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New Features in Flash 8 Professional, Part 3

Video takes center stage By Kevin Schmitt

Filters? Check. Blends? Check. Since the design crowd has gotten its due in parts one and two of this series, today we're going to shift gears a bit and focus on the improved video features included in Flash 8 Professional. The new stuff should simultaneously appeal to right-brainers and left-brainers out there, making Flash Video pretty much a no-brainer. So whether you're just looking for a simple way to post clips on the Web or wanting to create a super-immersive, video-heavy interactive application from scratch, Flash Video probably has something to offer you.

Been there, done that(?)

Macromedia's push to add video to Flash really only started with the debut of Flash 6, though products like Wildform Flix (which, somewhat ironically, is now owned by On2, the makers of Flash 8's new codec) existed earlier to provide video to SWF format conversion. As an aside, I know, I know ? Flash 6 was really called Flash MX, but since Macromedia has returned to actual version numbers with Flash 8, I'm going to pretend that the silly MX naming convention never happened and refer to it as Flash 6. Same goes for Flash 7 (AKA "Flash MX 2004"). Take that, Macromedia marketing!

But I digress. First, a definition of Flash Video, at least for our purposes here today. Flash Video refers to Macromedia's proprietary FLV format itself, the process of encoding video into said format, and the various GUI- and ActionScript-based methods of adding FLV files to Flash movies. This definition, of course, is pretty much only relevant to Flash designers and developers; end-users only have to worry about having the Flash Player itself to view Flash Video, which is a huge advantage as far as deployment goes (more on that in a minute).

Now that were all on the same page, Flash Video was introduced with Flash 6 in 2002 and had more features added the very next year when Flash 7 was released. Flash 8 is no exception, with even more functionality shoveled in (as we'll soon see). So while it may seem like overkill and that Macromedia has hyped all this video stuff ad nauseam for the last 3-odd years, there's a good reason: Flash Video is solid technology and is growing like a weed. It's cross-platform. It's high-quality. It's relatively easy to create, implement and deploy. It's a good choice for offline projects as well, as it can be packaged into a projector (which, importantly, eliminates the need to install an additional player on the end user's machine). All pretty good reasons. But the best reason is that it's "just" another part of the Flash Player, so it's darn near everywhere by now.

According to the June 2005 Flash Player stats, the Flash 7 player is on 89.7% of browsers in the United States (a figure which is even higher in Canada and Europe, with Asia just a hair behind at 85.2%). Assuming those statistics are even close to being correct, 9 out of 10 browsers in the U.S. can view "modern" Flash video. And while it typically takes a year or more for a new Flash player to reach critical mass (meaning that if history holds we'll be talking about Flash 8 as the accepted player version sometime in September 2006), Flash Video is already a pretty safe bet as far as video formats go. But for as many strides as Flash Video had made in a relatively short period of time, there was still room for improvement, which brings me to why we're all here today. So, without further ado, down to business.

Encoding ? strong like bull

The biggest change in Flash Video between versions 6 and 7 was the addition of the FLV Export Component that enabled the creation of FLV files from any QuickTime-aware program. While this fell into the "good" category, it was still hard to figure out how to batch process clips, short of purchasing a dedicated conversion program like the aging Cleaner or Sorenson Squeeze, and even then results could be spotty. And while Flash 8 retains the export component, I have good news. No, nothing to do with saving money on my car insurance ? the good news is that Flash 8 Professional ships with a standalone encoder, appropriately titled the Flash 8 Video Encoder, which I'll call FVE from here on out (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1
Fig. 1: The main Flash Video Encoder interface.

FVE is pretty much a one-trick pony as far as these types of applications go. You've got a queue, queue management buttons, a settings button, batch controls, and a slide-out error panel when something goes awry (which isn't often). That's it. It's simple, but it works. Complexity, such as it is, in FVE is more or less limited to when you decide to click the Settings button, revealing the redesigned settings panel that is common to the three methods of encoding FLV files (FVE, the aforementioned Export Component, and direct video import into Flash itself, which we'll get to shortly). The settings panel, by default, reveals somewhat rudimentary options (Fig. 2) like a predefined list of encoding settings, a field to create a custom output file name, and a time slider that allows you to preview and set the in and out points of the source clip.

Fig. 2
Fig. 2

The real fun ("fun" being a relative term, since we're talking about encoding settings here) comes when you decide to get jiggy with it and press the Show Advanced Settings button, revealing (what else?) the advanced settings, which are broken down into three tabs. The first tab, Encoding (Fig. 3) offers garden-variety tweaks to all the encoding options, such as changing the codec (more on that later), data rate, frame resizing, etc.

Fig. 3
Fig. 3

The second tab, Cue Points (Fig. 4), lets you add a couple of different data types into the video itself. You can set a navigation cue point, which adds chapter markers along the clip's timeline, or you can use the Event cue point to trigger scripts as a clip plays.

Fig. 4
Fig. 4

The third and final tab in the Advanced Settings panel is Crop and Trim (Fig. 5), which adds long-awaited clip fiddling (for lack of a better term) to the FLV encoding process. I can't tell you how many times I've had to create intermediate QuickTime files for clips that came to me too long or with annoying blank edges, so I'm personally quite pleased with this timesaving addition.

Fig. 5
Fig. 5

As I alluded to before, Flash 8 Professional offers two other ways to convert video to the FLV format (the FLV Export Component and import directly into the Flash IDE), but to quote one of the wisest movie icons of the 1980's, these methods are different, but same. Different in that they both use the new setting panels I've already described, but same in the sense that they are accessed in identical fashion to their Flash 7 counterparts (Fig. 6). Now, the import method gives you a couple of new encoding options (like "stream from Flash Communication Server" or "Progressive download from a web server"), as well as a chance to select a controller skin (more on that later), but it's still just a wizard that helps you get from A to B (and, as such, remains my least favorite method of creating FLVs). So to wrap up the encoding portion of our program, I'll quote one of the wisest movie icons of the 1990's by declaring that's all I have to say about that.

Fig. 6
Fig. 6: QuickTime export on the left, Flash IDE import on the right.

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