Had a great time at the Flash Forward Festival. I took tons of notes on most of the presentations, so I decided to write up a short version and a long version.
The SHORT Version
While the official theme of this year’s Flash Forward conference was passion, the serendipitous theme that seemed to come organically from almost every speaker was some version of “don’t be afraid to fail.” Some speakers went so far as to encourage failure in order to find new ideas.
This was the first year that Beau Ambur and Metalliq had taken over the conference from Lynda Weinman of Lynda.com. The choice was made this year to provide a single-track program rather than separate tracks for developers and designers. This seemed to have produced some consternation in the Flash community. Since this was my first Flash Forward, I don’t have a reference for comparison. I can say that I was actually pleasantly surprised by a couple of presentations that if I’d been given a choice of track, I might have missed. Most notable of these, were the presentations of Miha Pogacnik, the cultural ambassador of Slovenia, and Jamy Ian Swiss, a magician. Both were fantastic and made me more tolerant of some the presentations that were not.
Kudos to the organizers for making an effort to be green as well. Our “swag” bag included a reusable water bottle, so we weren’t stuck using and disposing of paper cups. We had decent box lunches from Boudin bakery. Because of San Francisco’s curbside composting, nearly everything out of the lunch boxes could be recycled or composted, so very little had to be thrown away completely. I can’t wait until that program crosses the Golden Gate.
The other change to the format was that presentation durations dropped from 60 or so minutes in past conferences to 22 minutes. Except for the Disney presentation, which seemed to last forever. I think this new one-track approach is admirable in its ambition, and in many ways makes sense given that most of the attendees are both designers and developers and would inevitably miss out by choosing one track over another. Given the complaints of numerous attendees though, I would imagine that the next Flash Forward will provide some sort of compromise between the two approaches.
There were a lot of the fun aspects to the conference outside of the presentations as well. Since moving to another state two years ago and working from home ever since, I’ve been a bit isolated. It was interesting to be with hundreds of “my people.” One got to feel kind of cool, while simultaneously being extremely nerdy. I got to talk with David Stiller at great length and tell him how much I enjoy the tips on his blog. Lee Brimelow was around quite a bit, but unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to tell him how much I like his fantastic (and free) Flash tutorials on gotoAndLearn.com. Apparently Alessandro Crugnola of SE|PY ActionScript Editor fame was there as well.
Since I live across the bay from San Francisco I caught the ferry home and missed the nightlife, but people seemed to enjoy that as well.
There was a bit of a dearth of technical seminars and presentations. I would have loved to see Moses Gunesch (inventor of FuseKit) do a presentation on his new Go animation platform for AS3. And it never gets old hearing about Chris Georgenes‘s animation techniques. But I have a feeling there will be more of that kind of stuff next year.
Of the techie stuff that was at the conference, Richard Galvan, from Adobe, provided previews of some very cool features coming up in Flash CS4. I’ve listed some of them in the detailed version below. He also talked briefly in the Q&A later about the new format that Flash will be able to work with. The new format will be XML-based, and should be much sturdier than the binary FLA file. The other advantage is that Adobe will likely open up the source for this format so that other applications can work with it as well. Colin Moock has some more details on the XFL format. Luke Bayes and Branden Hall also had great talks about reasonably technical topics, more details on those below.
Overall, I’m not as down on the conference as some of fellow Flash users. I do think that some more technical sessions would be a fantastic addition, but I think we’ll see that next year. I’m definitely grateful for the few really fantastic non-Flash talks that I saw, and I will be applying the lessons gleaned from those talks in my Flash work as well as in other aspects of my work and my life.
The LOOONG version
This was a great talk on narrative and passion. Very much reminiscent of a TED talk.
Miha illustrated a creative process and more broadly, the building blocks of narrative art, by walking through a Bach fugue on his violin. Miha compared the statement/complaint that is often heard from young artists that their work is never finished to the approach of a master artist. For a master, he said, “[the work is] finished before the first stroke, it just has to be created.”
