By Moe Miller
As someone that has been using computers from the age of chunky off-white Mackintoshes to compact iPhones, it goes without saying that I’ve dedicated a lot of my time to internet culture—from virtual pets, to emo MySpace profiles, to memes. Yet over this span of time I’ve observed one medium that is especially unique to the internet—the independent animation.
Animations created by independent artists have thrived online for years, dating back to the internet’s first meme, “Dancing Baby” (1996). One can only imagine the catharsis of watching that 3D rendered baby dance on loop to the intro of Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling”. Additionally, the creation of the program Adobe Flash (1996) made animating all the more accessible and websites like Newgrounds and Albino Blacksheep played a large role in functioning both as a testing ground for young artists, and as a birthplace for other early memes.
Because of this mutual relationship between animators and the cultural landscape of the internet, who better to create art about our lives on and offline? In this article, I’ll be looking at six animated shorts and the way they discuss how relationships function with the introduction of computers from the early 2000s to now. It might go without saying, but the following animations fall within the not suitable for work territory, so watch at your own discretion.
“She Blocked Me” Samb (2005)
This animation has not aged well. (Floppy diskettes, anyone?) Part of the reason that I chose to include it is because it was originally hosted on the flash website Albino Blacksheep, so it serves as an example of the motion-tweening and barebones visuals that characterized a lot of early flash animation. Also, the cavalier reference to “bestiality porn” serves as a reminder of how the purposefully shocking humor of the early 2000s scrapes against the standards of today, and often reads more as borderline disturbing than funny. Despite the fact that the video is hard to get through, the tone of the video reflects certain attitudes towards an (anonymous) internet culture in which no one was held accountable for their actions.
Side Note: I recommend checking out “Shii’s Song” and the “There She Is!” series to gain a more rounded sense of what early 2000’s flash animation looked like. (These are both really cute, well done animations so they’re worth checking out anyways!)
“LOVESTREAMS” Sean Bucklew (Released in 2017, set in 2002)
This animation was done in 2017 and unlike the animation above, it’s able to (thankfully) set aside some of the residue associated with early internet culture, in favor of a more romanticized perspective on anonymity. This animation is also done by a professional animator, and is included in a feature length film hosted by a collaborative group, the Late Night Work Club (The full film is open to the public). Beyond his expert usage of easter eggs entirely reminiscent of the early 2000s (ranging from household names like Squirtle to the more obscure Giko cat), Bucklew creates a compelling narrative by visually juxtaposing the three-dimensional protagonist against her two dimensional “reality," which grows flatter as the film progresses. To me, this visual shift beautifully signals the protagonist’s changing perspective on her anonymous lover, who takes a turn from alluring to alien. Also, the ephemeral nature of this encounter would be difficult to fully experience today, as in 2002 webcams weren’t integrated into computers, so revealing your face wasn’t a common practice. This text-based landscape serves as a reminder of a time where people were able to make meaningful connections without being tied to photo-based identities—no matter how fleeting they may have been.
“kittykat96” Victoria Vincent AKA Vewn (Released in 2017, set before or around 2009)
Beyond exploring how the internet functions as a kind medium for people to interact together, independent animator Victoria Vincent’s work delves into the experience of the online “public figure”. I want to let this film speak for itself, but I’ll leave you with a quote from philosopher and critical thinker,Walter Bejamin, in his essay, “The Work of Art in the age of Its Technological Reproducibility” (1939), that I feel resonates with the work:
“The film actor’s feeling of estrangement in the face of the apparatus [or, camera…] is basically the estrangement felt before one’s appearance in a mirror. But now the mirror image has become detachable from the person mirrored, and is transportable. […] While [s]he stands before the apparatus, the screen actor knows that in the end [s]he is confronting the public, the consumers who constitute the market. This market, where [s]he offers not only [her] labor but [her] entire self, [her] heart and soul, is beyond [her] reach.”
“Sons” CONCORDE & Eddy Production Company (2014)
Now jump forward 5 years into a more familiar internet—one where you can find people you went to high school with and try to hook up. Yes, now we’re fully immersed in the world of social media. Much unlike the first two narratives, photography plays an integral role in dating, as the protagonist stares into the profile picture of her former crush. To me, the element of digital vs. physical photographs indicates a divide in how the characters understand each other. The protagonist sees her crush through an intangible medium which is projected to a broad audience, whereas the crush holds onto a unique photograph of the protagonist, despite the fact that it’s over handled and worn. In contrast to the inanimate, text based world of the early 2000s, this work expertly depicts how simply looking at a profile can unearth long forgotten—or in this case, repressed—memories.
“Mr. Carefree Butterfly” Yonatan Tal (2017)
This work by independent artist Yonatan Tal is probably the most accurate representation of how our devices, and the internet, function in our daily lives today. Rather than showing how characters are physically tethered to devices, the “windows” (like the alarm clock app and “low battery” symbol) that appear on screens are visually integrated to the main character’s reality. Because the main character uses a smartphone he is able to seamlessly integrate social media into his active lifestyle, in contrast to the laptop or desktop computers in the previous animations. Note how when he’s describing the ways that he’s been “living it up” he does so through the lens of social media. One thing that stuck out to me, is that even though the best friends are visually in opposition to each other—the protagonist being associated with artificial light and electronic imagery, while his best friend is in natural light, surrounded by trees—they both still use devices to communicate with each other in the beginning of the film, and in the shot where the best friend is in college. Though the majority of the animation prioritizes the human connection between the two, the fact that the best friend still uses social media shows a version of the world where our devices are ever-present, and seemingly inconsequential.
Today, artists from all backgrounds and age ranges continue to post their animations online in the form of gifs, shorts, and feature length films—an amazing feat considering that animation was a largely inaccessible art forum (to the public) before the mid 90’s. After such a paradigm shift in the industry, one can only look forward to the future works of such a diverse class of animators.