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Is There Life Beyond Flash?

Flash is the leading tool for Internet animation, but there are a few other options for production and augmentation. Here industry leaders reveal their secrets from high tech 3D software to good, old-fashioned talent.

There is no doubt about it! Macromedia Flash is the industry standard for Internet animation, utilized by over half a million Web authors worldwide to create animated vector-based Web sites. But are there new tools out there that are being incorporated into today's cutting-edge Web animations? Flash is king when it comes to delivering action and adventure on a low-bandwidth, but are audiences already demanding more? Are artists already beginning to push these freshly assigned limits? We asked several leading companies what they use on this quickly paced and evolving frontier.

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© JibJab. Yo, everythings up at JibJab. © JibJab.

Gregg Spiridellis CEO, JibJab Media Inc.

JibJab uses Flash exclusively for all of its on-line animation production. We are hyper-focused on creating content that is accessible to the largest possible audience and Flash is the only technology that both works well in a low-bandwidth world and has a massive installed base for the plug-in. To add variety to our productions, we are hiring great artists that are pushing the technology to its limit, moving beyond straight vector animation and producing exciting new collage and mixed media animations in Flash.

Darrell Van Citters Director, Renegade Animation

We find Flash to be an excellent piece of software, fulfilling virtually all of our Web animation needs. We do, however, employ a few useful plug-ins. One enables your average, fumble-fingered artist to produce drawings of startling beauty. It's called TALENT. We use another utility, WIT, to inject moments of mirth into otherwise lifeless scripts. In addition, we find that a finely-honed, wood-encased graphite stick is an indispensable aid in pre-visualization. It's also handy for filling out surveys.

Bruce Forman Co-Founder, ROMP.com

We are meat and potatoes, heavy users of the Flash plug-in and have yet to develop animation on another platform. Why? It is about as ubiquitous as any plug-in on the Web -- thereby lessening the technical burden on our viewers -- and remains a very inexpensive platform for content development. It is difficult enough ensuring that our audience has Flash 4 to enjoy our programming, let alone forcing them to download a foreign plug-in to view it. We will evaluate up-and-coming animation tools, such as Pulse, once they reach a critical mass and approach the development costs that Flash offers.

David B. Williams Chairman & CEO, Visionary Media LLC

For the kind of high-end, multiple episode animation projects that are Visionary Media's hallmark, 3D tools are playing a growing role in our Flash production process. The creation of 3D models benefits us in two main ways:

1) For props and/or backgrounds (and even characters) that will play a large role over the course of several episodes, 3D models have a "create once and use often" advantage. Once a 3D model is created, multiple views and sequences can be imported into Flash, saving our art staff valuable drawing time, and enhancing the aesthetic continuity from view to view.

2) A sequence generated with the aid of 3D tools can help us to throttle up its overall "Wow!" factor. In our example, the stages of a rocket entering orbit drop away toward Earth, but as they fall, their orientations shift, subtly enhancing the realism of the shot.

To achieve these effects, we utilize a variety of tools, including 3D Studio Max for modeling, and Vecta and Swifty 3D for exporting 3D models to vector files ready for Flash. Adobe Illustrator also plays an important role in the layout of various screens.

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The rocket launches! © Visionary Media.

Sound production plays a central role, especially since Visionary produces all original music for its programming. Sound tools can also help to optimise dialog tracks, keeping file sizes to a minimum while retaining clarity. We employ a wide array of software, including: Digital Performer with Waves Shell for sequencing, Sound Edit 16 and Deck for splicing and batch processing, Unity DS1 for midi sample playback, Steinberg's B.Box for groove creation, Sound Foundries Acid for music loop production and QBase.

