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Flash 8: The Missing Manual by E. A. Vander Veer

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Introduction

Flash has been the gold standard in multimedia creation software for almost 10 years. The program has come a long way since the mid-1990s, when professional animators—like those at Microsoft’s MSN and Disney Online—used an early incarnation called FutureSplash. Over the years, Flash earned a following of programming geeks as an alternative to Java for creating vector-based Web graphics. In the 21st century, though, anyone with a desktop computer (or even a laptop) can be a Web animator. With Flash 8’s easy-to-use panels and toolbars, you can create sophisticated, interactive animations that run on the Web, on standalone computers, on handhelds, on kiosks—virtually anywhere you find a screen (see Figure I-1).

Here are just some of the things you can create with Flash:

  • Drawings and animations. Flash gives you the drawing tools to create original artwork and the animation tools to give it movement and life. You can then edit your Flash document in another program, add it to a Web page, or burn it to a CD or DVD. Flash recognizes multimedia files created using other programs, so you can enrich your animations with image, sound, and video files you already have (or that you find on the Web).

  • Multimedia Web sites. You can create original drawings and animations with Flash, add in voice-overs, background music, and video clips, and then publish it all to a Web page with the click of a button. Using Flash’s built-in scripting language, ActionScript, you can add interactive features like hotspots and navigation bars. You can even position elements on the screen precisely and then change the layout at runtime. With Flash, even regular folks can create real-time video blogs and eye-grabbing splash pages.

    The Yankee Candle Company’s Web site, www.yankeecandle.com, is just one example of the movement, interactivity, and polish Flash can add to a site. From the home page, clicking Custom Candle Favors → Custom Votives displays this Web-based Flash program.
    Figure I-1. The Yankee Candle Company’s Web site, www.yankeecandle.com, is just one example of the movement, interactivity, and polish Flash can add to a site. From the home page, clicking Custom Candle Favors → Custom Votives displays this Web-based Flash program.
  • Banner ads. These blinking, flashing, animated strips of Madison Avenue marvelousness are easy to produce in Flash. Typically, banner ads consist of a skinny animation and a link to the sponsor site (see Figure I-2).

    Over half of the banner ads you run across on the Web were produced using Flash. The best ones include compelling, lifelike action. Here, a man walks into the scene, picks up the product, and then walks offscreen. Clicking the product zips you to a different Web page, where you can place an order online.
    Figure I-2. Over half of the banner ads you run across on the Web were produced using Flash. The best ones include compelling, lifelike action. Here, a man walks into the scene, picks up the product, and then walks offscreen. Clicking the product zips you to a different Web page, where you can place an order online.
  • Tutorials. Web-based training courses, which often include a combination of text, drawings, animations, video clips, and voice-overs, are a natural fit for Flash. By hooking Flash up to a server on the back end, you can even present your audience with graded tests and up-to-the-minute product information. You don’t have to deliver your tutorials over the Web, though; you can publish them as standalone projector files (Chapter 14) and deliver them to your students via CDs or DVDs.

  • Full-length ads and product presentations. Marketing types can use Flash to create slick, storyboarded, buy-our-stuff-now animations and program mock-ups.

  • Customer service kiosks. Many of the kiosks you see in stores and building lobbies use Flash to help customers find what they need. For example, kiosks in photomats walk customers through the process of transferring images from their digital camera and ordering their own prints; kiosks in banks let customers withdraw funds, check interest rates, and make deposits.

  • Television and film effects. The Hollywood set has been known to use Flash to create spectacular visual effects for TV shows and even smaller feature films. But where the TV and film industry is seriously adopting Flash is on promotional Web sites, where they wed Flash graphics to scenes taken from their movies and shows to present powerful trailers, interactive tours of movie and show sets, and teasers.

  • Games and other programs. With support for runtime scripting, back end data transfers, and interactive controls such as buttons and text boxes, Flash has everything a programmer needs to create a cool-looking game (check out www.addictinggames.com for a few examples) or other rich Internet applications (Adobe/Macromedia’s 20-dollar term for “Web-based program”).

Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. If Flash is an incredibly powerful, useful program—and it is—it’s also harder to use than a greased tightrope.

That’s where this book comes in. You don’t have to be a professional artist, animator, or software developer to create useful animations with Flash. All you need are this book and an idea of what you’d like to create. The examples, explanations, and step-by-step instructions you find in the next 14 chapters show you how to turn that idea into a working animation.

The Two Flavors of Flash 8

Flash 8 comes in two flavors: Flash Basic 8 and Flash Professional 8 (Figure I-3). Aimed at the corporate team developer, Flash Professional 8 offers everything Flash Basic 8 does, plus:

  • Additional graphic effects. With Flash Professional 8, you get convenient extras like filters (predefined blurs, glows, and drop shadows), blend modes (transparency effects that make compositing, or combining images, easy), and custom easing (the ability to slow down or speed up animated tweens with the click of a button).

  • Support for mobile authoring. Flash Professional 8 comes with mobile templates (to help you size your animations for handhelds), an emulator (to let you see how your animations will appear on every handheld that Flash supports), and built-in publishing options.

  • Support for high-end video manipulation. You can embed video clips into your Flash animations using both Flash 8 and Flash 8 Professional (as you see in Chapter 8). But Flash Professional 8 gives you extra tools, including the Flash Video Exporter (a QuickTime plug-in that lets you create Flash video files using any Apple QuickTime–compatible video authoring tool) and the Flash Video Encoder (a standalone application that lets you convert regular video files to Flash video files). Using Flash Professional 8, you can link to external video files and even layer video clips on top of each other to create sophisticated composite effects.

The Flash Basic 8 interface looks pretty similar to the Flash Professional 8 interface, shown here, except for the product description in the title bar. The big difference comes when you’re using Flash Basic and trying to use a feature that exists only in Flash Professional 8, such as adding a filter effect (for example, a drop-down shadow) to a block of text. In this book, features that appear only in Flash Professional are so noted, so you won’t waste time hunting for them if you’re running Flash Basic.
Figure I-3. The Flash Basic 8 interface looks pretty similar to the Flash Professional 8 interface, shown here, except for the product description in the title bar. The big difference comes when you’re using Flash Basic and trying to use a feature that exists only in Flash Professional 8, such as adding a filter effect (for example, a drop-down shadow) to a block of text. In this book, features that appear only in Flash Professional are so noted, so you won’t waste time hunting for them if you’re running Flash Basic.

What’s New in Flash 8

Most of the improvements you see in Flash 8 compared to the previous version (Flash MX 2004) have to do with performance—always a good thing. But in addition, Macromedia also added a few usability tweaks, as well as a couple of new image-editing features.

Here’s a short list of the differences in Flash 8 compared to Flash MX 2004:

  • Improved performance. Improvements include better text anti-aliasing (smoother-looking text) and the ability to cache movie clips as bitmaps at runtime (and so cut down on playback time for super-complex vector graphics, which you learn about in Chapter 2). The big news: Macromedia added a new, faster, more efficient video codec, or video compression algorithm to Flash Player 8, which comes with both Flash Basic 8 and Flash Professional 8 as well as most Web browsers and operating systems (see the box on Section 3.1). A more efficient codec means improved download and playback of any video clips you add to your animations.

  • Improved interface. In Flash 8, you can drag a text block’s resize handle and drag to expand it, which is simpler than having to resize the text block using the Property Inspector the way you had to in Flash MX 2004. A new drop-down list in the Flash 8 Library panel shows all other open libraries, making it easier to exchange imported media files and symbols between Flash documents. And scripting help is back in the form of the Scripting Assist mode. If you’re running a Mac, you’ll appreciate that the Mac version of Flash 8 lets you see all your open Flash documents in a single tabbed window, similar to the way you work with multiple documents in Flash when you’re running Windows.

  • New image editing features. Flash 8 introduces object drawing mode (Chapter 2), which lets you tell Flash whether you want it to treat shapes and their outlines as a unit (the way most people think of them) or separately. Flash 8 also lets you add sharp, mitered corners to rectangular objects. And Flash Professional 8 includes additional graphics effects (see the previous page).

