RIP, adobe flash (sorta)

By now, many will have heard about Adobe’s decision to bid farewell to Flash, at least in name. The following are my thoughts, as they relate to animators and designers, the second class citizens of the Flash world.

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A few weeks ago my sister’s cat was hit by a car, breaking the cat’s left hip. There were three options:

  • have the cat put to sleep;
  • spend $3-$4000 to keep her alive;
  • do nothing.

Relax, my sister is $3,000 the poorer, and the cat is well. Of course, the worst choice would have been the third: do nothing, and let the animal suffer.

As far as artists are concerned, the policy of “do nothing” has been the status of every Flash update since CS3, itself little more than a patch of Macromedia Flash v8 (the final Macromedia version, released in 2005).

99% of the programming team’s focus has been on updating the actionscript/ programming side, leaving artists and animators to scrounge third party extensions to frankenstein extra functionality. The best extensions though, could not modify core aspects of the program, such as the mummified brush and pencil tools, the quirky shape tweening, the lack of z-depth, etc. When new features have been added to Flash, such as the 3D rotate tool, or new motion tween, they have been half-baked and weak. These features created the illusion of development where little or none existed.

I began using Flash in 1999, and still use Macromedia Flash v8 (2005); some animators I know stick with Adobe Flash CS3 (2007). For designers and animators there has been little reason to upgrade. Later versions also came with bloat, growing slower and buggier with each version.

Partly as a result of this stagnation, the term ‘Flashy’ has become a pejorative. ‘Flash Animator’ is often synomymous with ‘hackwork’, and animators who work in Flash are routinely paid less than a CG animator, regardless of their relative merits as animators. This, in spite of the fact that many Flash scenes can be mind-bendingly complex.

/ shameless self promotion /

To illustrate, here is a link to my 35 minute documentary ‘There’s No Tomorrow’, created over a period of 7 years. It deals with the impossibility of infinite growth on a finite planet. A screenshot from this movie is currently used in the catalog for the Louvre’s exhibition ‘A Brief History of the Future’ (page 64).

/ shameless self promotion over/

Flash, even with its limitations, can be used to create interesting work.

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I had accepted the fact that no real improvements would be added to Flash, but I blew a gasket with the CS6 release, which not only didn’t add features, but removed existing ones. For example, the quirky but functional Bones/IK tool (which I used to create the character animation for the Disney game ‘Where’s My Water’) was removed; worse, object level undo was deleted (making multiple undos across symbols a dangerous activity!). If Photoshop implemented such a ‘feature’, all hell would break loose…

Long story short, by CS6, I had stopped paying attention to Flash ‘upgrades’.

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In mid 2014, Lynda.com asked me to learn Harmony, in order to create an introductory course for them. Assuming that Flash was heading to the glue factory, I jumped at the chance to switch programs.

The contrast between Flash and Harmony is night and day. Flash is easy to learn (the result of a fundamentally simple program with almost no updates in a decade), whereas Harmony takes much longer to learn (the result of a more ambitious scope and an often bewildering number of features). The Flash brush tools are just barely workable and blobby, whereas the Harmony brush and pencil tools produce very clean results, and are customisable. Flash has shape tweening (which is definitely usable but can be temperamental); Harmony has a much more stable morph tween, which can animate between shapes that would crash Flash. Harmony can child/parent layers, which is a feature that all layer-based animaton software should have. Not to mention Harmony’s strongest selling point, z-depth, which allows you to place your animation and background in space, and to animate a camera around them.

A beginner can be up and running with Adobe Flash in a couple of days. Toonboom Harmony has a much steeper learning curve; it took me a few weeks to even begin to feel at home with it. Once you do, though, it’s very powerful. Puppet animation takes longer to master in Harmony – however, animating traditionally is far easier than in Flash. Here is a quick example of a traditional walk cycle, animated entirely in Harmony, using the brush tool:

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For those of us who had given up on Flash, the first glimmer of hope from Adobe came this year with Flash Professional CC2015, which included some useful new features (and the first tentative changes to the line tool. A simple but essential feature for the brush tool was added, locking the brush size to the stage, not the screen (so that it now behaves like EVERY OTHER PIECE OF DRAWING SOFTWARE IN THE WORLD). It also restored Bones/IK, as well as object-level undo…so it seemed that consideration was being shown to the animation users. Flash CC2015 also feels faster – in fact, MUCH faster than most previous versions. The brush tools were the same old, but at least this was a version than an animator could use again…a definite improvement, for the first time in 10 years.

