Thursday, July 28, 2011

Cheap Dirty Film

Three years ago I talked about the programs I used to simulate old 16mm film. Back in 2008 I was using Windows XP, Adobe Premiere Elements 4.0 and a VirtualDub filter called MSU Old Cinema. I found I could use them to create some half-decent 16mm film:

These days I’m using Fedora 15 as my operating system and Kdenlive as my off-line video editor. That meant I’ve had to change the way I simulate old film quite a bit. I have been continuing to use VirtualDub and the MSU Old Cinema plug-in via WINE. Although VirtualDub is free software, the MSU Old Cinema plug-in is not, and this bothered me. I wondered what I could achieve in Kdenlive alone and I started experimenting.

In the course of this blog post I’m going to use the same image – an ITV Schools light-spots caption from the 70s that I recreated in Inkscape. Here’s the original image exported directly from Inkscape as PNG:

Created in Inkscape

The most obvious sign that you are watching something on a bit of old film are the little flecks of dirt that momentarily appear. If the dirt is on the film itself it will appear black. If it was on the negative when the film is printed it will appear white.

Kdenlive comes with a Dust filter that tries to simulate this effect. However, it has a very small database of relatively large pieces of dirt. In total there were just six pieces of dirt, drawn as SVG files, and that limited number led to an unconvincing effect. If I used the filter on a long piece of video I found I began to recognise each piece! There were also no small bits of dirt.

I drew 44 extra pieces of dirt in Inkscape and added them to the Dust filter. I also redrew dust2.svg from the default set. I call this particular piece of dirt “the space invader” as I found it was too large and too distracting!

The video below compares the Dust filter (with identical settings) before and after I added my extra files:

You may find you prefer the Kdenlive dust filter with just the default six SVG files. However, if you prefer what I have done you can download my extra SVG files from here.

With the modifications I’ve made, I actually prefer the dirt created by the Dust filter in Kdenlive to the dirt you get in the MSU Old Cinema plug in. The dirt from Kdenlive’s filter is less regular in shape and simply by changing the SVG files in the /usr/share/mlt/oldfilm folder I can tailor the dust to any specific application I have in mind.

After flecks of dirt, the second most obvious effect that you are watching old film is a non-uniform shutter causing the picture to appear to flicker very slightly. The MSU Old Cinema plug-in can simulate this effect, but wildly over does it. It is not suitable for anything other than simulating silent movies, so I never used it.

Luckily the Kdenlive Old Film plug-in does a much more convincing job. The settings that I found worked for me are shown below:

KdenLive Old Film settings for uneven shutter

And they create the results shown below:

It looks a bit odd on it’s own, but when added to all the other effects I’m describing here it will look fine.

I’ve noticed that when I am creating these effects it’s best if I move away from the monitor to a normal TV viewing distance to see how they look – otherwise I tend to make the effects too subtle to be noticed when I come to watch the results on my television!

The next thing that will help to sell the output as film is having some film grain. Film grain is irregular in shape and coloured. In fact, I used the Colour Spots setting of the MSU Noise filter to create film grain in VirtualDub.

Kdenlive has a Grain filter, which simply creates random noise of 1 pixel by 1 pixel in size. Although technically this is not at all accurate, it can look pretty good if you are careful.  The settings for film grain will vary from job to job, so some trial and error is involved.

As a starting point, these settings are good:

Kdenlive Grain settings

And will look like this:

Again, it looks odd by itself (and you can't really see it at all on lossy YouTube videos!) but it will look fine when added to the other effects. You’ll start to notice the rendering begin to slow down a bit when you have added Grain! Incidentally, Grain is still worth adding even if YouTube is your target medium because it helps break up any vignette effect you add later.

The next thing you need to do is to add some blur – edges on 16mm film in particular tend to be quite soft. Kdenlive has a Box Blur filter which works just fine for blurring. How much blur you add depends on your source material, but a 1 pixel blur is fine as a starting point.

Colour film is printed with coloured dyes, so it has a different colour gamut to the RGB images you create with The GIMP, Inkscape or a digital video camera. In addition, it also fades over time. Therefore to make computer-originated images look like film-originated images some colour adjustment is normally required.

Luckily, Kdenlive has a Technicolor filter that allows you to adjust the colours to better resemble film.

