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Wildform Flix Pro

Video encoding and vectorization software for the Flash format By Dave Nagel
Have you ever wondered how to make live footage look like vector animation? Well, in case you haven't already guessed it, you can stop wondering. The simple answer is Wildform Flix Pro, a software encoding tool for converting various video formats into Flash and vector video.

What it does
Now, when I say "simple," I do mean "simple." Flix Pro is designed with simplicity in mind, from the interface to the workflow. This is not to say the program lacks depth. It's just easy to use, especially given the complex tasks it performs. Flix Pro is an extremely full-featured encoding solution and unique in its capabilities.

Flix Pro is a cross-platform application (Mac OS 8/9, Mac OS X, Windows) that essentially serves two purposes. First, it can convert live footage into vector animation. By this I mean it accomplishes the remarkable task of tracing live video footage and replacing pixel data with vector data, producing an effect similar to the look of Richard Linklater's 2001 film Waking Life. But Flix Pro has a distinct advantage over the process used in the making of Waking Life/I>: no manual labor.


Second, it can convert footage in various file formats into the Flash format (.swf) without converting the footage into vector geometry. It simply compresses and encodes into a format that can be read by the Flash Player (Flash 3 through 5 or Flash MX). Or it can save video to the FLV file format.





Both approaches have their advantages. The Flash Players (in their various incarnations) have deeper penetration for your potential audience than, say, Windows Media or QuickTime. But, at the same time, you can do all of your work in QuickTime and only encode into the Flash format as a last step. So, basically, your workflow can remain the same.

In terms of vector video, not only can it be used to achieve an animated look quickly and automatically, but the resulting animation, being vector-based, can be scaled to any size for presentation. The resulting vector animation can also be edited just like any piece of vector artwork. You can move points around, remove paths, alter curves or change the animation any way you like in a program that can import SWF files, such as Macromedia Flash itself.

It's a nearly ideal solution for the masses of professional users out there who want to convert live footage into animation.

Functionality, usability
In terms of usability, Flix Pro couldn't be simpler to operate. You pick your source footage, select an encoding process and click the Encode button. But the program goes far beyond this to provide a high degree of customizability.



For output formats, you can select your bitrate for audio and video, encode links, output HTML, export a poster frame and even export both Macintosh and Windows projectors from the same application. You can also place an overlay on top of your output for watermarking or identification, and you can choose any type of graphic file for this.

And, as you can see from the interface screen shots below, the program provides you with about as many options as you could possibly use in the encoding process.







The quality you get out of the program depends, of course, on the options you choose for compression for video and the amount of detail you choose for vector output. You do not have the wide range of codec choices that you would get if you were encoding to the QuickTime format. But you do have the option of a two-pass variable bitrate encode for MX video, which can help to produce a higher-quality movie at a smaller file size.

For vectorization, again, the program provides enough options to keep anybody happy without making the user go insane trying to figure out what's going on. You have the option of color, grayscale or two-color output (with an adjustable threshold and choice of colors); vector detail adjustments; and several adjustable options for cleaning up the output, including fit curves, peak reduction, fit straight lines, blur and removal of stragglers. The program also provides a preview of the vector output for making fine adjustments prior to committing to the encode.



Disappointments
I have few complaints about Flix Pro in its current state. In terms of output options, I'd like to see a feature that would allow me to stroke the vectors rather than just fill them. It would also be nice to create stroked outlines based on the threshold of the image on any given frame. (Another good option would be to be able to specify a range of colors from two to 256, as you get in Adobe Streamline and Creature House Expression, two programs that convert still images into vector artwork.)

In terms of performance, I find Flix Pro to be speedy at compressing and encoding video in the Flash format. But, as you might expect, it's not terribly speedy at converting footage to vector animation. (It is far, far faster than converting images manually, however.) In the future, I would definitely like to see a multithreaded version of this application so that I can crank through the encoding process on both processors, rather than just one.

Finally, in my testing, I did encounter a couple of oddities. First, the text in the interface would sometimes turn rainbow colors, indicative of a slight problem with support for the Nvidia GeForce4 MX graphics card. Second, I could not work with video that was encoded in the PhotoJPEG format unless I first reencoded the video in QuickTime Pro to a different codec. Neither one of these problems occurred on my PowerBook G4 800. And the PhotoJPEG problem did not occur on my G4 933 desktop model, so the problem is likely a conflict with some strange file I have loaded on my dual 1 GHz G4. Neither problem is particularly major.



The bottom line
Wildform Flix Pro is a fantastic program for encoding video in the Flash format and for converting live footage into vector animation. As yet, there are no tools that can compete with it in terms of functionality. So there's nothing to compare it with. It does what it says it does; it's easy to use; and it provides terrific flexibility, the kind you might find in a product that had been on the market far longer than this program. I give Flix Pro a recommendation of Strong Buy.

Wildform Flix Pro is available now for $149 for Macintosh and Windows. A free demo version is available, as well as a new "Lite" version ($49) that was introduced this month. For more information, visit http://www.wildform.com.


Contact the author: 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. You can reach him at dnagel@digitalmedianet.com.

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