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Seriously improved graphics, text, animation, video and code handling see Flash Professional push forward on all fronts.

Trial downloads/special offers from Macromedia

flash 8 animation

It’s hard to believe that Flash began life just ten years ago as FutureSplash, a simple cartoon-style vector drawing and animation program. Since those early days Macromedia has grafted on advanced multimedia and programming capabilities to turn Flash, and its all-pervasive player, into an all-encompassing web platform. Now to reinforce the program’s development credentials, Macromedia has phased out the old standard Flash and replaced it with a new version of the previously high-end, programmer-oriented Flash Professional.

After a decade of constant reinvention, today’s Flash Professional is largely unrecognizable but FutureSplash still lives on in the program’s bizarre approach to the fundamental task of drawing. Overlay two identically coloured objects, for example, and they merge together; overlay differently coloured objects and the top one eats a hole out of the one underneath! In skilled hands, the system can be surprisingly efficient, but for most users it’s an initial stumbling block and a constant irritation. Now at last the nightmare is over with the introduction of a new optional Object Drawing mode in which objects in Flash finally behave in the same way that they do in all other drawing applications.

In fact Flash 8 Professional’s vector drawing power has been enhanced all round to bring it more into line with the likes of Freehand and Illustrator. Using the Properties Panel, for example, you can now control end caps, mitres and joins. There’s also a Stroke Hinting option which ensures that nodes are anchored on full pixels ensuring razor-sharp horizontal and vertical lines. Gradient handling has also been seriously overhauled enabling up to 16 colours to be mixed with full control over overflow modes and focal points. Gradients can also now be applied to strokes as well as to fills.

Gradients are a crucial weapon in the Flash designer’s formatting toolkit, but they pale in comparison to Flash 8’s new support for blend modes. If you convert your objects to a movie clip or button (though not a graphic symbol for some reason) you can now apply one of 12 new blend modes - multiply, screen, lighten, darken, difference, invert, add, subtract, alpha, and erase – that control how the object’s colours interact with those below it. The compositional creativity this opens up is enormous, especially when combined with animations and run-time scripting.

flash 8 graphics

Flash Professional 8 offers improved graphics handling.

And blend modes are only one of a whole new range of graphical effects that can now be applied to your movie clips and buttons. Using the new Filters tab on the Properties Panel you can add bevel, drop shadow, glow, blur, gradient glow, gradient blur, and adjust color effects – ideal for quickly creating Fireworks-style effects such as a bevelled button with rollover glow. The control offered over each effect is impressive and you can always fine-tune parameters as desired, and also animate them to produce effects such as a drop shadow moving in response to an apparent light source. Best of all, the effects processing is left to the Flash 8 Player so file size is hardly affected offering a major leap in end impact at little cost.

Devolving the graphics processing to the player cuts down on download time, but it can affect performance depending on the host computer. As such, Macromedia recommends limiting the number of effects you apply to any given object. In addition you can take advantage of Flash 8’s new runtime Bitmap Caching feature. This automatically converts static elements such as buttons and backgrounds to bitmaps so saving the player from having to process the same vector data for every frame – a huge boost to performance. All vector data is maintained so the clips can always spring back to life.

As well as its graphics handling, Flash sees a fundamental improvement in its handling of text. Again the benefit comes from building the required intelligence and processing into the latest Flash Player, this time in the form of a completely new text rendering engine designed to provide the best possible display of anti-aliased type onscreen. To take advantage of the new rendering all you have to do is accept the new Anti-Alias for Readability default in the Properties panel or, if you want the absolute best, you can customize the thickness and sharpness of the anti-aliasing for each block of text. The improvements in quality and readability are particularly noticeable at the smaller point sizes used for body copy and should go a long way to help establish Flash as a platform for handling text-heavy as well as graphics-rich content.

flash 8 text

Onscreen text quality has been significantly enhanced.

As well as improved graphics and text handling, Flash 8 Professional sees a major advance in terms of animation. As with its core drawing capabilities, Flash’s animation has been left largely unchanged since the old FutureSplash days relying on an awkward and underpowered system of keyframes and tweens. At first sight the new graph-based Custom Ease In / Ease Out dialog doesn’t look like it will change this situation much, offering little more than the ability to visually control the speed of tweens.