Kdenlive Technicolor settings

The way colour film fades depends on whether it has been kept in a dark or light place. If I’m recreating a colour 16mm film that has been stored safely in a dark tin for many years, I make it look yellowish. If I'm recreating a colour 16mm film that’s been left out in the light a bit too much I make it look blueish. Both these looks rely adjusting the Red/Green axis slider – not the Blue/Yellow axis slider as you might think!

Source image faded with Technicolor

You soon begin to notice that the telecine machines used by broadcasters could adjust the colours they output to make colours that were impossible to resolve from the film. For instance, some of the blue backgrounds on ATV colour zooms were too rich to have been achieved without some help from the settings on the telecine machine. So the precise colour effect you want to achieve varies from project to project, and sometimes you will be actually increasing colour saturation rather than decreasing.

The Technicolor filter is, ironically, the filter you use to make colour source material monochrome too!

The biggest problem when trying to recreate old film is recreating gate weave – that strangely pleasing effect whereby picture moves almost imperceptibly around the screen as you watch.

MSU Old Cinema created an accurate but very strong gate weave which was too severe for recreating 16mm film. The Kdenlive Old Film filter has what it calls a Y-Delta setting, that makes the picture jump up and down by a set number of pixels on a set number of frames. It’s easy and quick (a Y-Delta of 1 pixel on 40% of frames is good) but introduces black lines at the top of the frame and is so obviously fake it won’t really fool anyone!

So there is, sadly, no quick way to create gate weave in Kdenlive. However, the good news is there is a way, provided you’re prepared to do a bit of work. You need to use the Pan and Zoom filter. The Pan and Zoom filter is intended to do Ken Morse rostrum camera type effects – it’s particularly good if you have a large image and want to create a video to pan around it.

However, what we can do is use the Pan and Zoom filter to move the frame around once per second. Firstly you zoom the image in by 108%. This means you won’t see any black areas around the edge of the frame as the picture moves around.

First of all, zoom the image very slightly

Next, you create key frames on each second:

Then add one key frame per second

Then you move the image around slightly on each keyframe – plus or minus two or three pixels from the starting position is often plenty.

Obviously, for a 30 second caption that's 30 keyframes and 30 movements – a lot of work if done “by hand”. However it won’t go to waste, as you can save your Pan and Zoom settings as a Custom effect and resuse it again and again on different clips.

And, luckily, doing all this by hand isn’t even necessary. Custom effects are stored as simple XML files in the /kde/shared apps/kdenlive effects folder so it is possible to write a small Python script to automatically create as much gate weave as you want – something I’ll come back to.

As well as gate weave, you can also use the Pan and Zoom filter to stretch the frame, which is perfect for simulating stretched film. Again, that’s hopefully something I’ll return to another time.

Here’s an example of video moving with the Pan and Zoom filter:

The Pan and Zoom filter also adds hugely to your rendering time, so it’s best to switch it off until you do your final render.

Glow is a very important effect to add when simulating film, particularly monochrome film. Kdenlive does not have a glow filter, so if I need to add glow to a video file I have to improvise. I export the video as a PNG sequence, add glow to the PNG files using a GIMP batch script (written in Scheme), and then reimport the video file. It’s worth the effort, as it’s amazing how much glow helps to sell something as being originated on film.

Glow added using The GIMP

The GIMP glow filter tends to be rather harsh, and tends to wash out images if you use too much glow. Therefore you have to experiment a lot.

Finally, there is often uneven brightness or contrast visible across a film frame. In VirtualDub I used a filter called the Hotspot filter. The hotspot filter is actually designed to remove this effect from old film, but turned out to be just as good at putting the effect in!

However, with Kdenlive, this effect is best achieved in the GIMP when required as Kdenlive’s Vignette effect is too unsubtle to be of any real use.

So, put it all together, and you get something like this:

All in all, Kdenlive does a pretty good job of making digitally originated images look like 16mm film but although there is room for improvement. The film scratches filter needs work, there is no glow and the film grain is really just noise rather than grain. However you can still get some excellent results and I’m really pleased with it.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Walk Cycle Train

A lot of the Flash animation on the internet consists of characters blinking whilst the camera pans or zooms Ken Morse style. I can sympathise – the mere thought thought of, for instance, producing a walk cycle for an animated character can be really terrifying.

Indeed, I have a couple of projects on the back burner that I’ve put off for just that reason – they would require me producing an animated walk cycle and I really didn't know where to start.

