Half Empty, Since 1998

“Maybe the least commercially successful but most popular project I’ve done is Pee-Mail, where you pee a message in the snow.” — Karl Ackerman

The Genius Who Brought Yellow Snow To The Web

Karl Ackerman, Kinya Hanada. April 4th, 2004

Artwork by Karl Ackerman

KINYA HANADA: I met Karl while I was at Rhode Island School of Design. He was in a class that I TA’d for. He will agree that I was probably the worst TA ever – I really had no idea how to help students! There were only a few students that made any impression on me and Karl was one of them. I didn’t get to know him then, but I remember that he always made work that was quite different from everybody else’s and I didn’t really know where he was coming from, but he seemed to already have his own thing going-on.

It wasn’t until a few years later that our paths crossed again. I was visiting my friend Paul Kim who was telling me about his friend Karl and showed me his picture. The name sounded familiar and the picture looked kind of like the kid from the class, but there was something different. I think he had glasses on in the picture or something, which made him look like another person, so I thought that Paul’s friend must be somebody else. It was probably not too long after that we ended up meeting at Paul’s and then recognized each other. Paul also had given me a copy of Lovedisk which was a cd-rom project that Paul and Karl had done which was awesome, so I was quite surprised that Karl was that kid from the class.

Lovedisk made quite an impression on me. It made me want to learn Director. I tried for a while and gave up because it seemed to difficult, but if it hadn’t been that failure, I may not have tried Flash a couple of years later. Anyway, so after I had started making stuff with Flash, I thought that I wanted to start a sort of a label that published multimedia work, but I didn’t feel like I could do it just by myself, so the first person I thought that could help me with it was Karl. Then Karl wanted to Eun-ha to be part of it too and that was kind of how Milky Elephant started. It hadn’t turned into what I had envisioned in the beginning, but in a way, it’s even better.

Anyway, unlike me, Karl is not much of a self promoter, so besides his brilliant work (like Pee-Mail and Super Jam) at the Milky Elephant site, he’s been doing work behind the scenes in various multi-media related and online projects. I think it’s about time though that more people knew about him. I am definitely looking forward to working with him some more.

Artwork by Karl Ackerman

KINYA HANADA: About when did you first start to have an interest in visual art? Was there anything in particular that inspired you at the time?

KARL ACKERMAN: Probably as soon as I possibly could. I’ve always enjoyed drawing, especially during school, and appreciated comics and David Lynch movies. I probably understood it as an interest in drawing when I applied to art school. Maybe after I graduated would I recognize it as an interest in "visual art."

HANADA: At RISD, what drew you to Illustration?

ACKERMAN: It was maybe the only department which continued a formal approach to studying life drawing, painting, and sculpting, which I really loved in freshman foundation. It had some great courses that focused on pure concept and idea development, too. The best part was that it offered a lot of freedom to take classes in other departments, like animation.

HANADA: When did you start to have an interest in computer graphics?

ACKERMAN: My dad teaches Computer Science, so we always had computers around, and I always thought they were cool. When I was about 9 he brought home a drawing tablet for an Apple IIe, which was a lot of fun. Whenever I’d visit somebody with a Mac I’d have to start using its drawing program.

Excluding the automatic thrill of sitting in front of a computer, what I appreciate most is how easy and quick it is vs. traditional media, rather than any special appreciation for the look of computer graphics.

Also, it’s hard to make a video game out of clay!

HANADA: You seemed to get the hang of Director quickly. Was that the first opportunity you had to do some programming?

ACKERMAN: I took a BASIC course for a semester in high school, but I don’t even remember what it covered. I probably would’ve gotten into programming without Director, even though now I love it so much. Other programming books start with an example of how to print "hello world" on the screen. With Director, equivalent expertise would let you trigger animations, turn the cursor into a severed hand or play audio – exactly the kind of stuff I wanted to do. Director allows a real gentle learning curve, so I wouldn’t say I had any trouble with it, just a long period of steady progress.

