Open Source Animation 1: The Adventure Begins

Recently I’ve been running into a few issues with animating Adobe Flash. The first was a canvas size restriction – The best it can do (that CS5.5 can do, at least) is ~2.8K, rather than say 4K. Obviously this isn’t a huge issue now, but in the future it may become a problem. The second was in how its rendering system works (or, rather doesn’t). When exporting a QuickTime file, Flash effectively just runs an instance of Flash Player off-screen then captures frames from it. However, this can be a huge issue if you have very large scale or very complex animation in your work – if it lags in Flash Player, your export is also an unusable laggy mess. I found a bit of a workaround for this bug (the gist is that you set your framerate to 1fps when you export, then speed the animation back up in your NLE). Obviously this isn’t optimal, as it further complicates the render process. You can export PNG sequences just fine, but those miss any actionscript-based or nested animation in your file, which can seriously limit how you can animate your work.

 

How do we get from that to Open Source Software? Well, there’s a couple other things going on here.The first is a little research I’ve been doing into codecs and distribution. As it turns out, the codec license you get with NLEs like Adobe Premiere is for personal use. If you want to, say, distribute DVDs or Blu-Rays of your work, you need to pay MPEG-LA additional fees to license MPEG2 or h.264 for the job. Obviously on a student budget like mine, that’s not a viable way of doing things. You can use h.264 for web content delivered for free, for now, though obviously that can be changed at the MPEG-LA’s discretion. At the same time, I started having issues with the Apple QuickTime Animation codec that I was using as in intermediary between Flash and Premiere.

 

I ended up settling on VP8 as a video codec for distribution – it needs more bitstream than h.264 for equivalent quality, but is free to use. I’m also keeping an eye on VP9, as well as occasionally experimenting with Dirac. As for an intermediary codec, I couldn’t get one that Flash would export (part of the aforementioned export problems when not using Quicktime export), but I did find one to use as an intermediary for rendering final projects: Ut Video Codec.

 

But this is still a change in workflow within Adobe Creative Suite (well, mostly). Which brings me to the next part of the problem: I want to try to get away from Creative Suite (and the whole Adobe Ecosystem, really). Adobe’s moving to an all-subscription system for future releases of Creative Suite, and I’m not particularly interested in paying month-to-month to use software rather than purchasing it outright. I started looking into alternatives or various bits, but then it hit me: there’s open source projects to, ostensibly, do all the jobs I need. Why not try them out?

 

Since Flash is really where things start (Well, Story is where things start but ultimately I can do that with a lot of different tools, so I’ll be finding a replacement for that later), I started with looking at Open Source 2D animation software. My search turned up a dead project, a project with no Windows build, and finally Synfig. Which, as it turns out, has a Windows build, but not for their newest version (development for one is ongoing). At that point, I decided that if I was going to try out an open source workflow for animation, I might as well go all the way and set up a linux system.

 

As I don’t have any spare drives lying around, I’m running this system in a Virtual Machine via VirtualBox. The machine is getting access to 6/8 of my machine’s cores and 16GB of my RAM, and its virtual drive lives on my RAID 0 array. 3D acceleration is enabled, with 128MB of VRAM available. I’ve elected to go with Debian Stable, since it’s a fairly recent release and I couldn’t get testing to netinstall properly.

 

You can use the debian package on the synfig site with Stable, at the moment, though you’ll need to install libjpeg62 (available in the standard repositories). Once we’ve done that, we can run Synfig:

Synfig First Run

 

Time to get to work. I’ll post more as I try to use Synfig.

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