Sammy The Chamois

I remember producing a walk cycle for a Flash game called Sammy The Chamois from Alan Scragg's drawings. The walk cycle I produced was ridiculous and broke every known rule of anatomy and physics. Scraggie said he loved the way I’d broken all the rules in Sammy’s walk – I was too ashamed to admit that was because I didn't know what the rules were!

However playing with Synfig Studio gave me a new impetus to think about animation again, and I started searching for walk cycles on the internet.

Dermot O’Connor’s website

I was lucky enough to come across a brilliant web tutorial in Flash by the Irish animator Dermot O’Connor. Dermot explains, over four videos, how to produce the classic Preston Blair animated walk cycle in Flash in the most clear and concise way imaginable. If you have ever been interested in animation I recommend that you look at them.

Having looked through these tutorials, I thought it would be a good exercise to produce Dermot’s rig in Synfig Studio and try animating the character in Synfig Studio instead of Flash. The term “rig” is a rather pretentious term for what is basically the digital version of a paper puppet jointed with brass paper fasteners.

Dermot’s Rig In Synfig Studio

Producing the rig in Synfig Studio was very straightforward. I simply traced Dermot’s drawing using Bline layers (a Bline layer is a layer made up of B├ęzier curves). The only tricky thing was getting the centres of rotation in the correct position. In Synfig Studio each Bline’s origin (and hence its centre of rotation) is the centre of the screen. That means you need to trace the shape, move it to somewhere near the centre of the screen to get the centre of rotation correct, and then move it back into position.

This became even more fiddly when I created Paste Canvas layers (what would be nested symbols in Flash) as you had to do a lot of mucking about to get the origin points correct. However, the great thing about Paste Canvas layers is that is completely explicit if a layer has other layers nested inside of it. That meant I didn't need to use Dermot’s asterisk convention to denote nesting.

Rotation Layers

The other main difference between a Synfig Studio rig and a Flash rig is that the rotation is provided by a rotation layer, so they had to be added to the rig amongst the other layers.

The bright orange points are “linked”

For the arms and legs, I linked the two common nodes together so I could change the shape of the arms and legs in exactly the same way as Dermot could on his Flash rig.

Once the rig was set up, I could start animating. This was much easier in Synfig Studio than it would have been in Flash. The great thing about Synfig Studio was that I didn’t have to worry about shape hints for shape tweening. I didn’t have to decide whether I wanted a shape tween or a motion tween. I didn’t have to worry about creating new time-lines for nested layers and I could name my key-frames with meaningful labels rather than abbreviations such as “c” for “contact”, and then jump to them by clicking on the JMP in the layers panel.

My key-frames panel

The main disadvantage of Synfig Studio over Flash for animating is the lack of an outline mode. This meant that you have to do more layer hiding to animate the left hand leg and arm than you would in Flash.

There were a couple of other niggles in Synfig Studio – firstly when moving multiple layers you had to make sure the canvas window has the focus before using the arrow keys. This became very annoying until I learnt to do it instinctively. Secondly, it would be great if there was a visual indication of whether a node has merged or split tangents as there is in Inkscape.

This is what I did in ten minutes in Synfig Studio – it would have taken me a lot longer to achieve in Flash:

The walk cycle so far…

It's not finished, as the arms are still very mechanical and I haven't put the bend in on the feet. However thanks to Dermot I now have the both the confidence and the knowledge to try and working with my own projects either in Flash or Synfig Studio.

You can download the Synfig Studio rig I made from the Synfig Studio forum here.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Ewe In A Draft?

One of the biggest limiting factors in all the projects I’ve blogged about over the past three years is the fact that I can’t draw for toffee. My draughtsmanship is absolutely lousy.

I have always loved drawing, but I always knew that I was rubbish at it. It wasn’t helped by the fact that my best friend at school, Mike, was brilliant. One art lesson we were supposed to bring in something to draw. Mike turned up, took his shoe off, plonked it on the desk and half an hour later had drawn one of the most beautiful pencil sketches I’d ever seen. So I just gave up and regretted it ever since.

A few years ago I bought one of those “How To Draw Anything” books from the cheap bookshop in Yeovil. Me being me, I read it from cover to cover a few times, didn’t draw a stroke and then forgot all about it. However whilst playing with Synfig Studio over the past few weeks I realised that I longed desperately to be able to draw so I set about trying to actually learn.

2B or not 2B?

So a few days ago I bought two 2B pencils, a drawing board and a rubber – a total outlay of 3 quid. Given I only have 8 quid in the bank it was a sizeable investment which meant now I was committed!

