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A traditional approach to cartoon animation combined with modern Flash delivery offers ease-of-use, efficiency and some amazing creative power.

Macromedia Flash is the secret behind many of today's most successful all-singing all-dancing Web sites, but its origins were much humbler and centred on delivering flipbook-style cartoon animations. Toon Boom Studio takes that original idea and runs with it to provide industrial-strength cartoon animation capabilities.

What makes Toon Boom Studio different is that its approach to animation is based on traditional methods in which cartoons are built up as independent drawings on transparent sheets or "cels". All work therefore begins by creating an "animation set" which is a folder on your disk in which each cel is handled as a separate drawing in its own separate file.

Toon Boom Studio's drawing power is also designed to mimic the traditional animator's approach of "inking and painting" in which you create the outlines of your image first, using the Pencil and pressure-sensitive Brush tools, and then come back later in the production workflow to colour them in using the Paint tool. Other cartoon-oriented features include the use of an electronic light-box, which lets you choose which other drawing elements are visible as you work, and the ability to set up editable colour palettes for individual characters to provide consistency and flexibility.

Once you've created the original cels for the elements in your scene, you manage them using another traditional animation feature, the grid-based "Exposure Sheet". Each element appears in its own column and you can control how long each cel appears onscreen by setting its exposure, with each frame in the final movie appearing as a horizontal row. You also use the Exposure Sheet to animate your elements by drawing new cels based on the preceding ones (this is simple thanks to Toon Boom Studio's "onion-skinning" which shows previous cels as semi-transparent). Build up and manage the exposure of multiple cels and then click on the Play command and your cartoon springs into life.

In Drawing mode you create the cels and cel sequences for your animation.

Such frame-by-frame animation is inevitably labour-intensive but Toon Boom helps you make the most of your work by re-using your cels. To create a walking motion, for example, you can draw the cels necessary to create a realistic single step and then simply copy and paste the cels' labels as required. You can also save common sequences as templates for re-use throughout a project. Even more impressive is the ability to create realistic lip-synch by using just a few mouth shapes. Toon Boom Studio even offers a Lip Synch Generator which will analyze an imported sound file and suggest the mouth shape for each frame!

Using separate cel-based sequences in the Exposure Sheet for legs and mouth you can quickly create the effect of a character simultaneously walking and talking - but it will only be walking on the spot. What you really want to do is to create the realistic impression of movement in 3D space. And to enable this Toon Boom offers a dedicated Scene Planning mode in which the Exposure Sheet disappears to be replaced by a Timeline.

What makes the Timeline so powerful is its ability to control and synchronize automatic effects by mimicking the traditional animation technique in which multiple cels are attached to a "peg bar". Add a character "peg" to the timeline, for example, and you can then link the figure, legs and mouth elements to it simply by dragging and dropping. Using the Motion tool you can then drag a horizontal motion path for the peg and now, when you hit Play, you'll see your character walking and talking across the screen! Using the Rotate and Scale tools in the same way, you can quickly and interactively create animated rotation and resizing effects while the Function Editor lets you precisely graph each peg's motion, size and rotation settings over time.

This is serious power - but the best is still to come. To create truly realistic scenes you need to create the impression of depth and Toon Boom Studio enables this with its Top and Side View panels. Drag your element to the back of the scene and it will appear to shrink just as it does in real life. Even better you can use this 3D space for animation as well as scene set-up. Drag a motion path for your character peg in the Top View, for example, and your character will appear to proportionately grow in size as it moves towards the front of the scene.

In Scene Planning mode you can control your objects and camera within a 3D space.

Toon Boom Studio has one final trick up its sleeve - you can change how the scene you've created is viewed. By repositioning the scene camera in the Top or Side Views, for example, you could concentrate on just your character's face. Best of all, you can animate your scene camera by attaching it to a peg and then creating a motion path through your scene to create zoom, truck and pan effects. You can also create multiple cameras to try out different perspectives though sadly, in this first release, you can't swap between camera shots to produce film-style edits and cuts.

Even so the quality of the cartoon results that you can produce is staggering - though it shouldn't be too surprising as Toon Boom Technologies also develop the high-end USAnimation system used by the likes of Warner Brothers and the makers of the Simpsons. The program's second great strength becomes apparent when you export your movie to Flash SWF. Because each cel is converted to a symbol and then resized, rotated and repositioned as necessary on each frame, the final SWF file size is kept to a minimum. Toon Boom Studio's combination of creativity, quality and efficiency - its bang-per-buck - is extraordinary.

Toon Boom Studio isn't a complete solution - if you want to include any text or interactivity you'll need Macromedia Flash as well - but it certainly takes Web-based cartoon animation onto a new level.

Ease of Use
Value for Money

ratings out of 6

Tom Arah

Oct 2001

System Requirements: Pentium II or higher, 128MB RAM, 100MB disk space, Windows 98, ME, 2000, 1024x768 display

Price: US$349 download, US$399 boxed

Download: toonboomstudio. com

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