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The paradox is that you can find a lot of beautiful animation on the web, but it’s almost never produced as web native or for web distribution; may they be school or professional shorts, these works are conceived and created with other goals in mind: exercise, a final exam, a demo of one’s technical skills (in this category you can include the Japanese ONA – Original Net Animations – at least in the initial phase), etc. When they are not uploaded by fans, without the author’s consent. The medium, in fact, is used as a mere vehicle. As a borderline case, we have some anthological web series putting together existing works (from The Channel Frederator to Sundance Channel’s Animation Bizarre).
But a “made for web” animated series is a totally different story.
The dominant need is to make it quick-&-cheap; for years, objective technical limitations lowered the final quality; but even with today’s softwares and average bandwidth the web is full of cheap solutions, exploiting mechanical movement of layers, extreme reduction of traditional animation and, not surprisingly, often recalling the aesthetic results of the cutout technique. Not to mention extreme cases, such as the post-apocalyptic Afterlife, in which the animation is completely removed and replaced with still frames; or the motion comics, where the movement is extremely reduced and the main value is the design’s aesthetic richness, in itself; or even the machinima technique, which recycles video game characters and environments using them as in a sort of digital puppetry (Red vs. Blue). Stop motion animation and cutout are employed sometimes, but obviously with much more freedom in (negative) terms of fluidity of movement; and in a handful of cases, you can see a very raw CGI animation.
High technical standards put out of the picture, what makes the difference (and the success) of an animated web series is more the result of a strong concept and a suiting technique than of a perfect technical execution; and, of course, it falls into the dynamics of “niche” targeting.
With that in mind, ad with an eye to originality and creative achievement rather than exclusively popular success, here I give you my personal picks.

Stainboy

Stainboy (aka The World Of Stainboy, 2000) is written and directed by Tim Burton and animated by Flinch Studio (Georgia based, active in cartoons, commercials, web sites – responsible for a Griffin web spin-off); it is comprised of six short episodes (3-4 minutes).
The protagonist, a small and almost harmless anti-superhero that leaves a liquid trail along his path, comes from Burton’s anthology The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other stories (1998), as well as some secondary characters. In the series, he works for the Burbank Police and deals with special cases with a paranormal component (meaning: he neutralizes monsters and strange misfits). The character is also used as a guide in the virtual art gallery of Burton’s official website.
The animation is in Flash, but the extreme stylization (especially of the characters; backgrounds are often just sketched) retains all the master’s creativity and spirit, even managing to evoke the taste of a good old 2D pencil drawing. Not without effort: the nuances of color are obtained by superposition of different layers and the realization of the series has required a direct collaboration with Shockwave’s technical team to devise optimization solutions.
The series does not have an official website; it’s on YouTube (Flinch’s channel), though. There’s also a blog entry that talks about the process and the re-mastering in 2009.

Salad Fingers

Salad Fingers is another series in Flash, dating back to 2004, from British author David Firth, an autarchic free-lance, features the music of artists like Brian Eno and Aphex Twin.
It stands out thanks to a strong authorial approach: the marked stylization compensates the simplicity and crudeness of the flash animation (here, very sketchy indeed) and makes it a functional element to the strong concept and the eerie atmosphere of a post-atomic, desolate world, with the help of a color palette made of flat and opaque colors. The dialogs (monologues, mostly) are elementary and childish, tracing the psychology of the protagonist, a meekly regressed (post) little man. The music is a spare and minimal electronic loop (quite likely Eno’s) that goes on relentlessly in the background, always equal to himself, reinforcing the sense of sad resignation of a crumbled world.
Needless to say, I like it very much. And it’s a web cult.
Nine episodes, relatively short, now visible on the original web site as well as on Firth’s YouTube channel. The last one was released in November 2011.