I dug out the book I had bought. It was by a self-taught artist called Mark Linley, whose warm, conversational style reminds me very much of my old friend Scraggie (if you want to see what a real artist can do look at Scraggie’s website). Mark recommended drawing sheep as they are basically “boxes with a leg at each corner”.

My first attempts were simple but I was very pleased with them:


So I took the plunge and decided to try the sheep’s head:

You never have enough ram…

Obviously, I’m supposed to rub out the pencil and ink the drawings in with pens but I’m not doing that as I simply want to be able to draw things in pencil that I can transfer to the computer to work on in Inkscape, The GIMP or Synfig Studio.

It’ll probably take about two years until I get my sketching skills to anything like a standard I’m not ashamed of but I’m determined to keep at it. I won’t be boring you by uploading any more of my sketches to my blog, but I thought I’d share these to encourage anyone thinking about taking up drawing to have a go as well.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

From Recreations to Replicas

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know that whenever my attention turns to the Midlands it’s usually at the prompting of my friend Roddy Buxton.

Roddy Buxton, courtesy Fake Festivals

Roddy is a lighting engineer, electrician and visual effects designer. He is now based in South Yorkshire but grew up in ATV Land. Roddy’s TV career started in the Central Television film department, working as a spark on such programmes as Peak Practice and Boon.

As with Oliver Postgate, Roddy’s branching out into visual effects design happened quite by chance when a director noticed how practical he was and decided he’d be the perfect person to knock up a semi-practical suitcase nuke for a film!

In 2009 Roddy thought he’d like to have a go at creating a working replica of the ATV station clock from the sixties. As far as I know, this clock only exists as an off-air photograph in the Transdiffusion archive.

Photo courtesy Transdiffusion

Station clocks used to be shown at numerous times during the day by all televisions stations from the 1950s to the early 1990s. Giving the correct time was not only seen as a valuable public service to the viewer, but the clock equipment was used to sync the studio’s signals with external sources. This was vital to prevent visual glitches such as this:

Roddy asked if I could supply him with the artwork in a format suitable for printing, something I was only too happy to do. I sent him two Inkscape files, one for the clock face, the other for the hands:

Watch your face…

…and hands.

Roddy soon had other things on his mind – a new addition to his family! – and I thought no more of the model clock.

However, earlier this year Roddy started asking me questions about my Flash recreation of the BBC Schools dots. The BBC Schools dots were shown in the minute immediately preceding BBC One’s programmes for schools and colleges between September 1977 and June 1983.

In the final year the dots were digitally originated using technology similar to Richard Russell’s GNAT clock, but before that the dots were a mechanical model in the “Noddy room”.

Noddy Room, courtesy VT Old Boys

The Noddy room was a special studio in the BBC that held various mechanical models and 12" by 10" captions. These were captured in black and white by a remote controlled camera that used to “nod” up and down as different ones were selected – hence the name “Noddy” room. Colour was usually added electronically to the images before they were broadcast.

Roddy discussed the lighting for the dots:
The lighting for the BBC Noddy wasn't anything specialised. It consisted of two P38 flood lamps (available from all good DIY/Electrical stores) – these are likely to have been photographic lamps – however the only difference being is the price and box they come in. They are the same voltage, wattage and colour temp. The lamps were attached to the camera, so wherever the camera was pointing that area would be lit.
So I supplied Roddy with the dots artwork as an Inkscape SVG file and I also uploaded my latest recreation of the dots in Flash to YouTube:

In May I was delighted to receive a mail from Roddy with a photograph of this prototype dots model:

Prototype dots, courtesy Roddy Buxton

Roddy said:
The clock face is made from hardboard; though I am not happy with the results; as the dots are not that hard edged. I think I will end up using this clock face as a template to make the actual clock out of punched steel/aluminium – that way I can get hard edged dots.

Here are some more of Roddy’s pictures of making the prototype:

Holes drilled through the hardboard

Temporary captions applied to check sizing

Matt paint added to remove the reflections

I thought the prototype looked absolutely fabulous, and by now I was looking forward to seeing the finished product enormously. I didn’t have long to wait – on the 11th June Roddy wrote to say:
The artwork for the BBC “Dots” has arrived in printed form. The company I have used did all of my printing for me for £11 including P&P, and to the correct sizes – and in a matt finish too.
And on the 6th of July I finally got to see how the final schools dots model was progressing:

I showed the progress so far to my friend Rory Clark who summed it all up beautifully when he said:
Bloody hell – they're impressive!
Not only that, but Roddy had started work on something else as well!