HANADA: Was Lovedisk the first project you made with Director? Or did it come after a bunch of other things?

Artwork by Karl Ackerman

ACKERMAN: My first Director experience was during an internship developing a CD-ROM for the book The Way Things Work. After that, I began a bunch of experiments to get a better understanding of the program. Basically, one project for each major feature. Eventually I combined those, and some stuff by Paul Kim, into what the world now knows as LOVEDISK 95.

HANADA: Did you switch from Director to Flash easily? How do you think Flash has changed your work from before?

ACKERMAN: Flash was a lot simpler back then so I picked it up pretty easily. The hardest part was getting used to key-frame animation. I used it for prototypes, storyboards, and animations almost immediately. The frequency of Flash projects steadily increased and eventually, in 2001, I realized I’d gone a year without using Director.

Flash has definitely made me a better programmer. It’s nurtured a community of developers interested in relatively deep programming concepts (for an authoring tool). On the downside I probably focused on it too much, to the exclusion of other mediums, and the detriment of my mental health.

HANADA: After you graduated from RISD, you went and worked for Living Books. What was that like?

ACKERMAN: Well, the first place I worked was at Apple as an intern in their Advanced Technology Group, the coolest department in the coolest company I could think of. It was my first experience in an academic environment. My impression was that you could do whatever you wanted; you just had to write a paper about it afterwards that enough people appreciated. My "papers" ended up being comic books that explored uses of my dream computer, basically a waterproof Tablet PC.

Living Books was also a good experience. They were a division of Broderbund which had made some games I was really into growing up. I felt more comfortable there than Apple since it had what felt like more real-world constraints. My job title was "prototyper" which meant I got to do concept and programming work on games, which was great experience for the kind of work I do now.

HANADA: It seems like you’ve worked on a bunch of commercial projects, which were great, but maybe not known by most people. Could you talk about some of them?

ACKERMAN: I made a few small games for Nickelodeon and MSN, but the first thing I had any substantial commercial success with was "Build Your Own Damn Card." Maybe the first build-your-own-card tool, in Flash… wow, right? With the help of 415 Productions, I was able to license the technology to a few online greeting card companies.

I collaborated with Paul, Jon, and Takeshi at Humanface to create Super-Jam, which I think turned out really well. Basically you upload your face and attach it to a dancing character. Maybe the least commercially successful but most popular project I’ve done is Pee-Mail, where you pee a message in the snow. It was just a personal project that took a little over a week to complete but resulted in over 400,000 pee-mails, and a few million unique visitors in its first 3 months.

Artwork by Karl Ackerman

HANADA: How did you like living and working in San Francisco? Did it affect your work in any way?

ACKERMAN: I liked it a lot, though I started to feel restless after a few years. It was very stimulating when the CD-ROM industry was booming, but as the dot-com bubble swelled I started to feel like there was a community more in tune with my interests on the east coast.

It was the first place I had a chance to collaborate with people with different skill sets, and manage projects that I had creative control over. Now my personal work almost always seems to require a team effort of some sort.

HANADA: Do you have like a dream project if you had all the resources needed?

ACKERMAN: World Peace. I’d also like to build an underground haunted house, mostly out of painted wood, where all the scary stuff is mechanical, with mostly wooden gears.

HANADA: Most of your work is interactive, but how do you see interactivity in visual art?

ACKERMAN: Normally I see visual art in interactivity; the same way there’s music in movies. I guess if the interactivity reinforces the visual statement, and you can use it as unconsciously as looking at it, that’d be interactivity in visual art.

KH: Please name 10 things you like other than pizza and internet.

ACKERMAN: You and Eun-Ha, Ollie, Mom & Dad, Friends, New York City, Being human, Jokes, Nausicaa, and Sausage. But I don’t think I would like anything if there wasn’t pizza and internet!

(Included in Half Empty #2)