Sunday, July 10, 2011
Xeth Feinberg's Adventures in Webtoondom, Part I and II
I've been an appreciator of Webtoon pioneer, Xeth Feinberg, from the moment I first saw his work in the mid 1990s. We've since become friends and collaborators, having spent much of the last three years working closely together on a variety of animation projects.
When I became president of ASIFA-East in 2000, one my first goals was to revive the newsletter, creating a need to wrangle people to write articles. By 2001 it was clear that something historic had just happened in the bubble burst that destroyed much of the first internet media businesses. Because Xeth was a key player, as a paid director and content provider on these new platforms, I bugged him to get his then-recent experiences down on paper. On February 2, 2001 he wrote the sobering and informative "Adventures in Webtoondom, Part I, and, (almost exactly one year later) followed up with a part II.
There's all kinds of heroes in this business. On one side you have artists like Andreas Deja or Glen Keane that lend their talents to the support and glory of established institutions. On another side you have more entrepreneurial-minded individuals that carve their own path, as Xeth has. I'm delighted to be able to use this post to collect Xeth's essays on the historic early days of the internet cartoon, which although being fairly recent history, is still in need of being properly and respectfully preserved. Xeth's adventures are a reminder of the rise and fall of all animation eras, as well as our collective ability to survive and reinvent ourselves no matter what the industry throws at us.
ADVENTURES IN WEBTOONDOM, Part I
(written Feb 2, 2001)
by Xeth Feinberg
Over the past year I found myself swept up in the middle of "The Great
Webtoon Explosion of 2000." I was in the right place and time when the
mysterious powers that be, flush with hubristic venture capital, decided
that short, easily down-loadable cartoons were going to spearhead a new
wave in web-based mass entertainment.
As an independent animator and cartoonist with a background in CD-ROM
animation, at the dawn of the new millennium I had been mastering the
potential of Macromedia Flash (the miraculous little computer
application that makes webtoons possible) for a bit over a year -- which
practically made me a wizened old expert in the field.
In 1999 I was already making my pseudo silent era black and white
"Bulbo" animations, cut my teeth on a series of childrens' interactive
storybook webtoons, and created the first more or less fully animated
webtoon series for Scifi.com, "The Existential Adventures of
Astro-Chimp." I also did enough other freelance Flash production work to
have learned a lot about how NOT to efficiently produce webtoons. I
worked solo and was able to turn out a finished webisode in a week or
less. All this work was getting seen, and though I was making a living
at it, web animation still seemed more like a fluke than a career.
Xeth Feinberg's silent era-flavored creation, Bulbo.
At the start of 2000 things started heating up. New web portals and
"destination sites" were being touted (and funded) as the "next
television." Because Flash animation files (unlike video) were small
enough to be easily viewed by the average websurfer, demand for them exploded.
In January, I was contacted by a startup called Icebox.com. Located in
Los Angeles, Icebox was founded by TV animation writers from shows like
"The Simpsons" and "King of the Hill," and well-funded by e-investors.
The idea was to get a bunch of TV-legitimized professional writers to
create the number one online original animation site... but they still
needed "un-famous" animators and directors like me to actually produce
Icebox sent over a couple scripts and the best belonged to writer Mike
Reiss, a long time executive producer for "The Simpsons" and co-creator
of "The Critic." Mike had an idea for a surreal little series called
"Hard Drinkin' Lincoln," featuring Honest Abe as a drunken lout who routinely ends up being shot by a comparatively sympathetic John Wilkes Booth.
You'd drink too if you had the responsibility of holding the Union together.
Though he hardly knew how to get online at the time, Mike's scripts were
intuitively well-suited to the web. They were short (under 3 minutes
total), mixed verbal humor with at least one good visual bit each
episode (avoiding the deadly "talking head" webtoon syndrome) and --
just as importantly given the tight deadlines -- could be produced in
about a week. Starting in March, "Lincoln" appeared weekly as one of
Icebox.com's first and ultimately most popular offerings, eventually
totaling 14 episodes. Icebox soon offered "Hard Drinkin" T-shirts,
stickers and drink-coasters to fan the buzz.
