Flash 5 Moves in the Right Directions
These days you don't have to surf too far on the Web before you run into some bit of Flash animation. Whether exploiting Flash to create an animated splash page, a cool interface, or animated features, more and more web designers are turning to this vector-based animation solution to spruce up their sites.
With version 5, Macromedia has streamlined Flash's interface, added a few new drawing tools, and greatly improved the program's interactive scripting capabilities. We looked at a late beta of Flash 5 and found that Macromedia has, indeed, packed a lot of improvements into the program, though the software still has some weak spots.
Change of Interface
Macromedia has re-worked Flash's interface to bring it more in line with the company's other applications, such as Dreamweaver and FreeHand. Flash 5 now has an interface with a much more "modern" feel, and it is much less dependent on Flash 4's modal dialog boxes. Tabbed, nested palettes à la Adobe Photoshop now house almost all the program's tools and features, making navigation and tool access much better than in previous versions. The similarity of the tabbed palettes to those in Photoshop and other Adobe products is evident enough that Adobe recently filed a lawsuit against Macromedia, claiming patent infringment.
Though such drastic interface revision in an application can often be troublesome for experienced users, even long-time Flash users should feel quite comfortable with the new interface, simply because it makes a lot more sense than the previous version.
Flash's Timeline, where animation is scored and edited, has seen a number of revisions. Five different zoom levels now let you see more or less of your animation score, resulting in less scrolling. A new Preview option lets you see a thumbnail of each object's shape, making it easier to quickly interpret a complex, many-layered score.
Thankfully, editing and moving keyframes is much easier than in previous versions. Now that you can access Keyframe information through the Frame palette (rather than by double-clicking on the frame to open a dialog box), it is now finally possible to move a keyframe by simply clicking and dragging it, without fear of inadvertently opening the Frame Properties dialog.
Despite these improvements, Flash's Timeline interface can still lead to frustration. The interface of Adobe LiveMotion displays only keyframes rather than each frame of the animation, and such an approach allows more-flexible zooming and navigation (though plenty of Flash users would argue that a frame-by-frame timeline is invaluable). In addition, it would make more sense to this reviewer to see a layer's properties within the Timeline itself, rather than having them hidden away in palettes.
Also, Macromedia has done little in the way of improving Flash's actual animation controls. The program's Velocity controls, for example, still leave much to be desired, lacking support even for relatively simple curve-based velocity adjustment.
These complaints notwithstanding, Macromedia has done a good job of updating and improving Flash's interface. There is still plenty of room for improvement, but Macromedia is moving in the right direction.
Flashy New Tools
Flash's drawing tools have always been weak, and Macromedia also took a step in the right direction by adding new drawing tools to Flash 5. The tools are still relatively few and meager, however, and to this writer's mind, Macromedia has not gone far enough in giving Flash 5 more drawing capabilities.
Color selection is greatly improved in Flash 5. Stroke and Fill swatches are now displayed in the program's toolbox, and new Swatch and Mixer palettes make it easy to select and change the color of any object's stroke and fill. Long overdue, this new color interface is a great improvement.
Macromedia has dropped FreeHand's beziér pen tool into Flash, a boon for FreeHand and Adobe Illustrator users who want more powerful drawing controls. In addition to simplifying the creation of complex beziér shapes, the pen tool can also be used to edit shapes created with Flash's other drawing tools. Version 5 also adds guides, grids, and snaps -- complete with editable colors and grid density -- to help make editing more precise.
To accommodate illustrations too complex for Flash's meager set of tools, Flash can now import native Macromedia FreeHand files. The FreeHand import dialog includes a number of powerful options such as specifying whether separate FreeHand pages will be imported as Scenes or Key Frames. Still, though great for FreeHand users, this feature is no substitute for a more robust set of drawing tools.
Building on Flash 4's excellent audio support, Flash 5 can now import MP3 files directly, saving you the hassle of converting your MP3 files to AIFF. This is a simple but handy addition for audio-heavy presentations.
Smooth Movie Management
Authoring a complex movie can involve a number of people and a lot of housekeeping, and Macromedia has added a number of cool new utility tools and functions to help you manage the process.
As in previous versions of Flash, the Library palette is used to store media elements. This facilitates ease of re-use and is necessary for executing certain animation effects. With Flash 5, Macromedia has greatly improved the program's Library functions.
Libraries can now be shared between projects, making it much easier to maintain consistency of elements between multiple movies. In addition, items in a Library can be linked to external files, meaning you can now simply edit an original file rather than editing and then re-loading within Flash.
Finally, you can now store fonts in a Library (or shared Library), rather than having to embed fonts in the movie itself.
The new Movie Explorer palette displays a hierarchical, structured view of all media and actions in your movie. With live links to all the relevant control palettes, the Movie Explorer makes for a simple way to navigate the media within your movie and partly makes up for the complexity of Flash's Timeline window.
Control Freaks Rejoice
Flash 5's Action scripting has been greatly expanded and improved. Macromedia has obviously gone to great lengths to expand Flash 5's Actions from a simple scripting language to a more robust programming language.
Though Flash 4's simple pop-up scripting interface remains, Flash 5 now includes new ActionScript Development Tools, which provide more serious programmers with a much greater level of control.
Interactivity has always been Flash's biggest strength, and this seems to be the area that Macromedia has spent the most time on. The improvements are very impressive and very well-implemented. This is good news even if you aren't a Flash developer, because it means you might soon see even more sophisticated Flash animations on a Web site near you.
Macromedia has done much work on Flash, and it shows in the program's improved interface and powerful scripting facilities. This reviewer still prefers the After Effects-derived animation interface in Adobe's LiveMotion, and I'm sorry to see that more of FreeHand didn't make it into Flash. Nevertheless, this upgrade is a no-brainer for current Flash users. The improved interface and more-powerful scripting controls are simply too good to pass up.
Read more by Ben Long.
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