James Paterson, Digital Frontiers

HOW Design Live

Developer, programmer, artist, designer. Mad scientist?

Call James Paterson what you want, but one thing’s for sure: his creativity knows no boundaries. Paterson started using Flash in early 1997, and made a career out of pushing the medium and his creations into new, exciting, and evocative territories.

He’s been a part of the web’s past and present, and will undoubtedly be a part of the digital future that’s yet to come, although it’ll happen without one of his favorite tools: Flash. In the very near future, the platform and web plugin will no longer be supported by Adobe. Like others who used Flash, Paterson has lamented the coming of the end. “I think because I grew up with it as my primary set of creative tools it was really a part of me. I had spent well over 10 years perfecting my craft with it, and had a setup that was like an extension of my mind and body. It took years to relearn everything and port as much of my world as possible to JavaScript.”

James Patterson on designing without Flash.

James Paterson, photo by Jonathan Chang.

James Patterson on designing without Flash.

Paterson’s studio, where the magic happens.

But he’s a realist too.

“Ultimately the switch to JavaScript was good and healthy… it’s a much broader medium and allowed me to take my craft to all sorts of new places.” And there’s no turning back, all for the better. Paterson has broken into new digital territories, pushing the boundaries of augmented reality (AR) with #normanvr and other digital platforms. He took time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions about AR, developer tools, the web, Flash, and a (possible) future for Flash.

James Patterson on designing without Flash.

James Patterson on designing without Flash.

James Patterson on designing without Flash.

James Patterson on designing without Flash.

VR (virtual reality) sculpting has become a major focus for Paterson. “It’s sort of a natural progression of my drawing process, popped into 3D, thanks to the hands-on-ness of VR.”

Q. Who were the Flash artists, designers, and developers you admired during the early days of Flash, and why?

In the very early days there wasn’t much going on that I could find made using Flash. There were some ultra-early Shockwave/Director sites, notably Antirom (Tomato Interactive) and Noodlebox (Danny Brown) which caught my attention in the late 90s. Then when Flash started to pick up in 1998-99 I saw a little piece of open source by praystation (Joshua Davis) that revealed how to create a “frame loop” where code could run across time. That was my very first introduction to code as a kind of living breathing thing. I’ve been thankful to Josh for that kickstart into code ever since. Some other characters from the early Flash days who influenced me hugely were Amit Pitaru, Yugo Nakamura & Erik Natzke.

Q. How would you describe what you called code as a living breathing thing and that frame loop that Joshua Davis made?

Up until that point I had only used very contained “actions” to perform a bit of control over my animations. Things like clicking buttons to stop, play and jump around through animations. The “frame loop” that I saw in Josh’s open-source showed some code sitting on frame 1, then an action on frame 2 saying “go back and play frame 1 again!” This was the first time I saw a game loop/tick/enter-frame in action and it blew my mind. Learning to code can be intimidating, and baby-stepping my way in as Flash slowly progressed to become a more full-powered development tool gave me a very comfortable on-ramp. Seeing Josh’s frame loop was where something shifted in my mind from being about simple actions triggered by discrete user events like mouse clicks, to being a fluid dynamic system that was constantly shifting and changing over time.

Q. As Flash became more and more popular, you’d see Flash used for expressive, experimental, and artistic purposes. Plenty of sites would also use Flash with the entire site needing the Flash plugin, or it would just have Flash components such as menus or images or animations. Where would you put yourself on that spectrum of Flash artwork versus Flash functional work, and why?

I primarily used flash as a personal art medium. Specifically, my area of interest was bringing drawings to life through a combination of animation and code. I would draw endlessly in my sketchbook, then pick my favorite drawings to expand into living, breathing pieces of interactive work using animation and code. This eventually matured into building custom creative tools (something I did a lot in collaboration with Amit Pitaru) and also getting into more game-like territory. The further I went down this path the more I had to study programming and take it seriously. I was continuously outgrowing my technical ability and having to pause (sometimes for years at a time) to learn more before I could continue.

The more comfortable I got with the medium and programming in general, the more I would take on contracts doing “functional” jobs as you put it. Basically I would spend as long as humanly possible making my own work, then when I was sufficiently broke I would take on commercial gigs doing more practical stuff with the skills I had developed in my personal endeavors. These commercial projects could sometimes be challenging and satisfying, but were usually just a way for me to pay the bills so I could get back to the main event: making weird personal work.