So, the recent announcement from Adobe that the old workhorse ‘Flash’ is about to be retired and/or rebranded as ‘Animate’ is interesting. The announcement of an upgrade to the brush and pencil tools is most welcome, along with the ability to rotate the screen. As I use a Cintiq, using software without this ability is a real pain – so another step in the right direction.

When I met the Macromedia team in 2005/6 (and again as the Adobe team about a year later), one of the features I begged them to add was the ability to change a color in the palette, and have that change alter every instance of that color on the stage, thus allowing a color model to be fixed with one click, instead of thousands. Imagine 5,000 frames of animation: a character has red buttons, but the director wants them blue instead. Click. Click. Click (x 5,000). Imagine doing this with a project with many characters and color changes. A nightmare! Got overtime? (update: in the comments, ‘flanimator’ tells me that older version of Flash introduced a ‘find & replace’ feature – shortcut CTRL F – that allows the user to select a color and change every instance on the stage). The only drawback is that this only applies to what’s on the stage, and not the library, but still a great asset). Anyway, the ability to ‘tag’ colors is finally to be added in the new version.

Note that most of the features being introduced have existed in Toonboom Harmony for years.

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Retiring the name ‘Flash’ will hopefully remove some of the artistic stigma associated with the program, but unless Adobe follows through with some meatier additions to the tools, my fear is that this change may be seen as cosmetic, which would be a real shame. Things I’d like to see:

  • child/parent layers;
  • an easier Bones/IK system (the Harmony one is far superior);
  • z-depth;
  • filters that work with graphic symbols and not just movie clips;
  • a real camera system,
  • etc. etc. etc.

Of course, none of this deals with the programming/security aspect of the program, which remains a major headache. We’re left with a strange hybrid – a program that has been used to create virus prone games and apps by developers, but also one that has been used by designers and animators to create animation and cartoons. It’s not a happy marriage. We can only hope that this is the first step towards an amicable divorce, one in which the artists get custody of the fun stuff.

/ shameless self promotion /

Those Flash animators who are still unhappy with Flash, and who want to try out Harmony might also check out another of my Lynda courses, which focuses on how to migrate from Adobe Flash to Toonboom Harmony.

/ shameless self promotion over /

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lynda course: migrate from Flash to Harmony

My latest course for Lynda.com has gone online:

‘Migrating from Flash to Toon Boom Harmony’

It teaches a Flash animator how their favourite Flash tools and processes correspond to the Harmony equivalent.

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The first twelve years of my animation career (1988 – 2000) were in the traditional hand drawn field, in feature, tv, and games. My subsequent years (2000 – present) have until recently been dominated by Flash.

This makes me an ideal convert to Harmony, as it’s aimed at both types of artist.

I learned Harmony for the explicit purpose of teaching it, and did so in my earlier Lynda.com course

‘Toon Boom Animate and Harmony Essential Training’.

This first course was a comprehensive introduction to Harmony. However, Harmony has a much steeper learning curve than Flash – a consequence of the greater range of features. Most Flash animators just want to get working with the program; their first priority is to recover all the tricks and techniques they use in Flash, or to find the least painful Harmony equivalent.

When using Harmony at first, I found that my familiarity with Flash was often a disadvantage, as my ‘muscle memory’ and expectations of Flash behaviour in Harmony kept tripping me up.

I saw several requests online from Flash artists, asking for a course that would simply show the Flash tool, and the Harmony version, thereby cutting down the time they need to become productive with the program. This became the original inspiration my latest course:

‘Migrating from Flash to Toon Boom Harmony’.

The course takes common procedures and the core tools, and shows the Harmony version of each. For example, how to create nested animations such as lip synched mouths, how to make puppets, how to line characters, how to use colors, etc.

I recommend that the Flash animator making the leap to Harmony can keep the course open in a tab, on standby for the moments when they hit ‘brain freeze’ – for example, if they forget the fine points of the line tool, how to ink lines, or how to handle the palette system, they can quickly reference the relevant movie, and keep on working with as little time lost as possible.

