The Content Kingdom

Last week, Josh Selig (Wonder Pets!) wrote an interesting Kidscreen article about how all content, specifically video, is finally kingless and created equal. With the ever-growing number of websites, videos apps and subscription VOD services, the sheer amount of video is dizzying. As a result, we’ve been talking a lot about the future of content and what it means for consumers and kids. I decided to use Josh’s parable as a jumping-off point and pen my own ending.


…Content was just content. And the people rejoiced.


Ultimately, everyone abandoned the castle and the kingdom was fractured. The former kings devised plans to retain land they once controlled while new nobles emerged. Lord YouTube promised the people an audience, notoriety and riches. The commoners wanted their voices heard so they rolled up their sleeves and crafted billions of videos at no cost, all while the former kings churned out hours and hours of original programing in distant lands. Content poured out from big castles, remote villages, young settlements. And not just video – apps, games, books, and toys. What a glorious time it was!

The people fully embraced it. They dedicated their waking hours to binge watching seasons of the latest “it” show and countless videos of kittens attacking laser pointers. It was exciting! On the surface, everything seemed merry but slowly content became unruly – it was everywhere and it was pervasive. It infiltrated Lord Hemorrhoid’s bathroom. It interrupted Sir Flapjack’s pancake dinner. It even made its way into Lady Heartstomper’s bed (which many handsome noblemen failed to access). It became impossible for people to stop and enjoy a rainbow because the double rainbow on their screens were more alluring. Somehow the once relaxing content became noisy, pesky, and in-your-face. And while the people could watch the content they wanted whenever they wanted to, they had to pay the various kingdoms for monthly access. And if the people weren’t willing to pay for it, they were forced to watch an annoying jester sing a jingle about laundry detergent. Over and over again.

The people grew dizzy and numb to the dozens of services, hundreds of ads, thousands of shows, millions of episodes, billions of videos. Despite the infinite content pool that existed, the divided kingdom continued to churn out more and more at lower costs to keep up with the demand. As a result, quality suffered and ads became an inevitable symptom of cheap, homogeneous and ubiquitous content. And while content was just content, it became an unstoppable force, far greater than the entire kingdom itself.

And the people just watched.

The Legend of Zelda Guide to Startups

Each spring, I visit art schools in the northeast and present about CloudKid, our work, and my career path from art school student to entrepreneur. After I finish my spiel, students and professors always ask, “How did you learn how to start and run a business?” I always give the same answer, “It’s kind of like playing the Legend of Zelda.” People laugh but I’m 100% serious. There are valuable business lessons that students, artists, and young entrepreneurs can learn from Link, the pointy-eared hero. Without further ado, I present The Legend of Zelda Guide to Startups.

1) Talk with the Old Man (or Woman)


When Link is lost or needs some direction, he seeks out townspeople or merchants who provide valuable information and help him make sense of the world. Sometimes, they even point him toward someone or something to support his mission. Link talks with the Old Man in the cave who tells him to visit a merchant under a waterfall. Then he treks all the way across Hyrule to get the next piece of helpful (and sometimes crucial) information. In the early days, I talked with people who knew more about everything than I did—budgeting, accounting, hiring, renting space, insurance, contracts, producing projects, etc. I asked family, friends, friends of friends, ex-colleagues, and sometimes strangers…It also helps that my twin brother works in VC. This expert info was invaluable because it helped me understand things outside of my comfort zone and spared me from wandering aimlessly in uncharted territories.

2) Add to Your Arsenal


Link is only as strong as as the tools he has to work with. Early on, he is given the Wooden Sword and that transforms him from a boy into a warrior. Throughout his adventure, Link acquires tools and skills such as the Bow, Stepladder, Raft, Magical Key,Silver Arrow, and Book of Magic—they enable him to navigate more freely, see in the dark, kill bigger enemies, take more damage, etc. These items are a company’s employees. It was impossible for me to have every skill needed to start a business and produce projects so the first thing I did was expand my “tools” by finding a tech co-founder, hiring an animation director, and working with people who had different and more specialized skills than I did. Even a few years in we’re still expanding our arsenal—just last week we hired a HR Specialist. By upgrading the team with new expertise, it enables CloudKid to be more efficient, adaptable and intelligent. Most importantly, we can fight bigger enemies.

