Flash 5, by Macromedia
Posted: 1-Jul-2002

4 1/2 out of 5 Mice

Vendor: Macromedia Type: COMMERCIAL

Reviewer: KC MacGregor Class: PRODUCTIVITY

Overview
Flash 5 software is a Web authoring tool that allows you to illustrate, animate, create interactive sequencing, edit sound, and program applications with its own ActionScript language. This means that not only can you create animations with Flash, you can liven up your web page with interactive Flash banners, buttons, bars, sounds, and even entire games. Flash has set the standard for Web-friendly vector animation. The Flash 5 software makes web pages more interesting via interactive animations, and they don't take forever to load. The quick download is naturally the Holy Grail of Web developers. No matter how great your production values, no user will wait around very long for the chance to view your graphics doing the light fantastic across their browser. This is still especially true for those users who have not graduated to a DSL or cable line, still crawling the web via a standard dial-up modem. How does the Flash software address the issue of speedy access? Animating vector graphics instead of bit maps is the basis for the quick Flash download. Think of drawing an iceberg or a million ice cubes. Which takes less time? In the following example, my 227K Photoshop bitmap was imported into Flash 5, and was incorporated as a vector graphic into the following 32K Flash animation, Dreams:


Dreams.swf

From this basic concept of creating animations, Macromedia has developed Flash into a Web authoring tool through a succession of Flash generations.

Using Flash
The online tutorial included with Flash 5 provided a good basic overview, but I also found it helpful to use a couple of guidebooks to navigate the array of pull-down menus, panels, tabs and toolboxes. (Coriolis' Flash 5: Visual Insight was particularly easy to follow for a beginner.) In addition, the Flash manual is provided under the Help menu and includes a simple but very helpful search feature. Flash also has a very generous online community of support which provides aid to the beginner via online tutorials, listservs and forums.


Screenshot of Flash 5 interface

As in traditional cel animation, Flash works in layers. The type of animation Flash produces is sometimes referred to as "flipbook". Think of Rocky and Bullwinkle or SouthPark and you get the idea. It's a pretty straightforward approach to animation and Flash 5 doesn't require great drawing skill. By using effects like transparencies, even simple animations come to life.

An example of transparencies created with Alpha Effects:


Windy Day 2.swf

What's more important is the ability to keep track of the flow of the different layers that comprise your small movie. One must become thoroughly familiar with the interface that produces the animation layers. This consists of a stage, where objects are manipulated and symbols can also be created and edited, a scrolling timeline of frames where the animation action progresses, a window graphing the various layers, and a library where symbols used in the animation are stored.

Flash seemed to have a mind of its own at times. For example, I found it too easy to suddenly find myself drawing and painting on a different layer than the one I thought I was drawing on. What you see on the stage is an amalgamation of different layers displaying all the different designs elements, or "objects". One has to remember to check periodically that one hasn't inadvertently clicked on an object which sends one to that object's layer. You can toggle off layers you aren't working on or simply lock them, and this goes a long way to solving the object problem. Nonetheless, property management does require constant vigilance. Locking and unlocking layers can become a time-consuming habit. The real estate on my iMac's standard 15-inch monitor got crowded between the animation stage and the panels used to create and manipulate objects and action. I learned to merge the panels together into a comfortable configuration by docking the tabs I used most into just a couple of panels. Very cool.

Pull-down menus offer a wide variety of possibilities for brush, pencil, and paintbucket tools, not unlike Photoshop's in appearance. These tools however have their own unique Flash 5 functions. For example, the smoothing function of the pencil tool allows you to draw lines that curve with no unsightly jags. The paintbrush tool has the remarkably cool feature of allowing you to paint behind a shape you've created or you can choose another brush option which allows you to color within the lines without bleeding outside. There's a palette menu from which to choose object colors and the paintbucket allows you to create fills of solids and gradients. A bitmapped image imported from a paint program can be converted to a vector image in Flash via the TraceBitmap command under the Modify menu. It's a powerful feature, but can take some trial and error tweaking to get desired results, depending on the complexity of the image.