Miha illustrated the first portion of the fugue on his violin as a strong, brash, downward movement. Very masculine. This, by itself—he noted as he scribbled vehemently on a large notepad—is only destruction. Then he played the next phrase. Very feminine, very soft, upward in feeling. The two phrases together create a balance of tension.
One of the drawings that Miha revealed as he tore away sheets on the large notepad, was a hierarchy of listening. From top to bottom, worst to best: [hearing] noise, reacting [to the sound], [registering as] new experience!, and responsible listening. “Is the world changing—while I’m listening?” he asked.
He continue playing the fugue, illustrating (abstractly) on his notepad a hypothetical creative process at a corporate office. Loosely reproduced the office narrative read thusly: Illustration of the theme (or idea), bottling/controlling of the theme (by the corporate boss), scrambling to accommodate the controls, and, with perseverance, surviving through the fire of uncertainty. “Life starts after the fire,” Miha quipped, “The worst thing in life is to be normal.” If we don’t survive the fire we simply become normal. He continued playing the fugue, once through the fire, the melody from the first 2 phrases is repeated, but this time as a question rather than a statement. This is the fundamental human tradition—according to Miha—asking questions, much the way that a young child does. So the process of surviving the fire is essentially one of humility.
Once we’ve reach a level of humility, we can govern horizontally, rather than the using the top-down governance associated with corporations. Miha referred to this as “peripheral leadership.” At this point, he said, we don’t have to force the process, ideas and people will come to you.
The last thing Miha imparted was called, “brick theory.” He asked the audience to imagine dropping a brick from a skyscraper and running down fast enough to get hit on the head with the brick. When there is uncertainty, we tend to blame others, to push it away from ourselves. If we can remember this picture of catching our own “bricks” on the head, we’ll be less likely to throw them in the first place. The resulting behavior will be much more effective in attaining our goals.
This is a rather difficult thing to capture in written words, but the combination of the music, the visuals, and the performance, was a pretty impressive way to start the conference.
Miha’s website: mihavision.com
Keith Peters and Grant Skinner, two of the most well-known Flash gurus, both spoke about their continued enthusiasm for Flash and the winding roads that led them to what they’re doing now. Keith Peters was actually a salesperson at a used AC repair contractor when he won his first Flash Forward Award. When Peters returned from the conference after winning the award, he was fired the following Monday. Thus, his Flash hobby became his new career. More details on Peters’ speech available on the FlashForward blog.
Both Peters and Skinner push for more experimentation. Peters spoke about the showiness that brought him to Flash, and how Flash still retains that advantage over Flash’s new cousin, Flex. Skinner touched upon ScaleForm, an application for porting Flash to game consoles like XBox and Nintendo Wii. Skinner also made a great point about code as art. Neither Peters nor Skinner come from a Computer Science background and when surveyed, the audience was about 300 Arts majors to about 20 Computer Science majors. Amazingly though, when surveyed on other occasions, there were at least as many hands up for developers as designers, and indeed, many people categorized themselves as both. Which made for a pretty interesting group of people, but I digress. Skinner actually made his point by using Miha Pogacnik’s violin process as an example. There several technical aspects to learning a violin (hand positions, scales, tuning, etc.) but actually playing the violin is an art-form. Similarly, learning the syntax of a particular programming language is a technical task, but applying the language is an art.
Phillip Kerman’s Don’t Get Mad, Make a Video was one of the more entertaining talks at the conference. Kerman makes 30 second videos primarily ranting about issues that Flash nerds care about. Kerman pushed for putting our anger toward everyday issues into art. He showed several of his short videos during his talk. If you’re familiar with what he’s talking about, they’re pretty funny. Kerman also argued that restrictions give you power. As an example of artwork without restrictions of time or budget, Kerman showed a slide containing a poster for Kevin Costner’s Waterworld. Here’s Kerman’s video on the greening of FlashForward.
My other favorite talk of the conference was from Jami Ian Swiss, which also happened not to contain any direct references to Flash. While a lot of conference-goers are complaining on their blogs that they didn’t like the non-Flash related talks, I have to respectfully disagree with them about the merits of Jami Ian Swiss’s talk as well as those of Miha Pogacnik’s talk.