  • Improved support for video editing (Flash Professional 8 only). Both the Video Exporter and Video Encoder (see Section 3.2) let you compress video clips using the new and improved codec—On2 Technologies’ VP6—in addition to the Sorenson Spark codec supported in Flash MX 2004. New video alpha channel support lets you layer video clips using various alpha (transparency) settings.

Anatomy of an Animation

Animation is a complex subject, and Flash is a complex program. You’ll have a much easier time plowing through the rest of the book if you start with a couple of basics under your belt: specifically, what an animation is and how you go about creating one in Flash. This section and the following one give you some background.

Animators typically develop animations in a frame-by-frame sequence, where every frame contains a different image. As the frames speed by on a projector, the hundreds (or hundreds of thousands) of static images create the illusion of moving characters.

Painstaking work? You bet. Before the age of computerized generation—which has really just come into its own in the last 15 years or so, with big names like Pixar— major animation houses employed whole armies of graphic artists, each charged with producing hundreds of drawings that represented a mere fraction of the finished work. What we yukked at for a scant few minutes took weeks and dozens of tired, cramped hands to produce. One mistake, one spilled drop of coffee, and these patient-as-Job types would have to grab fresh paper and start all over again. When everything was done, the animation would have to be put together—much like one of those flip books where you flip pages real fast to see a story play out— while it was being filmed by special cameras.

Well, Flash brings you the power of a design studio, expert tools, and the equivalent of a staff of highly trained detail people. You still have to come up with an idea for the animation, and you have to draw (or find and import) at least a couple of images. But beyond that, Flash can take over and generate most of the frames you need to flesh out your animation.

It’s pretty incredible, when you think about it. A few hundred bucks and a few hours spent working with Flash, and you’ve got an animation that, just a few years ago, you’d have had to pay a swarm of professionals union scale to produce. Sweet!

Flash in a Nutshell

Say you work for a company that does custom auto refinishing. First assignment: Design an intro page for the company’s new Web site. You have the following idea for an animation:

The first thing you want your audience to see is a beat-up jalopy limping along a city street toward the center of the screen, where it stops and morphs into a shiny, like-new car as your company’s jingle plays in the background. A voice-over informs your audience that your company’s been in business for 20 years and offers the best prices in town.

Across the top of the screen you’d like to display the company logo, as well as a conventional navigation bar with buttons—labeled Location, Services, Prices, and Contact—that your audience can click to get more information about your company. But you also want each part of the car to be a clickable hotspot. That way, when someone clicks one of the car’s tires, he’s whisked off to a page describing your custom wheels and hubcaps; when he clicks on the car’s body, he sees prices for dent repair and repainting; and so on.

Here’s how you might go about creating this animation in Flash:

  • Using Flash’s drawing tools, you draw the artwork for every keyframe of the animation: that is, every unique image. For example, you’ll need to create a keyframe showing the beat-up junker and a second keyframe showing the gleaming, expertly refurbished result. (Chapter 2 shows you how to draw artwork in Flash; Chapter 3 tells you everything you need to know about keyframes.)

  • Within each keyframe, you might choose to separate your artwork into different layers. Like the see-through plastic cels that professional animators used in the old days, layers let you create images separately and then stack them on top of each other to make a single composite image. For example, you might choose to put the car on one layer, your company logo on a second layer, and your city-street background on a third layer. That way, you can edit and animate each layer independently, but when the animation plays, all three elements appear to be on one seamless layer. (Chapter 4 shows you how to work with layers.)

  • Through a process called tweening, you tell Flash to fill in each and every frame in-between the keyframes to create the illusion of the junker turning slowly into a brand-new car. Flash carefully analyzes all the differences between the keyframes and does its best to build the interim frames, which you can then tweak or—if Flash gets it all wrong—redraw yourself. (Chapter 3 guides you through the tweening process.)

  • As you go along, you might decide to save a few of the elements you create (for example, your company logo), so you can reuse them again later. There’s no sense in reinventing the wheel, and in addition to saving you time, reusing elements actually helps keep your animation files as small and efficient as possible. (See Chapter 7 for details on creating and managing reusable elements.)

