Exporting your animation to Flash so that it plays smoothly and soundly over the Internet is getting more complicated with every new product crowing about its 'Flash-export capability.' Mark Winstanley is here to make sense of it all for you.
Animation has been a prominent force on the Internet since its inception. Even when the image files were tiny animated gifs, they were still...well, animated. Long before streaming video became an Internet buzzword (and sore disappointment), Web graphics with the look and feel of animation became the norm when viewing web pages on just about any site. Eventually the technology progressed and we've arrived in 2001 where programs like Macromedia's Flash enable fill blown animation delivery across the Internet, without the wait and choppy playback of streaming video.
Flash Is Still King
The biggest factor in getting your animated pieces onto the Internet and viewable by thousands of net surfers is the size of the pipeline over which they're delivered. Even though DSL connections and cable modems have proliferated, most of the world still subsists on 56K dial-up modems whose narrow bandwidth prohibits the delivery of smooth consistent streaming video. This is where Flash comes in. Flash was developed to deliver high impact graphics and sound over a small amount of bandwidth. Flash performs this feat by delivering only the instructions to recreate the images on the user's computer, and not the images themselves. It's like the difference between someone sending you the recipe for a cake versus the cake itself. That big chocolate cake isn't easy to squeeze through the mail slot on your front door, while an index card with the recipe slips right through, and you can recreate the cake on your side of the door.
Now don't get me wrong, you can scan animation sequences and import them into Flash all day, but your files can end up being huge and unable to be seen by anyone except those with the fastest of net connections. One solution to the problem is to draw the image sequences in Flash itself, although if you're used to more traditional tools to create your animations, this may be cumbersome and produce less than satisfactory work. Another solution is to use one of the many after market plug-ins or stand alone products that promise to take animations created in an environment other than Flash and transform them into Flash compliant, bandwidth friendly deliverables. Flash is such a hot delivery platform that every company seems to want to add "Flash-export capability" to the list of their product's merits. The problem lately is that although many companies are promising this miracle of content morphing, not all are able to deliver. We'll take a look at some of the most popular here, and the pros and cons of each.
For More Traditional Folks
First up are the products used to transform scanned images and animation cels into Flash compliant vector image outlines. The most popular for a long time has been Adobe's Streamline (www.adobe.com). Streamline takes scanned images and converts them to line art that is then ready to be imported into Flash or Adobe Illustrator. Streamline works quite well although it suffers from the over generalization of many Adobe products. They don't exactly come out and say anywhere, "Streamline was designed for animators and perfect to integrate with Macromedia Flash." On the other hand Adobe's products have a consistent look and feel and most releases are fairly stable, with Streamline already in its 4.0 revision. It works fairly well for animation except it seems to lose details that you have to go back and put in again by hand once you've imported your images into Flash. Streamline has often been likened to have a rotoscoping effect. Adobe's compositing software After Effects 5.0 will begin shipping in the second quarter of 2001 and is reported to be boasting a number of new Web enhancements as well.
A newer product to hit the market dealing with scanned images is NetGuru/AXA Software's AXA Web 1.0 whose tagline is "To the Vector Go the Spoils" referencing the vector image format that lets Flash deliver high quality animation in a small package. AXA Web is a product that is targeted directly at the traditional animator offering the ability to take scanned cel animation and "vectorize" it for use in Flash. It can detect more detail than Streamline and deliver an output that requires less touch up when finally brought into Flash. Originally launched late last year, it is scheduled for a relaunch this spring after some refinement update's by AXA to improve the software overall. A beta copy I tested seemed to be fairly free of bugs although it contains some interesting departures from standard usability, like using Alt+Backspace to execute an undo instead of the almost universal Ctrl-Z key combo. I'd like to see some serious demos on their Website of pieces converted using AXA Web, although I can say this about any of the other products discussed here as well.
