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.
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.
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’.
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:
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.
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);
- 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 /