In fact by graphing the degree of motion over time you can visually and intuitively control advanced animation effects, say producing a realistically bouncing ball coming to rest. Previously this would have involved multiple keyframes and tweens and would have been a nightmare to edit; now it can all be handled intuitively with a single tween. Even better, you can independently control the tweening of position, rotation, scale, color, and filter parameters. And the icing on the cake is the ability to preview the effect of changes live onscreen.

flash 8 animation

Advanced tween-based animation can now be controlled visually.

Vector animation is great for bringing Flash projects to life, but these days video is increasingly taking centre stage and Flash Professional 8 sees major changes here too. To begin with the Sorenson Spark codec has now been replaced by a new codec – On2 VP6. According to Macromedia this offers near- DVD -quality video at much lower bandwidth though this was impossible to test in the late press beta. Crucially, the codec also supports embedded cue points to trigger events during playback, and an 8-bit alpha channel. This support for runtime transparency and even semi-transparency is particularly striking enabling video to be fully integrated with other Flash content – the possibilities are endless from subtle smoke and fire effects to a presenter overlaid over the slideshow they are discussing.

It’s not just the end results that are more integrated, the video workflow has also been rethought and moved centre stage via Flash 8’s new Import Video command. This single dialog now walks you through all the stages necessary to set up your video including specifying whether the video will be embedded, progressively downloaded or streamed. It also lets you choose from a number of new skins that determine the appearance of the new lightweight video component which handles playback.

flash 8 video

Flash’s video handling has been reworked.

If you’re embedding video directly within your SWF movie, the Import Video dialog provides everything you need to get up and running, but for most jobs you’ll need to have your standalone Flash Video (FLV) files ready prepared. Flash Professional 8 comes with QuickTime-based FLV export plug-ins for many high-end editing packages including Avid and Discreet Cleaner (though still not Premiere Pro). It also now provides a standalone Video Encoder which offers advanced features such as batch processing and support for the older Sorenson codec for backward-compatibility with earlier versions of the Flash Player.

With such major changes to such core features as drawing, text, animation and video handling, I began worrying about what Macromedia was going to do to Flash 8 Professional’s scripting capabilities – especially after the last release’s introduction of a new ActionScript syntax and the unwelcome removal of the non-expert Normal Mode code entry. Thankfully this time the core language has been allowed to stabilize on ActionScript 2. Even better, Normal Mode is back except that now it’s called Script Assist and as well as providing descriptions of parameters it also provides automatic syntax completion.

Script Assist is particularly useful for occasional programmers but also comes into its own for expert users who want to transfer their existing ActionScript knowledge to the new syntax used in Flash Lite 1.1, the cut-down programming language aimed at mobile phone users. The new target language drop-down in the Actions panel also helps here as does the interactive Mobile Device Emulator which provides advanced testing profiles for every device that supports the Flash Lite player.

That’s about it for major new functionality, but Flash 8 Professional also sees a number of more minor but still welcome enhancements such as an expanding pasteboard, the ability to group panels together in tabbed-panel sets and the new single-panel Library that lets you navigate between open files via a new dropdown. You can also now add metadata to your SWF movies to improve search-engine compatibility (marginally) and you can switch between the standard “document-level” and new “object-level” undo (though sadly this can’t be done on-the-fly).

It’s clear that Flash Professional 8 is a major, even a seminal release – but it’s important not to get carried away. Flash Professional 8 certainly isn’t the right solution for everyone. To begin with, potential new users might want to wait and see whether the upcoming, cut-down Flash Basic offers them all the functionality they actually need – though this isn’t an option for occasional users of the current standard version as there will be no “upgrade” path to it. Even current power users might want to hold off for a while as so many of the advances in Flash 8 Professional – blend modes, filter effects, bitmap caching, superior onscreen text, new video codec – depend on the end user having the new Flash 8 Player installed. More importantly and more fundamentally, despite its many strengths, Flash itself just isn’t the right solution for the vast majority of text-centred, organically-developed sites.

However for those designers and developers who want to give their users the best possible web experience, Macromedia has succeeded in taking that experience onto an entirely new level. Again.

Features
6
Ease of use
4
Value for Money
5
Overall
5

ratings out of 6

Flash
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Trial downloads/special offers from Macromedia

See separate reviews for Studio 8, Dreamweaver 8, Flash Professional 8, Fireworks 8.

Tom Arah

August 2005


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