasn’t a surprise when YouTube chose Flash to deliver videos?
JON: I was confident that there were lots of interesting things that could be done with video integrated into a web page. I felt that video overlaid on web content, like you see today in web advertising, would be compelling and that rich navigation around video, like you see on television and marketing sites, would be equally as compelling. That said, I think the YouTube success is a great example of how we built technology and developers came up with innovative ways to use it. I did believe that short videos in a browser page was an unmet need but it never occurred to me that you could build such a popular site on user contributed content.
AARON: What does the Annie Award mean to you?
JON: It means that we created a really useful tool for creative expression. We worked hard to build the best software we could, but the most important part of Flash’s value and success is that the users invested their creativity and energy into learning and using the tool. So while I am honored to be named on the award, I think the award is more about the energy of the individual animators who use our tool to create content that people find entertaining. The experience and knowledge of the Flash users is much more valuable than the actual code in the product.
ROBERT: I am very proud to have helped a whole new group of artists and animators express their creative visions and present it to a larger audience than would have been possible before Flash. It also wouldn’t have been possible without the help of many others at FutureWave Software and Macromedia. I was lucky to have worked with so many talented individuals.
GARY: This is really a very special moment for me; I don’t ordinarily receive many awards, and certainly not such high recognition as an Annie! Still, I have to echo Jon and Robert’s sentiments. Jon and Robert started Flash, and I was there early on, but the Flash software really was a team effort and there are many, many people who worked to make it a success, both inside about outside Macromedia and Adobe. In particular, the animators who use Flash are its soul; we on the Flash team were in the business of making paintbrushes and easels, but the users were the real artists.
AARON: Have you three ever created your own Flash animations?
JON: In the early days, I enjoyed demo’ing Flash with a primitive animation sequence of a water drop hitting a surface, but my drawing skills came from an interest in architectural drawing so most preschoolers draw better characters than I do.
ROBERT: I definitely did my share of “engineer art” animations. They were basically stick figures doing simple movement. I wished I kept those animations.
GARY: When I started working on Flash, I thought that in order to help evolve the software it was important to know how to use it, so I built my share of little Flash movies over the years. I quickly ran into my limitations as an artist, though, which are pretty steep. I’m really just an engineer. Still, I have some fledgling design sensibility and I was surprised when some of the sample files I built for Flash ended up getting shipped without a real designer stepping in to pretty them up. I guess they were good enough!
Once I built a clone of Tetris in Flash and we demo’ed it at a Macromedia conference. Jeremy Clark, our product designer, went into my FLA’s and added a lot of pretty animations. Apparently, he was telling people how impressive and complicated the scripting code looked. Meanwhile, I was thinking, “yeah, but only you can make it look good in the end.” That’s an example of a designer and developer collaborating to build a Flash game; a fairly common work flow. It’s a rare individual who has both the design and development skills to singlehandedly realize an attractive game or application. There are surely many such gifted people using Flash, but for myself, I’m definitely on the developer side of the fence.
AARON: Have you tinkered with Microsoft’s Silverlight?
JON: I played with some of the early software but have not taken time to use it recently. From a product perspective, Microsoft has tended to focus on more on the technology than on understanding what will help content creators rapidly make compelling content. For example, there is sophisticated technology behind Microsoft’s delivery of a movie length video in a full screen web player with DRM, but it’s not very useful if people want to watch short videos in the context of a web page. Also, my sense is that the mental models behind Silverlight are a better fit for computer scientists than for artists and designers. It will be interesting to see how the generation of designer/programmers that have grown up with Flash will adapt to that.
From a product history perspective, Real Networks took the initial ownership of streaming audio and video on the Internet. Microsoft then developed more modern technology (WMV), gave it away for free and stopped product evolution in that space for several years. With Flash, we got over our fear of competing with Microsoft and Real in the video space because we believed that the need for video in a web page and video integrated with interactive elements was unmet. As a result, when YouTube arrived, Microsoft lost their leadership position in web video. Silverlight is Microsoft’s effort to reclaim leadership of this part of the market from Flash. I believe that the Adobe revenue from video serving services and software is not huge, but Microsoft is pushing that to zero with offers of free streaming for Silverlight users. It will be a shame if that again leads to stagnation in the market, but I think the passion of users in the interactive media space will keep things evolving. I look forward to the next invention.
Silverlight cleans up some of the warts in Flash but its innovation is in offering a more advanced programming model. The anticipation of that need and competition to fulfill it is a big part of what drove ActionScript 3.
AARON: Do you have any favorite Flash animated projects or series you’d point us too?
GARY: I find it really delightful that Flash has had a role in democratizing the distribution of animation by giving talented new animators a means to get their work on the Internet and reach an audience that would’ve been difficult to address otherwise. And sometimes initial success as a Web animation leads to more things. As many of your readers may already know, there’s a series I enjoy called Making Fiends. It features a sweet, innocent girl named Charlotte who tries to befriend a mean, monster-creating schoolmate named Vendetta who governs their elementary school with an iron fist. It’s cute, has a dark, Gothic sensibility and is bitingly funny all at once. It was created by a UCLA animation graduate student, Amy Winfrey. I first heard about it from my sister when she was at UCLA film school. The neat thing is that it gained a grassroots following on the Internet and is now going to appear on Nickelodeon.
AARON: Can you tell us about your latest venture – Software as Art?
JON: We’ve just changed our company name to Greenbox Technology. We haven’t announced a product yet, but the goal is to take our skills at building software tools and user interfaces and see if we can help people make informed choices about their homes environmental footprint. Our first product will help people understand how electricity is used in their home. With better information people can reduce their consumption, saving them money and reducing their carbon footprint while making their home more comfortable. It’s actually a tough problem but we are excited to see what value we can bring to this area.
AARON: What’s the difference between a start-up in today’s climate versus what you experienced at FutureWave Software?
ROBERT: It was so different in the days of FutureWave. The company was founded in 1993. The Internet hadn’t hit the mainstream and, generally speaking, things moved much slower then. In 1993, you got most of your information from magazines and trade shows, so you had to make decisions with much less information. I also think the scale of startups were much different. At FutureWave it was just me, Jon and Michelle Welsh (our marketing person) for about two or three years. Today, that could never happen.
It was also much different working in San Diego. When we eventually moved from San Diego to the Bay Area, we immediately noticed the accelerated technology focus of that region. It is similar to how impactful the entertainment industry is to LA with respect to the economy and also the culture of the community.
AARON: Thanks, Robert, Gary and Jon – and congrats on your Ub Iwerks Award.