Those two foes, Macromedia and Adobe, are engaged in battle once more with new releases of their SWF (Shockwave Flash) authoring applications.
Macromedia’s SWF has become the web-standard file format for vector-based, interactive multimedia content. There have been other contenders in the interactive animation game, such as Swish and Corel R.A.V.E., and Adobe has developed quite a credible alternative in LiveMotion.
In version 1, LiveMotion offered new users and designers a means of exploring “web animation” without having to take on the steep learning curve of Flash. While it offered an intuitive time-based interface to streamline animation production, the absence of any scripting ability meant it only offered the bare minimum of interactivity.
In Flash 5 Macromedia lifted its game by completely rebuilding its scripting capabilities and turning it into a serious media-rich application developer’s tool. However it retained its sad old clunky interface.
So, in this latest round, they’ve both done as expected: LiveMotion 2 is now fully interactive, with extensive scripting ability; and Flash 6 (now called Flash MX) sports an elegant, new interface. But (of course) there’s more.
LiveMotion’s new scripting is powerful, and the script editor has a friendly (though not quite 100% accurate) syntax-helper and composition hierarchy for easy assembly. The methodology will take some getting used to for Flash users, but I think the creation of buttons, object methods and keyframe scripting is elegant and logical.
LiveMotion’s superior timeline interface can be a major draw card to new users, but the production benefits gained here are quickly lost elsewhere. The Composition Window, the main drawing area and preview of your vector-based artwork is (gasp) pixel-based. And worse, zooming doesn’t recalculate the pixels. Consequently, accuracy in placing or drawing objects is troublesome, especially coupled with the highly unpredictable behaviour of number entries in dialogue boxes such as the Transform Palette.
Also LiveMotion is very resource-intensive, and unless you are running the latest OS on a high-spec machine it can be sluggish. Exporting SWF can also be very slow, in some cases more akin to rendering a 3D animation.
Another word of caution in LiveMotion: just because you can doesn’t mean you should. LiveMotion can seduce you into all manner of textures, patterns and 3D effects, but, as with “Object Layers”, the output is bitmap. Their unchecked use will add kilobytes to your SWF waistline, and file-size obesity is not uncommon in LiveMotion.
Flash MX, meanwhile, finally addresses some of Flash’s interface problems. The most welcome changes are the ability to at last create collapsible groups of layers in the timeline, and being able to split objects and text across layers with one click. Also timely is the introduction of a properties palette – a context-sensitive dialogue that avoids using multiple palettes to change an object’s or frame’s parameters.
Macromedia’s big news is that Flash now supports video, which can simply be dropped on to the Stage and controlled within Flash, with interactivity. The Sorenson-Spark-based codec compresses remarkably efficiently.
Generator has been abandoned as Flash can now use scripting to dynamically add image files at runtime, as it does with text. This will please web designers who have run up against hosting companies’ reluctance to to deploy Generator.
More interactivity with the server appears to be a goal with MX, as rumours of “ColdFusion MX” seem to suggest. Flash seems to be becoming less about browsing and more about interacting. As well as delivering content such as audio and video, and applications, with comprehensive code support, Flash MX seems to be set up to embrace multiple platforms and devices, remote servers, shared webcams and microphones for teleconferencing, and supplying full accessibility options for the disabled.
The major bug with Flash MX seems to be not in the application but in the player. The streaming of audio over a slow connection cannot be skipped (for example, if you move to another part of the movie, using a “skip intro” or “disable sound” button) and it continues to hog bandwidth in the background, thus disabling the smooth running of the rest of the file. Macromedia was working on a patch for the player as this was being written, but early adopters may well be unaware why their Flash experience is less than satisfactory.
A quick look at both these releases suggests Adobe is now in the game and, once issues such as the Composition Window have been sorted, LiveMotion will be a very useful product for intuitive animation design and integration with Adobe’s other apps. Flash, however, must still be the only application for serious SWF site development.
Adobe LiveMotion 2 costs $302.63 including GST plus $13 shipping from Australia. Macromedia Flash MX costs $1261.73 ex GST.
Canning is an Auckland graphic designer.