Cartoonists at Confab Hail Animation

By: Dave Astor

For three editorial cartoonists, there was a silver lining when they lost (or thought they might lose) a newspaper staff position. That silver lining is the multicolored, multimedia world of political animation.

After Mark Fiore lost his job at the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News in 2001, he became a pioneering Web animator — and has been making a living at it via self-syndication for several years.

After several cartoonists at Tribune Co.-owned papers were pushed out, Walt Handelsman in late 2005 wondered how safe he was at Newsday of Melville, N.Y. “There was no specific reason to worry, but I was ‘pre-panicking,'” he recalled. So Handelsman developed Web animations that helped him win this year’s Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning.

Kevin “KAL” Kallaugher was forced to take a buyout from the Tribune-owned Sun of Baltimore during the winter of 2005-6, and subsequently started a 3-D animation
project that may result in a TV program.

All three men spoke and showed their work Friday at an animation session during the 50th-anniversary Association of American Editorial Cartoonists convention.

“I’ve always loved animation,” said Fiore, but he didn’t want to live in Los Angeles or work for an animation studio with various layers of staffing and management. “Then I stumbled into Flash animation, and found that I loved doing that more than print cartoons.”

Fiore noted that a number of newspapers want their editorial cartoonists to try animation, but said creators should “only do it if you love it.”

The San Francisco resident showed several of his animations, including one starring President Bush as the “King of Oppositeland” — where “smart is dumb” and where most people wanting troops out of Iraq means increasing the number of troops in Iraq.

Some of Fiore’s animations include recurring fictional characters, such as “Right-Wing Ralphie.”

Session moderator Matt Wuerker of Politico.com said Fiore was “the first to really crack the code and make Flash fly.”

“Mark is a trailblazer,” agreed Handelsman, who mostly taught himself to use Flash (he said it took about 250 hours of “not seeing my wife and kids” to become expert at it) but also relied on some telephone help from Fiore.

“As it came together, I realized I loved this,” added Handelsman, who’s syndicated by Tribune Media Services. “I enjoy sitting in front of my computer cracking myself up — doing imitations of voices, sound effects, and songs.”

One animation he showed featured staffers at the “NSA Telephone Monitoring Center” swaying and singing a parody of the Stevie Wonder song “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” Instead, the lyrics were: “You just called and we were listening.” And when the Bush-administration-inspired phone monitors heard that
“Aunt Gertude” was visiting one of the callers, they immediately made the illogical leap of wondering if it was really Osama bin Laden doing the visiting.

Handelsman is now trained in the area of Flash animation, but did emphasize that the whole process remains very time-consuming.

KAL, with the help of the University of Maryland’s Imaging Research Center, went the 3-D route with his “Digital Dubya” puppet. The cartoonist first sculpted an image of George W. Bush using clay and other material, after which the image was scanned and painstakingly digitized. The presidential puppet can even be animated in real time; at a 2006 “press conference,” KAL and others manipulated
joysticks as the Dubya “answered” questions.

And all this time Bush thought Karl Rove was his puppeteer, quipped KAL, who still does traditional print cartoons for The Economist magazine and CartoonArts
International/New York Times Syndicate.

Now, with the help of motion-capture technology, Dubya and other digital puppets may be coming to TV. “We’re working on a half-hour satire show — hopefully for
next year,” reported KAL.

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