  • Add the background music and voice-over audio clips, which you’ve created in other programs (Chapter 8).

  • Create the navigation bar buttons and hotspots that let your audience interact with your animation (Chapter 7).

  • Test your animation (Chapter 13) and tweak it to perfection.

  • Finally, when your animation is just the way you want it, you’re ready to publish it. Without leaving the comfort of Flash, you can convert the editable .fla file you’ve been working with into a noneditable .swf file and either embed it into an HTML file or create a standalone projector file your audience can run without having to use a browser. Chapter 14 tells you everything you need to know about publishing.

The scenario described above is pretty simple, but it covers the basic steps you need to take when creating any Flash animation.

The Very Basics

You’ll find very little jargon or nerd terminology in this book. You will, however, encounter a few terms and concepts that you’ll encounter frequently in your computing life:

  • Clicking. This book gives you several kinds of instructions that require you to use your computer’s mouse or trackpad. To click means to point the arrow cursor at something on the screen and then—without moving the cursor at all—to press and release the clicker button on the mouse (or laptop trackpad). To double-click, of course, means to click twice in rapid succession, again without moving the cursor at all. To drag means to move the cursor while pressing the button continuously. To right-click or right-drag, do the same as above, but press the mouse button on the right.

    When you see an instruction like Shift-click or Ctrl-click, simply press the key as you click.

    Note

    Macintosh computers don’t come with a right mouse button. With a one-button mouse, to do the same thing as a right-click or right-drag, press the Mac’s Control key as you click or drag. (Or buy a two-button mouse.) See the next section for more Windows/Mac differences.

  • Keyboard shortcuts. Every time you take your hand off the keyboard to move the mouse, you lose time and potentially disrupt your creative flow. That’s why many experienced computer fans use keystroke combinations instead of menu commands wherever possible. Ctrl+B (⌘-B on the Mac), for example, is a keyboard shortcut for boldface type in Flash (and most other programs).

    When you see a shortcut like Ctrl+S (⌘-S on the Mac), which saves changes to the current document, it’s telling you to hold down the Ctrl or ⌘ key, and, while it’s down, type the letter S, and then release both keys.

  • Choice is good. Flash frequently gives you several ways to trigger a particular command—a menu command, or by clicking a toolbar button, or by pressing a key combination, for example. Some people prefer the speed of keyboard shortcuts; others like the satisfaction of a visual command array available in menus or toolbars. This book lists all of the alternatives, but by no means are you expected to memorize all of them.

Macintosh and Windows

Flash 8 works much the same way in its Mac and Windows incarnations with the exception of a few interface differences and a slight variation in performance— Flash animations tend to run a bit slower on the Mac. This book’s illustrations give Mac and Windows equal time, alternating by chapter, so you get to see how all of Flash’s features look, no matter what kind of computer you’re running.

There is one small difference between Mac and Windows software that you need to be aware of, and that’s keystrokes. The Ctrl key in Windows is the equivalent of the Macintosh ⌘ key, and the key labeled Alt on a PC (and on non-U.S. Macs) is the equivalent of the Option key on American Mac keyboards.

Whenever this book refers to a key combination, therefore, you’ll see the Windows keystroke listed first (with + symbols, as is customary in Windows documentation); the Macintosh keystroke follows in parentheses (with -symbols, in time-honored Mac tradition). In other words, you might read, “The keyboard shortcut for saving a file is Ctrl+S (⌘-S).” This book mentions any other significant differences between the Mac and Windows versions of Flash 8 as they come up.

About This Book

Flash has gotten more powerful and more sophisticated over the years, but one thing hasn’t changed: woefully poor documentation. If Flash were simple to use, the lack of documentation wouldn’t be such a big deal. But Flash is a complex program— especially if you don’t have a background in programming or multimedia authoring software. Basically, because Flash’s documentation alternates between high-level market-speak and low-level computer engineering jargon, you’re pretty much out of luck if you’re a normal, intelligent person who just wants to use Flash to create a cool animated Web site and then get on with your life.

