6 July 2009
A basic understanding of the Adobe Flash CS4 Professional authoring environment and prior experience drawing and developing animated characters is recommended.
Note: If you are still using Macromedia Flash Professional 8, you can refer to the previous version of this article.
To showcase the many helpful, timesaving features in Adobe Flash CS4 Professional that allow you to achieve sophisticated visual results, this article series covers the entire process of creating a digital animated character, from its conception (either using the drawing and shape tools in Flash or scanning a hand-drawn character) all the way through building a complex animation with many different moving parts.
In Part 1, I discuss the process of creating and converting objects to symbols and how to set them up to create motion tween spans and simulate realistic movements. I describe the different types of symbols and the unique behaviors associated with each type, and outline the step-by-step procedure that I follow to develop and define unique and believable characters. Along the way, I discuss some tips and tricks to help you save time, as well as some best practices to organize and manage your project assets.
In Part 2, I describe some of my personal workflow techniques and explain how to use the new Motion Editor to create custom easing effects, how to apply filters to objects to create what I like to call a "2.5D" look, and how to use the Transform tool to skew and scale objects realistically.
This article series uses the example of the boy character I created as a logo for my website, mudbubble.com. If you'd like to follow along with the steps that are outlined here, be sure to download the sample files that are provided below.
Adobe Flash CS4 offers several drawing tools for creating cool characters and designs. Each tool differs from the others and yields different stylistic results. Some tools create larger file sizes while other tools result in smaller files.
As you become more familiar with these tools, you'll learn to choose the best tool to achieve the artistic style you want while adhereing to any file size requirements you may have. It's a tradeoff to balance between file size and download times and playback performance. In this section, I take a look at each of the drawing tools in Flash and discuss the pros and cons of each.
The Brush tool is probably the most versatile of all the tools, especially when combined with a pressure-sensitive tablet.
Drawing with the Brush tool is the same as drawing with shapes. It's the tool that feels the most natural when used due to the support of pressure sensitivity and tilt features. Wacom makes a series of popular tablets that differ in size, include a cordless, battery-free pen called a stylus, and work great with Flash. Since a Wacom tablet can work in conjunction with your existing mouse, or replace your mouse completely, its use goes far beyond that of Flash alone. Many digital designers use a tablet with any number of image editing and animation programs, including Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator. But fear not: If you do not currently own a tablet, you can still use the Brush tool (see Figure 1) with one exception—both the tilt and pressure sensitivity features will not be available.
If you do have a pressure-sensitive tablet, however, you can choose from some subselection options for the Brush tool that will affect the line quality. At the very bottom of the Tools panel, you will notice the pressure sensitivity and tilt options. With one or both of these options selected, you can achieve various results when you use the Brush tool to draw in Flash (see Figure 2).
This next example shows what happens when you draw with the Brush tool. The result on the left is a shape, which means it has vector points on all sides. The more points an object contains, the bigger the file size of the project. I drew this particular shape using a pressure-sensitive tablet (see Figure 3). Notice the tapered ends and inconsistent line weight that result with varied amounts of pressure applied to the stroke. I also drew the shape on the right with the Brush tool; in this case, however, I turned off the pressure sensitivity setting.
At first glance, the Brush tool may seem like a very basic tool to draw shapes, and it is very easy to use. However, there are many settings you can use to create unique and interesting designs.
The Brush tool offers several tool effects to help you draw in different ways (see Figure 4). Here's a description of each of these effects:
Object Drawing enables you to draw shapes as individual objects that remain independent of one another. Gone are the days when you had to draw each shape on a separate layer to avoid one shape "cutting" into the other. With Flash CS4 you can simply turn Object Drawing on or off as a subselection of any of the drawing tools (Brush, Pencil, Pen, Oval, and Rectangle) by choosing the desired option. For those of you familiar with Adobe Illustrator, this feature will be familiar territory (see Figure 5).
When Object Drawing is turned off, drawing a shape on top of another causes the second shape to cut into the first. This is called Merge Drawing mode. This mode can be useful for cutting into shapes to create other complex shapes (see Figure 6).
By contrast, when you draw a shape in Object Drawing mode, it automatically becomes an Object Drawing and cannot be merged with other shapes. You can overlay Object Drawings without fear of cutting into them (see Figure 7). This is useful in situations where you may want to reposition objects or simply need to keep them independent.
