Behind the Scenes: Fiore's Animated Cartoons

When one thinks of online journalists who are doing innovative, enlightening work that truly takes advantage of the medium, Mark Fiore is one of the first names that comes to mind. Fiore recently won the 2002 Online Journalism Award for commentary and was a finalist in the Creative Use of the Medium category. In this Q&A with CyberJournalist.net’s Jonathan Dube, Fiore explains why “technology doesn’t make the cartoon” and that the key to making an animated cartoon effective is “having something to say.” You can see dozens of Fiore’s wonderful cartoons at http://www.markfiore.com.


Dube: How long have you been making animated cartoons and what made you first turn to the Web as a cartoonist?
Fiore: My first attempts at animated political cartoons were in the end of 1998 and the beginning of 1999. These first animations were pretty rough and took forever to complete. (What took me weeks back then would take me about two days now.) Back then I was mainly just doing it for fun and for my own site, my main emphasis was still print political cartoons.
I had been struggling with traditional political cartoons since 1991, gradually building a client base as a freelancer. Living in San Francisco, my goal was to become a staff political cartoonist at a major daily paper. In the meantime I was cobbling together a fairly healthy client base in the print world while experimenting with animated political cartoons for the web.
Then it happened. The heady dot-com days arrived. Almost all of my friends were suddenly working for an Internet company selling dog food, eyeliner and/or cross-promotional synergistic branding solutions. Though I didn’t run off and join in the fun, I did begin to put serious time into the animated political cartoons for the web.
Then, another thing happened. Just as I was beginning to regularly sell my animated political cartoons (to the San Francisco Chronicle’s sfgate.com and motherjones.com), I was offered a staff political cartooning job at a major daily doing print cartoons. To make a long story short, I took the job. The job and cartooning environment were the most stifling I could imagine and I left/was asked to leave the paper that shall remain nameless but rhymes with San Jose Mercury Dews.
After that experience, I ran screaming happily back to my little world of animated political cartoons and have been animating furiously ever since.
Dube: What are the keys to making an online animated editorial cartoon effective? What subjects are best?
Fiore: The most important factor in making an animated editorial cartoon effective is having something to say. Just like with a print political cartoon, it’s got to have opinion and punch or it becomes something entirely different. (I’ve got a bit of an ax to grind when it comes to “political” cartoons that merely make a silly gag out of something in the news and don’t present an opinion one way or another.)
Specific to animated political cartoons, I’m amazed at how much you can do with sound. With music and sound effects you can add an incredible amount of depth and emotion to an animation, and the improvements in Flash and MP3 technology have really helped on this front. I’m sure someone from a film background would say, “Um, duh!” to that comment, but coming from the world of (silent) print cartoons I revel in the new tools at my disposal thanks to sound.
Subject-wise, I think just about anything can be made into a good animated political cartoon as long as you are passionate, or at least have an opinion, about the subject. A cartoon that deals with the Iraq issue and weapons of mass destruction can have as much punch as a cartoon that deals with the local board of supervisors.
Dube: Why do you think more online publications aren’t taking advantage of the potential for interactive editorial cartoons?
Fiore: I think the main reason is that the medium is so new that editors don’t immediately think of animated political cartoons. The cartoon syndicates reinforce this by shoving huge collections of cartoons repurposed from the print world down online editors throats. (Okay, I’m biased.) The biggest problem with online news sites is people treating them as a place to duplicate a print newspaper. Fortunately, it seems that now more innovative sites and editors are catching on to the fact that you can do a lot more than pictures and text on the web.
Money is also an issue, some places are willing to use a little of their budget to get a new and interesting feature on their site and some aren’t. Either way, it’s much better than the vaporous synergy-revenue-share-mumbo-jumbo of the dot com days. People know that now, in our capitalist system, if they want to add something cool to their site, they have to pay a little money for it, just like publications have been doing for hundreds of years.
Dube: Please walk readers through your creative process, from idea to final product, for one of your cartoons — Find the Terrorist, which was a finalist for the ONA’s Creative Use of the Medium Award.
Fiore: I did that particular cartoon soon after the September 11th attacks, when there were a few hate crime attacks here in San Francisco. My favorite Pakistani restaurant had their windows broken, there was another attack at a place across the street and it seemed like each day brought more reports of hate crimes.
Not surprisingly, in the days after September 11th, I was much more aware of the faces (and their color) around me in the neighborhood. But what did I know, I couldn’t tell who to fear. I knew the Middle Eastern-looking men at the convenience store across the street, who happen to have created the world’s largest rubber band ball, are Palestinian. The guys at the other convenience store are Middle Eastern, maybe Greek, I wasn’t too sure. Then there were the bank tellers, mostly from Mexico, I think.
Anyhow, that animation began with me trying to figure out my neighborhood and realizing I had no clue how to identify a terrorist based on sight. Then I got mad at the people that committed hate crimes and essentially just tried to figure out a way to guide people through the thought process I just outlined.
Production-wise, Find the Terrorist was one of the more programming-intensive animations I had done at the time but was very basic on the drawing side of things, maybe eight drawings at the most.

Dube: What are your thoughts on how editorial cartoons will evolve online in the future, as technology continues to advance?
Fiore: The biggest advance, one that has already helped me out quite a bit, has been in bandwidth. With DSL becoming a must in any office, and working it’s way into homes, I’ve been able to pack more sound and animation into my work. This leap has been compounded by advances in Flash and MP3 technology, as the pipe got bigger, the sound file got even smaller. I imagine this will continue until the web will be able to handle television-quality video.
That said, I don’t think the technology makes the cartoon. A good static print cartoon can blow away a lame animated cartoon that uses all the latest technological bells and whistles. The cartoon, animated or static, still comes down to the idea. The most important step in my process for creating these animated political cartoons – that move and squeak and interact and zip across the world over phone lines – is the time I spend doodling ideas and making notes in a regular old notebook.

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