3) Keep your Eye on the Triforce


Link travels around Hyrule battling enemies, solving puzzles, exploring dungeons, and defeating guardian monsters, but his mission revolves around one thing—saving Princess Zelda. In order to do that, he must complete the Triforce of Wisdom by collecting all eight pieces to be powerful enough to defeat Ganon. Princess Zelda is a company’s vision while each dungeon/guardian monster that you defeat and piece of Triforce earned is a launched product, a new feature, or a completed client project. Early on, projects such as Fizzy’s Lunch Lab and Negative Nimbus were little victories that fit into our longterm vision of building transmedia brands, but we haven’t been totally immune to distractions. Internal projects such as Emogo and 3D-Play didn’t quite reinforce our mission and goals (although they were inspiring and creatively fulfilling). Luckily, we were able to refocus our sights on a new piece of Triforce and the next guardian monster that we needed slay.

4) It’s All About the Rupees Baby


Throughout his adventure, Link needs items such as arrows, bombs, potions, and food for survival, but he also needs Rupees to purchase them. While Rupees are abundant throughout Hyrule, it takes hard work to earn them—Link must put his own butt on the line and slay lots of baddies! If Link has ample Rupees, he can stock up on items that will come in handy during long dungeon missions, but if he doesn’t, his inventory will be depleted and survival will not be easy. While it is possible to prevail without money, having it undoubtedly provides an advantage. By having cash to invest in everything from product features to employees to computers/software to office space to insurance, companies are able to attain their goals more efficiently. We are fortunate to have loyal clients who have enabled us to build a studio and awesome team, but it comes at a cost. At our size we need a constant flow of projects (and cash) to keep the lights on and people employed. Sometimes this endeavor becomes all-consuming. One must be careful because the pursuit of cash can take your eye off the mission, but without it, the road will always be more difficult.

5) Don’t Let Enemies Kill You


Hyrule is a dangerous place, so it’s only natural that Link runs into nasty critters who slow him down. These obstacles are everywhere and Link must face them head on in order to survive, but it’s also inevitable that he goes unscathed. From simple nuances such as the Red Octorok to the downright pesky Wizzrobe, it’s important that Link learns how to defeat enemies, adapt, and have the right tools to do so. In a company, enemies are unforeseen obstacles and distractions such as server and network issues, an ineffective employee, a leak in the ceiling, late client payments, etc. They are inevitable and we have definitely felt their wrath, but when they have surfaced, we’ve been proactive in identifying the cause and creating solutions (to the best of our ability) so they don’t happen again. It’s important to recognize “enemies”, address them and adapt quickly. If not, they can kill you.

6) Be a Good Guy


Link’s adventure begins when he decides to rescue Princess Zelda. Humble but brave, he puts himself in harm’s way to save Hyrule and make his world a better place—he’s the ultimate “good guy” and hero. Businesses and entrepreneurs also need heart and humility. With an endless and dizzying stream of new gadgets, games, apps, sites, features, and videos launched daily, it’s more important than ever to provide something meaningful beyond your latest product and contribute to the greater good. This might include fostering a supportive work environment for employees, regularly contributing to open source projects, taking part in local community service, or building technology that reverses climate change. In addition to the educational media that we produce, we try and give back via our production tools such as Keyframe Caddy and PixiParticles, and contribute to the Github community. These efforts aren’t about boosting our bottom line, but rather supporting the larger creative community to make better stuff. We’re all in this fight together, and sometimes one little hero can change the world.

R.I.P. Soup2Nuts

For what’s starting to seem like a weekly occurrence, yet another U.S. animation studio has shut its doors, and this time it hit close to home. This week it was announced that Soup2Nuts, Boston’s largest studio, is folding after 22 years. “Soup” wasn’t a big fancy studio working on primetime TV shows or blockbuster movies, but much like Boston, it was a scrappy group that created brilliantly-written cult hits like Dr Katz and Home Movies, and later Wordgirl.

