interactives and animation (1998)

The lively, animated website is now a staple feature of the Internet. Whereas once text and pictures from countries far away were enough to ‘wow’ us, today’s Internet feed brings in active text, graphics and all sorts of cartoonery.

Take a look at the advertising banners, Disney’s ‘Daily Blast’ or better Sony’s interactive camcorder and you’ll find samples of the richest gastronomy that the web can manage. Look closer and you’ll often spot ‘Shockwave’, a browser plug-in which takes in program code and turns it into animated cleverness on screen. What started as a neat idea a couple of years back – that’s making movies that need very little bandwidth – has become an industry standard. And just as Adobe (of PageMaker fame) managed to dominate the desktop publishing business, Macromedia, the creator of the tools that make Shockwave movies, have achieved a similar enviable position with today’s multimedia.

If those dazzling sites ever leave you wondering how they do that, the next question is whether mortal, non-programmer types can do this for themselves. The answer is a surprisingly big yes. Among Macromedia’s tools are Director, Flash and Authorware – and if you are no time for getting trained, Flash is the one to go shopping for. With it you can add impressive widgets to a web site like animated logos or reactive buttons in return for a few hours of self-tuition.

Flash, of which version 3 has just arrived, starts off with a time line which you fill as many still frames as you need. You might drop in some text at frame one, and then add in the rest of your message word by word and frame by frame. You hit play to see the sequence, and then when all is well, export the result as a Shockwave movie.

Going further you can add further timeline ‘layers’ where you might add a sound effect, such as a ‘click’ that plays as each word appears or add a coloured background that changes as the sequence plays. Adding motion such as showing text or a football flying in from the side is straightforward too. Here you place the object, it could be a piece of clip art, at frame one and place another copy say at frame 30, and make each of these into key frames. Key frames determine the start and end of a movement. Next you get Flash to do some ‘tweening’ and it will then generate all the stills in between.

There are numerous ways to tweak the tweening to achieve the result you need. For example, the text can grow, twist, fade or change colour as the sequence runs, while the bouncing ball can spin, distort or morph into some other object as it moves across the screen. You can also define a custom movement such as making a ball bounce. This is easy too: you choose the layer you want to animate, click to add what they call a motion layer and then hand draw the shape of a movement. A nice feature is that if you can animate already animated objects – if your object was a flying bird, itself a sequence of a few frames, you simply set the path the bird takes and watch it magically fly across the screen. As a person that confesses to a lack of skill in this area, this was the point at which I fainted.

The package comes with a tutorial and a library of objects to experiment with – useful are the numerous buttons which change when you click or mouse over them. Flash has plenty of drawing tools, such as a freehand pencil that turns wobbly lines into smooth ones or squashed circles into round ones. As expected it will import and export the various sorts of graphic formats produced by popular drawing packages.

A better reason to faint is that unlike any package on a modern computer, the file size of the resulting movie can be just a few kilobytes. If you use a special font, the file stores the shape only of the letters you use. Similarly, if you use the same object twice in a movie, the file only stores one copy. While Flash can create animated ‘GIF’s, ‘avi’ and other movie formats, the Shockwave format is frugal. The Shockwave plug-in is now a feature built into current editions of MS Internet Explorer and Netscape’s Communicator so it’s only a reasonable while before most Internet users can avoid the download time that used to be a feature of your first visit to a ‘Shocked’ web site.

As someone said recently, the Internet is still at the stage that the movies were with ‘talkies’. There’s no arguing with that except that today anyone can at least handle the tools to make their own Internet movie.

A sample gallery and a free 30-day demonstration copy of Flash 3 is at www.macromedia.com

By Roger Frost 1998

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