Transparency can be used to represent a dazzling range of effects, see-through objects, lens effects, soft clips, drop shadows... One of the challenges of using transparency is the ability to print vector graphics with transparent elements. Adobe PostScript, the universal language of printers, does not support transparency. There are two options for printing - rasterizing into an image and printing the image, or making an opaque illustration that looks just like a transparent one by subdividing the illustration into pieces (planar mapping), and drawing them with the appropriate color, as the illustration shows. Planar mapping results in higher quality printing as it remains resolution independent. However, it is easy to create vector art for which planar mapping results in many thousands of small pieces, some smaller than a pixel. Planar mapping in those cases would be unacceptably slow, and rasterization would be the only option. But how do we know if certain parts of the document are going to result in unacceptably many pieces, without actually computing the planar map? It is a chicken and egg problem. We developed algorithms that quickly estimate which areas of the document need to be rasterized and which can be planar mapped. Also, planar mapping is a complex operation, but we can often get by without it, in places of the document that are not involved in transparency. But how do we know if an object is involved in transparency without checking to see if it intersects with transparent object, i.e. without computing the planar map? Another chicken and egg problem. We developed algorithms to analyze the document and determine which objects need to be included into the planar map, and then interleave the results of planar mapping to generate the final document. These are just a few examples of the problems we had to resolve. Other problems we had to resolve are how to preserve native type through planar mapping, how to preserve native gradients and gradient meshes, how to support spot color planes, how to avoid stitching problems when dealing with strokes, how to preserve patterns, how to deal with overprint, how to schedule the color computations to avoid doing them repeatedly, how to design the system so that it performs on a single pass (the output may be too big to keep in memory), how to make sure it is fail safe - i.e. if it runs our of memory, it should fall back, break the problem into smaller pieces and attempt to do it again.

The flattener is used by many of Adobe's vector graphics products, including Illustrator, Acrobat and InDesign. It is used when printing and exporting to various formats. The flattener is also ported into high-end PDF printers(RIPs).


Flattening Preview

Lubomir Bourdev, Adobe Systems


Since the flattening process is very complex and requires setting of many parameters, one of the biggest user requests was predictability — power users want to know exactly what will happen to their documents when the flattener is involved (but without spending the time to run the flattener). To address this request, we created the flattening preview module. It is a module that previews the effects of flattening. It can display the places that get rasterized, the objects that get broken down into pieces, the text that gets affected, etc. The Flattening Preview was introduced first in Illustrator 10. InDesign and Acrobat followed up with their own implementation of the flattening preview prototype.