Icebox gave total creative control to it's writers and, fortunately for
me, Mike Reiss immediately took to my character designs, storyboards and
animation style. Communicating mostly through email, Mike and I
developed an easy collaboration: He basically left the art and direction
to me, typically making relatively minor notes on the finished episodes
a few days before they posted. Mike supervised the vocal recording in
Los Angeles and edited the files. I handled the music and overall sound
design with the help of my audio producer Sam Elwitt. Ultimately I
assembled the final Flash file in my New York studio with the help of
only one or two part-time helpers at any given time.
In September, Mike and I teamed up again to produce a second series for
Icebox. "Queer Duck" chronicles the adventures of a bunch of outrageously gay animals drawn in an almost cuddly cute style. The
launch date was set for National Coming Out Day on Oct. 11... leaving
basically only 10 weeks to completely design, direct and animate the
first five episodes from the time I first saw the scripts. Featuring
vocals by Jim J. Bullock, RuPaul, Billy West, Seinfeld's Estelle Harris
(as Queer Duck's mother Mrs. Duckstein), "Queer Duck" became the most
popular series on Icebox with some 50,000 viewers logging on the first
day it posted. Once again stickers and posters were printed, mentions
appeared in national magazines and newspapers, and a Queer Duck-suited
lackey even marched in Gay Pride parades to great acclaim.
Queer Duck sharing a bed with Openly Gator.
Everything happened so fast I didn't have time to put together a larger
capacity production team even if I really wanted to. Just keeping up
with Icebox took most of my time. Nevertheless, in early-summer 2000 I
found myself in the middle of a bizarre bidding war for my old character
"Bulbo," who had meanwhile won a couple awards including the New York
Flashforward 2000 web award for "Best Cartoon" and ASIFA-EAST's
"Excellence in Writing" award.
Infamous never-was POP.COM (their lawyer's first question was "can we
buy your company?") wanted to get Bulbo cartoons on their site. Luckily,
currently-existing San Francisco-based Mondomedia.com presented a more
intriguing webtoon syndication plan that also preserved all my rights
while providing production funds upfront. (I was frankly lucky in
signing the Bulbo deal in the summer, when the world of webtoons was
still near it's peak.) Though things have certainly cooled off, since
November thirteen Bulbo cartoons have been floating around the web with
the rest of Mondo's well-received "Mini-Shows."
So here we are in early 2001. The well-documented dotcom meltdown has
clobbered web animation along with many of the entertainment sites that
sponsored it. Icebox at one point had over 100 employees but is now
seeking a new round of funding. Plans for up to 15 new "Queer Ducks" and
five more "Lincolns" are on hold, along with other projects. Mondomedia,
a more flexible company, has scaled back its short-term expectations for
Bulbo's impending world-wide hegemony. Mishmash Media's nifty loft-like
office on West 28th Street, rented in June and designed to handle the
40-plus high-budget webtoons I expected this year, may have to be
abandoned for a more humble space.
In some ways, the web animation scene has come full circle. Just like in
1999 there's still work and opportunity out there but the crazy boomtown
mentality is gone, at least for now. If you got into web animation like
I did -- as a way to make your own stuff cheaply, creatively, with
minimal outside interference, taking advantage of the web's miraculous
world-wide distribution system -- then there's still a lot to be excited about.
Adventures in Webtoondom, One Year Later
Or, The Odd Case Of "Queer Duck"
(written Feb 1, 2002)
by Xeth Feinberg
Last February, when I wrote an article for this newsletter detailing my
exploits as an independent Flash animator, the internet bubble had
already burst like an infected boil and the virtual dust was settling
upon the remains of countless web-based entertainment schemes and mostly
With as much zen-like calm as I could muster, I watched hard-won
production deals morph into so many "recipient unknown" emails as
companies I'd been cranking out cartoons like "Hard-Drinkin Lincoln,"
"Queer Duck" and "Bulbo" for went belly up or down-scaled into near
invisibility. Nobody wanted to fund original internet animation once
somebody somewhere finally pointed out that there was no working
business model. It was just like the documentary "Startup.com" only with
cartoons. Fortunately, I did have a working business model.
