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Illustrator Plug-ins Roundup

Tom Arah looks at the full range of Illustrator add-ons.

The ability to extend Adobe Photoshop's functionality through the use of plug-ins is well recognized and most designers will have at least a couple of third-party filter sets in their armoury. Adobe Illustrator offers similar extensibility but the knowledge of its vector-based plug-ins is minimal and none has the sort of brand recognition that KPT or Eye Candy 4000 can boast of. So just what sort of additional power is out there? I decided to find out by taking a look at ten Illustrator 10-compatible add-ons.

Plug-ins take Illustrator into entirely new and sometimes unrecognizable territory.

You don't have to break the bank to start extending Illustrator in new directions. If you visit the Sapphire Innovations site (www.sapphire-innovations.com) you'll find a whole host of filters, brushes, shapes and so on for use in just about every design application going. This is all the work of Andrew Buckle and the sheer range is certainly impressive. The downside is that you can easily feel lost but, if you dig a little, you'll soon find Andrew's eleven sets of Illustrator add-ons (costing from just £8 up to £40). Finding out what each set does is rather more difficult as while some collections have broad themes such as dealing with gradients or symbols, others are mixed bags.

In fact the feeling of bewilderment might well continue even after you've installed your add-ons as Andrew clearly prefers spending time on coming up with new functionality rather than on documentation or streamlining. Take the very handy Symbol Paint tool (volume 8) which paints with symbol instances. This comes with a dialog that lets you set no less than 30 parameters. Some of these can be intimidating but are definitely worth getting to grips with: the mysterious "Hit Type/Request" parameter for example enables you to restrict your painting within selected objects or along existing paths. Other gems are hidden away throughout the sets, such as the Random Clutter, Random Text and Perspective Grid tools, and with a combined price of just £60 for the entire collection it would be hard to complain. Having said that, I'm sure that most users would settle for less absolute control and more usability.

An excellent example of a budget add-on that manages to be both simple and effective is Hot Door's MultiPage ($49 from www.hotdoor.com). This takes the form of a simple floating palette in which you add new pages and then select which page you want to work on. You can then print any page selection or export it to PDF using new File menu commands. Being able to handle multiple pages must top the wish-list for most Illustrator users and you have to ask yourself whether it can really be this simple. MultiPage seems just too good to be true; is it just a trick?

In a way it is. Behind the scenes, MultiPage works its magic simply by treating layers as pages. When you create a new "page" a new layer is added with the relevant guide layer acting as master page and all other layers/pages are automatically hidden. The way the system works becomes obvious when you add a layer in the Layers palette and a new page appears in the MultiPage palette but if you stick with sublayers you'll be fine. Let's hope that Adobe finally sees sense in Illustrator 11 and ends its artificial and maddening single-page limit once-and-for-all. In the meantime MultiPage's simple piece of lateral thinking might not be a total solution, but it's certainly a very handy workaround.

Another add-on in the same simple and efficient mould is Vertigo Software's 3D PopArt 2 ($59 www.vertigo3d.com) which lets you transform any selected path into a shaded 3D object. Again it takes the form of a simple floating palette which lets you set an extrusion depth, rotate your object in x, y and z dimensions and set a lighting angle. As you change settings in the dialog a small preview cube is updated accordingly and when you hit Apply, the effect is applied to the current path. It's certainly not state-of-the-art compared to CorelDRAW's and now FreeHand MX's extrusion capabilities, but it's all that you need to produce the occasional 3D shape or heading.

MultiPage and PopArt 3D are simple but effective.

So far the add-ons that I've looked at all fall into the occasional one-off category with prices to match, but other developers are looking to target niche markets with much more advanced and professional functionality. Artlandia SymmetryWorks 2 ($165 from www.artlandia.com) is designed for those users for whom pattern-making is a central part of their work. The basic principle is very simple: select a path or paths and then click on any of the 17 coloured icons in the SymmetryWorks palette and multiple copies of your object(s) are rotated, glided and reflected to produce a symmetric pattern.

The beauty of the system - apart from the results - is that the patterns remain live so that you can simply add more x or y tiles to fill the space required. More importantly you can edit the original "seed", say by resizing, repositioning, recolouring or adding a new element, and the overall pattern is updated. You can also add editable cloned "replicas" of your seed and these, together with the transformations that you apply to them, can be saved as "layouts". Working in this way you can control step and sliding effects, gradations and so on and produce virtually any kind of repeating pattern. There's certainly a lot of power hidden away that advanced users can call on though personally I wish that Artlandia also offered a cut-down alternative as the basic live symmetry effects instantly open up a huge amount of creative power.

Another important niche area that plug-ins can cater for is the need to produce perspective drawings. The simplest and most powerful solution I came across is also from Brendon Cheves and the other developers at Hot Door ($179 www.hotdoor.com) This plug-in takes the form of a number of dedicated drawing tools, including the most obvious cube and cylinder options, and three palettes. The first, Perspective Document, is where you choose the type of dimensional drawing that you want to produce with isometric, oblique and perspective options. The second, Perspective Grid, is where you set up the spacing and colour of your grid.

