As a reader of Videomaker, we assume you're interested in the many elements of video production. As an extension, most producers spend a fair amount of time in Photoshop or similar graphics software. The next step is to combine these two disciplines with your boundless creativity and jump into animation. While most people immediately think of cartoons, today's animation is a much broader topic. From simple moving text and logos to full-blown character creation, animation software touches virtually everything you see on television and in the theater. This is by no means a comprehensive review of all things animated, but we'll discuss the various areas of animation along with some software packages that fill specific needs.
Get A Grip
In general, animation packages are a pricey lot and, while there are many bargains, some of the software in this category carries a list price in the mid-four figures. Before you plunk down your hard-earned cash, it's smart to consider what type of animation you want to create so you don't waste time and money on unnecessary features.
Depending on the software you already have, a purchase may not even be required. For example, most people buy the Adobe Video Collection for Premiere Pro along with its bundled audio and DVD authoring products. But don't forget about After Effects. This powerful compositing tool is the standard for motion logos and text and includes a plug-in architecture that allows other companies to make specialized enhancements to the Adobe platform. For example, Zaxwerks 3D Invigorator is a textbook example of an After Effects plug-in that makes short work of 3D text and graphics.
Other video and graphics software manufacturers offer animation and effects packages to complement their video editing wares. Ulead, for example, includes Video Paint in its Media Studio Pro suite, a simple but effective animation program.
Of course, most packages aren't cheap or easy, let alone free. At the other end of the scale, products like Alias Maya and Softimage XSI will tax your brain and your wallet, but the results are stunning, as evidenced by the mountain of animation that professionals have created with these titles for motion pictures and television. These are state-of-the art applications that require serious dedication to master, but those who work in high-end animation and effects swear by them.
Meet In the Middle
Maybe you're not quite ready to devote your life to animation, but are very interested in dabbling a bit. Macromedia's Flash MX is a great way to get started. Using a familiar timeline, you can quickly animate static elements such as text and still images. Once you've mastered that, it's not much of a stretch to expand your skills to animating simple characters and other items. If you have visions of South Park in your head, you're on the right track. One advantage of Flash and other packages is their scalability. Using vector graphics instead of rasterized images, Flash projects are easy to resize for the Web or your video productions. In addition, many editing software packages now offer direct support for the format.
Keyframe animation is a term you'll see as you shop. In the video world, using keyframes involves setting markers in your project that determines when effects will occur. In the animation world, keyframing requires detailed work on virtually every frame, but some software can take beginning and end points and fill in the blanks. One product that makes excellent use of keyframes is wondertouch's particleIllusion. This unique product creates everything from snow to explosions to enhance your video production.
Don't forget output formats. To make animation work in your video project, you'll need to output in a format your editor can read. Common formats are QuickTime, AVI and MPEG. Some products will even output a sequence of individual frames for you to stitch together in the video environment.
Wrap It Up, I'll Take It
This article and the buyer's guide only scratch the surface of what is possible with animation software. Dig into the information and use the web resources to help make your decision. Many manufacturers offer free trial versions for download; if you have the time, and a broadband Internet connection, there's no reason not to try all the products that look interesting. Adding animation to your bag of video tricks will set your productions apart from the competition and leave them wondering, "How'd they do that"?
Contributing Editor Hal Robertson is a digital media producer and technology consultant.
Animation Software Manufacturers Listing
Compiled by Charles Fulton
NTT Advanced Tech
Plastic Animation Paper