In Colour – the ATV Station Clock replica

Roddy assures me:
Another week and the dots will be vanishing ;-)! (Finally)

I’m very much looking forward to that. And I’m also hoping Roddy will also recreate some other models from times past – and it looks like I’m in luck!

Roddy tells me:

On the “to do list” – I have always wanted a BBC Globe – so will look at that. The “Diamond” is pretty easy to do (will definitely look at that!)

Then there's the "Pie Chart"!!

Stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Spotlight on Synfig

The only thing I haven’t been able to do using free software since moving to GNU/Linux in 2008 is animate. And it bugged me. Everything else – raster graphics, vector graphics, offline video editing, audio editing, font design, desktop publishing – I could achieve, but animation was the reason I’ve had WINE and Macromedia Flash 8 installed on my machine for the past three years.

When I first started playing with GNU/Linux I came across a program called Synfig Studio which could do animation, but at that time it needed to be compiled from source code. It seemed a bit too much like brain surgery for a GNU/Linux beginner! However, the other day I was banging my head trying to do some animation in Flash. I decided to Google for any free software tools that might be able to help and I was reminded of Synfig Studio once again.

Blue hair? Why, it’s Mrs. Slocombe!

I went to the Synfig Studio website and the first thing I noticed was that a brand new shiny version of Synfig Studio was available as an RPM for Fedora. In other words, all I had to do was download, double click and go. Everything worked perfectly. I found the Synfig Studio website was excellent, there were a large number of tutorials and an extensive manual and so I set about reading.

Animation programs are always off-putting to beginners due to their complexity, and Synfig Studio was no exception – partly because it began life as an in-house tool in a professional animation company and that really shows in the power and complexity of what it offers.

I learned Flash 2 back in 1998 by trying to create the ATV Colour Zoom ident as I thought it would be quite a good challenge and force me to look into the tool properly. For the same reason I dusted off one of the more challenging animations in my “TODO” list to learn Synfig – the BBC South West Spotlight dots titles.

My plan was to draw the Spotlight logo in Inkscape, import that into Synfig Studio and then animate it. The first thing I did was set up my canvas. Changing the units to pixels is very important – Synfig Studio uses points by default which seems a strange choice for a tool not centred on printed work.

When I tried importing my artwork from Inkscape it came in at the wrong size:

Imported SVG from Inkscape

The reason was obscure and not what I had been expecting. I had assumed it was the old Inkscape dpi (dots per inch) problem, but it was to do with something called Image Span which is related to the aspect ratio of the end animation. After reacquainting myself with Pythagorean theorem I worked out I needed to set the Image Span to 16 for 768 by 576 pixel artwork from Inkscape.

Setting Image Span in Synfig Studio

Then artwork comes in correctly from Inkscape. However, now I could see some problems with imported SVG:

Problems with Imported Inkscape SVG

There were two problems – the holes had disappeared in the “P” and “O” and there was a segment missing from the circle of the letter “O”.

Paths with holes are imported into Synfig Studio as two objects or “layers” (everything in Synfig Studio is a layer) – the letter and its hole. To make a letter with a hole in it you need to place the hole layer above the letter layer, and then give the hole a layer an “alpha over” blend method. As you can see, the logic behind the program is very different to Flash!

Using Alpha Over in Synfig

The nick out of the letter “O” was Inkscape’s fault. When you convert text to paths in Inkscape you often get double nodes (nodes stacked on top of each other). Double nodes also cause problems in Inkscape itself so it’s always a good idea to merge these nodes in Inkscape.

The join nodes button in Inkscape

Inkscape ellipses don’t import as Synfig Studio circles (they come in as something called Blines instead), so I redrew the dots in the Spotlight logo as Synfig Studio circles to make animation easier later. In fact to get an ellipse in Synfig Studio you draw a circle and then apply a transformation layer to it – again, a bit strange for a beginner! So, now I had the artwork imported:

Inkscape SVG imported perfectly

I discovered I didn’t actually need the background rectangle I’d drawn in Inkscape in Synfig Studio, there’s a special type of layer for solid backgrounds called “Solid Colour” that always fills the background however large your animation is. This is analogous to “Background Colour” in Flash, only in Synfig Studio you could use a “Gradient” instead.

