NASCAR.com, SportsBlast start their engines

Fox has The Simpsons. NASCAR.com has The Kellys. And they both have Nancy Cartwright.

Best known as the voice of Bart Simpson, Cartwright s own company, SportsBlast, has given NASCAR racing fans an animated family of its own for nearly five years. With the help of Flash animation technology, up to 47 employees, and a creative zeitgeist that brings together NASCAR racing and animation, Cartwright and her crew, led by Producer Peter Kjenaas, crank out short three-to-five minute episodes of The Kellys each week for racing fans looking for an often humorous and occasionally dramatic animated take on NASCAR obsession.

The goal is to help get kids interested in something other than the lifestyle of the sports, says Kjenaas. When kids watch something like the NBA they pay more attention to how Allen Iverson dresses than the game.

This week SportsBlast is going to another level, giving away an all-expenses paid trip to the Daytona 500. The winner also will appear in an upcoming episode as an animated character.

That s part of the reason The Kellys features celebrity drivers and mentions certain events that occur during the NASCAR season: it helps introduce NASCAR racing in a light that younger (and older) fans find refreshing.

Kjenaas is the first to admit that animating NASCAR drivers, and a family obsessed with NASCAR, is expensive. It takes weeks to do animation, and even if you speed it up it s still a long process, he says. A Flash animation that spoofs sports center, with nodding heads and smiles, is cheap and easy to do in a day. But the second you have a race car and try animating it driving around a track it gets a lot harder.

Flash animation continues to be a favorite tool for online animators. One reason is it offers viewers a higher-quality experience than streamed animation. So how does it work? A streamed videoclip simply plays out the frames in the order in which they occur. Flash, on the other hand, is made up of literally thousands of small files, each one representing an element, like a hand, eyebrow, or nose. Once an element is created for one frame it can be re-used over and over again, removing the need to recreate it. The trick, however, is that Flash relies on the RAM within a computer to cook those elements and build them into a coherent animation.

The real expense in animation is having guys sit down with a pencil and scanner or a drawing pad that lets them design right on screen, says Kjenaas. Once the basic drawing is completed the artists do a turnaround that is a profile of the character based by looking at a one-dimensional image of the front of the face. Building those core assets is what is incredibly expensive and time consuming, Kjenaas adds.

It may be expensive and time consuming but SportsBlast, with the help of NASCAR.com and other projects for the NBA (and even games for NASCAR.com) has turned it into a business. And given the tough timing of its launch date, Sept. 13, 2001, it s pretty incredible that it has survived.

We didn t give up, we just waited for the Internet to catch up, says Kjenaas. When we started broadband penetration was only 15 percent and it was 40 percent a year ago and now it s ramping up again. And with delivery speeds topping 5 Mbps the delivery issues are beginning to go away, although it s still akin to TV in the 60s, according to Kjenaas.

When it comes to advice for others wanting to get into animation for the Internet Kjenaas advice is simple: don t succumb to the desire to be cutting edge. SportsBlast, for example, tried to move over to the Windows Media Player but soon realized that once-happy viewers not found themselves faced with downloading updates and plug-ins.

It was an enlightening process, says Kjenaas. People in the tech world forget what it s like to not be in the tech world. When the average person is driving a car they want to simply turn the key and go they don t want to need to understand how to build an engine. As a result, SportsBlast is once again relying on Quicktime. But even that has its limitations.

When we built a game called Smoke Your Tires using Quicktime 8 we found that only Quicktime 4 and 5 would play on cellphones, says Kjenaas.

SportsBlast continues to look for new opportunities with the likes of the NBA, the NHL and others. But for now it s NASCAR-season ramp-up time, with up to 30 episodes (and 150 minutes) of animated content needing to be made.

We keep trying to find the right thing that has a broad enough demo, says Kjenaas. But all sports franchises see animation as a hook for kids