Swiss’s presentation started off as a fairly straight-forward magic show and evolved into a detailed lesson on narrative art. For those willing to follow along, there were quite a few parallels between performing magic and producing great Flash work. Swiss started breaking down parts of the tricks, explaining how long each part of the trick takes to learn. “The method is not the trick” Swiss said. This hit home for me when it comes to working with Flash. One spends so much time learning the application and how to do new “tricks” within it, that it’s easy to get focused on the technical aspects of how to do something in Flash. A somewhat more evolved approach is to think of the end product and then worry about how to achieve it, but this often only comes after long periods of learning the technical aspects.
Swiss continued by stating that the phrase,”How did you do that” is most often a statement, not a question. The audience is generally not interested in how many months it took the performer to learn how to palm a coin, “How did you do that” is usually a way to compliment the performance. Similarly, people are often wowed by what can be produced in Flash, but very few of them care what ActionScript techniques went into producing the end product.
One statement that Swiss made about narrative, “conflict is fundamental” certainly rings true for every piece of good narrative art that I can recall. It’s why narratives are referred to as arcs, the beginning of the arc is introduction of the conflict and the end of the arc is the resolution of the conflict. Since a Flash experience so closely resembles a narrative for the user, I want to look into incorporating more (controlled) conflict into my work. It’s through resolution of this conflict that the narrative becomes satisfying to the audience. The trick will be figuring out how to apply this structure to interactive narratives, which don’t always result in the same ending for the user. The conflict as demonstrated in Swiss’s act was that, momentarily, it looked like he had made a mistake, guessing the wrong card. Then there’s a moment after we realize that he hasn’t made a mistake, where we get to predict that the correct card is sitting right in front of the volunteer from the audience.
According to Swiss, the battle between good narrative and bad narrative is a battle between inevitability and obviousness. If an outcome is obvious then there is no believable conflict, and no reason to see the narrative through to the end. Conversely though, if the end comes out of nowhere, the outcome is a jarring non-sequitur, and equally unsatisfying. So the ending must be inevitable, but not entirely predictable. As an example, Swiss picked on the worst perpetrators of predictable narratives, romantic comedy genre films. He compared a bad narrative, Maid in Manhattan and a good narrative, Shakespeare in Love. While there is inevitability in the second film, there’s still reason to see the whole narrative, while the first film is entirely predictable from the first five minutes. Part of the surprise in the inevitable narrative comes from the fact that “no one would ever think we would ever work that hard to fool you.”
Robert Hodgin started his talk with his a story of his first acid trip, which was apparently his initial inspiration for sound visualization. And he does come reasonably close to producing a synaesthetic experience with his graphics. Hodgin promoted perseverance in reaching his intended outcomes, offering a quote from a musician named, Zoe Keating, who he then brought out on stage for a live performance. Keating produced live multi-track audio using her cello and some audio equipment while Hodgin produced interactive visualizations on the big screen. The result was a pretty cool blending of the senses.
Craig Swann’s talk, entitled RE:Discovery, was primarily an ode to failure. He showed several America’s Funniest Home Videos -esque still photos from the internet depicting painful (sometimes crotch-related) failure. This was a big, and seemingly unplanned, theme for the conference: failure is, essentially, good. Swann stressed the pleasant surprises that come from unexpected failures.
Jared Ficklin showed off some of his cool physics experiments with sound. Experiments ranged from a Ruben’s tube, demonstrating a sound wave with fire, to animated characters that responded to microphone input. All in all, some very cool stuff. Ficklin stressed the importance of collaborating in creating new experiments.
Flash Engineering Team Q&A
Add the end of the day, the Flash engineering team showed up in the gallery for some questions. This was a good chance to nerd-out and ask if future versions of Flash would include our wish-list items. Many of the responses were fairly coy, as the team is keeping a lot close to the chest, but the questions regarding improvements to Flash’s text capabilities were generally met with a resounding “yes” response.