I created my trademark boy character entirely with the mouse and the rectangle and oval tools. I never had to use my Wacom tablet in combination with the Brush tool. I could have easily chosen the Brush tool, but using the shape tools resulted in the ultra-clean line quality I was trying to achieve.
Often times the Brush tool can create several unnecessary points that bloat file sizes and create headaches when trying to edit the shapes later on. As I was creating the boy graphic (see Figure 8), my goal was to use simple shapes and generate a character with as small a file size as possible.
The Pencil tool is the perfect tool if you want a consistent line weight throughout your image. It allows you to keep the file size of the project as small as possible (see Figure 9).
Lines drawn with the Pencil tool consist of fewer vector points. A perfectly straight line has only two points, one on either end. A curved line has three points or more depending on the number of curves (see Figure 10).
The Pencil tool also offers several line quality modes (see Figure 11):
The shape tools (Oval and Rectangle) create primitive fills and strokes. Adobe Flash CS4 also provides the Rectangle Primitive, Oval Primitive, and Polystar tools (see Figure 12). Holding down the Shift key while drawing with a shape tool creates a perfect circle or square.
The Rectangle Primitive tool, when selected, is easily customizable by adjusting the settings in the Property inspector. Use the slider to create rounded or inverted corners with ease (see Figure 13).
The Oval Primitive options make it possible to achieve some interesting shape manipulations. While the primitive is selected, the Property inspector provides you with three different sliders to adjust the start and end angles of your oval, as well as an inner radius slider (see Figure 14).
The Polystar tool makes quick work of creating polygon and star shapes with any number of sides and points (see Figure 15). You can even specify the weight of the stroke if a stroke color was previously defined in the stroke color swatch of the Property inspector.
You can select the fill and stroke color through the Property inspector. Clicking either swatch opens the color panel and enables you to edit the stroke or fill color (see Figure 16).
You can even specify no color for the stroke or fill by selecting the square with the red diagonal line through it (see Figure 17).
To draw precise paths as straight lines or smooth, flowing curves, you can use the Pen tool. Create straight or curved line segments and adjust the angle and length of straight segments and slope of curved segments (see Figure 18).
With the Pen tool, you click to create points between straight line segments, and click and drag to create points between curved line segments. You can adjust straight and curved line segments by adjusting points on the line. You can also convert curves to straight lines and the reverse.
When creating curved lines, you'll notice that Flash creates tangent handles for each anchor point. The lines can be edited later with the Subselection tool (white arrow) by selecting an anchor point and dragging the tangent handles. Moving the handles in relation to the anchor point reshapes the curve (see Figure 19).
The Onion Skin tool is located at the bottom of the Timeline panel (see Figure 20).
When you select the Onion Skin tool, the application adds Onion Skin markers to the playhead indicator of the Timeline. You can drag these markers to expand the number of frames before and after the current frame (see Figure 21).
Flash provides two flavors of onion skinning:
Now that you have a good understanding of the drawing tools and working with onion skinning, let's move on to another important concept—converting the artwork you've created into symbols. The next section describes how to create and edit symbols, and discusses how they are used to create animations in Flash.
Symbols are the very essence of what makes Flash..., well, Flash. You can convert anything you draw or import into a symbol. And in almost all cases you should.
Here's why: When an object is converted into a symbol, it automatically becomes an item in the Flash document's Library. Every Flash document has its own Library from which you can drag a symbol to the Stage. When you do, the object on the Stage is referred to as an instance. No matter how many instances of a symbol reside on the Stage, Flash needs to load it only once. This is how Flash delivers streaming animations while maintaining small file sizes. It's extremely efficient to reuse symbols as many times as possible. You can also apply effects to instances such as Scale, Tint, Alpha, and Brightness, and apply motion tweens in combination with one or more effects.
However, before I get too far ahead of myself, I should introduce you to symbols and describe the different types.
Create an object, such as a simple shape. Select it and then convert it to a symbol by choosing Modify > Convert to Symbol or by pressing the F8 key. This opens the Convert to Symbol dialog box (see Figure 24).
In the Convert to Symbol dialog box you can type a name for your symbol, select from one of three behaviors and determine the registration point of your object:
In this animation tutorial, I recommend using graphic symbols. This enables you to scrub the Timeline to see your animation play while inside the Flash authoring environment. The term scrubbing refers to the practice of moving the playhead back and forth manually to play the contents of the Timeline. The content in movie clip symbols do not play beyond Frame 1 unless you test your movie or publish it as a SWF file.