Kevin BermeisterPresident, Brilliant Digital Entertainment

Brilliant Digital Entertainment has created an introductory b3d toolset for creating interactive 3D animation content that may be streamed over the Internet. Tools include a b3d Exporter plug-in for 3D Studio Max, Maya and Lightwave, two versions of an authoring tool called b3d Studio and a Digital Projector for real-time 3D playback. b3d Studio allows animators to import a variety of media types into a timeline and then "build" an interactive animation that may be streamed in real-time. Brilliant Digitals Superman and KISS Immortals series on portals such as Entertaindom and Yahoo are referred to as "Multipath Movies," a term used to describe interactive movies that include user-selected subplots. Movies can be played in a pop-up Digital Projector that also plays Flash, AVI, MPEG and HTML. Although Multipath Movies are Brilliant Digitals most visible projects on the Web, the b3d platform is actually a pervasive 3D format that can be used to deliver a wide variety of interactive content. The compression and delivery engine built into the b3d platform is very versatile and may be used to create virtual shopping malls, educational programming, waltkthroughs and other content. Without advanced programming or even scripting, content developers and artists who use 3D Studio Max, Maya and Lightwave will be able to export their animations for assembly in b3d Studio.

Richard Fenton CEO, Spot Box Inc.

One of the things that we're doing here at Spot Box is trying to anticipate where animation and entertainment are going on the Internet. This means forecasting what technologies will become prevalent. In addition to Flash, we use LiveStage Pro to create QuickTime Wired Sprites. This technology allows us the flexibility to do some things that we cannot do as well in Flash, such as the ability to handle multiple media types, and the ability to build 2D sprite games that have special effects like fire, or clouds. In addition to QuickTime Wired Sprites, we are also using Pulse 3D to create interactive 3D content. For us, the key advantage of Pulse 3D over other 3D technologies designed for the Internet is its character animation features. We are also investigating software that allows us to take these experiences outside of the Internet browser. One such development tool that has caught our attention is iShell. With iShell, we can create immersive custom environments that exist outside of the standard Internet browser. We can also use iShell to do some things that would otherwise be difficult. In iShell, we can create our content in any of several formats (Flash, QuickTime, Pulse3D, etc.), and those media types can then communicate with each other. For instance, we can have a Pulse 3D animated object communicate with and control a QuickTime movie or vice versa.

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Ninjas spotted at Spot Box. Preview the game! © Spot Box, Inc.

Stellar new technology at Spot Box. Preview the game! © Spot Box, Inc.

Trevor Bentley Director, Atomic Cartoons

For animation content Atomic Cartoons has mostly relied on the traditional approach. We do all the design with pencil and paper and do the animation the old fashioned way, but we try to cheat where we can in Flash. Obviously Adobe Photoshop 5.0 is a big help and has made outputting to the Web easier. We often use Photoshop for color styling and show treatment, but Flash 4 is so easy to use that we have stuck with it for the majority of color. In fact I like coloring in Flash so much I have started only using Flash to color show treatments, which are then exported to Photoshop and Quark. I think once we exhaust the look we are currently using we will try to import gifs from Photoshop and Illustrator. As for effects, we are sticking to traditional 2D animation so they are mostly done with drybrush, zips, etc.

Veronique Brossier Flash Programmer and Animator, Funny Garbage

Funny Garbage uses state-of-the-art technology to create its award-winning animation work. Other than Sound Edit 16 for sound design, Flash has become our exclusive piece of software for animated content in an effort to streamline the creation and animation process. The key piece of hardware that enables us to create such high quality animation is the Wacom tablet, which allows us to trace hand-drawn art or draw directly inside the Flash application. New Funny Garbage animators, often familiar with graphic programs such as Illustrator, are trained to draw directly into Flash. The learning process is usually very fast and quite successful.

On occasion, we experiment with 3D software to create models. Those models are then imported into Flash, through third-party software which converts 3D models into vector art. We'll be doing more exploration of this kind in the future to further our experimenting with unusual looks and feels.

Joel Kuwahara Vice President of Production, Icebox Inc.

At Icebox, in addition to Flash we also use Photoshop, Illustrator, Premiere and Streamline. However, graphic software has always supplemented the artists' tools in preparing design and artwork for animation. And a majority of the software mentioned above has been used by artists for a number of years, except Streamline. The major change in the process that is significantly different from traditional animation is the implementation of Flash software. Flash allows for economical, effecient animation to be done in-house. Other animation software does exist on the market but I feel that Flash is the strongest. Not only do 90% of Internet users already have the Flash browser, but its tool set is easy to use and applicable to 90% of what we need to do. Occassionally we will take our graphics and "treat" them in Illustrator or Photoshop before we bring them in to Flash, but a majority of the effects we create are done directly in Flash.

Heather Kenyon is editor in chief of Animation World Magazine.

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