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Teaching Yourself Animation - The Tools Part 3

Learning animation on your own is very doable. This third of the four part series on the tools of the trade looks at vector based softwares for animation.

In Part 1 of this series on software for creating 2D frame-by-frame animation, we looked at the basics of mark making in a digital world. In the second part of the four part series, we perused a couple of inexpensive, small, and fast storyboarding softwares that can be used to learn the basic principles of animation.

In this, the third part of the series, we examine higher end vector based animation softwares.

Among the major players Adobe Flash is probably the most commonly known animation software with both strengths and weaknesses for auteur or independent animators. 

The software is vector based which means that it’s difficult to create organic transitions between shapes and colours, but it also means the computer can do a lot of that kind of work for you. One possible downside, depending on the style you like, is that shapes don’t come out exactly as you’ve drawn them. The software automatically simplifies the vector shapes slightly to make them consistent with the smallest possible number of equations that define that shape. This is because more equations = more data = larger file sizes = slower playback. While the degree of simplification is preference controlled, there will always be some generalizing of the forms. 

Flash is primarily aimed at the web and mobile markets and is packed with options for coding in markup languages and creating interactivity. Unless the focus of your animation is entirely web/mobile and interactivity based, you might want to look at getting something a little less complicated and expensive to start out. Adobe Flash is sold through Adobe’s online store and by commercial resellers. Educational pricing starts at $179.00 and commercial pricing starts at $699.00. Either way, if you’re planning to purchase an Adobe product, you’re probably better off money wise to get one of the Creative Suite packages (which one will depend on your needs) which includes Flash rather than going for the standalone product.

While I learned Flash many years ago, I never made a film with it mostly because I've never developed an affinity for the clean, generic look of slightly generalized vector based images. 

Toon Boom makes the professional animation software behind many animated films and commercials. Allowing for a far more streamlined process for the animation itself than one finds in Adobe Flash, they produce a variety of software flavours depending on your needs. 

Home users and starting out animators are referred to a suite of softwares that while on first glance might appear pretty basic, are in fact more than enough for getting started. I’m not familiar with most of them, but I have tried Toon Boom Studio , a new version of which has just been released. This is a feature rich, vector based software dedicated to animation. While the best tool for you depends on your individual needs and likes, Toon Boom Studio is a strong contender for a reasonably priced animation product for determined students. 

I found the learning curve moderate and the package fairly complete in the animation techniques it supports. And it has a pleasing and reasonably user-friendly interface. The only drawback is that it may be too packed with goodies. Depending on your nature, trying the newest features like “Robo-skeleton” and weather effects may excite you or it may interfere with your raw creative process. 

Toon Boom provides tutorials some of which can be pricey, templates, and plenty of free tips. Prices start at $249.00 with upgrades going for as low as $69.00. Both Adobe Flash and Toon Boom provide forums where users can ask questions, note software issues, and exchange work arounds - an invaluable resource.

For those with a bigger budget and wanting more horse power, Toon Boom also produces Toon Boom Animate and Toon Boom Animate Pro. Toon Boom describes Animate as an all-in-one vector-based professional animation software. It does do compositing but as with any animation module, vector or bitmap, you may want to use Adobe After Effects or Apple Motion for compositing, and one of the high end editors - Adobe Premiere, Final Cut Pro, or Avid Composer for the final editing.  At $499.00 the price of Animate is reasonable for a professional, entry level animation program. (Check out the educational pricing available for your school.)

One of the strong advantages of these vector based softwares is the ability to create a convincing spatial environment and move the camera around so the audience experiences the action from a variety of angles. Toon Boom’s Animate Pro, the higher end version of the software, has greater 3D capabilities than Animate and which allows cinematographic 3D camera moves and 3D stereoscopic features. In addition, it comes with a host of special effects. Of course it’s pricier, at $949.00 on sale right now. (Adn if you're a student, check out the educational pricing available for your school.)

As with any product, try before you buy. These softwares are all available as trial downloads and the manuals are bundled with them. Glance through the manuals, boot the software and try a few of the features. You're looking for ease of use, an interface that's intuitive to you, a learning curve that's consistent with the amount of time and energy you can dedicate to it, and finally a feature set that meets your needs.

I personally don’t work in Flash or Toon Boom products because I prefer bitmap to vector based graphics. For those of you who haven’t read my 2011 Christmas Presents For the Newbie Animator post, the way I  distinguish between animators who are going to love vector over bitmap or vice-versa is if they’re highly organized and have a clean room, they’ll likely prefer vector based programs like Flash or Toon Boom. If they’re the paint up to the elbows messy room types, they’ll likely prefer the bitmap programs like Corel Painter and TVPaint Animation. And in case you’re wondering, no, I don’t have a degree in psychoanalysis, I just know a lot of animators.

In the fourth and final part in our series, we run through the bitmap animation softwares available on Mac and PC.

Series index

Teach Yourself Animation - The Art of Timing 

Teaching Yourself Animation - The Tools Part 1

Teaching Yourself Animation - The Tools Part 2

Teaching Yourself Animation - The Tools Part 3

Teaching Yourself Animation - The Tools Part 4