I’ve named each movie in the new course by the relevant Flash tool or process, and not by the Harmony name. This is so that the Flash veteran can quickly find the matching instruction for their familiar Flash methods or tools.

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Follow this link to get 10 days of free unlimited access to lynda.com. This will also allow you to see the course, for free.

Here are the rest of my Lynda courses.

10-day free trial

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photoshop timeline glitch

If anyone can help with this inexcusable photoshop glitchery, please let me know. I was hoping to use PS timeline/animation feature to create some walk cycles for a future Lynda course, but this glitch / buggery renders PS utterly unfit for that task. A shame, because I’d like to use the PS brush tools, as they’ll look much nicer in print form. Oh well.

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lynda course: foundations of drawing cartoon characters

My latest course for Lynda has gone online – and it’s the most fun yet! The course teaches the classic animation drawing techniques, which are also applicable to comic books. This was a 28 year long ‘brain dump’, in which I included everything that I could remember from working for Don Bluth in the late 80s, through to working with the masters of the classic design style Terry Shakespeare and David Molina (of ‘Creative Capers’ in Los Angeles).

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Follow this link to get 10 days of free unlimited access to lynda.com. This will also allow you to see the course, for free.

Even if you’re not interested in following a traditional animation or comic book path, watching the course will give you an appreciation of the skills required to make an appealing cartoon or animated character.

Here are the rest of my Lynda courses.

10-day free trial

The course doesn’t just come with the movie lessons, it also comes with a 66 page handout, which is a book in its own right. Here are some sample pages to give you a sense of the scope. Click the image for the full size version.

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lynda course: toonboom animate / harmony essential training

My fifth course for Lynda has gone online – and it was a great deal of hard work! I made a special effort to make the steep learning curve as shallow as possible. We all know that most people can pick up Flash and start animating scenes quite quickly, but Toonboom Animate/Harmony takes a little longer to come to terms with – to be expected, because the program has so many more features, and a different workflow.

lynda flash animation thumbnails

I’d recommend this course for anyone interested in moving past Flash, as I get the distinct impression that a major switch is under way in the animation world, from Adobe Flash to Toonboom Harmony.

Here are the rest of my Lynda courses.

10-day free trial

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grosseteste: bishop of the century!

Another character from my huge ‘Continuum’ walking page: Grosseteste (ca. 1168–1253), one of the great intellects of medieval Europe (click for large version).

A couple of words about this ‘Continuum’ project of mine: the overall theme is an attack on binary thinking or the simplistic narratives that are common in the modern world. Examples of this simplistic thinking have lead us such beliefs as “science = good, religion = bad” (or the reverse), or “West= good, Islam= bad” (or the reverse). ‘Continuum’ illustrates that the actual course of history isn’t so clear cut – and is best thought of as an ‘infuriating dialectic’, and when you hammer dead people into modern categories you abuse history, and create a myth that is false to facts.

Stanford entry:

Robert Grosseteste (ca. 1168–1253), Bishop of Lincoln from 1235 to 1253, was one of the most prominent and remarkable figures in thirteenth-century English intellectual life. He was a man of many talents: commentator and translator of Aristotle and Greek patristic thinkers, philosopher, theologian, and student of nature. He was heavily influenced by Augustine, whose thought permeates his writings and from whom he drew a Neoplatonic outlook, but he was also one of the first to make extensive use of the thought of Aristotle, Avicenna and Averroes. He developed a highly original and imaginative account of the generation and fundamental nature of the physical world in terms of the action of light, and composed a number of short works regarding optics and other natural phenomena, as well as works of philosophy and theology … He made a powerful impression on his contemporaries and subsequent thinkers at Oxford, and has been hailed as an inspiration to scientific developments in fourteenth-century Oxford.

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avicenna: philosopher, scientist, genius!

