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These Days, Web Sites Are Becoming Fairly Animated

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It remains to be seen whether animation Web sites will survive the stock market’s wild gyrations, but for the time being, they sure are a lot of fun.

The millions of dollars that have been invested in such sites as Icebox.com, MediaTrip.com, Shockwave.com and UrbanEntertainment.com have yielded a rich assortment of short animated shows, in genres ranging from superhero to super-slacker to super-crude.

The animation is not as dynamic as consumers are used to elsewhere, but what the shows lack in visual sophistication they make up for in humor not available on TV or film.

Cartoons at Icebox.com (https://www.icebox.com) benefit from the talents of writers, producers and animators from successful TV shows including “The Simpsons,” “King of the Hill” and “Futurama.” The site, which officially launched last week, features a collection of two- to five-minute series (installments are dubbed Web-isodes), all with a playful, over-the-top look and feel.

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“Superhero Roommate,” a weekly Icebox show created by “Simpsons” writer Matt Selman, is a witty mix of the superhero/slacker genre. Conscientious roommate Russell (voiced by “NewsRadio” star Dave Foley) is baffled by his lazy, slob roommate Neil (Brian Posehn), who also happens to be a superhero. By day, Neil has to be forced to take out the garbage; by night, he adjusts satellite transmitters on Jupiter. In this week’s episode, Russell walked in on Neil engaging in some super-powered onanism behind the pages of a men’s magazine.

Many online animation sites take risks that wouldn’t fly on the tube, one reason top-notch creators have been flocking to the Internet, even if just for a side gig.

“Time is very valuable on TV,” noted Icebox Chief Executive Steve Stanford. “We’re trying to provide a place where creators can do shows that they want to do--and audiences want to see--without the restrictions of the typical development process for television.”

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That common attitude at animation sites often translates into adult material and irreverent humor, rife with profanity, violence and racial slurs.

In one Icebox show, “Mr. Wong,” created by “South Park” writers Pam Brady and Kyle McCulloch, a society gal and her houseman share a love-hate relationship predicated on Wong’s pronunciation troubles. In “Zombie College,” created by “Futurama” producer Eric Kaplan and “King of the Hill” co-supervising director John Rice, teens-turned-zombies Scott and Zelda eat each other’s brains, literally, for sexual pleasure. Gross, yes. But you can’t help laughing at the monitor.

Icebox, like most animation sites, utilizes Flash 4, an Internet-friendly animation program, and requires high bandwidth for optimum viewing. Even at slow modem speeds, though, the visuals are quite smooth. Heads bob in a slightly herky-jerky fashion, and there aren’t many scene changes, but it works with the comedy style.

And unlike live-action, which generally is presented online with streaming video, Web animation is offered as a download, which can take anywhere from five to 15 minutes on a 56K modem. Once downloaded, however, it can be viewed repeatedly without the wait.

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At MediaTrip (https://www.mediatrip.com), the off-kilter sensibility of writer Peter Gilstrap and animator Mark Brooks comes alive on two weekly one-minute shows, “Lil’ Pimp” and “Creamburg.”

Lil’ Pimp, a cute redheaded tyke wearing overalls and a big gold necklace, hangs out with his foul-mouthed pimp friends, Fruitjuice and Nagchampa, and his pet gerbil with Tourette’s syndrome. In a recent episode, Nagchampa goes to heaven and learns Buddy Holly is his guardian angel, with a prison-like twist: “You gonna’ be my chocolate boyfriend for all eternity.” A catchy, surf-pop theme song completes the show’s bizarre dichotomies.

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In “Creamburg,” embittered Hollywood B-player (and cream puff) Jerry Creamburg shares his curmudgeonly viewpoint as he tokes on a cigarette and sips a stinger. In one episode, called “Cream’s Kids,” the huckster hosts a telethon in Jerry Lewis fashion, minus the good intentions.

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The Icebox and MediaTrip shows, like Webisodes on other animation sites--including the raunchy Romp.com, co-founded by Eric Eisner, son of Disney Chairman Michael Eisner--proudly lack political correctness. But what may appeal to teenage boys may not be the success formula for other sets of eyes.

“Why is it that all animation has to drop ‘F’ bombs or be ‘sick and twisted’? " asked Jon, who posted a message on the MediaTrip site. “Flash animation sites on the Net need to take a lesson from ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘Dr. Katz'--intelligent writing goes a long way. This garbage that we are seeing now is a fad that will soon die!”

Fad or no, executives at animation sites are hoping to catch a ride on the convergence bandwagon, bringing their properties to television and films.

“Short animation is something everybody’s familiar with; it’s a real commercial entertainment medium,” explains Icebox’s Stanford. “There’s been a preexisting success of turning short animations like ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘Beavis and Butt-head’ into TV series and movies.”

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Urban Entertainment (https://www.urbanentertainment.com) may have scored the first major success. Universal Pictures recently acquired its “Undercover Brother” animated show for development. Created and directed by screenwriter John Ridley (“Three Kings,” “U-Turn”), it’s about office worker Anton Johnson, who turns into an African American superhero, complete with an Afro and ‘70s-style leisure suit. Johnson fights the white media conspiracy the old-fashioned way: with his fists.

And Marvel Comics guru Stan Lee recently inked a deal with producer Mark Canton to turn Lee’s animated sci-fi series, “7th Portal,” available at Shockwave.com, into a feature.

Nevertheless, skepticism remains that all these sites, which have adopted a variety of business models--from program sponsorship to strategic alliances to offline distribution--can produce profits for their investors.

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But for now, short animation works on the Web, even with a 56K modem.

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Michele Botwin can be reached at michele.botwin@latimes.com.


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