Mobilizing Ernie Kovacs

by , Aug 5, 2008, 12:45 PM
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The other day while browsing the mobile version of YouTube, I serendipitously called up old Ernie Kovacs video skits from his various '50s TV shows. For the uninitiated, Kovacs was one of the underappreciated innovators of early television. Like Lucille Ball's best physical comedy and Steve Allen's "Tonight Show" gags, Kovacs' visual vignettes understood and worked the unique parameters of a new form. I won't belabor the descriptions here. Go to http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=ernie+Kovacs&search_type=&aq=f for good examples. His signature Nairobi Trio (men in ape suits acting like mechanized musicians) and Kitchen Symphony (household objects and a roasted bird performing a musical number) are good entry point for Kovacs beginners.

What is interesting is that many of these skits would work very well on the mobile phone. Kovacs understood the creative limitations of early TV, which mobile now shares. Resolution was low, the frame was limited and small, and fast physical movement and fast editing did not work well here. Kovacs uses tight shots, slow movement, a lot of facial expression and worked in short blackout sketches that usually ended with a clear visual gag. In many ways, his TV comedy looked and felt like animated comic strips. They leveraged short but intense attention spans and saw the small screen as an opportunity, not a limitation.

Kovacs' creativity comes to mind for me now because it maps nicely against a new mobile format that some brave souls are trying: the animated comic. The best new example of the format is a promotional series for "Watchmen," an upcoming film version of the graphic novel. In the iTunes downloadable TV section, you can find the first chapter of a slightly animated versions of the original 80s masterpiece. Bits of movement, voices and camera panes try to bring the 2D artwork to life in a new way. At the same time, the Stephen King project "N" is a similar moving comic series available on CBS Mobile. And MTV Mobile will also offer the animated comic "Invincible" later this month. The MTV project is the most ambitious technologically, with a lot of movement in the frame and pop-up dialogue balloons.

This is not entirely new. Years ago, several providers like uclick's GoComics and TokyoPop launched mobile comics players that pulled into phones new newspaper strips and manga. Ringtales.com started animated New Yorker cartoons a couple of years ago, and those can be run on phones as podcasts. And two of the smartest mobile games I have seen in recent years, Phoenix Wright (phones and Nintendo DS) and Hotel Dusk (DS) made use of the barely animated line drawing to communicate plot and character very effectively. For the most part, these animated comics look like cheesy and super-cheap cartoons, which actually make them perfect for mobile. In deft creative hands, they pack a lot of narrative power into very low bandwidth, limited resolution, and tiny screens. In other words, they leverage the technology rather than suffer its limitations. A series like Watchman maps the comic book panel to the phone screen, so it fills the small display with the lush color and oversized graphics of a hand drawing. The format reminds us just how visual the mobile medium can be if the medium respects and understands the constraints of the platform. Filling a small screen with a single, lingering image or the slow pan of an image can have more emotional impact than all the Bruckheimer-style edits within five minutes of action film carnage.

The emerging aesthetic of animated comics has the opposite effect of the fast editing that typifies the other media. In fact, the coolest part of the format is that just like Kovacs' use of the camera, these frames focus our attention on the singular moment, the composition of the scene, the beautiful line drawing, a frozen expression. The limited screen real estate, much like the tiny TV screen in Kovacs' hands, works for, not against, the effect.

The length of some animated comics also scales nicely to phones. The "Watchmen" chapters are too long for mobile (a full comic book issue at about 15-20 minutes), but the Stephen King "N" series comes snack-sized, in two-minute episodes bundled into packs. The viewer can munch one mouthful at a time or string together several at his own pace.

The early stages of any new medium invite creative experimentation that often fails as a standalone form. Kovacs' shows, for instance, had trouble maintaining a time slot and an audience, so the network bounced him around the schedule and into oblivion. His ideas, however, taught us a lot about how we the audience interacted with the technology, and pieces of those ideas show up throughout TV history. Likewise, I expect that these animated comics will be a blip of creative possibility in mobile history. They probably won't catch on in any broad way, but they expose for us the ways the mobile format does and doesn't work.

All of the VCs and media moguls investing in mobile TV might want to take a break from trying to stuff the thrill of the Beijing Olympics onto a handheld and take a look at a format that stands in stark, revealing contrast to prime time in a pocket. Compared to mobile TV, these moving comics are uncluttered and visually powerful because they dare to stand relatively still and focus attention on the moment. They remind us how the scale of the screen demands focus and draws us in when the visual material is clear, simple and strong. They limit their meanings, their plot and character business, to one or two points in an episode, but the visual richness of the scene supplies a more impactful moment than minutes of character chatter. They are simple but somehow deep and memorable.

Animated comics won't be for mobile what domestic situation comedy or the variety show were for TV -- the defining, endemic genres. But they may be, like Kovacs, floating seeds that ultimately implant themselves in whatever creative entertainment forms ultimately do take root here.

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