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Macromedia Flash lets us combine two of our favorite things: computers and graphics. For those of you who grew up in an age where there was never anything else, you can't really appreciate what a change it has made.

The appearance of Flash 2 in early 1997 (before that it was FutureSplash Animator) marked a real change in how people could communicate with multimedia.

Just prior to the advent of the World Wide Web, getting a multimedia presentation distributed to more than the number of people you could sit down with in front of your computer meant making CD-ROMs. Only a couple of years before that, the prevalent media was floppy disks.

In 1996, Macromedia released one of the first great plug-ins for Web browsers: Shockwave for Director, which allowed rich multimedia to be displayed within a browser. But the Director that dated from the first part of the '90s—and its reliance on bitmap images as its primary graphic format—meant that a lot of early projects tended to be bandwidth pigs, particularly on the slower connections of the early Web.

Then along came Flash and vector artwork. The timing was perfect. Five years earlier, and most computers wouldn't have had the horsepower to render the vectors or decompress the audio in real-time. It was small, it was fast, and it was simple enough that the entire manual was only about 100 pages.

With Flash, artists, designers, and almost anyone else interested in graphics could put together an interactive (or not) movie. With the Web, they could potentially get it distributed to millions of people. It's the great leveler. People with vision and skill who had a couple hundred bucks and a computer could become overnight sensations if someone who liked their work told their friends, who told their friends….

Four years have gone by, with three updates to the program. The Flash manuals are now two volumes of more than 800 pages. Flash has become one of the most widely distributed accessories to Web browsers, with hundreds of millions of potential viewers. It's a much more powerful program than it was, particularly in the programming end, and there's so much more to know about how to use it. We hope we can be of some help in that.

Dynamic Flash, the Next Generation

Whatever else develops in Flash along the lines of Internet evolution, one of the more dramatic innovations will probably be credited to Macromedia directly. Back in 1994, the Web was arranged like a stack of papers, with hundreds of thousands of HTML pages loosely hyperlinked together.

The introduction of data-driven sites changed the way people use the Web forever—an evolution not just for end users, but also developers who often had the tedious chore of updating content manually. Now this shift is driving online brokerage, sales, and information distribution.

The same would need to happen for Flash-based sites if the technology ever were expected to evolve. Macromedia responded with Generator—a toolset allowing dynamic delivery of Flash content.

Clearly, this type of technology will proliferate Flash beyond the "cool site of the day" badge into enterprise-level applications. Unfortunately, access to this groundbreaking software might be out of reach for many developers.

So, What Else Is New?

In addition to some of the big breakthroughs, Macromedia has tweaked the development environment itself, changing some things around in an effort to make things easier on those veteran users. The basic introduction of panels to Flash has met with some mild resistance—not uncommon with any major change to a workflow environment.

The new panel configuration gives developers more customized control over their authoring environments, with the ability to combine and break apart groups of panels and save the configuration for another session. Panels also help developers create and maintain other custom effects: strokes, fills, colors, animations, and even sound compression.

One other addition for designers this time around is the introduction of a Bézier pen tool. Most developers already are familiar with this utility that is found in most of the popular design software—Illustrator and FreeHand, to name a couple. The Bézier tool lets you manipulate curves with the traditional anchor points and control arms. The Flash Bézier pen appears normal in the authoring environment, but renders in a slightly different way when the final SWF file is compiled.

With the increase in Flash assets running on the Web, and the growing complexity of Flash Web programs, Macromedia decided it was time to find a way to share assets across several movies. With Flash 5, developers can identify assets in other SWF files and extract them into a presentation on demand—across a server or across several independent Web sites. Developers only need to insert the name of the symbol and the target URL to have the ability to integrate that symbol into a presentation. Arguably, the next round of Flash might want to look at ways to secure shared assets being thrown up online.

Another new utility available to Flash developers is the Movie Explorer. Anyone who has been charged with the management of a complex multimedia project will probably jump on this utility to help manage structure and promote organization. Explorer demonstrates the hierarchy of scenes and objects relative to each other. A map of the entire project can be printed out, and customized search functions and filters can be applied to find elements buried deep inside a project.

It's no secret that most Web surfers still are hitting their Print buttons when they find something they want to read or save online. So much for saving the trees. Flash follows suit in this round, giving developers the option to identify specific content for printing, separating nontraditional animations from easy-to-read print content.