The studio gave hope to young writers, animators, illustrators, filmmakers, and actors who weren’t ready to move west and endure the bottomless talent pool in LA. Will Shepard, longtime Soup writer and producer, once likened it to the “minor leagues” (in the best possible way). The studio was a place that gave bright-eyed grads a chance to learn new skills, gain experience, and most importantly build confidence. If you watch cartoons today, you’ll see the names of many Soup alumni in the credits of well-known animated shows such as Breadwinners, Looney Toons, TRON: Legacy, Teen Titans Go!, Super Jail, Archer, and many many more.

The studio also helped launch the careers of successful writers, comedians, and creators. Loren Buchard (Bob Burgers), Brendon Small (Metalocapalyse), and John Benjamin (Archer) all got their start at Soup. Many up and coming comedians such as Louis CK, Maria Bamford, and Eugene Mirman got some of their first TV credits because of this relatively unknown animation studio in Watertown, MA. In many ways, Soup2Nuts quietly influenced “adult animation” for generations to come.

The studio’s closure is especially sad for me, because I got my start in animation at Soup2Nuts. I learned more about animation during my short two year stint than I ever thought possible. During that time, I wrote my first TV script, pitched my first ideas, and directed my first project. Soup gave me the confidence as an artist and a writer to start developing my own ideas and making them a reality. Above all, Soup fostered a community of collaboration. I worked with so many creative and talented artists and writers who taught me volumes about animation, art, design, production, writing, and comedy. These people helped shape my career and ultimately CloudKid (as well as other Boston-area studios such as Clambake and Planet Nutshell).

The Boston creative community didn’t just lose an employer. We lost a creative cheerleader, a mentor, a teacher, a lottery ticket, and a shot at the big leagues.

4 Things Missing from Most Portfolios

Over the past month, we’ve received almost two hundred portfolio submissions and reviewed dozens of student portfolios at four art schools. And while there have been a handful of gems, we’re still in the process of hiring an in-house, salaried animator. Why haven’t most portfolios and reels been up to snuff? Well, we have been wrestling with this question for the last week, so we decided to share what we think is missing from student and recent grad portfolios (and share some portfolios that wowed us).

1) Not enough drawing

Drawing is the fundamental vehicle for visual communication and storytelling. If you’re applying for an animation or design position, we want to see portfolios with endless amounts of sketches that demonstrate a solid understanding of “construction” and anatomy. We’re not interested in seeing  a handful of figure drawings from class or a few sketchbooks pages…we’re interested in seeing dozens of pages of sketches and concept drawings (kids, adults, monsters, animals, vehicles, locations, etc) with a range of emotions in variety of poses. We’d rather see fifty loose, energetic character studies than one very detailed character turnaround.

2) Not enough character animation  

If you’re applying for an animation position, we want to see how you can bring objects and characters (people, animals, coffee cups) to life. Animation reels should include a range of beautiful character motion studies that demonstrate a solid knowledge of acting, emotion, weight, space, and timing. We’d rather see a dozen loose hand-drawn character studies with beautiful motion and timing than one half-baked three-minute film (though stellar films always help). Also, we don’t produce experimental animation, so please don’t submit reels that contain more than 50% non-narrative mixed media techniques (stop-motion, sand, paint on glass, etc). We’re a character animation studio, so it’ll be difficult to gauge how you’ll handle the type of animation we do.

3) Not enough digital 

While we always value artists and concept designers with tremendous traditional media skills (watercolor, pen and ink), we’re a digital studio that works almost exclusively in Photoshop and Flash. It’s not mandatory that you have these skills, but if you have a portfolio that shows a mastery of traditional AND digital tools (specifically Photoshop and digital color), you’ll have a leg up on the competition, especially for art and design positions. If you don’t know the ins and outs of Photoshop (blending modes, adjustment layers, custom brushes, HSB color, etc.) or don’t have digital samples in your portfolio, we encourage you to find online tutorials and experiment.