The gentlemen from Adobe got up and showed some of the fantastic things that we can look forward to in the upcoming releases. Including basic 3d, some very cool inverse-kinematics (AKA bones), advanced text rendering, advanced motion editing, and unprecedented tween control. Here’s one video sneak peak from a while back, but there are several more on the web.
Neil Ishibashi (and colleague)
I chalk this presentation up to Disney’s role as a sponsor of the conference. This was primarily an advertisement for Disney’s website, and offered very little in terms of content. As with most content supposedly produced for children, I was disturbed by that amount that the content sexualized children and attempted to sell consumerism as genuine education. The one piece of Flash-related content that I wrote down was a technique that the web team used to produce a single SWF on the server to compact images uploaded via a CMS to cause only a single hit when the page requests content from the server. This is a rather ingenious solution. Unfortunately, it’s wasted on the Disney site.
Danny Stillion showed off some of the cool things that IDEO labs is currently producing. Including some interesting variations on the multi-touch screen. They are also providing an open-source API for Flash that interacts with multi-touch screens.
Stillion’s presentation probably also had the best quote regarding failure. This one is from IDEO’s founder, David Kelley, “Fail often to succeed sooner.”
Tinic Uro demonstrated how he goes about fixing a bug in the Flash Player. He also showed early versions of the Flash Player that he’s working on for the FreeBSD operating systems (32- and 64-bit).
Todd Rosenberg showed some of his animations from oddtodd.com. Fun stuff. Rosenberg talked about making his Laid Off animation after being laid off, and some of the subsequent success that it brought him.
Lynda Weinman is the former organizer of the Flash Forward. She presented on Education in the Internet Age. She said that a rift is forming between digital natives (students) and digital immigrants (teachers). Because of this, our old model of teachers as experts is falling apart. Weinman is also the founder of Lynda.com. She spoke about the advantages of “learn at your own pace” videos on the internet. Weinman also advocated using the internet to memorialize rather than memorize. To associate information rather than store it for the sake of a standardized test.
Not much to summarize about this talk, since it was primarily visual. Natzke, head and shoulders above anyone I’ve seen, comes closest to producing what would be called “fine art” with Flash. He does so with a blend of photography, programming, and a gifted eye. Video available online.
Hoss Gifford’s unofficial presentation title was Remove the F%@king Manual. The title was referring to the design of the user experience. Gifford said, “Simple things need no manual. Frequently used items afford complexity.” Yesterday we were Web Designers, today we’re User Experience Designers. Gifford advocated changing your title, because you know as much as the other people. “Be bold,” he said, “if you have enough clout, you make the rules.” Gifford reiterated the “never fear failure” mantra and also told the audience to “design the experience, not the user interface—it’s all about the user.” He showed several photos of devices designed by german designer Dieter Rams, as examples of clear user experience.
Ivan Todorov presented on Brand Experiences. Unfortunately, this presentation suffered from “telling” and not “showing,” in writer-speak. The content of the presentation was all about creating engaging experiences, but the talk itself was not very engaging, which undercut the point a bit. I didn’t take too much from this talk as its message feels a bit dated. It also made me feel a little dirty like the Disney talk. As if the best thing we could do is put a friendly face on a large corporation. Feels a bit like a 50’s housewife expected to serve her violent brute of a husband. Maybe I’m reading too much into it…
Luke Bayes along with Ali Mills have cobbled together a rather ingenious system for airtight ActionScript development. Their application is called AsUnit. The process is based on Test Driven Development used in other programming languages. I also went down and saw his detailed presentation on AsUnit. This is definitely something I will be looking into further. It’s another one of those systems that seems more time consuming at first, but ultimately cuts the development time significantly and enables more functionality to be built instead of spending countless hours fighting with unnecessary bugs.
David Carson presented some of his unique design work, much of it from his music magazine, Ray Gun. Loosely related to the failure theme, Carson said, “If everybody loves your work, you’re playing it too safe.” Regarding style, Carson said, “pull from yourself—[the result] will be unique.” Much of the work that Carson showed, pushed traditional ideas of design to the edge, some of it over the edge. Acknowledging this, but not apologizing for it, Carson said, “don’t mistake legibility for communication.”
