Flash 8 Essentials

3 comments | Posted: 8 January 06 in Books, by Nathan Smith

Flash 8 Essentials A few weeks ago, I recieved a 10 pound box from Friends of ED, containing several review copies to read through. I recently finished reading the first of these, which is Flash 8 Essentials. I have found it to be an excellent resource for anyone looking to jump with both feet into the complex world of Flash design. The contributing authors are some of the biggest names in Flash design today: Paul Barnes-Hoggett, Stephen Downs, Glen Rhodes, Craig Swan, Matt Voerman and Todd Yard. Also a Flash whiz, Marco Casario was the technical reviewer.

Now, I know you might be thinking: Wait, isn’t this site supposed to be about accessibility? Yes, that’s true, but it’s also about web standards. That being said, whether we like it or not, Macromedia Adobe Flash is the de facto standard for web based vector animation. With the version 8 release, it is fast becoming a contender for handling online video streaming as well.

Since CSS is my forte, and I have only a working knowledge of Flash, I have been meaning to look into it a bit more. When Friends of ED offered to let me be an ongoing book reviewer, I jumped at this opportunity to round out my skill-set. This will be the first in a series of reviews on Flash, after which I fully intend to resume regularly scheduled web standards propoganda, promise.

So let’s get right to it. There is so much packed into this book that I am only going to be able to touch briefly on most of the highlights. Of the many new features available in Flash 8, here are the ones I found most exciting:

Each of these topics is covered at length throughout the book. What’s especially nice is that source code for each example can be downloaded from the website. You don’t need to have purchased the book to use these code examples, but they will of course make better sense when accompanied by the text. Without further ado, here is why each of these improvements really matters…

ch.1 – Search Engine Compatibility

This book only refers to this momentarily, but I thought it important to mention. One of the biggest complaints against Flash is its lack of accessibility, and implicitly its lack of search engine friendliness. These issues have been put to rest with Flash 8, because it now supports using a version of XML entitled XMP, which stands for Extensible Metadata Platform. In short, this means that Flash can now comply with W3C standards for information accessibility.

This metadata could probably double for usage in subtitles, to aid in viewing Flash movies for those who have hearing impairments. For a good example of this in action, check out the Making of Flash 8. Throughout the video, by using various keypoints the way one would index DVD chapters, there are changes in the text displayed along the bottom of the screen.

Stored as metadata, this could be indexed by Google, and would increase page relevance for the topics covered throughout the video. I never thought the day would come that I would use the word accessibility in reference to Flash, but I think that if designers pick up on this, it will be beneficial to the hearing impaired, as well as your clients. It’s smart on both sides of the argument.

ch.3 – Graphics Effects Filters

In the past, if you wanted to have an effect added to something in your animation, it was not an easy thing to do. For instance, if you wanted to include a drop-shadow, you would have to make it ahead of time in a graphics program, and then import it as a layer into your SWF file. Flash 8 though, can create drop-shadow effects from within the player. These effects can even be created live via ActionScript, Flash’s language similar in syntax to JavaScript.

In fact, all effects and filters can be manipulated via ActionScript. These include the following blending modes: Normal, Darken, Multiply, Lighten, Screen, Overlay, Hard Light, Add, Subtract, Difference, Invert, Layer, Alpha and Erase. Various available effects are: Drop Shadow, Blur, Glow, Bevel, Gradient Glow / Bevel, Adjust Color / Matrix, Displacement Map and Convolution.

Photoshop users will no doubt recognize many of those, and immediately realize the benefit of being able to call these into effect during runtime rather than constantly importing multiple PNG images. If those don’t sound familiar then buy the book. I can’t just give away everything – This ain’t no hand-out!

ch.5 – On2 VP6 Video Codec

Another thing I’m all fired up about is Flash’s great new handling of video. Gone is the trusty Sorensen Spark codec, although it still remains as a legacy option. This paves the way for the new On2 VP6 Codec. On2 codecs are also being used in other popular products such as the new Skype video beta.

What this means for Flash is new support for alpha channels within video. For instance, in the fight between Anakin and Obi-Wan in Star Wars Episode III, very little of the surrounding environment were actual props or movie set. Most of it was shot against a green screen, after which the green areas were replaced with digital enhancement. This is now possible to do with Flash.

Also new are the embedded cue points, making subtitles via XML a possibility. Also, with Flash 8 Professional there is a stand-alone video encoder which allows for massive batch file processing. So, if you are a video guru and work in Quicktime format all day, and need to convert many of those MOV over to FLV files, you can batch convert them all overnight, rather than one by one.

ch.6 – Improved Text Rendering

A huge complaint of Flash has always been that text below a certain point size, depending on the font, becomes nearly unreadable. To get around this, many designers would purchase pixel fonts made especially for small scale display. Communities such as Fonts for Flash arose to compensate for this deficiency.

Printed text aficionados can rejoice, because Flash text rendering just got a huge shot in the arm. It’s called Saffron, a technology that has been licensed from Mitsubishi Electric Research Labs. It works similarly to Microsoft’s ClearType in Windows XP, or the native font smoothing of Apple OSX. Flash pushes Saffron to the edge, with several modes for readability, animation or even custom settings. It nearly allows for creating entirely new font faces.

ch.7 – Bitmap Caching

In the past, if you had multiple vector shapes viewable at once, the Flash player would have to render each and every animation on the fly, increasing strain on the CPU with each additional graphic. Version 8 though, allows for caching of shapes that might animate, but not change. For instance, if a square-shaped object is moving but not rotating, it can be cached as a bitmap.

If it were to rotate slightly, then the rendering engine would need to redraw it, after which it could be cached again as a bitmap until the next rotation. You can think of it this way: Distortions such as rotation, changes in opacity, and zooming – all require re-drawing. Simple things like moving an object from left to right can be cached. This allows Flash Player 8 to be the fastest ever. It should be noted though, that caching should be enabled wisely, because if you are constantly misusing it, it actually increases strain on computer hardware.

Summary

I could go on and on, but I want to save some of the features to be examined more closely in upcoming book reviews. For now, if you’re looking for a great place to get a handle on the new improvements in Flash 8, this book is for you. If you don’t have a background in previous versions such as MX 2004, you might want to consider Foundation Flash 8, which I will be reviewing along with ActionScript Animation and XML for Flash. Check in later this month for more.

Discuss This Topic

  1. 1 matthew Smith

    Nathan,
    You’re prolific! Are you sure Olga’s not writing these for you? :) Thanks for keeping us all informed and doing some of the reading others don’t have time to do.

     
  2. 2 Robert

    Good article! Now, you stated ‘review copies’. Are they sending these to you for free to review and make comments on? If so, how do I get in on this? :D

     
  3. 3 Nathan Smith

    Robert: Yes, I get the books for free and can keep them, with the assumption that I’ll read them and write reviews. As to how to get in on it, good question. I got an email out of the blue, after they took notice of the DOM Scripting review. So, I would assume the way to get in on it would be to buy a Friends of ED book, and write a review. Honestly, I don’t know what the criteria is exactly.

     

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