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With major new transparency and morphing effects and improved  HTML integration, Flash 3 sets a new standard for producing dynamic web  sites.

Fla3symb.png (49743 bytes)

Nowadays it's not good enough just having a web site, instead you need to provide a rich, dynamic, multimedia web experience. The latest crop of dedicated Web graphics programs such as Fireworks, Xara and ImageReady can all help boost the graphical content of your site, but when it comes to dynamism the best they can offer is animated GIFs. These are fine for catching the eye with banner ads and wobbling bullets, but they have serious limitations. In particular their pixel-based bitmap format means that they are generally slow and awkward to produce and, far more importantly, slow to download. The obvious solution to both problems is a vector web-animation format and the name now synonymous with this is Macromedia Flash.

Flash might be a vector-based program but on first sight it looks much more like a simple paint program. Dragging onscreen with the main pressure-sensitive brush tool, for example, feels completely natural just like painting with Windows Paintbrush or even on paper. When your stroke is completed, however, the difference is clear as the stroke is defined as a vector object. This means that you can click on the object to select it and then reposition, recolour, rotate or resize it. The new Inspector palette helps such object management by giving feedback on their size and positioning. It also allows precise resizing though it's irritating that there are no options for percentage scaling.

Flash's combination of paint-like freedom and object-based control is often refreshing. I particularly like the way you can scribble a rough circle or rectangle with the pencil tool and Flash automatically converts it to a regular shape. Unfortunately there are some serious downsides to the program's idiosyncratic approach. Simple selection is horrendously complex, for example, as fill and outline are dealt with separately and lasso dragging can select just sections of underlying objects. At least you can now set a program preference so that multiple selections are only created when you Shift-click on objects.

Even more bizarre is the way Flash deals with overlapping objects. One of the absolute basics of object-based handling is the stacking order where overlying objects temporarily obscure those underneath, but otherwise don't effect them. In Flash, however, when you cover an object with another object, by painting a brush stroke across it for example, the underlying object is automatically and permanently "segmented" which means that the top shape is knocked out of the bottom! By grouping single objects this unwanted result can be avoided, but animation is complex enough without Flash turning basic drawing and selection into obstacle courses.

Little has been done to make drawing simpler, but a major new feature makes it more powerful: the introduction of object transparency. The onscreen colour palette now offers an alpha slide which allows any colour or gradient to be made partially transparent. Actually making use of the transparency effect is complicated because of the segmentation that occurs when objects overlap but with judicious grouping and layering the problem can be overcome. Without graduated transparencies the results are nothing to compare to the photo-realistic effects possible with Corel Xara, but they certainly help make images less flat and one-dimensional.

Of course what sets Flash apart isn't its drawing but rather its animation power. Animations are created by adding frames in the dedicated Timeline onscreen palette. By adding frames and manually repositioning and reshaping objects simple flick-book style animations can be built up. Dedicated features like onion-skinning help in the process but inevitably such manual animation is something of a chore. Two new features make life a little easier, the ability to label and so control named frames and the improved frame selection whereby the frame in the editing window automatically changes to reflect the frame selected in the timeline.

Even with these advances manual animation is too laborious to be generally useful. The solution is to use Flash's tweening capability which automatically interpolates changes between keyframes. This is not only much quicker to set up but also - because only the two keyframes need to be downloaded - much quicker in operation. By tweening position, size and colour, complex effects can be built up easily. For example, by repositioning, resizing and recolouring a plane symbol and linking it to a motion path, you can set up a skywriter effect where the plane moves from a distant dark spot getting bigger and brighter as it comes - and all with only two keyframes.

With Flash 3 even more options are available. It's now possible to set up multiple rotations so that the skywriter can be set to perform acrobatics. Or you can set an object on one layer to mask those below to produce a spotlight effect where parts of a larger image are progressively revealed. Even more generally useful is the ability to automate transparency effects. By turning an object into a named symbol, creating a copy on the second keyframe and then using the Instance Properties' Colour Effects tab's Alpha pop-up menu to change the level of transparency, you can create the effect of objects fading in and out. To achieve the same effect with an animated GIF would involve sending the full image pixel information for every single frame. Even better, because Flash also supports bitmaps as symbols, you can create exactly the same pixel-based fade effects with only one copy of the bitmap having to be downloaded.