James Patterson on designing without Flash.

Chalk on chalkboard, from a wall in Paterson’s studio. “They are a combination of stream of consciousness/automatic drawing (a process I call psychic vomit) and plans/code for whatever I’m working on.”

James Patterson on designing without Flash.

A mural by Paterson in the parking lot of B-Reel Los Angeles.

Q. When you first heard about Flash being phased out, what was your reaction?

Flash was phased out slowly over a number of years, and while I could feel it happening I was still very much invested in it as a creative tool. The final blow was dealt by Steve Jobs in 2010, in his open letter Thoughts on Flash. My reaction was split down the middle. On one side, I agreed with Jobs about how inappropriate Flash was for making websites. I didn’t like Flash sites any more than the next person and was happy that they would be going the way of the Dodo.

But on the other hand, that was not what I used Flash for. For me it was my primary art tool. So with my own creative process, my reaction was one of deep sadness and loss. I had invested well over a decade developing workflows in Flash that were perfectly suited to me. I creatively grew up alongside Flash, so much so that it felt like a part of me. Once I read that letter by Jobs I knew it was totally over, and in some ways if felt like someone had come into my beloved studio, full of all my most intimate creative tools and processes, and burned the place down.

I know that sounds dramatic, but it really did feel that way at the time. I had to completely reinvent myself technically and creatively over the following half-decade, porting as much of my process to JavaScript as possible. This was a huge growth experience for me, facing that loss and then rebuilding.

Q. Are you still developing for Flash, in any way, be it with Adobe Animate CC or something else?

I occasionally animate using Adobe Animate, then drive those animations with JavaScript, but it is somewhat rare these days. It’s still a great animation tool, but I’ve moved on to other places and broadened my horizons in terms of tools and workflows.

Q. From curators I’ve spoken with, you’ve begun to work in AR and VR spaces. How are those platforms allowing you to push your visions and experiments further, and in what ways did Flash prepare you for the spaces you’re working in today?

AR and VR have been a fascinating to me ever since reading Neuromancer by William Gibson and other cyberpunk stuff as a kid. When it finally matured enough to really work, with Vive and Rift, I jumped right in. One of the main projects I’ve done in this area was to take my favorite parts of animating in Flash and create my own open source VR animation tool from scratch, called Norman. This was an incredible experience and such a fun way to carry some of the old school flash frame-by-frame lineage forward into the present. I used JavaScript to code Norman, and it runs on the web (WebVR) for Oculus Rift.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Gonna miss you Gord ❤️#gorddownieforever

A post shared by James Paterson (@presstube) on

Q. At what point did you leave Halfempty, and when you decided to do so, what did working independently enable you to do that you had not done before?

I started Presstube in 1999 as a way to just get a fresh start after working on Halfempty for the previous few years. I had a wonderful experience working on Halfempty with Marty Spellerberg in 1997–98. He was the first person to turn me on to Flash actually! But in 1999 it felt like the right thing to do to break away and do my own thing. Halfempty was more of a magazine curating the work of many different people, and I just wanted to descend into my own creative rabbit hole.

Q. What did getting published mean to you, especially being in such great company in the book New Masters of Flash?

It was a huge honor to be invited to contribute alongside all the amazing people in that book. Also just getting to share my process with others was a thrill.

James Patterson on designing without Flash.

James Patterson on designing without Flash.James Patterson on designing without Flash.

Drawings by James Paterson

Q. What (possible) future do you see for Flash after 2020, when Adobe will end support of the plugin, and how would you want to be involved with Flash when it’s outmoded?

I’m not sure that Flash has any future to be honest, except to be remembered as a platform which acted as a catalyst for a sort of Cambrian explosion of creativity at the dawn of the internet. I will continue to draw on it to inform my workflows moving into the future, and try to rebuild my favorite old school Flash workflows from scratch.

Q. When the final nail goes into the coffin, how will you remember Flash?

Flash was at the heart of an open and switched on creative community in the early days of the web. It introduced a lot of non-technical creative people to the art of programming, and did so in an accidentally perfect gradual manner. It was the source of much frustration for users when it was used to build entire websites or aggressive banner ads, but for a small group of early creative technologists it was a profoundly inspiring and mind expanding technology. Thank you, Macromedia and Adobe, for that glorious ugly duckling of a creative platform!

Keep track of what James Paterson is up to on his Instagram.


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Edited from a series of electronic interviews.

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