The Flash Aesthetic

To identify an art movement and name it is difficult. Like a stock market, you don't know what you're doing until you've come out the other side of the boom or the bust. Most art movements are difficult to pin point without time to reflect on them. The Flash Aesthetic is one which has developed to that point.

The hallmarks of the Flash Aesthetic are the reimplementation of Macromedia's Flash limitations and strengths into other mediums. These markers are easier to note once a person has worked with Flash. They become distinct because the underlying tool is created to facilitate certain aspects of animation, while other aspects are more difficult to implement.

The majority of any art is developed by not the beginners learning the tools nor the Masters who has learned to overcome the limitations of the tool. No, the vast majority of the pieces have been created by the intermediates, those who still use the crutches of the tool and have not yet seen clear to break beyond the templates and most obvious uses for the tools provided. It is here that the Flash Aesthetic has been building. The Web provides a rich library of examples of these Flash presentations. Once the style of the Flash Aesthetic attains a critical mass, it begins to bleed into other mediums.

And now this library of the Flash Aesthetic has begun to move from Web deployed animation to still-frame illustration, television commercials and music videos. The techniques of the intermediates have a consistent look and feel. The look brought on by the defaults and most evident manner of using the tools in Flash. Kind of like a cultural scavenger hunt, it becomes fun to pick out the Flash Aesthetic as it transitions into out cultural weave.

The look of a Flash movie has a number of particular elements that are distinct and set it apart from traditional cell-animations. Of these, I will deal with four: Scaling, 2-D Style, Heavy Strokes and Motion Without Cycles.


Chief among these: Scaling elements without fear.

Traditional cell animations use layers of images on a clear film to produce foreground and background characters. Once a character is created for the foreground it rarely is redrawn at a different size. Most of the time the character will remain at it's current size. Only though a complete re-draw of the element can you get a larger (or closer) version of the character.

In the original Warner Bros. Looney Tunes shorts, Porkey Pig pops out of a hole in the center of the screen and then the hole closes up after his famous line. In a way this closing hole simulates what a camera movement might do at the end of a close or mid range shot: pull back. Why doesn't the camera simply pull back? Because each frame of such a movement would require a complete re-draw of the sizing of Mr Pig and the gradiated backgrounds he's in front of. The closing up dot (which also appears in James Bond intros) simulates the 'pull back' camera movement, without the required re-sizing of the animation.

However, in live film, the ability for a character to approach the camera or vice versa is common place. The 'zoom-out', 'zoom-in', 'pull out', and 'close in' camera movements are a staple of traditional film and video work. Flash's vector basis gives animation with the ability to pull off this type of movement.

Notice how easy it is to resize an element in Flash. This resizing can be done with a single click and drag. The more simple a Flash command is, the more it impacts the Flash Aesthetic.

[ Gorillaz: Clint Eastwood at <> ]

2-D style

Final Fantasy movies aside, 2-D animation is making a heavy come back with the Flash aesthetic. Again, Flash's technology is key.

Flat animations without any shadow layer are prominent in Flash movies. In many types of 2-D illustrations the shadow layer is used to lift an element off of it's background. However, when available, the best shadow layers use Alpha channels. Alpha channels allow shadows to be created that actually blend in with the backgrounds they are over. Rather than simply making a character's shadow completely black when they are in a grass field, Alpha channels allow the green of the grass to come through. Without this blending, the shadow is heavy and presents itself as an aspect of the style rather than simply a supportive attribute of piece.

But Alpha channels are computationally slow. To present a regular flat image, the computer must simply decide what pixel to change to what color and then make it that color. If there's a whole area that will be the same color, the computer just has to calculate the edge of the element and fill everything inside. But with an Alpha channel shadow, the computer has to calculate exactly how much to change the pixel's current color base on a percentage of the original image and a percentage of the current background. This needs to be done for every pixel that is being updated. And there are no short cuts for filling large areas with the same color. In order to keep Flash movies running with decent speeds, the alpha channels are first to go.

But here's the kicker: This Alpha channel issue goes away when the Flash movie is rendered to video. If a Flash movie is rendered frame-by-precious-frame into a stream of video images the calculation part of the computing is done once. After the video file is created, the playback rate is not impacted by alpha layers because the Flash movie has been flattened. No further calculation necessary! Here we see a limitation of Flash technology being replicated in another medium. The Flash Aesthetic at work.

[ Elwood: Bush <> ]

Heavy Strokes

Thick outlines that surround elements of the movie are common in Flash animation due to the poor resolution of the average monitor. The outlines help to make elements 'pop' into the visual front and center. At the poor resolution of the computer monitor (where a user is generally less than 2 feet away from the screen) this visual emphasis is critical in separating foreground from background. In traditional animation it's less critical because the viewer is much further from the screen, each pixel taking up less room and there by having increased resolution of the overall image.

Notice that the outline of a Flash element is an easily modified attribute. The width of a line can be set in two clicks, which is considered close at hand in terms of most computer programs.

[ Guided By Voices: Glad Girls <> ]

Motion without Cycles

The fourth element of the Flash Aesthetic is the lack of motion cycles. In traditional animation, when characters move across the screen they do so in a walking cycle, a series of images where the legs and feet move in a proper walking motion. But in the Flash Aesthetic characters often lack this movement and are not given their gait and stride. They simply float across the screen.

My impression is that this is a matter of file size and work load. To create the additional movements required for a cycle of four images means 3 more images to create. The easy way out for the Flash animator is to simply have the character they've already drawn float across the screen. Not only does this reduce the animator's illustration work load, but it also reduces the file's download.

Again, this becomes part of the Aesthetic once it shows up in other mediums. When a music video shows an still image moving across the screen without a cycle, we see the limitations of Flash reflected in a medium that doesn't have those limitations, but in fact, works hard to replicate those limits.

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Beyond these, we'll continue to see more Flash Aesthetic in other pieces like Janet Jackson's video All For You, where the backgrounds have stylistic elements of the Aesthetic. TV commercials, print advertising and billboards will be next. Fine art and commercial art will have another palette to work from. Still images as well as moving images will be impacted by this movement.

[ Janet Jackson: All For You <> ]

Welcome to the 21st century. Your first visual movement has arrived.

This article was originally published at A List Apart.


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