Friday, January 25, 2008

C64 Movie Maker for the 21st Century, Review of Anime Studio

Back in "the day" (1985 to be exact) my friends and I had the state-of-the-art gaming machine, the Commodore 64. In addition to classic games like Alternate Reality, Archon, M.U.L.E., and the Ultima series there was a great animation program for us aspiring young movie makers entitled, fittingly, Movie Maker by Electronic Arts.

Movie Maker character editor.

That simple 8-bit program running on a machine with 64k of RAM (yes, 64 kilobytes, not even one megabyte) allowed us to draw the different stages of movement of an animated character, situate them over a background we could also draw, and specify changes to make them come alive. Despite the low resolution it was a step up, both in productivity and movement quality, from the Betamax camcorder stopmotion animation we were also attempting.

In recent years I have returned to those roots for the occasional hobbyist animated short. My default methodology evolved around the tools at hand, Photoshop and iMovie. I would start with a scanned drawing of a complete scene and chop up the characters into Photoshop layers, moving, rotating or scaling them as needed. Then I would make the appropriate layers visible and save the image off as a jpeg to be imported into iMovie. The occasional transition or Ken Burns effect, some sounds and music, and voilĂ , a movie.

While working on a similar project of late I began to long for the good old days of computer animation. I imagined a program that would simply allow me to place images as objects in a scene, move, rotate, or scale them, and take a snapshot to use as a frame of the movie. It'd be even better if it could interpolate the results for smooth animation. My final wish would be to slice up the image of a character into parts that could be moved independently.

I happily found Anime Studio by e frontier that makes all of the preceding not only possible, but surprisingly easy. The program is available for Mac OS X and Windows and has two versions available: the basic version sells for $50, and a Pro version, which adds some 3d capability, is $200. I reviewed the downloadable demo (30 day trial) version of Anime Studio 5.5 on a Powerbook G4, 667mHz, with 1 GB of RAM running OS X version 10.4.11.

The Good

For basic animation, AS made things easy. Simply import the image of your character or draw one from scratch using the vector drawing tools provided. Then add a skeleton layer, defining the bones by simply clicking and dragging to draw them. The bones are automatically associated with the body part they are drawn over. Click on the timeline below to choose a frame, then move the character by manipulating its bones. The program immediately interpolates the intermediate frames. Using the right and left arrow keys you can scrub through the new animation.

It is equally easy to do other effects like moving, resizing, or rotating a layer, or moving or zooming the camera. Each time a change is made a new dot appears on the timeline. These can be selected and moved around to refine the animation or deleted if a mistake was made.
Anime Studio's user interface.

More advanced features are also available. Objects are arranged in layers, which can be given a Z value to determine their order as they pass by each other or the camera moves. They can also be set up as masks much like you would use in Photoshop. This can enable pretty sophisticated interactions.

One great feature of AS is the ability to add a soundtrack to your animation. I used Quicktime Pro to create a simple voice-over and added it to my project. The waveform of the audio immediately appears overlaid on the timeline. This makes it much easier to sync the character's movement to the sound file.

For lip-syncing, AS uses the concept of Switch Layers. These allow more than one image to be associated with a single position and switched out as needed. To generate the mapping between mouth positions and sound, a free program called Papagayo is available. This is an open source GPL application supported by Lost Marble software. I'm not sure what the relationship is between e frontier and Lost Marble (if any), but one of the tutorials uses the Papagayo lip-sync. I was not incredibly impressed with the results, nor with the fact that only the small selection of included mouths can be used by the program, but it is nice that this feature exists at all in a low-end product.

The tutorials built in to the AS user manual go through most aspects of the animation process, logically building from the very basics to more advanced topics. All of the files are included in the Anime Studio directory so it is also possible to skip some of the steps and simply load the finished product to see how it all came together. After spending a few hours with the tutorials I felt pretty comfortable with the program.

There are more tutorials and user forums available online. It is plenty to get you started. The 30-day trial is fully functional except for the ability to export the final video. A preview export is available, but it stamps a "Free Demo" watermark on the file.

In addition to the tutorial files, the program has the option of importing sample characters, props, backgrounds, and more, that are included with the program. The sample below was created using an included background and characters. The explosion movie came from one of the tutorials. I added the beaker and cylinder and the sound. Putting this short animation together only took a few minutes.

Sample movie.
The Bad

I do have some gripes with Anime Studio. In perhaps 30 hours of use the program crashed about three or four times. Granted my test system is rather old and underpowered, but it can be very frustrating to work on a project for some time and then lose that work due to a crash.

Even less forgivable is that the tutorials, while having excellent content, frequently refer to options and features not available in the demo. For example, they tell you to do a preview to see gradient shading, but this option does not exist. The worst part is that e frontier has been aware of the documentation problems for over a year (via messages on their forums) and hasn't bothered to fix the problems. Some of the later tutorials are entirely focused on options that only exist in the Pro version.

As far as I could tell, the option for exporting a sample movie was completely undocumented. I found on the forums that pressing F5 does the trick; however sometimes this keystroke was ignored. I believe the secret was to make sure a preview was not already open in another window before pressing F5.

The Ugly

For all its goodness, Anime Studio also had a lot of simple interface problems that, if fixed, could make AS much more pleasant to use. In general, the windows and icons look like they came from a 1990's OS 9 application. The dialogs are not standard OS X Cocoa windows, and the icon images are not only ugly, but are very confusing. Some of the options' icons are virtually identical. I found it easier to memorize the keyboard shortcuts for each tool than to try to decipher the corresponding icons.

Anime Studio icons and dialog window.

Similarly minor but annoying issues were the program's handling of zoom and the layout of the windows. By default there are windows for Tools, Styles, the Timeline, and the main display window. On my 1024x768 display, three of these four overlap. If I am using the timeline, I cannot see the play, rewind, etc. controls in the main window. To resize the main window I have to hide or resize the timeline first. The preview is resized along with the main window, so maximizing it causes it to take up the whole screen and be obscured by the other windows. I much prefer the Photoshop or Safari style where a maximized window simply expands until everything is visible. This would, for me, make the zoom tool much more intuitive.

Obviously maintaining a cross-platform application has its tradeoffs. In this case the look and feel are decidedly un-Mac-like.


On the whole, I found Anime Studio very easy to use for 2d animation. It was good enough, in fact, that I will be purchasing the basic version. Sometimes I went into the app with a quick idea I wanted to try out and would find myself several hours later still at the computer, working on other ideas that had occurred to me. Being able to move drawings with the skeleton effects, sync with a soundtrack, put objects on layers, and see the whole thing smoothly animated is exactly what I was looking for. If you have similar cravings, I recommend giving Anime Studio 5 a try!

1 comment:

Jerri Kohl said...

Interestingly, none of the software you mentioned was originally designed for the C64. Everything except for Ultima was designed for the Atari 800, and Ultimas I-V for the Apple II, and VI for the IBM PC & compatibles. All these Atari 8-bit titles (and most/all others) were better on the Atari. I recommend trying them out in an emulator. Of course, most titles designed for the C64 were better on the C64 than the Atari. And some were even better than than the Atari ST and Amiga ports.