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.
James Paterson, photo by Jonathan Chang.
Paterson’s studio, where the magic happens.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
A mural by Paterson in the parking lot of B-Reel Los Angeles.
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.
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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.
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.
Drawings by James Paterson
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.
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!
Edited from a series of electronic interviews.