Win, Lose, or Draw
16 Color's Alan Watts Is Helping People Create or Procrastinate
By Marc Savlov
AUGUST 21, 2000: Funny things happen at 3am. Take the other night, for instance: I couldn't sleep and wandered over to my Mac to see what was up online. The Web's good for that -- it's replaced Goodwing's Big Book of British Butterflies as my preferred nonmedicinal sleep aid -- and trawling around the Net in the dead of night is a curiously exhilarating experience. You know, deep down, that millions of other benighted, restless souls are there in legion, quietly tapping their nails blunt on the keys, but it's also such a seemingly solitary pursuit. And, of course, you never know how much time has passed until the sun batters down your window shades, the bastard.
I'd been tipped about a local-run site to check out some weeks before -- www.16color.com -- and vaguely remembered the man behind it, Alan Watts, as having been embroiled in some weird lawsuit with the company behind kidhood fave Etch-A-Sketch a few years before. What Watts' site offers, I found, is an incredibly user-friendly template for people interested in making short (15 seconds), Web-based animations. His press release says it best: "Alan Watts dreams of ways to help people procrastinate." You don't know the half of it.
So I sat there, KUT's Overnite droning in the background, sketching an exploding baby -- something about a too-tight diaper tickled me. Before I knew it, I'd drawn a reasonable facsimile of a baby verging on eruption. All of a sudden it was 5am, and I'd begun yawning: mission accomplished. I've saved the partially complete piece to my desktop, where it taunts me even now. "Play with me," it whines. "I'm not done yet." Creepy.
Watts is a lanky 26-year-old, who spends much of his day freelancing for kid's network Noggin, a Nickelodeon offshoot, and assorted other gigs, but since launching 16color.com, he's inadvertently opened up a whole new realm of Web-based animation. Previously, sites like www.thenewvenue.com and others have mined the fertile ground for online filmmakers, and new animation programming leaps such as Machinima and Flash have allowed virtually anyone with a mouse to jump onboard the animation and online filmmaking gravy train. What's different about 16color.com, though, is its utterly simplistic ease of use and the resulting heavily pixelated cartoons that bloom forth. All of this, of course, has its roots in Watt's aborted Web-A-Sketch, which he wrote over the 1995 holiday season.
The site, a subtle parody of the original Etch-A-Sketch produced by the Ohio Arts company (and beloved by boomers everywhere), effectively transferred that ingenious toy's flat-screen drawing technique to the Web. As with 16color.com, Watts allowed users to upload and save their creations for posterity (and occasionally derision) online. Over time the site found itself drawing more and more attention -- not all of it the good kind. The story, full of duplicitous corporate lawyers and a sly maternal figure, goes, according to Watts, something like this: "I got an e-mail from the [Ohio Arts] marketing department saying that they wanted to buy [Web-A-Sketch] for $500. That was really lowballing it, because if they were going to hire somebody to do the same thing it would have cost at the very least $10k. So I wrote them back and told them, 'Look, if you're serious about this we'll start at $10k and go from there.' And I didn't hear back from them for almost two years. All of a sudden, out of the blue, my mom got a phone call in Houston from a man who told her he was interested in Web-A-Sketch, and he wanted to contact me."
At this point Watts took the offensive, realizing the caller to his mom left a strikingly similar phone number to the one heading the Ohio Arts e-mail from two years back. Annoyed, he called the new number and played dumb until the fellow on the other end essentially said that, yeah, this is Ohio Arts and we're gonna get you. Ya scared yet, punk? "The long and short of it," says Watts, "was that because in the spring of 1998 I had moved the server up to Studio Solutions, where I was working, Ohio Arts, through their wizardry, found out about that and decided to sue both them and me.
"I was at work one day and a marshall came in and handed me a subpoena, saying something like, 'Welcome to the real world.' That pretty much sealed the deal, and not long after I shut the site down."
There wasn't much for Watts to do at this point besides fight back, most notably by replacing the offending site with a new one that detailed the massive salaries of the Ohio Arts chief operating officers and pointed out several pending lawsuits brought against the corporation by the Environmental Protection Agency (significantly, Ohio Arts also produces "custom metal lithography and molded plastic products" through their offshoots Ohio Arts Diversified and Strydel Diversified). He also urged fans of the Web-A-Sketch site to write to the company in protest, resulting in a raft of poison pen letters deluging the Ohio Arts e-mail servers.
"Of course," says Watts, "they got after me for that, too, saying I was 'disseminating reckless untruths' or something like that. In the end, Mike Godwin, staff council for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, arranged a pro-bono settlement with Ohio Arts, and so in June of 1998, we shut the site down permanently. I didn't get a penny, but I figured they'd already spent $20k on legal fees, so, you know, I guess it could've ended worse."
Post-Web-A-Sketch, Watts created 16color.com in 1999, a natural outgrowth free from the tyranny of alleged trademark infringement that had dogged his previous venture. With 16color.com, users are able to animate their own works and then display them for others to view, which has prompted Watts to embark on the upcoming Alamo Drafthouse Cinema double bill "God Save the Pixel" and the more risqué, adults-only "Blood, Sweat, and Pixels" next Sunday evening.
"I was kind of relieved when [Web-A-Sketch] was over. I'd been doing that for two and a half years, and it was kind of nice to start fresh, to start over," says Watts, who began experimenting with the yet-unnamed 16-color site with the Shockwave program six months later. In the year and a half since its debut, 16 Color has swiped two Web awards from SXSW Interactive for Most Innovative Use of the Medium and Best Online Community. It has also made online animators out of thousands of people around the world ("Israel was really big there for a while," claims Watts). So what's the point of all these pixelated animes, the longest of which tops out at under 20 seconds?
Glad you asked. The point is communication. In its purest form, the Web has emerged as the single greatest tool for communication (and thereby interaction, albeit of the nonphysical variety) since the invention of language itself. With the English language as the more or less accepted linguistic coin of the online realm, the Web has effectively linked the global everyperson far more engagingly than mere telephonics ever could. Walt was right: It's a small world after all. About 17" across for most of us.
The mini-masterpieces of 16 Color -- sometimes crude, sometimes oblique, and sometimes just plain bizarre -- may seem like a minor addendum to the bustling online world these days, but they're not. 16 Color can change the world. (Stop laughing, you.) Take the case of k@boom, for example:
"There's this 15-year-old kid in El Salvador," Watts tells me. "His online name is k@boom, and he'd been doing these great little films on the site that really caught my eye. I actually ended up getting him a job at Noggin doing some of their little animations. He'd been making all these films on the site and apparently his mom was threatening to take away his computer because she thought he was spending too much time indoors or something, and then, you know, two months later he gets this $2,000 check in the mail, right? Instant vindication. Cinematexas is going to be showing some of his work as part of their CinemaKids program this year, too." How's that for the power to crush the other kids? And you thought online cartoons were only for kids and Ken Lieck.
Next up for Watts is Pixel Club, another natural outgrowth of his original Web-A-Sketch idea, that will ramp up most of 16 Color's existing features and tack on dozens of new ones, including the ability for users to upload sound and images to their creations. Think of it as Web-A-Sketch V3.0
"I'd like people to come away with a realization that they can create content," says a grinning Watts, "and not just be passive and accepting of what the Web throws at them. With 16 Color, and now Pixel Club, they can be artistic, create, and have a place to do it and the tools to do it with.
"What deters a lot of people is the fact that the equipment to make movies is so expensive. 16 Color is free and it's easy to use, so I think it's kind of rewarding for people to be able to make stuff like this. People spend their time playing video games and watching TV -- nobody really utilizes their creativity anymore -- so this is a venue where they can express themselves."
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