As well as these refinements of existing effects, Flash 3 also offers an entirely new tweening method - shape tweening. If you define a starting and ending shape on the two keyframes, Flash will automatically interpolate the necessary intermediate shapes, colours and even gradients to create a smooth morph between the two. The default effects really are impressive, but obviously there are limitations. While Flash made a game attempt to merge two different shapes into one, for example, unwanted artifacts were left on screen. Generally, it's better to stick to single objects on their own layers but if you need to control more complex effects, to morph a face for example, you can use up to twenty six shaping hints to identify points that correspond from one shape to another.

Flash doesn't just offer animation it also offers basic, non-scripted interactivity. Again this is controlled through symbols which are set to act as buttons. Buttons have their own four frame timeline representing the mouse-up, mouse-down, mouse-over and hit states and when activated they can be used to jump to a given frame, load a new animation or fetch a URL. In addition to these two basic graphic and button behaviours, Flash 3 now offers a third - movie clip. This acts like a graphical symbol but independently of the main timeline. The use of movie clips enables the creation of independent sprites which can then be embedded in a button to create animated navigational devices - a major item on the average Flash user's wish list.

When the animation and interactivity have been finalized the Flash movie's is ready for outputting. Interestingly there are a number of bitmap-based options including outputting individual frames as GIFs or JPEGs and complete movies as AVIs or, complete with soundtrack, as QuickTime MOVs. It's also possible to use Flash as a glorified GIF animator though this rather misses the point. The default output therefore is to use the highly-compressed vector-based Shockwave Flash SWF format. Double-clicking on any SWF file opens it in the standalone player provided with Flash and from there it's possible to save the file as a standalone projector EXE file. This adds 150k to the file size, but this still means that you can create high quality, anti-aliased, resizable and interactive presentations that easily fit on a single floppy.

The independent projector format is a big plus for Flash 3, but ultimately the program stands or falls by its web performance. Inevitably this brings in a huge number of audience-based complexities. In particular, to make the most of Flash, the format has to work well whatever the modem or browser the viewer is using. In previous versions of Flash this was left pretty much as the user's problem, but with version 3 Macromedia has done everything it can to help. The new Bandwidth Profiler, for example, gives a graphical readout of a movie's bandwidth requirements which enables those frames which might cause streaming problems to be fine-tuned.

That still leaves the whole question of tailoring the Flash movie to the user's browser. In the future this shouldn't be a problem as the Windows 98/Explorer combination now comes with the Flash plug-in and Netscape has said that it will be bundled in future versions of Navigator. For the present though complications abound with different set-ups demanding different treatment ranging from Java or Active-X playback to the need to download the plug-in. To hand-code the HTML necessary to deal with every option would be a nightmare which is why Macromedia has bundled the standalone program AfterShock.

Aftershock lets you specify everything from the desired dimensions of the resulting movie and preferred choice of playback through to the alternative image or animated GIF that you want shown if Flash isn't supported. It then writes all the necessary EMBED, OBJECT and SCRIPT tags to an HTML file. Using Aftershock you can ensure that the visitors to your site actually get to see the multimedia experience you have created for them or, at the very least, a static but graphical representation. Once you have made your choices and created your file, all you have to do is insert the HTML in your web page and make sure that your Web server is set up to handle Flash files.

Aftershock certainly makes life easier, but even so the level of complexity involved should act as a salutary warning. Each of the stages in creating your Flash movie, from basic drawing through animation and adding interactivity and ending in the creation of your working HTML, is demanding - and sometimes unnecessarily so. If all you are wanting is to give your site a banner ad or a wobbly bullet, stick with a GIF animator. If you are determined to provide your site visitors with a higher level of Web experience, however, Flash is far and away the best option currently available and fast becoming the accepted standard.

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System Requirements: Pentium 133 or higher, 32+Mb of RAM, 20Mb of disk space, SVGA, CD-ROM, Windows 95 or later.

Tom Arah

April 1998

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