Every good design usually starts with the time-tested pencil and paper. I've had some of my most creative moments during long and boring management seminars and sometimes a doodle on a cocktail napkin can be the inspiration for a great character. The fact is, you never know when or where you'll be inspired, so keep a pencil in your back pocket or behind your ear at all times.
You can sketch in Flash using any of the tools I've previously discussed. If you have drawings on paper that you'd like to use as the basis for a Flash character, you'll need to scan and save them as graphics files. Most scanners come with software that makes this process easy. Some of the more widely used graphic formats that Flash can import are PNG, GIF, JPEG, TGA, and TIFF. (For details, check out the TechNote, Supported File Formats for Flash CS4 Professional.)
After you import your sketch into Flash, think about how to break it apart into individual pieces. This is the hard part. It's a conceptual process that depends ultimately on your style of animation and the style of your character.
Form follows function, if I may borrow a phrase from Volkswagen's marketing campaign, and this is crucial to your character's design. You must visualize how you think your character might move, which ultimately dictates its overall design.
The next example shows both the original sketch and the finished product after redrawing it in Flash (see Figure 25). This character was made entirely with the Oval and Rectangle tools. Notice how I used the original sketch as a reference, making subtle changes and adjustments as I fine-tuned the image, tracing it with the drawing tools in Flash.
After inserting a blank keyframe (F7) next to your sketch, you can turn on the Onion Skin feature to see a ghost of your sketch. Use any of the drawing tools to do your work, using the onion-skinned sketch as your guide. As you can see in Figure 26, I used the Oval tool to create the head of the boy character. When you create body parts and various accessories for your character, try to imagine and then draw the entire shape. You must visualize your character as if it were truly a 3D object existing in space. Even though this is a two-dimensional format, thinking like a 3D artist can help you visualize how certain parts will be "attached" to others.
When you finish drawing a specific part of your character, copy and paste it to a new layer. I like to select it and convert it to a symbol at this time. You can also start naming your layers, but I recommending waiting until after you've created all of the symbols. Check out the unique Flash trick described in the next step for more details.
I always convert my objects to symbols and name them, following a simple, yet descriptive naming convention. For example, I name the symbols to correspond with the graphics used for each part of the digital puppet: head1, eye1, mouth_wide, and so on.
However, I do not take the time to name all of my layers because there's a much easier and faster way. After I create and named all of my symbols, I simply select them all and copy them. Then I create a new layer and select the option to paste them in place by choosing Edit > Paste in Place (or pressing Ctrl+Shift+V on Windows or Command+Shift+V on Mac). This operation places all of the symbols on one layer, yet they remain separate symbols.
Before completing the next step, delete all of the other layers so that you have only the single layer that contains all of your character symbols.
The next step is the coolest part. Select all again and then right-click (or Command-click on Mac) your character and select the option to Distribute to Layers from the context menu (see Figure 27).
Voilà! Flash not only placed each symbol on its own layer but named each layer (see Figure 28) based on its symbol name! Nice trick, huh?
The following example shows how my Timeline looks once my character is designed, converted to symbols, and ready to be animated:
If the symbol contains an animation within it, you'll also see a Stop and Play button in the upper right corner of the preview window. These buttons allow you to preview the animation within the preview window.
The upper right corner of the Library also contains a pop-up menu with several options for creating a new symbol, folder, font, or video. You can also rename a symbol, move symbols to folders, duplicate or delete a symbol, or edit and obtain the properties of a symbol (see Figure 31).
There are many different ways that you can choose to organize your assets in the Library. The important thing is to pick a strategy and use descriptive names that make sense to you, and then stick to using those naming conventions. You'll notice that the items in the Library are sorted alphabetically if you select the Name header immediately above the symbol names. Each of the headers allows you to sort the list, to help you locate items by type, date modified, and so on.
It's always the little details that make a project so intriguing and enjoyable. Since we are creating animated characters, they don't have to be photorealistic—but they should be believable.
Part 2 describes a way you can finesse your characters to polish them and prepare them for a starring role in the animation. I also discuss some tips to set up the Timeline and get ready to yell "Action!"
If you wish, you can also visit the Animation Learning Guide for Flash, which explains how to use all of these animation types in Flash CS4 Professional, including the improved way of creating and editing motion tweens using the timeline and Motion Editor.