Reviews; With millions of users, it’s good to stay updated by adding a little Flash to your website

Reviews; With millions of users, it’s good to stay updated by adding a little Flash to your website

Rick Shaw

Version 4 is the latest offering from Macromedia for this popular Internet application. With a number of new improvements, this version offers some new features that make it even more valuable to Flash programmers. Currently, Macromedia says there are 130 million Flash users. That in itself is impressive, so I thought a look at this program was needed.

If you’re new to Flash, (and many video pros are since they don’t have a lot of time to play on the Net), it’s a way to make sound and full-screen animations possible on a website. Flash can create interactive “movies,” that can play at impressive frame rates over the Internet. Movies load through the user’s web browser and start playing after they are mostly loaded. With the ability for users to download the Flash plug-in to their browsers in only a couple of minutes, it makes Flash movies quickly compatible with a variety of browsers and computer setups. This makes animation and interactivity possible for people with modest systems — allowing them to enjoy a greatly enhanced experience on the Web for free.

Flash allows you to animate a combination of vector, bit-mapped graphics, and high-quality stereo sounds with very small files. If you have an eye for video, it will help you with your Flash programming.

Flash’s interface is much like Director, in that it uses a timeline-based method of animating, where graphics, fonts, and sound elements can be choreographed. Each event in the timeline is placed in a cell and they can be copied and pasted to create actual single-frame animations or motion graphics where an image moves around the screen. These moves can be accurately synchronized to audio cues — either streaming or event audio cues — to add impact to your movie. Flash also has drawing tools built in so that you can create your own vector-based imagery. This also allows graphics to bend and stretch over time by animating line art and letting Flash fill in the outlines with solid colors or blends.

At first glance, the drawing tools in Flash look like most other drawing programs, until you use them. It’s not difficult to draw in Flash, but it will take some getting used to because lines work differently than you might expect. For example, just selecting objects was a different kind of experience, at least for me. Clicking once selects an object, while double clicking can select the object and its stroked outline. Clicking on an outline might only select a small segment of it, while double-clicking an outline selects the entire outline. This takes a little getting used to. I’d recommend going through the tutorials that come with the package. I found them to be very helpful, and it helps to understand Flash’s methodology better and why some things are more important.

The advantage to using vector-based drawing paths is that it takes very little storage space and allows an animation to load quickly and play over the Net at comfortable speeds without the latest, greatest computer. Flash defaults to 12frames/s, and with most movies this is not much of a challenge for Flash, even on a computer that’s not all that fast. Careful planning of your movies will make them play more smoothly on a variety of computer types. Another advantage to the vector approach is that fonts can be sized and zoomed full-screen without image degradation that would occur if they were brought in as JPG or GIF files. In spite of these benefits, Flash doesn’t force you to totally rely on drawing paths. Such images as people, places, and customized graphics need more detail than what a vector-based image can contain. You can intermix bit-mapped images and drawing paths where they will produce the most effective results with the least amount of kilobits so the user doesn’t wait for the movie to load. This might mean that you could put in a picture of a person and zoom text around and over it. Using a program like Macro-media’s Fireworks or Adobe Systems’ ImageReady is helpful in preparing and compressing JPG files before using them in Flash or on a website.

Flash 4 has a special text function that creates good looking, scalable type. Both Type 1 and TrueType fonts are supported. While you can use “device fonts” that are present on most computer systems as standard, Flash also can create outline fonts that canbe broken apart as individual characters and animated. This is especially important if the typeface might not be a standard device font, or perhaps not one that looks exactly the same on Mac and Windows. Being able to select the font helps to ensure that you, as the art director, get the look you want.

There is a helpful palette called the Library where all the pieces of your Flash movie can be held until you need them. This keeps all of your files together while you create your movie. It makes it easier to manage sound, graphics, and buttons because this scrolling list is available whenever you need it. Elements from the Library can be dragged into the timeline and played immediately. When you click on an element in the list, a preview window appears so you can see the file before you apply it in your Flash movie.

The Timeline defaults to the top of the screen and is normally attached to the Stage, where your project comes to life. At first, I couldn’t figure out how to move the timeline independently, but there was a check box in the preferences page that allowed me to move the timeline where I wanted. This is helpful, especially when you have a two-monitor system and are building complex timelines that really need a whole screen of their own.

You control the timeline by a controller palette with the typical tape-type transport buttons. You can use keyboard commands instead of mouse clicking on the controller, but I was surprised that the Stop, Play, and Rewind commands aren’t quite the norm when compared to other editing programs. Stop and Play are actuated by hitting the Return key, and to Rewind you have to hold down the command, option, and “R” keys. If you miss the Option key while you’re holding down the “R” and Command keys, you end up in Import mode. I had to learn not to hit the space bar when I wanted to stop the playback, and I think it would be better if Rewind were either something where you don’t have to press two modifier keys just to rewind the timeline. Interestingly, when using the Flash Player, (a small utility Macromedia provides that can play Flash movies but not edit them) you have to hit command “P” to Play and command “R” for Rewind. Some consistency between the Flash player and the Flash application would make life easier.

Interactive buttons can be made in Flash 4 to control the action of what is playing. An Action can be inserted into the timeline wherever you want a Movie to perform a command or special function. Movies can be looped, stopped, started, and jumped to a new URL.

One of the best features in Flash 4 is how it can handle sound. You can now Publish movies with embedded MP3 audio. This one enhancement makes Flash 4 a better product, and some great audio can be heard during movie playback with a minimum of data throughput. When you “publish” a movie, your sound files are automatically converted into MP3 audio, at the throughput rate you choose. A published movie adds the SWF extension at the end of the filename.

Playback performance in most cases was impressive. Getting this much action on a website is nothing short of a technological breakthrough, and Macromedia’s pioneering of Director and then Shockwave made Flash the next logical step. You don’t have to buy Director and Shockwave to make Flash movies, but it would be a good idea to have Fireworks or ImageReady to better prepare your media going into Flash. Fireworks or Flash 4 can be tried before you buy by going to Macromedia’s website and downloading them.

I tried the Mac version of Flash 4 on two PowerMacs — a slower 266MHz G3, (not as slow as you might think) and a new 500MHz G4. The G4 was so fast that it could play back movies at full-screen size with hardly a glitch. Flash 4 allows a user to scale a movie to any screen size. This is a great feature because your project can fit on any computer screen regardless of resolution with minimum hassle. Some more complex Flash movies might require a reasonably fast computer to play them, but most movies I tested seemed to play fine without any special computer setup — Mac or Windows — on any current browser.

I discovered that AOL’s version 4.0 browser on a Mac couldn’t properly play back Flash 4 audio, but Internet Explorer and Netscape Communicator could. AOL 5.0 on the Mac had no problems with the sound, and on a Windows machine there were no problems in any browser I used, including AOL, which typically has been the weakest browser. I played back movies I made with Flash 4 on the above Macs, plus a Compaq 1670 laptop — running Windows 98 — all with excellent results. Both Macs were running OS9.

I made a couple Flash projects, one as an intro to our website, and another to introduce a new TV show concept to an MTV executive. I found Flash to be an effective way to present an idea with some sizzle over the Internet on a reasonable budget. In fact, I could do it at home after work and have some fun in the process.

One project I made was more than 7MB in size. It included one stereo track and several mono event tracks of audio, and 35 tracks of graphics and audio combined. It used a combination of JPG and drawing path graphics. When published in Flash for our website, it ended up only being 255kb in size. I was amazed that all of this information and programming could end up in a file that small, and still look good and sound great on the screen.

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