Tools and grids are helpful but it's the third palette, Perspective Objects, which is most impressive. This shows a small thumbnail of a cube and by selecting one of its faces and then hitting the Update command you can automatically project your currently selected object(s) onto the appropriate plane - true perspectivized artwork in an instant. Most impressive of all, the perspectivized artwork remains live so that, if you change the grid settings say from isometric to oblique or back to head-on for editing, the artwork automatically updates.

SymmetryWorks and Perspective are high-end solutions.

Hot Door also has a solution if your main interest is producing technical drawings. CADTools 2.1 ($199 www.hotdoor.com) doesn't have the same eye-catching factor as Perspective but it does offer four comprehensive set-up and control palettes and a full range of no less than 38 drawing and dimensioning tools. Highlights include automatic callouts with dimension and label styles, numeric input and control, customizable document scales and scaled move, transform and repeat capabilities.

One of the most common tasks for Illustrator users is tracing scanned bitmaps to produce truly scalable and pin-sharp vectorised versions. If you are involved in exhibitions or in producing large format signs for example you might well be reproducing logos day-in day-out. That's where LogoSpruce ($199 from www.comnet-network.co.jp) comes in offering a whole range of tools for tracing imported bitmaps. Naturally I expected these to offer automatic image tracing, but that's not what LogoSpruce is about at all. Its "Line Trace" tool for example is designed to let you. draw straight lines!

After getting over my initial disappointment, I gradually came to appreciate what it is that LogoSpruce offers. To begin with, there are a whole range of tools to set up the manual tracing process including adding one-click guides and automatically straightening imported bitmaps. Then there are the "tracing" tools themselves which include a number of innovative and very useful options such as the ability to add absolutely smooth curves at a tangent to the current line. Even LogoSpruce's line tool is far more powerful than Illustrator's as it automatically identifies endpoints, midpoints and tangent lines and lets you swap between tool variations and zoom in and out on your image with keyboard shortcuts. Finally there is another set of tools designed to correct your artwork including the very useful Trim tool which automatically deletes lines back to the nearest intersection. All told LogoSpruce offers a comprehensive and well thought-through range of functionality with just one aim in mind - reproducing raster artwork as clean vectors.

If you would still prefer a tool that does the work for you, there's another plug-in that fits the bill. The Silhouette plug-in ($244 from www.silhoutteonline.com) is built on the same tracing engine as the well-respected standalone Silhouette application (only available for Mac). All you need to do is select the new Vectorize Raster Image tool and then use the Silhouette palette to set tolerances, choose whether you want to produce a black and white or colour logo and, if the latter, whether you want to trap coloured objects so that they overlap slightly. When your settings are made you click on the bitmap and, a second or so later, the new vectorized version appears automatically.

The problem with automatic tracing solutions, as LogoSpruce identified, is that it can often take longer to clean up the results than it would have done to reproduce the artwork from scratch. That's where Silhouette really comes into its own with its range of dedicated correction tools. These include tools for automatically aligning control points, sharpening corners and smoothing and simplifying paths. The Silhouette palette even offers a large Preview window where you can see what effect your tool settings will have before you apply them.

LogoSpruce and Silhouette take very different approaches to bitmap tracing.

Silhouette's unique combination of automatic tracing and dedicated correction is certainly impressive, but you have to ask yourself whether you wouldn't be better off with a standalone solution such as Adobe Streamline. The same is true of the other professional plug-ins targeting niche markets. For perspective work wouldn't you be better off using Macromedia FreeHand? For CAD-style work wouldn't you be better off with Corel Designer?

There's certainly a lot of sense in asking the question and, if you aren't already an Illustrator user, the answer is a definite yes. If you are an existing user though there are plenty of advantages to having the extra power right there in your preferred drawing environment and one which offers such strong power, creativity and integration. And, while the plug-in developers might not be household names, I was surprised by just how professional and workable their plug-ins are. More importantly, the unbeatable benefit that these small developers offer is that they know exactly how Illustrator is used out in the real world in a production environment - and how to make the most of it.

Between the budget one-off plug-ins and the high-end targeted solutions there are two stand-out collections that manage to provide some astonishing new functionality and creativity and which can effectively be seen as third-party upgrades for Illustrator. The first is Vector Studio 2 ($129 from www.virtualmirror.com). I was a big fan of the first release which introduced a number of features such as interactive Morph Brushes, Envelope Meshes and the non-destructive application of bitmap filters. Adobe was clearly impressed too as it bought in Virtual Mirror's distortion-based tools and implemented its own envelope and filter handling.

