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Flash MX Animation Techniques

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Today's Flash animation is modeled on the same principles used in the large-scale animation productions of yesteryear. Use the fundamentals of Flash to develop successful character animation, from personality to environment.
This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book


When you think of animation, you might recall Warner Brothers cartoons and full-length Disney animated movies from your childhood (or your adult childhood). These relatively large-scale productions follow the same principles required to create the simplest of Flash animations. As a matter of fact, much of the illusion of movement that you see in full-motion cinematic pictures can be broken into components to reduce the amount of time and effort required to create an animated story.

When cartoons entered the television age, animators began to take greater advantage of techniques that you also can use to economize repetitive motion and reduce the amount of time required to produce a cartoon or animated piece. By breaking the animation into reusable pieces such as walking, talking, and so on, you can use these actions in more than one area of the animation on which you're working. Pattern identification is part of human nature—we're good at it, so when these techniques are overused or poorly employed, people notice. However, when you use these tricks correctly, they can be subtle, imperceptible, and, ultimately, economical to the development process.

One of the key advantages of the Flash animation environment is that it's engineered to take advantage of looping techniques by virtue of its symbol and movie clip library. Create a walking sequence for your character, turn it into a character movie clip inside Flash, and then have that movie clip walk in place as a background layer moves behind it. Then, later in the animation, you can use that same character movie clip in connection with a motion tween to make the character walk across the foreground of a motionless background. Reuse is key here. In fact, you'll see this same concept come into play as you work through some of the more programming-related chapters. Reuse is efficient.

The process of creating a rich and engaging animation involves so much more than "leading the character" around the stage. Some of the other common elements that will be discussed in this chapter are as follows:

  • Building the story. Before you begin to develop your character, you need to flesh out your story. Planning ahead saves you a lot a time that would otherwise be wasted in revisions.

  • Creating a character. When you have a story and a setting in place, it's time to start creating your character. From behavior to appearance, it's all up to you.

  • Using the animation capabilities of Flash to pull it all together. When you start developing your character, you can take advantage of Flash's symbol capabilities and tweening to help speed up your development time and keep your file size low.

You'll start by learning how to build the story.

Building the Story

Usually, when you begin thinking about an animation, you already have an idea of what you'd like portions of the story to be. It really is important to flesh out these ideas before you begin putting graphics directly into Flash. Why? It gives you the opportunity to plan your ideas from beginning to end so that you don't find yourself wasting time by creating animations that end up being superfluous or incongruent to the final story. Another reason is that you can begin planning exactly what reusable assets you need to build to bring the story to life. There's that word again: reuse. Burn that one into your brain.

Creating an animation is like building a house. Would you just head off to a spot of land and start hammering a bunch of boards together in the rough outline of a house and then refine it as you go? Certainly not. Too many important details would be lost. A well-designed house begins with a detailed blueprint that takes into consideration all the structural integrity that will make it beautiful and functional when it is complete. The same can be said for your animation. The best way to achieve success is to plan for it.

The blueprint process in the world of animation has two parts. Because you are dealing with visual media, the story must be represented both textually and visually in the form of a script and storyboards. Although they are separate steps, they function as a whole to describe in detail how the final story plays out.

Creating the Script

In the commercial world of animation, the roles of the scriptwriter and storyboard artist tend to be split into two distinct professions. However, the world of Flash is anything but typical. Not only is it common for a single person to wear all the hats in the production process, but also the animated projects can be anything from traditional to experimental. This means that the process of writing a script for a Flash animation can be as detailed as any script that you would expect to see for an actual movie. On the other hand, if the purpose of the animation is to be eye candy for a marketing presentation, the script can do nothing more than describe the emotional aspects of the animation and provide a descriptive setting.

Script development, like many writing projects, provides structure and detail. It's always good to start in outline form to make sure you hit the high points. When you have your outline, you can flesh out the details. The areas on which you'll want to focus are these:

  • Descriptive setting. The first thing is to describe the environment for the opening scene. This description needs to encompass the set, setting, atmosphere, and mood. It also needs to place the main character or subject matter in the scene. Then, as your story transitions from one scene to the next, you describe these changing settings.

  • Character and subject development. As characters or subject matter are introduced to the scene, you'll need a brief description of their characteristics, appearance, and style.

  • Transitions. When moving the action from one scene to the next, you need to think through how the transition will be handled. You don't want to alienate your audience with inappropriate scene changes. This might be in the form of fades, camera motions (pan/zoom), refocussings, and so on. Transitions are covered in more detail in Chapter 12, "Making the Transition."

  • Character dialogue or action. When you actually have a character or characters, you will need to detail the dialogue and actions.

  • Important action characteristics. If there are sound effects, visual effects, or action sequences, they need to be described in context with the character, object, action, or transition with which they are associated.

Your script puts your words in order; your storyboard organizes your animation's visuals.

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