Flash still saviour of the universe

Shockwave's name might have been dragged through the mud in the past week or so by the Prolin email-borne worm, but it's a completely undeserved rap. Prolin's subject line claims the attached file is a Shockwave movie, but it's nothing of the sort.

Shockwave's name might have been dragged through the mud in the past week or so by the Prolin email-borne worm, but it's a completely undeserved rap. Prolin's subject line claims the attached file is a Shockwave movie, but it's nothing of the sort: it's a virus which sets about propagating itself and renaming various files on the victim PC.

The real Shockwave, a file format for scalable vector animations created by Macromedia Flash, is much more admirable. The advent of Flash meant lines and text could be made to move without hogging bandwidth the way multiple-bitmap-based animations would. And by “streaming” graphics and sound, the animations could be displayed while they loaded, further minimising wait times.

Being first off the rank, Flash's SWF format swiftly became a standard, now being used, knowingly or not, by an estimated 248 million users, or 92% of browsers. And those that don’t have the plugin would probably be surprised to know that it takes less than five minutes to download and install with a 56Kbit/s modem.

So that’s old news, and you’ve doubtless encountered dozens of flash sites, some with that “wow” factor (Turbonium and Webmedia) that has set you thinking that you’d like to give it a go yourself. So which path do you choose?

Since Flash there has been a small prolifera of SWF animation tools that have arrived to fill a serious weakness in the Flash architecture, its clunky timeline. One of the better-known of these additions to the SWF arsenal was Swish, a standalone app which made producing animated text effects a breeze. Then, more recently, Adobe burst into the room with LiveMotion.

The heart of the animation interface is the timeline, and Flash’s is a sadly frustrating spreadsheet-like affair. I won't attempt to explain here why I find the Flash timeline model so cumbersome; suffice it to say that its non-collapsible frame-based layers, together with some very quirky rules regarding objects and tweening, equate with a tremendous amount of clicking and dragging and searching with no net gain in power.

By identifying the timeline problem, Adobe seriously went about, and succeeded in, producing a powerful SWF animation program.

LiveMotion is based around the time-tested and elegant After Effects interface. It is keyframe-based (who needs to see every frame) with an object-based hierarchy (rather than Flash’s layers), which means, in short, that every object, and every attribute of each object, has its own timeline. These attributes include transformations, opacity, position, text, and any combination of non-destructive Photoshop Effects. This hierarchy is also collapsible, unlike Flash, which means you only need to expand the object or group you are currently working on.

Adding to this a full set of familiar Adobe object-creation tools, with native Photoshop and Illustrator editing and support, makes this a comfortable and fluent animation machine.

This is not to say that complex animation can’t be created in Flash. There is probably nothing in LiveMotion that can’t be done in Flash; it’s just that animation is a far more vexing process. However, there are a zillion things in Flash that can’t be achieved in LiveMotion, and these things are called Actions.

Actions are the programmable behaviours, anything from simple rollovers to complex mouse-aware animations, which set Flash apart from these other apps as the ultimate multimedia-authoring environment for the web. What you can’t do with any combination of the 40 pre-scripted actions, you can achieve by writing your own in an easy programming interface with JavaScript syntax. Flash’s interactive potential is limited only by your imagination and programming ability.

As an authoring tool there is plenty of power that has evolved into the current version 5, including the ability to nest “movies” (interactive animations) within movies, getting one movie to tell another what do and when, and the ability to load another movie (possibly one created in LiveMotion) into the current window. Such abilities are well outside LiveMotion’s sphere. The interactive power of Flash is well beyond the scope of this article; LiveMotion can only offer a few rollover and click behaviours.

Conspicuous by its absence in LiveMotion is an export filter to Flash’s native FLA format to take advantage of the strength of that platform. As it is, importing an SWF created by LiveMotion will remove all object properties and insert the movie as a series of file-swelling individual keyframes. Perhaps Macromedia will take the initiative and import LIV files.

So if you’re a designer wanting to make moves in web animation without starting a whole new career in web development, perhaps LiveMotion’s better animation is what you’re after. However, there is no doubt that Flash is the only industrial-strength SWF development tool, which is no surprise since Macromedia invented the standard. There are no Flash-killers out there.

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