Now I needed to colour my artwork. I found a small bug in Synfig Studio which means that you cannot use the HTML-style RGB value (a six digit hexadecimal number) to enter colours. My background colour in hexadecimal was #171a17. When I entered this into Synfig Studio I got a mid grey, instead of the charcoal colour I was expecting.

A Lighter Shade of Dark

I went into the GIMP and discovered that #171a17 is equivalent to the the RGB percentages 9% 10% 9%.

The GIMP Colour Picker information dialog

I entered the values 9%, 10%, 9% into the Red, Green and Blue spinboxes on the Synfig Colours dialog box, and I got the colour I expected. However, I also found that the HTML code displayed on the Colours dialog became 010101 – not what I expected!

In Synfig Studio, the HTML code is wrong

The ever-helpful Genete on the Synfig Studio Forums suggested that I might have a non-linear palette selected for my file, but this turned out not to be the case. So the moral of the story is, sadly, only enter colour values as RGB percentages.

Speaking of colours, it would be great if Synfig Studio could load GIMP palettes, or create a palette from the currently imported layers.

I then set about animating. This is quite different to Macromedia Flash as in addition to “keyframes” you also have the concept of “waypoints”. A “keyframe” stores every setting of every “layer” item on the current canvas at a particular point, whereas a “waypoint” just stores one setting. You also have to forget about the concept of “frames” that was so key to Macromedia Flash. Synfig Studio, in common with Swift 3D, uses the concept of time instead. As far as the time-line was concerned I am very glad that I had done some work in Swift 3D before approaching Synfig Studio.

Keyframe labels appear on the canvas too

One thing I did like is the fact you could label not only your layers but your keyframes – that saved me an awful lot of scribbling! Once you have your keyframes set up Synfig Studio really excels. There are numerous different ways of defining how the animation gets from one keyframe to another. The default was TCB which gives beautiful naturalistic movement, but for Spotlight it would cause arcing like this:

Arc caused by TCB Interpolation

When I really wanted linear tweening to give me straight edges like this:

Corrected by Linear Interpolation

Another little gotcha I found whilst animating was that the time-lines starts at “0f”, not “Frame 1” as in Flash. This caught me out when I was putting the animation together as I was getting odd blank frames!

Whilst animating I came across a niggle caused by my operating System. In GNU/Linux Alt and left-click is used to move windows around. However, in Synfig Studio Alt and left-click is used to transform (i.e. scale) objects. Fedora 15’s deskptop GNOME 3 compounds this problem by removing the “Windows Movement Key” setting that you could adjust in Gnome 2 to change this behaviour. Fortunately the wonderful Synfig Studio forum came to the rescue as “nikolardo” had a cunning work-around:
“Another workaround for the Alt issue presents itself when you realize it only happens when you Alt-click. Pressing Alt and then clicking gets picked up by the WM (openbox, in my case), but clicking on a vertex and then holding the Alt key produces the scaling behavior intended. So, next time you Alt-click and the window moves, let go, and then click-Alt.”
Whilst working I found that “Groups” were not what I expected at all. The purpose of Groups in Synfig Studio is to collect disparate items around your animation so they can be selected together. In fact, when creating the animation I never used any groups at all, although I can see how they would be useful on other animations.

I loved the fact I could enter a frame number e.g. 454 to move somewhere on the time-line and it got converted into seconds and frames. I tend to think in frame numbers and it’s great I don't have to keep dividing by 25 and working out the remainder. This was a huge help when setting up keyframes.

Useful for creating guides at 0x and 0y

Another thing I found was I could use the Canvas Metadata window, which at first seemed useless, to adjust the guides. It would be even better if you could use pixels instead of internal units to adjust the guide positions in this window.

One thing I soon learned as I worked was that Synfig Studio’s canvas window is not always WYSIWYG, and the Preview Window isn’t always an accurate reflection of the end result either (but this is being rewritten for the next release) – you have to do a render in order to see how your final result is coming along. This is particularly true if you are using effects like Motion Blur. For instance, when the Spotlight S is rotating, this is what I get to see on the stage:

What you see in Synfig Studio…

Whereas this is what the end result looks like:

…is much more impressive when rendered!

Correction from Genete:
“That’s because your display quality settings were not set to high quality. There is a spin button on the top of the canvas that allows you to set the quality to 1 (better), instead of use 8 (worse) the default value. WYSIWYG is fully done always in Synfig Studio. The problem is that it takes some time to render complex effects like motion blur, duplicate layer, etc.”