Another character from my huge ‘Continuum’ walking page: Avicenna (980-1037), one of the greatest influences on medieval Europe: Brittania entry:

Avicenna’s most important work of philosophy and science is Kitāb al-shifāʾ, which is a four-part encyclopaedia covering logic, physics, mathematics, and metaphysics. Since science was equated with wisdom, Avicenna attempted a broad unified classification of knowledge… Logic was viewed by Avicenna as instrumental to philosophy, an art and a science to be concerned with second-order concepts … his theology—the First Cause and the 10 intelligences—allowed his philosophy, with its devotion to God as Creator and the celestial hierarchy, to be imported easily into medieval European Scholastic thought. In addition to Avicenna’s philosophy having been readily incorporated into medieval European Scholastic thought, his synthesis of Neoplatonic and Aristotelian thought and his encompassing of all human knowledge of the time into well-organized, accessible texts make him one of the greatest intellects since Aristotle…

Taken in his entirety, Avicenna must be seen in context with his Islamic colleagues—al-Rāzī, Ibn Rushd (Averroës), ʿAlī ibn al-ʿAbbās (Haly Abbas), Abū al-Qāsim (Albucasis), Ibn Zuhr (Avenzoar), and others—who, during the Islamic golden age, served as invaluable conduits of textual transmission and interpretation of Hellenistic learning for an amnesic Europe. First through Sicily and Spain and then via the Crusades, the rich cultural enlightenment of the Islamic world awakened a benighted Europe from its intellectual slumber, and Avicenna was perhaps the movement’s greatest ambassador.

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flash palette: a custom improvement!

It’s not news that the default palette for Flash is dreadful. There’s not much that you can do with this, other than pretend it’s not there:

I made my own early in the 2000s; it’s much more subdued (maybe a bit too subdued) but you’ll find it much more useful than the default. Here’s an empty Flash file containing my personalised flash palette. It was created in Macromedia Flash MX, so it’ll work with very old versions, and will open with all the later ones. Macromedia MX Screenshot:

All you need to do is download the .fla file, open it, then in the color swatch window, do this (note that this screenshot is Flash CS 5.5, all versions are much the same):


Once you save this palette as the default, any future .fla files that you open will have that new palette. If you ever want the old, ugly palette back, open that same swatch panel and select ‘Web 216’, and party like it’s 1999.

Notice that there’s a top row of green, blue, tan, turquoise, etc. I reserve these for layer colours, as you can see layers in outline mode very clearly when these colours are applied.

This is also the palette that I use in all my Lynda courses…so if you want to follow along with those, it’s a very handy thing to have.

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al ma’arri, the great poet of 11th century Syria.

A favourite character from my huge ‘Continuum’ walking page, al ma’arri (973-1057):

From Brittanica:

al-Maʿarrī, (born December 973, near Aleppo, Syria—died May 1057), great Arab poet, known for his virtuosity and for the originality and pessimism of his vision.

…  A childhood disease left him virtually blind. He studied at the Syrian cities of Aleppo, Antioch, and Tripoli and soon began his literary career, supported by a small private income. His early poems were collected in Saqṭ al-zand (“The Tinder Spark”), which gained great popularity; it includes a series of poems on armour.

… In Baghdad he had been well received at first in prestigious literary salons; but when he refused to sell his panegyrics, he was unable to find a dependable patron. He renounced material wealth and retired to a secluded dwelling, living there on a restrictive diet. Al-Maʿarrī enjoyed respect and authority locally, and many students came to study with him. He also maintained an active correspondence.

… Although an advocate of social justice and action, al-Maʿarrī suggested that children should not be begotten, in order to spare future generations the pains of life. His writings are also marked by an obsession with philology.

A 1920s translation of his great poem ‘The Luzumiyat’ (posted on my personal blog, idleworm). Some sample verses – though you won’t regret reading the entire poem:

The Sultan, too, relinquishing his throne
Must wayfare through the darkening dust alone
Where neither crown nor kingdom be, and he,
Part of the Secret, here and there is blown.

To clay the mighty Sultan must return
And, chancing, help a praying slave to burn
His midnight oil before the face of Him,
Who of the Sultan makes an incense urn.

Turned to a cup, who once the sword of state
Held o’er the head of slave and potentate,
Is now held in the tippler’s trembling hand,
Or smashed upon the tavern-floor of Fate.

For this I say, Be watchful of the Cage
Of chance; it opes alike to fool and sage;
Spy on the moment, for to-morrow’ll be,
Like yesterday, an obliterated page.

Isn’t this beautiful?

“For this I say, Be watchful of the Cage
Of chance; it opes alike to fool and sage;
Spy on the moment, for to-morrow’ll be,
Like yesterday, an obliterated page.”

Sure is more impressive than grunting “YOLO”.

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continuum: philosophers

Some details from the enormous ‘Continuum’ walking page:

The philosopher Plotinus:

And al Farabi:

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