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It was bound to happen. Web animation got good. Thanks in part to a clever computer program called Flash, Net animation trickery is no longer confined to the blinking buttons and banners of bad Web design hell.

Instead, today’s new breed of stop-motion wizards are crafting their work into online cartoons, creating entertaining pieces that play surprisingly like real film shorts. Even more amazing, these modern-day Disneys do it with nothing more than home computers, their own creativity and a bit of bandwidth-stretching sleight-of-hand.

In a way, this is nothing new. If you’ve been to any big-screen animation festival, you’ve witnessed the economical magic great animated shorts can deliver. Working without Lion King-sized budgets or big studio backing, good short-subject animators turn the limitations of their art into its most intriguing asset: A newspaper cutout is transformed into a beautiful flying bird, a lump of clay becomes a wisecracking dog in a funny little hat.

With Web animation, these rules of creative economy are even truer. The relatively high bandwidth necessary to deliver full color and sound animation online has presented a unique challenge to animation technologists. Current streaming video techniques – which basically pump a squashed video signal across the Net – don’t really have the quality to do cartoons justice.

Instead, Macromedia Incorporated has come up with an ingenious solution in their emerging Flash technology. When you download a Flash animation, the basic elements that make up the animation travel to your computer, along with instructions telling your machine what to do with them. For example, the image of a cat, a couch and a ball of yarn are sent, and then the Flash program simply moves them around.

It may sound primitive, but the end result is amazingly seamless. In fact, there’s already a first generation of true auteurs pushing this technology to create some pretty remarkable works of art:

Gross Joe: If you don’t mind sick humor that involves torturing people and small animals, the Joe Cartoon Co. offers a great introduction to online animation. Cartoonist Joe (no last name given, apparently) has created such endearing classics as Red Dot (a series of somewhat messy vignettes involving a little red dot and a gun), Spontaneous Man (he combusts), and How To Pick Up Chicks (you just have to see it). But Joe’s specialty is sadistic cartoons you can actually interact with. My favorite is the Joesterizer 2000, in which you frappé a frog in a blender at a variety of user-chosen speeds.

Beals’ World: Halifax-based freelance designer and cartoonist Edgar Beals’ illustration style is often reminiscent of the early "Rocky & Bullwinkle" show. Plus, his hilarious Giant Cow animation, about an unfortunate radioactive accident and a cow, works quite nicely as a music video for his friends’ surf band. But don’t miss his ongoing Wenchell Bogum sci-fi serial, featuring a couple of "Ren & Stimpy"-inspired starship custodial workers who accidentally launch themselves into deep space. (Find Beals’ work at the Animation Express Web site; including his bizarre Mickey and Pluto parody, Plicky and Muto).

Toons from Bob: Take one look at animator Bob Cesca’s Camp Chaos Web site and you’ll know he’s the most prolific of his peers. With all the great animations he showcases online, it’s hard to know which to view first. Try these: His quaint Googly & Spiffy series, which pays warm homage to silent movie-era cartoons such as Felix the Cat; and his newest, This Thing of Ours, a mob movie spoof featuring "the most fucked-up crime family in history."

Whitehouse Treasures: Animator Steve Whitehouse is clearly the artiste of this fledgling group. Whitehouse uses cutouts of real fine art to bring his animations to life. His Da Vinci Blues, a whimsical pen and ink love story that uses – among other things – Michelangelo’s David as its object d’amour, would not have been out of place at any highbrow animation festival.  Ditto for the witty Warholis, which will tickle Andy Warhol and Elvis fans alike.

Also worth a look-see: Los Angeles-based Naoki Mitsuse’s surrealistic sign-language training film Throwing Signs with Little Nuno; Seth Feinberg’s retro animated superstar Bulbo; 22 Online’s hilarious news spoof series Not CNN; Emma Stone's simple but uniquely poetic Ottergirl; two gems from online "entertainment agency" Honkworm: the dark knight farce Fatman, and the Monty Pythonesque Fish Bar series; Dutchman Michael Hoving's visual filling station pun Smokey & The Hole; and John Lycette's typographical fantasy Not My Type.

Has the Fellini of Web animation emerged yet? Probably not. But thanks to Flash, it’s no longer a question of technology. It’s just a matter of time.

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