Chadam

Despite being evidently targeted to children, Chadam brilliantly compensates the little stiffness of the “same old” moral tale and its obvious dynamics through the use of a gothic, dark, highly personal and original design; making, at the same time, the most creative use of a graphics engine for games.
Indeed, the visual impact, once accepted the distance from the mainstream 3D animation, is what’s worth the ticket, here.
10 episodes of varying length (5 min average), distributed by Warner Bros in 2011, Chadam is directed by Landon F. Pascual and produced by Jason Hall and HDFilms. The series recycles some characters created by artist Alex Pardee (who is also Chadam’s co-creator of the series) for a rock album’s cover. It tells the story of a monsters’ town stroke by a mysterious and deadly epidemic, obviously consequence of a bad guy’s evil deeds and that your average casual-but-predestined hero needs to face and fight.
The series uses for the first time a game engine (Unreal Engine3 of Epic Games, adopted in games like Bioshock 2) to produce something defined (quite generously, to be true) as “a feature-film quality” animated web series. Unlike the “machinima” technique, here everything was designed and created from scratch by a small team of artists, animators and motion capture technicians. The result may not please everyone, but it is for sure far superior to the cheap CGI we sometimes see on the web (especially in sci-fi web series).
You can watch Chadam exclusively on the official page of the WB site. Or search for it on YouTube (but you didn’t hear that from me).

Space Ninja

Space Ninja (2011) is a digital 2D series with certain dramatic ambitions.
10 short episodes, a continuous story arc, it is created by Dark Maze Studios (Champaign, Illinois); produced and directed by Ed Glaser, it’s written, designed and animated by Alex Mitchell (an independent designer who has done artwork for film, theater and animation – initially, the project was meant to be an on-line comic book).
Space Ninja is a hybrid cyber-steam-punk modeled on feudal Japan, whose social structure and power dynamics are transported into a technological future of spaceships-towns.
It’s drawn exclusively in black and white with occasional additions of red and this stylization is its main and more striking aesthetic value. The animation is very similar to the motion comics technique (but applied to an original design rather than to existing comics) and minimizes the movement, evoking it through plastic poses while translating the whole character’s silhouette, instead; even dialogs are dry and concise, comic book style.
On YouTube (the first two episodes are reversed in the playlist) and Blip.

Psychotown

Psychotown is a cutout animation series created in 2009 by Dave Carter, an Australian independent animator whose resume includes partnerships with MTV, Sony BMG and Comedy Central.
6 short episodes, its minimalist two-dimensional design, highly stylized characters (cardboard silhouettes in three-dimensional sets) and skipping animation are functional to the creation of lively, surreal sketches. Each episode depicts a pair of “incorrect”, foul-mouthed, characters engaged in dialogs often on the verge of paradox.
On YouTubeCarter’s channel, where, while you’re there, you can also watch other animations in the same tone made under the overall brand of The Dave Carter Show (while his newest series, Billy and the Bitch, is currently ongoing on Mondo Media’s YT channel).

Dinosaur Office

So stupid that you can not miss it, Dinosaur Office, produced by CollegeHumor (digital studio part of the New York based CollegeHumor Media) started in late 2011 and has recently launched a second season.
Short and hilarious comedy, it is produced in stop motion for the Nintendo 3DS, and is, indeed, even in 3D. It’s released on-line, as well (unfortunately, standard resolution).
The production minimizes all the efforts required by this (very demanding) technique, using the greatest economy in motion, cardboard backdrops drawn in pencil, close-ups whenever possible, etc… But, again, the aesthetic result, in itself rather funny, is functional to support the script: a brilliant mash-up of office comedy and big old lizards, where the most mundane work situations are transformed into demented interludes between dinosaurs with tie; particularly effective, the voice dubbing is always strained, loud, shouting, gritty (and contagiously hilarious).
Some episode is on CollegeHumor’s YouTube channel, but not all of them.

Simon’s Cat

Last but not least.
I’ll be brief about this. It’s about a cat. So, it’s quite likely you know it already.
Sketch comedy with a man and his pet, Simon’s Cat is the genial brainchild of brit animator Simon Tofield and, despite the brevity of episodes, is a must watch for every cat lover (and not just them).
It’s completely hand drawn, black and white, with an old school “pencil only” approach (only that the pencil, here, is more likely digital) and features ordinary moments of coexistence between man and cat (guess who wins).
The series started in 2008 and today counts 20 videos (plus one with a dog) and an entire constellation of merchandise goodies.
You can see them on the YouTube channel. And, while you’re at it, check out the secondary channel, too.


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