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Farewell Flash: Remembering The Early Days Of Web Animation

As of January 1, 2021, Flash Player is no more. The veteran video player that powered a million websites from 1996 on is officially being retired and will no longer function. Of course, the plug-in has arguably long been surplus to requirements, with HTML5 serving many of the functions that Flash used to and more. In recent years tech experts warned of security vulnerabilities within the player. Adobe was essentially paying to update technology that had been made redundant, and the actual Flash animation software itself has morphed into Adobe Animate. So why would anyone be upset about the phasing out of outmoded technology? Because just as with the move from VHS to DVD and DVD to Blu-Ray a lot of content is being lost. Flash is the reason that the web animation scene exists as it does today. Most of the icons of that early era migrated to YouTube or Newgrounds long ago, but not everything has made the switch.


It's easy to forget now, but at the time Macromedia Flash (as it then was) and its sibling Shockwave were revolutionary. In the days before broadband, streaming smooth HD video was a long way off. In those days 'internet video' meant lengthy downloads or constantly buffering, low resolution video the size of a postage stamp. In contrast, Flash offered high-quality animation and thanks to its preloading technology it played smoothly and loaded quickly (for the time, at least). It wasn't called Flash for nothing.

As well as the Flash player, the Flash animation creation software also helped birth the web animation scene. The software made digital animation relatively straightforward. It made it much simpler for an individual animator or a small team to create animation from their homes without the need for any expensive extra equipment. Even an inability to draw was no impediment, as the ability to bring scanned photos in made Terry Gilliam/Monty Python style animation common. The only sticking point was the cost of the software itself- it was aimed at industry professionals. So it was unsurprising that piracy was pretty rampant- it was a pretty open secret that virtually nobody outside the industry actually paid for their software.

From these unique set of circumstances, a vibrant independent web animation scene was born. By the mid-noughties animators from around the world- particularly from the UK, US and Australia- were able to find an audience and build up a following.  It was the era that gave us Homestar Runner, Weebl and Bob, Eddsworld, Rather Good's Kittens, Salad Fingers and many more. From such glorious works figures with such curious monikers as  Mr Weebl, Albino Black Sheep and Cyriak became stars of the scene- many of them are still active today.  




Flash animation may have had a reputation for being crude but the most talented animators could get some pretty impressive work out of it. For others, the crudity was actually part of the appeal, with their amateur nature giving them a sort of punk flavour. Adding to this was the animators taking full advantage of the freedom offered by the internet, so a fair proportion of them featured outrageous violence and more cussing than a sailor with a stubbed toe separating them from the safe mainstream animation of the time. Veterans of the early internet animation era will surely remember popular site Joe Cartoon and its notorious Gerbil In A Microwave and Frog In A Blender. It took these elements and combined them with the interactivity that Flash also allowed- it was also used to make games- to allow the user to inflict horrific violence on the poor rodent and amphibian at the touch of a button.

In Joe Cartoon's case, there was nothing more to it than that. There was nothing beyond the violence or swearing, no substance behind the shock.  More commonly, the successful web animators produced short-form sketches that could be one-offs or series that would feature popular characters like Homestar Runner, Queer Duck, Weebl and Bob and Happy Tree Freinds. The most successful of these would go on to last for years, building up a substantial audience.

Musical cartoons were also a popular area and many of the popular web animators teamed up with or were themselves talented musicians. Flash Player's ability to loop made that a popular technique that would guarantee that catchy songs like  Badger Badger Badger (mushroom mushroom), The Ultimate Showdown, Looking For My Leopard, The Llama Song and Amazing Horse will be stuck in the head of anyone who heard it until the day they die.

British animator David Firth on the other hand took the new medium in a whole new direction with his long-running series Salad Fingers. Combining black comedy with outright creepiness, his work felt like the nightmarish lovechild of Tim Burton and David Lynch.  Firth has gone on to produce some dark and surreal shorts, marking him out as a unique voice that emerged from the scene.

Some of them even caught the attention of 'old media' and found themselves on TV.  Mr Weebl's popular characters Weebl and Bob got a show on the UK's MTV2 (renamed to the more copyright-friendly Wobble and Bob) and was turned into a campaign for Anchor Butter. Rathergood.com's Joel Veitch and his singing Kittens got a late show on terrestrial network Channel 4 and several advertising campaigns. Cyriak has produced the opening titles to several TV series and numerous music videos. Less scrupulous advertising agencies have also been known to put out work 'heavily inspired' by (i.e. totally ripped off from) popular web animators.

The evolution of the internet has made Flash unnecessary and the indie web animation scene has only gone on to bigger and better things in this new era. Still, by simply 'switching off' Flash, it feels like a whole chunk of animation's history, that for many provides happy memories and played a big part in shaping their sense of humour, will be lost. It truly is the end of an era. 

Fortunately, the internet has done its thing and some brave souls are doing their level best to preserve it. The Internet Archive is preserving them through emulation. Much of the past stuff has already been uploaded to sites like YouTube, but thanks to the Internet Archive you can experience both animation and games as they were meant to be seen in the collection.  Farewell, Flash.