Fortunately, there’s an answer—and you’re holding it in your hands.

This is the book that should have come in the Flash box: one that explains all the tools and shows you step-by-step not just how to create animations from scratch, but why you want to do each step—in English, not programmer-ese. You’ll learn tips and shortcuts for making Flash easier to work with, as well as making your animations as audience-friendly as possible.

Flash 8: The Missing Manual is designed for readers of every skill level except super-advanced-programmer. If Flash is the first image creation or animation program you’ve ever used, you’ll be able to dive right in using the explanations and examples in this book. If you come from an animation or multimedia background, you’ll find this book a useful reference for mapping how you created an element in your previous program to how you do it in Flash. “Design Time” boxes explain the art of effective multimedia design (which is an art unto itself). And while the ActionScript programming language is far too broad a subject to cover in detail in this book, you do get working examples of the most common types of actions you’ll want to create in ActionScript, along with suggestions for debugging your code and tips on where to go for a more in-depth look at scripting.

About the Outline

Flash 8: The Missing Manual is divided into five parts, each containing several chapters:

  • Part 1: Creating a Flash Animation guides you through the creation of your very first Flash animation, from the first glimmer of an idea to drawing images, animating those images, and testing your work.

  • Part 2: Advanced Drawing and Animation is the meatiest of the four parts. Here you’ll see how to manipulate your drawings by rotating, skewing, stacking, and aligning them; how to add color, special effects, and multimedia files such as audio and video clips; how to slash file size by turning bits and pieces of your drawings into special elements called symbols; and how to create composite drawings using layers.

  • Part 3: Adding Interactivity shows you how to add ActionScript actions to frames to create automatic effects and to buttons to create audience-controlled effects. You’ll see how to loop and reverse a section of an animation, how to let your audience choose which section of an animation to play, and how to customize the prebuilt interactive components that come with Flash.

  • Part 4: Delivering Your Animation to Its Audience focuses on testing, debugging, and optimizing your animation. You’ll also find out how to publish your animation so that your audience can see and enjoy it and how to export an editable version of your animation so that you can rework it using another graphics, video editing, or Web development program.

  • Part 5: Appendix

About → These → Arrows

Throughout this book, you’ll find instructions like, “Open your Program Files → Macromedia → Macromedia Flash 8 folder.” That’s Missing Manual shorthand for much longer sentences like “Double-click your Program Files folder to open it. Inside, you’ll find a folder called Macromedia; double-click to open it. Inside that folder is a folder called Macromedia Flash 8; open it, too.” This arrow shorthand also simplifies the business of choosing menu commands, as you can see in Figure I-4.

When you see instructions like “Choose Text → Style → Italic,” think, “Click to pull down the Text menu and then move your mouse down to the Style command. When its submenu opens, choose the Italic option.”
Figure I-4. When you see instructions like “Choose Text → Style → Italic,” think, “Click to pull down the Text menu and then move your mouse down to the Style command. When its submenu opens, choose the Italic option.”

Flash Examples

As you read the book’s chapters, you’ll encounter a number of step-by-step tutorials. You can work through them using any Flash document of your own, or use the example files provided on this book’s “Missing CD” page. You can download them using any Web browser at www.missingmanuals.com/cds. You’ll find raw materials (like graphics and half-completed animations) and, in some cases, completed animations with which to compare your work.

About MissingManuals.com

At the www.missingmanuals.com Web site, you’ll find articles, tips, and updates to this book. In fact, you’re invited and encouraged to submit such corrections and updates yourself. In an effort to keep the book as up-to-date and accurate as possible, each time we print more copies of this book, we’ll make any confirmed corrections you’ve suggested. We’ll also note such changes on the Web site so that you can mark important corrections into your own copy of the book if you like. (Click the book’s name and then click the Errata link to see the changes.)

In the meantime, we’d love to hear your own suggestions for new books in the Missing Manual line. There’s a place for that on the Web site, too, as well as a place to sign up for free email notification of new titles in the series.

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