For my renders I used a PNG sequence, and only rendered the frames I'd just worked on. One thing I noted when rendering is that the render progress bar and cancel button on the canvas window don’t work. In the future I would love it if a WebM render option was added to Synfig Studio, particularly given the popularity of YouTube.

Notice that zooms, blurs and colour corrections are layers.

As I've said before, in Synfig Studio everything is a layer. Not just every single shape but a whole host of other things such as colour changes, blur effects, tranforms. So, obviously the number of layers you get soon gets large and unwieldy. However you can “encapsulate” layers together into what are called “Paste Layers” and then deal with these encapsulated layers as one object.

The capsules show encapsulated layers

You may be thinking this sounds a bit like the Flash concept of having symbols, but it isn’t – yet. The encapsulated layers are still on the main canvas and therefore use the main canvas’s time-line. In order to use encapsulated symbols in a way analogous to Flash library symbols you need to “Export” the Paste Layer as a separate Canvas. It will then appear in the Canvas Browser.

The Canvas Browser

Now your capsule of layers is a canvas in its own right, with its own independent time-line and you can use it in a way akin to library symbols in Flash. As you work, you’ll find that the main canvas’s time-line gets cluttered with keyframes and waypoints, so it’s worth exporting encapsulated layers to simplify your work.

The only real downside of the Synfig Studio time-line design is shared by Swift 3D. It’s that you can’t add and remove things from your animation easily. If you want to “hide” something you have to set its amount to 0 and then you have to fiddle about with waypoints with constant interpolation in order to show it again. It seems too much work when you simply want to put things on and take things off of your canvas.

Exporting a Paste Layer after you have already done work on an animation needs some care. Key frames are not brought across to the new canvas, and the exported animation duration defaults to 5s (five seconds) which means you have to increase it to the right length manually. So, before you start work on an animation it’s better to decide upon its structure first. But that was always the case anyway!

One minor thing – I found that I could only remove things out of encapsulated layers by dragging and dropping which was not discoverable for me – I expected to find another way of doing it via a button of some kind too.

Put a space in an Exported Canvas name and…

Entering a canvas name with a space in gives a message telling you about the C++ standard type library throwing an exception - not something most cartoonists would find particularly helpful!

When adding an exported canvas from the canvas browser on your main canvas you can offset its start-point by any number of frames. However, the offset needs to be a negative number of frames to make it appear a positive number of frames later and a positive number to make it start earlier which foxed me for a bit too!

Anyway, enough moaning – these are only very minor points! What you should take away from all this is that with exported canvases I found I could work exactly the same way as I was used to in Flash.

This does the hard work in the Spotlight animation.

Meanwhile, back to my animation. I wanted to emulate some optical film effects in my animation. The first one, motion trails, was easy to do with the Synfig Studio Motion Blur layer. This gives you a huge amount of control over the appearance of your finished trail.

Software doesn’t get any more magical.

I also needed some “optical glow”. I achieved this very easily by using the Colour Correct layer. This actually had a setting for Over Exposure – the exact effect I wanted to emulate – built into it! I was absolutely amazed! And not only that, I could animate the Over Exposure setting too. Incredible.

A bit of Blur (of which there are a dazzling array) helped to sell the glow even more.

The range of effects you can add to your animations in Synfig Studio is truly overwhelming. I think I'll be blogging for months about the huge range of things you can do in Synfig Studio. It is an enormous amount of fun.

Zoom layers are a very clever idea.

To zoom in and out I used, naturally enough, the Zoom layer. Having a zoom on a separate layer is incredibly sensible when you actually start using it, but seemed very odd at first appearance.

And, it goes without saying, moving the dots around the canvas in Synfig Studio was simplicity itself.

So, here’s the finished result:

Did I mention Craig Rich knew my Granny…

Synfig files are very small and compact. The final file size was tiny – 11.9KB. I found that utterly incredible and it compares very favourably to Flash.

I could have completed these titles in about two hours in Macromedia Flash 8, in Synfig it took me two days to learn the tool and complete the animation which I was quite pleased with.

Synfig is an excellent tool that is staying firmly installed on my computer! I really love using it and I am excited about what I can achieve using it in the future and the vast range possibilities it opens up. It is powerful, flexible, stable and rewards the effort you put into learning it a thousand times over. It also has a friendly and helpful community. Recommended.