MediaPEGS, a leader in 2D animation production systems, will soon release i-Pegs, a "lighter" version of their award-winning Pegs software currently used by hundreds of studios around the globe. i-Pegs is designed solely for Internet use and is described as a user-friendly solution to taking previously created animation with sophisticated movement and backgrounds to the Net using incredibly small bandwidth. While not yet released this product will be interesting to see once it is available and of course, will be a natural fit for those already using the Pegs software system.
Taking the Web 3D
The 3D world has really taken off on the Internet lately. I think it's everyone's goal at this point to start producing bandwidth friendly 3D animations and games without having to go learn a whole new set of tools. One of the more standard tools in 3D creation is 3D Studio Max, now shipping in its hottest revision - 3ds Max 4 (www.discreet.com). With an enhanced character studio and purported support for exporting to Web friendly formats such as Flash, it seems to be the hot ticket for getting 3D onto the Web, although their Website lacks any real demonstration of direct export capability.
Fear not, others have come up with plug-ins for 3D Studio Max that allow you to take 3D content and bring it right into Flash. Vecta 3D (www.vecta3d.com) was the first to allow direct 3D export into Flash. Available as both a standalone application and a plugin for 3D Max it delivers very good 3D vectorized graphics with a small file size. The look is often angular and not very fluid, but you can't beat the small file sizes, or the price of the plug-in! Thankfully there are some good examples on their Website. Another plug-in for 3D Max was just announced by Electric Rain (www.electricrain.com), the makers of Swift 3D. The Swift 3D standalone application has been a great way to create 3 dimensional graphics and easily export them into Flash. Building on the success of Swift 3D, Electric Rain has developed their RAViX IITM rendering technology to take content directly from 3D Studio Max into Flash. With a release date of Spring 2001, it's sure to be a big hit this year.
A completely different company with a similar sounding name has developed a product that is a standalone creation tool capable of some pretty fluid and smooth 3D export for Flash. Electric Image (electricimg.com) recently released their newest version of Amorphium, titled Amorphium PRO. Good examples on their Website prominently illustrate and advertise Amorphium's ability to produce 3D animated content specifically for the Web through Flash. The visual quality is very good although some of the file sizes seemed a bit large for the number of frames and content of the animations. This product is impressive and definitely worth checking out.
Maya has long been a standard for high-end visual and special effects development. In November, Cambridge Animation Systems announced a plug-in for Maya to output to Flash directly. A check of their Website reveals no direct information or demonstration of this product or its capabilities. Not surprising, since converting Maya content into a compact vectorized image format for Flash is certainly no easy task. I'm intrigued to see if and when this product is released in a workable form.
Last but not least in our list of cool ways to deliver animation on the Internet is proof that Flash isn't the only game in town for delivering cool interactive content in a Web-friendly package. Pulse 3D (www.pulse3D.com) has developed their own proprietary technology and Web browser plug-in to deliver incredibly cool streaming 3D animation and interactive content! It's not as popular as the Flash format but Pulse's penetration increases every day. With some big names signed on to use the format, Pulse is generating quite a buzz. What's somewhat of a buzz-kill though, is the fact that you must buy a license to put Pulse content on your Website. The tools to create the content are free however and integrate directly with 3D Studio Max, whose newest release may prove to be the fuel Pulse needs to compete head to head with Flash for the title of 'Coolest Content Delivery Format;' although the inclusion of the Flash plug-in with every new computer sold today gives Macromedia the competitive edge.
Hopefully we've covered enough ground here to give you a broad view of the options available to take content you've created in one format and transform it into another that is more accessible via the Web than would be using traditional streaming video. Take a look at the tools you use most often and the applications and plug-ins here that integrate with those tools to find a conversion pathway that best suits your needs. If some of the options seem pricey, try and get a demo version, or insist on being able to view demos online of the output achievable with the product. This is always a good idea since it seems many of the claims presented by some of the companies outpace the impact of their online examples.
Good luck and happy animating!
Mark Winstanley is a high-end Internet developer and consultant to Hollywood studios and entertainment creators, both online and offline. A Flash programmer, he is the editor and author of four books on Flash and co-founder of FlashCore.com, the Global New Media Creative and Technical Community. His email is: firstname.lastname@example.org