Unfortunately, it was producing and selling animation to the other guys.
With a heavy heart and a pretty good party, I bailed out of the nifty
Mishmash Media loft space on 28th Street I'd confidently rented just
nine months before. (Note to people inexperienced with Manhattan
commercial landlords: Don't try this at home.) I consoled myself with
the knowledge that many smarter, more sophisticated people had
over-extended themselves far worse.
I spent the summer getting back to basics: Thinking about some cartoon
ideas, driving across the country, and goofing off. After two years of
meeting crazy deadlines, it was a welcome, if unsettling, break.
Xeth, a prolific writer and cartoonist cranks out numerous wonderful gag cartoons, such as this one, each year.
Visiting Los Angeles, I parlayed my vast fame into lunch with the
founders of Icebox.com (the formerly leading animation website that
fueled my own rise and fall), snuck into a party where Matt Groening
said he was a big fan of my Bulbo series, and got a free T-shirt at the
During all this time, there was one blip of potential on the horizon:
What would happen with "Queer Duck?"
In the fall of 2000 I designed, directed and animated five episodes of
"Queer Duck" for Icebox.com. Written and created by Mike Reiss, who won
Emmy's for his work on "The Simpsons" and "The Critic," "Queer Duck"
follows the off-kilter adventures of a gay waterfowl and became Icebox's
most popular show. It was also the only one that anybody else wanted to
invest in. When Icebox went bankrupt in February, 2001 (something I
learned by reading a blurb in the New York Times) there were still
rumors of funding more Queer Ducks. Good news, especially since I was
still owed money for three of the original episodes.
The next eight months involved endless phone calls trying to keep tabs
on all the bankruptcy mess. By mid-September, when acrid skyscraper
smoke billowed through my Brooklyn apartment window, Queer Duck seemed
doomed, not to mention incredibly trivial. Imagine my surprise when I
suddenly started getting calls from a lawyer at Showtime Networks.
Showtime had been struggling to wrestle free the rights to Queer Duck,
feeling it would be a perfect compliment to their hit cable show "Queer
As Folk," and had finally succeeded.
In only three and a half more months of expensive agony, the lawyers
worked out a simple 30-plus page agreement that let me get back involved
in the project. Soon I was happily storyboarding 15 inspired new Mike
Reiss scripts, this time for a company that had been in business for
more than eight months.
Working out of Brooklyn, and taking full advantage of Flash's
flexibility and the ability to work in a 'virtual office' by email and
computer, I'm now churning out the new Queer Ducks on another manic
schedule. Veteran flash animator Chris Siemasko and musical producer Sam
Elwitt round out the Mishmash Media team, while vocals (featuring Jim J.
Bullock, Billy "Ren and Stimpy" West, Tress MacNeil, Estelle "George
Costanza's Mother" Harris and others) are recorded in Los Angeles,
overseen by Mike Reiss and coordinated by Joel Kuwahara.
Animation production started in early December and on January 23 SHO.COM
unveiled an impressive new website with the original Icebox era
episodes. Each week one of the new three minute cartoons is posted, and
every Tuesday night "Queer Duck" is also shown on TV right after the new
season of "Queer As Folk." (Demonstrating again the flexibility of that
swell little Macromedia Flash application.)
No one will confuse the animation in "Queer Duck" with "Fantasia" (as if
that's what we were after), but it does a good job of bringing the
flamboyant characters and fabulous story to life with zest and personal
style, in record time -- if I do say so myself. (Nudge nudge to anybody
reading this at a network that's using more of this new technology.)
Even while animation in general is in a sad slump, like a truly flaming
phoenix, Queer Duck has miraculously risen from the internet junk heap
to find a new and bigger audience.
The cheerful and resilient Queer Duck spawned a wonderful direct to DVD feature, directed by Xeth, in 2006, and the fowl character resurfaced again, this year, in new animation Xeth created as a trailer for the upcoming San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. It seems, you can't keep a good duck down.
Check out Xeth's work at: mishmashmedia.com.