4) Not enough personal exploration

We want to see work that you do outside of class assignments. While work is work, you should feel a sense of excitement, curiosity, and love for character-driven storytelling and/or gaming. We hire curious artists who love to make things even when not prompted. Be it animated gifs, written stories, comics, paintings, music, or more drawings—side projects and personal experiments are often the best way to gauge a candidate’s passion and artistic voice. If you haven’t filled two sketchbooks in the last year or created side projects outside of school or work, it’s usually a red flag. We live by the saying: You can’t fake passion.

2013 Recap


It’s that time of year again… you know, the time for complaining about how much snow we’ve already gotten, for recovering from holiday food comas, and, yup, you guessed it: for the annual CloudKid Year-in-Review! We know we say this every year, but seriously guys, this was a crazy year! Check out some of the highlights:

  • Produced 2 pilots for Nick Digital, slated to launch in their app in early 2014!
  • Created the transmedia suite for Peg + Cat.
  • Launched our first original web series, OZMAT.
  • Produced three games for Sesame Workshop: Jessica’s Joyride, Let’s Build It, and Grover’s Winter Games (launching early 2014).
  • Redesigned and animated Romo, everyone’s favorite iPhone robot, .
  • The App Store featured two of our apps: Hectic Harvest and The Big Gig.
  • LA Unified School District chose Fresh Pick to be installed on student tablets.
  • Helped kick off a Boston chapter of the Children’s Media Association.
  • Landed our first TV development deal (stay tuned!).
  • Landed our next big transmedia suite gig for an upcoming PBS KIDS show.
  • And last but not least, our greatest accomplishment of 2013: Donut Thursday.

As always, we’re proud of everything we accomplished in 2013, and we can’t wait to see what this year brings! Stay tuned, and Happy New Year to all!

Is the Mouse Dead?


Earlier this month, the inventor of the computer mouse, Douglas C. Engelbart, passed away. His contributions unquestionably altered the future of computing for the better, but since hearing the news of his passing, we’ve been contemplating if the “death” of his famous invention might also be imminent.

Like many others, we’ve been thinking a lot lately about the future (or lack thereof) of desktop-specific gaming for kids. With Flash-based browser games a huge part of our portfolio, it’s in part a hard pill to swallow that there might not be a long shelf life for this content as it continues to come against tablet competition. We’ve even noticed in kid testing on both computers and touch-screen devices recently that there’s a huge divide, with younger users struggling to understand the mouse, and even attempting to swipe and tap the computer screen.

In response to this shift, we’ve been doing a lot more work over the past couple of years creating device-native apps and porting Flash content to apps via AIR. This has allowed us to repurpose existing content that might otherwise become obsolete as the paradigm continues to shift toward touch devices. More recently, we’ve also produced a lot of projects in HTML5, including a website, as well as several games and activities (all of which are launching in the fall). While we were initially hesitant about the limitations that HTML5 would put on design, animation and audio, we’ve been continually surprised with how quickly the technology is evolving to allow for engaging games that are playable across platforms. We’ve also been trying to push the boundaries of what’s doable as much as possible to make great games that meet our (ridiculously high) standards!

We’re excited to see how this technology continue to evolve, and whether or not desktop browser-only games will be a thing of the past before we know it…

We Love Games


We think it goes without saying that here at CloudKid, we love making games. We also love playing games. We even love making sure our fellow cube-mates have seen this video for this really cool game that we’re playing. This one, on my screen. Look here. I’m serious. You need to – no stop doing that, download this game right now.

So, we decided we would share our wealth of information with you…as well as give us an excuse to talk about games.