The Flash 5 paint and draw programs are so much fun you may find you don't need to import at all, and can do all your image creation within Flash. Flash allows you to do traditional cel by cel animation where every cel is drawn on a separate frame. It's a very traditional and labor intensive method to create animations. (
Click here for an example of a cel by cel animation I created in Flash)

Flash also offers another type of animation, much easier to create, which it calls motion and shape "tweening". Vector-based graphics, one-tenth the size of bitmaps, make possible the easy resizing and reshaping that is a staple of tweening. You can select two frames on your animation timeline, insert your graphic at those two points, select a motion path for motion tweens, and Flash calculates the movement and/or shape changes between the two frames. Tweening creates images and type that float, spin, grow larger and smaller, and change shape and color without having to draw a multitude of frames.


Example of Tweening: Hellobye.swf

After creating animations in Flash, the next step is to add interactivity to them. Flash's ActionScript programming is what makes this easy to do. The Flash 5 Actions panel has a menu of preprogrammed basic commands which tell the movie what to do. A very basic example is the addition of "stop" and "play" buttons which can keep an animation from endlessly looping around. It's also easy to add sound files to a Flash 5 animation. This does add to the size of a Flash file and should be used judiciously. A good use of a sound file is as a prompt upon use of a button. Providing a soundtrack is not a good use of sound files as they would dramatically slow the download speed.

At present, Macromedia's Flash is the leader of the Web animation pack. Adobe's LiveMotion 2.0 blend of SWF and SVG (scalable vector graphics) formats has potential to offer competition, but Flash still has a comfortable lead among users. LiveMotion integrates well with Adobe's Photoshop, Illustrator, After Effects and Go Live, and may be appealing on that basis. LiveMotion's strength is creating and editing bitmaps, unlike Flash 5. But LiveMotion lacks the Flash 5 automated bitmap tracer for creating vector graphics and the shape-tweening function. Fundamentally, LiveMotion does not have the same wide reach as Flash 5.

Summary
After several weeks of using Flash 5, I became enamored despite its often persnickety personality. If sent to a desert island with only one piece of software, would I take Photoshop or Flash? That would be one tough question to answer, that's how much I liked Flash!

Needless to say, Flash's performance varies according to the skill of the person using the software. There are some truly amazing sites on the web (
http://www.yenz.com, for one) that have employed Flash to great effect. The creative possibilities that Flash offers Web designers and developers are enormous.

Flash has some really terrific tools that allow one to draw, paint and manipulate images, but creative, intuitive types will find themselves balking at adopting the necessary degree of self-discipline that Flash 5 requires for optimum success. I found it helps to adopt an internal drill sergeant mode to make Flash work. If you don't follow the procedures, you won't get results. Also, sometimes the procedures seemed to adopt a life of their own, and I found myself wishing that the Flash 5 interface was a little more friendly (in an intuitive way).

When using Flash 5, you have to remember that there's a reason for everything it does. This is why Flash is known for its long learning curve, because Flash does a lot! After some intensive exploration through Flash 5's sometimes quirky interface, I was able to produce some pretty nice little animations. Was I impressed? Yes. Did I wish Flash was easier to use? Yes. Recent press releases indicate that the next generation of Flash, Flash MX, has made significant strides towards making Flash more intuitive and more powerful at the same time. This review only addresses Flash 5, a pretty nifty piece of software in its own right, and a good introduction to Flash's powerful capacity.

Pros

  • Allows you to transcend conventional html with ease
  • Rich, complex animations at very low bandwidth cost
  • Vast array of tools makes creative possibilities endless

Cons

  • Interface can be quirky at times
  • Steep learning curve may overwhelm novices
  • Expensive (a much better deal if you get the Freehand/Flash bundle)

Overall Rating:

4 1/2 out of 5 Mice

Test System
iMac DV Mac OS 9.0.4 128 MB RAM Full install consumed 62 MB of disk

General System Requirements
Minimum Authoring Requirements: Macintosh OS 8.5 or later, or Windows 95/98, NT4, 2000 or later; 32 MB RAM, 40 MB Disk Space