Among a long laundry list of publishing options, Flash 5 lists QuickTime and RealVideo as possible output. Essentially, if you happen to run into an end platform without Flash (one of the 3.6%), other playback options are available that can perhaps offer a replacement. Don't look for intricate interactivity with these output options, though.

Macromedia continues to do a good job integrating its software, allowing Flash to import into Director and FreeHand to import into Flash. Now developers can directly import and modify Macromedia FreeHand 7, 8, and 9 files. Elements from FreeHand can simply be dragged into Flash and either cut and pasted or imported through the normal File, Import command in the main menu.

Whom Is This Book For?

Part I, "The Flash Tool" (Chapters 1–5), starts you out with a basic overview of the utilities and the Flash authoring environment. You cover the basics surrounding various screens, panels, and tools. These chapters also review the basic principles of artwork and text, helping you create some of your first Flash elements.

Part II, "Flash Methodology" (Chapters 6–9), brings you deeper into working with artwork in Flash, focusing on vector art and bitmaps and how to use them effectively in your project.

Part III, "Animating with Flash" (Chapters 10–13), covers the principles and development of animation. This section brings you through the basics and progresses into more advanced animation techniques. Also, Chapter 13, "Sound: The Fifth Dimension," covers applying audio to your Flash movies.

The rest of the chapters deal with Flash's programming language: ActionScript. You can create linear (sans interactivity) movies without doing any programming, but if you want to really make Flash do your bidding, you'll want to read these chapters.

In Part IV, "Using Basic ActionScript" (Chapters 14 and 15), the ActionScript language is introduced, terms are explained, and commands are discussed. These chapters try to give you an overview of the language so that it doesn't seem as unfamiliar to you when you start doing things. The reference material in these chapters tries to give concrete examples of syntax for later use.

Part V, "Using Objects," and Part VI, "Controlling Movies with ActionScript" (Chapters 16–20), delve into actually making things happen in Flash, from creating progress bars and sliders to working with the new Smart Clips.

Part VII, "Using Advanced ActionScript" (Chapters 21–26), discusses specialty areas of ActionScript. If you need to get data from a server (or send some), find out what's wrong with your scripts, or learn how to print, this section's for you.

Part VIII, "Controlling the Environment" (Chapters 27–30), deals with the world outside of Flash: the browser, a Director movie, or Macromedia Generator.

How to Use This Book

You should be able to go into any chapter in this book and follow along, although some chapters do assume you're familiar with material that precedes it. Where sample files accompany the text, be sure to open them up to take a look, and try them out. They're there for your enjoyment, and we put a lot of work into them!

Chapters 1–9 cover the basics on the Flash authoring environment and how to develop and apply artwork in your movies. You learn the fundamental principles in drawing and text and then progress through more complex techniques covering imported artwork and optimization.

Chapters 10–13 show you how to take those elements and bring them to life with animation and sound. Chapter 10, "Animating Frame by Frame," starts out with very basic ideas behind animation. Again, subsequent chapters bring up increasingly advanced animation ideas and also introduce the use of sound as an element in your Flash movies.

Chapters 14–20 will get you up and running with ActionScript. Most of what people use ActionScript for is right there, from creating interactive buttons to working with variables.

Chapters 21–30 expand the boundaries of Flash in different directions. After your core movie is planned, you usually need to perform another step or two beyond that to finish it off, and these chapters are there to help you on that path.

Conventions Used in This Book

The following conventions are used in this book to differentiate ActionScript keywords from other types of code and any other text with special emphasis:

  • Actions, keywords, and commands appear in a monospace font. Examples: the gotoAndStop action and the stop () command.

  • Lines of code and commands that the programmer is asked to type appear in bold monospace, regardless of keyword type.

At the end of most chapters, you will find two sections: "Troubleshooting" and "Did You Know?" The first presents some common problems that developers face and how to avoid them. This is in addition to troubleshooting advice found throughout many chapters.

The "Did You Know?" section is something a little different. It contains extra information about the topic. Sometimes the information is a little more advanced than the level of the chapter. Other times it highlights little-known facts or undocumented Flash. On occasion, it simply contains an idea for an interesting application of the information taught in the chapter.

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