Read the rest of this entry »

Getting Creative

They’re hard to explain, those flashes of brilliance that seem to come from nowhere.  J.K. Rowling had that moment sitting in a coffee shop, writing on napkins and formulating what has become the world’s greatest heptalogy. Whoever made this clearly knows what we’re talking about, too. But how do we foster these flashes of brilliance? Where do these surges of inspiration come from, and how, for the love of god, can we make them happen more often? Everyone has those days where it seems that the more you think, or the harder you try, the more empty your brain gets and the more, um, lame, your ideas become.

As an interactive media studio that prizes itself on creativity and innovation, we depend on these moments, which is why we love Jonah Lehrer’s new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. Lehrer discusses the origins of creativity and how to best nurture a creative environment in the workplace. We all have routines outside of work – going to the gym, taking a long shower – that help us think clearly and originally, but how to replicate that at work? Check out the story on NPR and see what you think!

Why Flash Isn’t Dead

These days, there’s no short-supply of opinions extolling the demise of Adobe’s Flash. Last month, Adobe announced that they would stop putting efforts into continuing the Flash player for mobile devices. This isn’t terribly surprising for those following Adobe’s efforts. They haven’t proved that the mobile Flash player is stable or ready for wide-spread adoption. For performance-critical or multimedia-rich applications on mobile hardware, there’s an enormous performance cost of running applications through a browser plugin or virtual machine. The hardware offered today on mobile devices is still far from the capabilities of even a low-end desktop computer.

The nature of content in the Flash Player has been shifting over the last few years, even before Steve Jobs was openly critical about it, or before the iPhone or iPad. The things that you should do with Flash are becoming a smaller subset of things you can do with Flash. Rich application development, video streaming, and website creating are much better done these days as browser-native. As the JavaScript, CSS and HTML implementation in browsers has improved, the need for Flash to do certain things has decreased.

Flash’s long-term future as a distribution platform through a browser plugin (what’s referred to here as the “Player”) is dying a slow death, at best. The success of Apple’s App Store has underscored a shift towards device-native mobile apps downloaded through a marketplace as opposed to content delivered through web browser open-standards. However, in all this chatter about Flash, there are some overlooked aspects that, we believe, are important in understanding the future of this technology and why it isn’t going to disappear.

Flash Platform vs. HTML5

While Apple, Google and Adobe have agreed to support the HTML5 specification, the W3C which maintains and publishes the specifications for web standards has only released the Work Draft of HTML5, which was started back in 2004 (by comparison the first iPhone was released in 2007). Standards take a long time to create and an even longer time to adopt. As a developer who implements these standards, it often requires lots of programming hacks, workarounds and platform-agnostic libraries (e.g., jQuery) to compensate for the browser and platform fragmentation.

The landscape for HTML5 has gotten even more complicated than the days of Netscape versus Internet Explorer and HTML4. Not only are there more browsers, but the platform landscape is now a diversity of hardware, audio & video codecs, as well as different javascript capabilities. Asking “why do I want to build a house on mud?” is not dissimilar from asking and “why would I want to create a game with HTML5?”.

Flash’s Identity Crisis: Solved!

In the wake of Adobe ditching the mobile Flash effort, the coverage tended to overlook that Adobe was going to concentrate their efforts on native app publishing (Android and iOS) using Flash. We believe this marks an important shift from Flash as a publishing platform (via the Flash Player) to Flash as a publishing tool (via the authoring environment). The strength of Flash is largely attributed to Flash as an authoring tool. It’s one of the reasons why Microsoft’s Silverlight hasn’t enjoyed such wide-spread adoption. Even with significant blows to the Flash player, the authoring tool is still great for animation, storyboarding, and rapid prototyping. It’s still the best authoring environment available for creative people to create multimedia-rich experiences with very little programming knowledge.

Adobe has been working over the last several years on a compiler which builds Flash content to native iOS apps (formerly called iPhonePackager). In recent years, this functionality has been replaced with ADT (AIR Developer Tool) and iOS publishing in Flash CS5+, which allows the same functionality using a model built for publishing AIR Desktop applications. The tools are still in development but have already shown a lot of promise. Building content for multiple platforms in one authoring environment is the holy grail of device-native development, and Flash now has the best opportunity to make a go at it.