After Illustrator had incorporated its main highlights, version 1 was always going to be a hard act to follow and version 2 isn't a must-have in the same way - but it's still remarkable. Two palettes for improving Illustrator's existing gradient handling and for adding a whole new type of gradient-based texture have survived from the first release along with the ability to apply effects as lenses. In addition there are new tools to improve shape editing and to simplify paths and the ability to arrange and save palette layouts.

Vector Studio 2 pushes back creative boundaries.

More eye-catching are the new Retouch brushes which let you change the brightness, colour and saturation of objects and gradient mesh nodes simply by painting over them. Even more powerful and innovative are the new Sampler tools which let you change objects' colour, transparency and even size based on sampled object settings, gradients and even imported bitmaps. It takes a while to get your head around just what the Sampler tools can do, for example cloning an imported bitmap as appropriately coloured and sized halftone dots, but the creative power is undeniable - and this time far enough out of the mainstream that Adobe is unlikely to incorporate its own versions.

The plug-in collection that I hadn't come across before and which most impressed me is FILTERiT 4.1 ($129 from www.cvalley.com). Again, what stands out is both the range and the depth of power on offer. In FILTERiT's case this functionality is divided into three main sections: new tools available from Illustrator's toolbar, new filter commands available from the Filter menu and new "live effects" controlled with their own palettes.

Looking at the Wave, Warp, Roughen, Lens, Broom and Craft tools (which applies pinch and punch style effects tools), it's clear that FILTERiT also pioneered the introduction of interactive distortion effects to Illustrator. Now that Illustrator offers its own capabilities, the benefit of these is obviously much reduced, but FILTERiT has cleverly managed to give its tools a new lease of life with a "trace" capability. This produces multiple copies of the object in-between its original and filtered states which, after being released to layers, can produce eye-catching Flash-based animations.

Other new tools include the AlignPoints options that let you quickly straighten lines and align objects horizontally and vertically and the Trail tool which leaves copies of the current object along the path that you drag - again very useful for Flash animation. My favourite tool is the MetaBrush. This works rather like the Sapphire-Innovations' Symbol Paint tool but with any object or objects. Simply select your objects and then the brush and begin painting with them. For greater control you can set the space, size, angle and orientation of the added objects and how these settings should vary based on pressure, direction, number of steps and so on.

FILTERiT's two Filter menu commands show just how much power can be packed into an add-on. The first, Fractalize, is used to add new segments to the paths of selected objects. You select the shape of the path segments to add and their number, height and variation. You can also apply the same process to the added segments themselves producing internally repeating fractal-style effects. As with many FILTERiT tools, settings can be saved as presets and the Fractalize command can also be applied non-destructively from the Effects menu.

Even more powerful is the 3D Transform filter which lets you transform objects to a specified 3D shape. This acts like a mini-application in its own right built around a large preview. By dragging in the preview you can rotate an object around the x and y axis and, by shift-dragging, around the z-axis. You can also specify a 3D rotation both before and after the transformation is applied. The real power comes when you select from the 12 types of transformation on offer - simple rotation, twist, sphere, cylinder and so on - each with a whole host of controls. Whether you're wanting to produce a simple perspective change or produce an eye-catching 3D spiral the power is all here (the only obvious omission is realistic shading).

FILTERiT 4.1 offers the widest range of new tools, commands and effects.

What really gives the FILTERiT collection its edge is its range of 13 effects each of which is controlled with its own palette accessible from the Window menu. The effects broadly split into two categories. The first - Border, Cutout, Emboss, Neon and Shadow - are all concerned with controlling the appearance of the selected object's path and work by duplicating, recolouring, blending and offsetting objects. Such effects are relatively common nowadays and Illustrator offers its own shadow and glow effects but FILTERiT offers greater control and keeps its effects vector-only.

The second range - Circle, Explosion, Frame, Galaxy, Generation, Reflections, Tiling and Trail - are also built on duplicating the selected object but this time use the duplicates to produce patterns. In a way these effects act as the cut-down version of SymmetryWorks that I was hoping for earlier. And, as with SymmetryWorks, their great strength is that their effects remain live so that you can always change settings, say to change the offset and shadow of the Border effect's bevel or to add copies and change the spread of the Explosion effect.

†FILTERiT stands out from the crowd but in many ways it's typical of all the third-party plug-ins right through from Sapphire Innovations to Silhouette. In particular its combination of tools, commands and live effects shows the unique benefit of that Illustrator offers its third-party developers - complete integration. In comparison, Photoshop's plug-ins suddenly seem semi-detached at best. Having said this, FILTERiT is also typical in that its effects can be demanding to get to grips with and aren't suited for occasional users. In fact all the Illustrator plug-ins, with the honourable exceptions of MultiPage and PopArt, have a tendency towards the technical and can be difficult to master. Once you have though, there's no doubt that each plug-in richly rewards the effort by seriously boosting productivity and creativity.

Illustrator's plug-ins show that you can teach an old dog new tricks - and very successfully.

Tom Arah

May 2003

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