Paul Ortchanian was more or less the Thoreau of the conference. He suggested that everyone experiment and not rely on the code and classes of others, almost to an extreme. He showed several of his own interesting experiments, many of which can be found at reflektions.com. His presentation files can be found on his site as well.
Karen Kinsey-House presentation was entitled, Relationship as Foundation. This is one of those non-Flash presentations where I have to agree with most of my fellow attendees. While I didn’t disagree with Kinsey-House’s basic messages of peace and empathy. Her presentation of the topic was not particularly novel or engaging. The unfortunate prejudice about the talk that initially occurred to me when she was introduced as a “life coach” was only fueled by malapropisms in her presentation like using “anachronym” (a made-up word) instead of “acronym” when referring abbreviated names, which occurred repeatedly. I guess that bugged Keith Peters too.
Stacey Mulcahy’s presentation (available online) was as lively and interesting as her website URL, BitchWhoCodes.com. Mulcahy’s presentation was primarily in the format of a fed-up developer addressing an unhelpful project manager, though some of the advice was also directed at developers. In fact, Mulcahy had so many good nuggets, that I won’t try to labor them into prose. Here are some of the points listed roughly as they were in Mulcahy’s presentation:
- bad project process limits developers in implementation
- good project process enables developers to innovate
- meaningful innovation requires an environment that fosters it
- developers tend to estimate ideal hours (forget to account for problems, meetings, and other project management)
- good details = good estimate
- bad planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part [this one got significant applause]
- constant chaos is not a motivator
- adopt a project taxonomy (talk about the same things in the same way)
- just because I know how to do it, doesn’t mean I should (i.e., don’t take advantage of developers by having them also do things like video editing, have an expert in video editing do it)
- spend less time with data, more time with the team
- the more ridiculous the deadline is, the more resources are wasted trying to meet the deadline
- adding developers does not speed up development arithmetically (just because one woman can have a baby in nine months, doesn’t mean nine women can have a baby in one month)
- [To developers:] Learn to say “NO” (we’re the experts)
Branden Hall gave a presentation delightfully titled, Brilliant Ideas That I’ve Blatantly Stolen. This was another presentation where I couldn’t take notes fast enough. Hall argued that “the language that we use affects how we think.” And he proceeded to go through ideas that he’d stolen from other programming languages and re-appropriated them for ActionScript. “Steal from target-rich environments,” Hall said. Most of Hall’s examples came from Python and Cocoa, and primarily described novel ways to save and broadcast data. He wrapped up his talk with, “Ideas are everywhere, but…be a selective thief.” More information about some of Hall’s techniques can be found on his blog and sandbox.
Scott McCloud’s presentation, Comics: A Medium in Transition, was another fairly interesting exploration into a narrative as a general topic. McCloud seeks to work with new media, rather than just transliterating his paper comics into a digital format. He calls this his search for a “durable mutation” of comics. To McCloud, all media involves a series of choices. For comics, those choices are movement, frame, image, words, and flow. McCloud said the we “see in the panels,” but we “think between the panels.” As you move through space in comics, you move through time. McCloud advocated seeing the screen as a window, while the window is limited, the shapes behind it are not, and the vantage point through the window can be changed. I particularly liked one of McCloud’s summation statements, which applies broadly to many different art forms, “your medium is the knowledge and expectations of the audience.”
Tech Speaker Slam
The speaker slam was a chance for audience members to sign up for two minutes of talk time on stage. About twenty people made the leap. It was certainly an interesting idea. There was no time to get bored with any of these, but it pretty difficult to cram anything meaningful into two minutes.
Other resources/write-ups on Flash Forward 2008:
- Matt & Anthony’s Trip to Flash Forward 2008
- Flash Forward 2008 Photos
- The FlashBlog: Flash Forward 2008 Conference Report
- Flash Forward 2008 Overview @ by Joshua Musselwhite @ Actionscript.org
- Flash Forward 2008 Film Festival Finalists
- Multiple postings on Keith Peters’ blog
- FlashForward Retrospective from The Back Button
- Several posts from Caleb Adam Haye on FF 2008
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