Flash Fetish

"Motion is the message." This mantra, inspired by Marshall McLuhan, was evangelically promoted by Hillman Curtis, principal of a motion graphics firm at last year's American Center for Design's Living Surfaces Conference. His presentation of mutant shapes, ambient backgrounds, and textual mist engaged the audience's visual sense. The big screen was not vapid with static Powerpoint slides. It ebbed and flowed with words and images that moved to a bodily rhythm. The screen no longer looked and felt flat. It was a living surface. Flatland was repressed for the time being. What made this repression of gravity possible was Flash, Macromedia's solution for realizing bandwidth-lean, high-impact web content. It is also a cult. Flashimators are multiplying like the number of Flash Players (over 200 million) being plugged into browsers.

Point, line and plane. Square, circle, triangle. With Flash, these fundamental building blocks of visual experience have extended their usability on screen. Points multiply and diminish. Lines stretch and shrink. Planes elevate and drop. Squares changing into circles changing into triangles. This "tweening"--this orchestrated movement of visible objects--has found a haven in the internet vernacular. This haven has grown into a legion of Flashimators, zealous in imbuing text and images with kinesics, making words and pictures sing the body electric. The intensity of visual agitation can be cranked up or down. Flash is the graphic equalizer allowing manipulation of visual decibel levels. This is at the discretion of the Flashimator. When it comes to the expressive possibilities of motion graphics, Oscar Wilde's dictum of "I could resist anything but temptation" comes into play and very much is pushed to Flash Forward. (Faced with the fascination with animation, the marriage of style and communication should never be divorced.) What is manifested are constellations of dancing light and space, a vector-based liquid crystal display, aesthetically driven and mathematically generated. (The marriage of art and science should never be divorced.)

The Flash site is developed in the guise of a microcosm that blossoms into a macrocosm. The internet medium is the "stage"--the platform within which the Flashimator imports, pastes, and sculpts "symbols" (characters) assigned with "actions" (roles) in his/her multi-dimensional graphic plot. The Flashimator is an author of a play on the visual verities of life. The expressive range of motion graphics is tremendous, from serenity to anxiety. The Flashimator is a visual art therapist, whose script is one of visual exploitation. The screen assumes the quality of water: crystalline, fluid, and translucent. Opacity is shunned for a through-the-looking glass view. The Flashimators create worlds inhabited by cinematic collages: the words roll; the images emerge and submerge. The audience is enticed, swooned perhaps. The viewer takes on the role of Alice in Wonderland--cast adrift, immersed in a spectacle of combustible letterforms, kaleidoscopic images, and prancing shapes amidst a chameleon background. What motion will the mouseover unleash? The message coagulates into a readable mass then scurries into the color field from whence it came. As the message fades, a tribe of giant letterforms bloat themselves. Their scale fills the screen at an obnoxious rate like a Jackson Pollack drip painting oozing with pigment. What remains is a freeze frame of digital paint without the accumulated crust. Our appetite for the mind-popping sweetness of eye candy is whet.

Imagine also the viewer coming into a zone of screen apparitions whose positions are unpredictable: they arrive from the sides, top or bottom edge, or from somewhere within the depths of the live area of the screen. The screen is a compositional viewfinder. It can only see so much. However limiting the screen view is, it is the lens through which the Flashimator transmits moving messages to seduce us, grabbing our imagination, keeping us fixed on the message's movements which may enter into another set of coordinates, or into another "scene", or into another message remaining to be revealed. Is the moving message a dogmatic epistle, a journal entry, a historical commemoration, an ode to nature, a lovelorn letter, or a soliloquy?

From analog to digital, visual communications on the internet have quickly converted from static pages to dynamic cells with the advent of Flash. The tempo is open: adrenalized motion=presto, walking motion=andante, slow motion=adagio, abrupt motion=staccato, seamless motion=legato. The visible word is liquified, jellifying and pollinating, flowing like oil, dripping like molasses. The screen is a window to cascading typography. But never wading through visual morass.

A dance sequence is initiated. Who leads? The steps, the visual cues, cannot be anticipated. This is visual improvisation, whose melody and harmonics can be that of a waltz, a fandango, or a dirge; whose structure is that of a sonata or a concerto. The Flashimator is a conductor directing graphic assets into a smooth-and-connected arrangement of word, image, time, and sound. A legato touch is paramount. Each visual combination is a musical phrase, crafted with care. As the Flashimator's sensibilities and techniques grow, he or she gains more competence in marrying words and images to the screen to the point of visual virtuosity. The visual repertoire expands in dramatic currents. The Flashimator's "symbols" don the metamorphic personality of the mythic sea-god Proteus. A species of the protean sort glide within the digital aquarium of the screen. The site-seer observes their qualities from the other side of the bubble.

In ArtAndCulture.com, artists' names breathe like ethereal vapor. Their visual resuscitation personifies the artists' restless pulse beat and inventive vitality. At Turtleshell.com, fireflies gravitate around your cursor. They are your lantern-companions on your site exploration. These fireflies do not prove to be the will-o'-the-wisps that throw you off course. In OnceUponA_Forest.com, the invisible hand of Virgil leads you to a virtual tour of surreal assemblages, likened to postcards strewn with animated abstract patterns that are artificial and natural in flavor. In PregnancyCalendar.com, numerals grow big and small. These are the numerals of embryonic maturation. Accompanying the chronology is narrative written in the first person. Like it's Flash counterparts, this site celebrates life, especially that found in the fusion of word and image. Memory is preserved and shared. Flash is the technical incubator of storytelling, where a body of text is treated as a body, stimulating in faculties and possessing emotional warmth.

Making engaging content is a passionate pursuit. Moving messages to move (to woo) online viewers is a commodified pastime. A Flash site is not about the software. Utilizing the capabilities of Flash is not a dry exercise in motion graphics. It concerns Romanticism with visual phenomenon--visible letters tweening into visible words tweening into visible signs tweening into visible metaphors tweening into visible feelings. The internet is a semiotic field of dreams. And Flash has become an integral tool for delving into this brave new digital canvas in which the Flashimator shares Pollock's attitude of being "in" the painting. It is the wand charging static textual particles.

Originating in the mid-1990's, Flash has emerged as the dominant laboratory for weaving and casting graphic spells whose charm is fast and scalable. These spells set a new paradigm of visual alchemy to nurture, entertain, and delight visual thrill-seekers in a new medium with the same message: "The purpose of creation is beauty." (Hazrat Inayat Khan, 1882-1927)

Related link: flashfilmfestival.com

Nathaniel Burgos is a designer based in Chicago where he teaches visual communications at the University of Illinois. His current projects include an article on InfoRomanticism and DesignFeast.com, a resource for the disciplines of design.