Metacreations Headline Studio 1

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A dedicated attempt to improve the quality of Web animation that  backfires badly

Metacreations Headline Studio 1

Most people's experience of animated GIFs is of the irritating flashing banner ads at the top of web pages that ruin the look of a site and slow down the browsing experience. On the other hand no one can say they are unimportant as the entire multi-billion web advertising market depends on them. This is where Metacreations Headline Studio comes in. Headline Studio is designed to produce "broadcast quality banners for the web", transforming the current pig's ear into a silk purse and so benefiting both browser and creator.

Metacreations has never been famous for the Office compatibility of its interfaces and Headline Studio is no exception. The use of menus and dialogs is bizarre with the size of the animation set directly as a command, for example, while the choice of fonts has been floated off unnecessarily as one of the eight onscreen palettes. There is no context-sensitive menu support and no online help at all but even so it's relatively easy to get to grips with what the program offers.

The main reason for this is that the originating power on offer is so basic. The toolbox sports tools for adding rectangles and circles and short sections of text and, er, that's about it. The only way that you can add lines and shapes is by importing them. As only JPEGs, GIFs and TIFFs are supported this means that you are limited to bitmap objects which are resolution-dependent, less editable and generally slower to handle. For a dedicated - and expensive - package I would really have expected vector support both internally and externally. At the very least Headline Studio could paper over the cracks by supplying a wide range of importable bitmap objects. Instead it offers a grand total of one importable cursor symbol!

Once objects have been brought onto the animation stage, the control offered over them is also limited. There are no editing or retouching tools or grouping and alignment options so you are limited to rotating, skewing, scaling and stretching individual objects. In terms of formatting, you can apply uniform fills and these can be restricted to the web-safe colours - though without a swatches palette this is less easy than it should be. More advanced formatting effects are possible through the Properties palette which allows objects to be given semi-transparency, blurring and blend mode effects. These same effects can automatically be applied to linked drop shadows.

When it comes to animating your scene Headline Studio handles the process very differently to any other currently available package. Rather than taking a frame-by-frame approach it offers a simple timeline in its Animation palette. Click anywhere within the timeline and change the properties of an object, for example by repositioning it or changing its colour or blur, and Headline Studio will automatically tween all the necessary intermediate stages to create a completely smooth animation. Using the range of advanced interpolation options, such as ease-in or ease-out, you can also create much more realistic non-constant effects that seem more human and have far greater impact as a result.

Headline Studio's radical approach certainly has advantages, such as the ability to change the length of the animation at any time, but it also has severe drawbacks. Without frame-by-frame animation it's virtually impossible to create the whole range of animations that depend on cycling sequences such as a bird flapping across the screen. Even more limiting is the use of a single timeline. This only shows keypoints for the current object and the current selected property. As such it's a nightmare trying to co-ordinate the animation so that different properties and objects change simultaneously.

While you're working on your animation you can preview it in place and very smooth it will look too. Ultimately, however, the animation must be output to animated GIF format. This is handled with the GIF Export panel where you can set the number of frames into which the animation should be divided along with colour controls over the final number of hues, whether to dither missing values and whether to use a set palette. The power is adequate for most cases but disappointing when you look at the absolute control and visual feedback offered by a program like Fireworks.

Far more disappointing are the exported end results. Initially the animations still look great but this is the first time that Headline Studio gives any feedback on file size and it's bad news. By default even the simplest animation of text stretching, for example, produces an animation of over 50k! That's partly because Headline Studio defaults to a full 256 colours and 16 frames, but even cutting these down to the bare minimum it's impossible to get file size down below around 25k. Suddenly our beautifully smooth TV-quality ad is reduced to a juddering embarrassment that looks far worse than the GIFs it's intended to replace and still takes twice as long to download. Maybe it's just as well that most viewers will have clicked elsewhere before they get to see it!

Sadly the central concept behind Headline Studio is fatally flawed. Animated GIF is a simple flick-book medium that is totally unsuited to the production of "broadcast quality" animations with subtle effects and high frame rates. As such, Headline Studio is limited in its tools, its ease of use, its animation techniques and, worst of all, in its understanding of just what animated GIFs can do.

Features

3

Ease Of Use

3

Value For Money

1

Overall

2

ratings out of 6

Tom Arah

May 1999


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