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All-Purpose Animation

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I was ready if the need for a broadcast version of the sequences arose; instead I needed a low bandwidth version of the animations to play on an actual Web site. I was unable to simply hand over an acceptable Web format for the animation. The download time for a Quicktime file would be too long considering that the animation looked like Flash. A streaming version could be made for RealPlayer, but the image size would have to be much smaller than what viewers saw on TV to accommodate streaming on slow connections.

What fox.com really wanted was a Flash animation, and the only way to make one was to reanimate the sequences in a program that could generate Flash format (.swf) files.

Repurposing animation in Adobe LiveMotion

Adobe had recently released a new Web animation product called LiveMotion that could output .swf files, and could import layered Photoshop files in a manner similar to After Effects. LiveMotion's timeline was also similar to After Effects' timeline. I reduced a copy of my Photoshop layouts to 480x360 pixels, the size I wanted the on-line versions to be. I imported the layered files into LiveMotion then, using my After Effects timeline as a guide, placed the necessary keyframes into the LiveMotion timeline. Once my LiveMotion animation matched my original animation, I used LiveMotion's export settings to convert my Photoshop (.psd) art to web friendly JPEG (.jpg) art and output the whole shebang to a small, self-contained .swf file. But it wasn't small enough for Fox.com. Fox.com wanted as many bitmap objects as possible to be redrawn as vectors. The actors' heads would have to remain bitmaps, but all body parts, props and background elements were to be recreated as vector art to reduce the final .swf file size even more.

I had to start animations for future episodes of the Boston Public, so Fox.com took on the task of making the .swf files. They used my original layered Photoshop files as templates for tracing the art with vector tools, and a copy of the final Quicktime movie for use as a timing guide. The results were very low bandwidth copies of my original art and animation. There were a few artistic compromises made here and there, but they were simply the result of an imperfect process.

And that imperfect process is the reason for this history lesson.

How it is
Since last year, both Macromedia Flash and Adobe After Effects have evolved to version 5. Flash has added features that make character animation easier and After Effects has added the ability to output .swf files. Given the same Boston Public assignment, here is what I would do today....

In order to generate vector objects, I would create most of my art in Illustrator. I would still use Photoshop for character heads and other photographic elements. I would import my layered Illustrator and Photoshop layouts into After Effects, maintaining a round trip relationship and a high level of artistic and editorial control. After Effects 5 can now work with parent/child hierarchies, so rotating a character's upper arm automatically moves the lower arm without needing to set additional keyframes or set up non-intuitive nested compositions. This feature alone would have saved hours. I could still output Quicktime movies, but now I would be able to output .swf files also; and, with the use of vector art, the file sizes would be appropriately small to meet Fox.com's delivery requirements. Features like motion blur that I might have used in the final Quicktime renderings can simply be turned off when I output the .swf file since some effects are not possible or practical in Flash.

If I had After Effects 5 last spring, animation for both the television show and the related Web site would have required considerably less work. Software companies have been working hard to meet the needs of the animation industry. It is only a matter of time until digital animators can stop focusing on creation and delivery limitations and get back to issues like squash and stretch and overlapping action.

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Dave Nagel is the producer of Creative Mac and Digital Media Designer; host of several World Wide User Groups, including Synthetik Studio Artist, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe InDesign, Adobe LiveMotion, Creative Mac and Digital Media Designer; and executive producer of the Digital Media Net family of publications.

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