Thursday, August 30, 2007

Toon Boom Digital Pro Report - Part 2

I am extremely impressed with the quality of documentation for Digital Pro.

In general, the greatest flaw in animation programs, both 2D and 3D is usually with the documentation. Many years ago, I read an article about writing great animation software, particularly 3D software, and it stated the prevailing attitude of the time:
The programmers spend many intensive hours writing high quality software. Once they finish and have it ready to release to market, somebody says, “Maybe we should put together a manual.” So, the crew breaks out a case of beer and scribbles together a manual the night before the software’s release.
Anyone who used those early programs could easily believe this scenario.

Toon Boom’s documentation, however, is extremely good. Their documentation has represented a major advantage for users. Studio’s documentation, in particular, has really excelled in the past few years.

Solo’s documentation, however, often left out significant areas of explanation. To some extent, I appreciated the gaps, since the two manuals were rather lengthy, even with the gaps. So, even though I complained about the gaps, part of me appreciated that the documentation could become overwhelming if Toon Boom covered every possible topic.

Unfortunately, as I became more comfortable with the program (Solo), I felt that I was missing a lot of the program’s potential.

Digital Pro has greatly expanded the documentation. To keep things reasonable, there is a “basic” guide and then a more intensive guide. There are also hours of video instruction provided.

Clearly, this is a huge improvement with the upgrade. I generally find the documentation to be very readable, even when I am not running the program in front of me.

This is exactly what you need when encountering such a program. It is also what you would expect and should demand with such a high level product. I am thankful Toon Boom has made this investment.

Digital Pro Report - Part 1

My copy of Toon Boom’s Digital Pro, the high end animation software for individual users and small animation companies arrived yesterday. I am a very familiar and heavy user of Solo, the first version of the software, and was extremely anxious to start using the new program.

The software installs fairly easily. There is an activation process and a dongle, which is expected for software of this caliber. Thankfully, the software can be installed on more than one machine and it does not tie itself to the machine’s hardware. The only catch: To run a copy of the software, you need to move the dongle to the machine in use. Compared to software like Adobe Premiere, this is much more user friendly and allows you to move from machine to machine in your setup without being treated like a software pirate. For me, this allows me to animate on my Tablet PC, but compile and do fancy effects, color correction, etc. on my big desktop without going blind using the small screen on my portable PC.

The software’s interface is significantly improved from Solo. Solo had a tremendous amount of versatility, but Digital Pro seems to have improved further. The program is easy to customize to your particular style and machine.

I encountered no issues of lag or drawing problems using an older Toshiba m200 Tablet PC or a desktop AMD two year old machine with a Wacom tablet.

My first impression on firing up the software is one of extreme awe with a touch of intimidation. I am very comfortable in Solo, though there are program areas in Solo, such as automatic in-betweening and inverse kinematics that I have only briefly attempted. I feel comfortable immediately grabbing my Wacom pen and animating in Digital Pro.

There is obvious power and extreme depth in this program. I have a feeling that it will be many months to get into the more powerful tools of the program. On the one hand, I feel I can create a finished product in this program with ease, thanks to my prior knowledge of Solo. On the other hand, I am very aware that this is a serious-serious upgrade.

Digital Pro has dramatically improved the implementation of “texture pens” to provide a bit-mapped type of drawing flavor to this vector-based program. These were difficult to accomplish in Solo, but are very easy to use in Digital Pro. They will prove useful in the future. There is no hardware drag using these tools.

If you are a new animator, not yet familiar with any animation software, I would advise starting with Toon Boom Studio 4 and getting familiar with that program. The learning curve is still significant with that program, but much easier to traverse. The program is also way less of a financial commitment compared to Digital Pro.

Once you get familiar with Studio and are happy with the tools and want to “take the next step,” you are ready for Digital Pro. The interfaces are very similar and your learning curve will be far more reasonable.

I am currently working on an animation and will simply load my Solo files into Digital Pro and go from there. This is a way to force my learning of the new program.

I will report more as things move along.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Global Warming Animation

I’m working on a new animation that will be a bit longer than my usual 30-second PSA. This one is about global warming and I’m working on a real tight deadline. I’m using Solo, exclusively. This time, I’m taking all the short-cuts typical of limited TV animation and using Solo’s template feature to its maximum. This is new for me. I’m hoping it looks okay. I will not be posting “in progress” animations because of the template nature. I am using only my own templates, but I have never reused animation like this to such an extent. We’ll see.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Digital Pro/Solo Animation Software: Why upgrade?

I’m working on an animation project currently in Toon Boom’s Solo. Many have asked the question: “Why Solo?”

Toon Boom makes many types and levels of animation software. Their main consumer product is called Studio. Studio is priced far below such software as Flash and other art products.

Studio is an extremely capable animation software product. Virtually everything you see on cable’s Cartoon Network can be done in Studio and can be done easily.

Meanwhile, Toon Boom also makes Solo, a dramatically more expensive software product that is similar to its “super-expensive” software used by “the big guys” in animation who make feature length theater motion pictures.

The price difference between Solo (now being renamed Digital Pro) and Studio makes many wonder: “What the heck do I get for all the extra money?”

In other words, why animate in Solo? Why am I doing my current animation in Solo?

Solo really cranks up the software capabilities. Do you need all of these capabilities? My answer: No, but I need some of them and they are so valuable that the software is worth the price for me.

For one thing, the scene planning tools are even more sophisticated than in Studio.

Currently, I am constructing a scene of many different objects. The sizes of the scene components needed to be adjusted dramatically. Solo has a Network view that allows me to shrink whole groups in a coordinated manner, but allows me to also work with drawings in a larger form. Could I do this in Studio? Yes, but it can more challenging when done to the extent that I need for this scene.

Special effects can be done directly in the software. Studio is becoming more versatile with each release. Yet, so is Solo/Digital Pro. With great ease, I can blur backgrounds and add shadows, creating a dramatically improved result. Can I do this in Studio with help from photo editing programs? Yes, but it’s definitely more difficult. With great ease, in Solo, you can shade characters and do special effects.

I used to believe that the advanced animation effects that became routine in more expensive commercials and feature animations after 1990 were due to vast teams of animators laboring long hours. Now that I see a professional product like Solo, I know this is no longer the case. The advances in software allow animators to cheat.

That's okay! I'm not above taking some short-cuts!

Currently, I am working on a quick animation with a severe time limit for a due date. As such, this is not exactly Disney quality animation. But… Solo is letting me cheat, allowing me to add some extra touches that will partially hide the fact that the animation is very limited.

Solo adds tremendous versatility to your animations. Does it add the difference in upgrade price from Studio to Solo? Well, for me it does. You must remember, when dealing with professional grade software, the steps get more expensive.

Think about the difference between a consumer HDTV camcorder and a “near professional” HDTV camcorder. The price difference STARTS at ten or twenty thousand dollars! Does that mean you cannot make a professional level production with a consumer HDTV camcorder? With proper tender loving care and sweat, I bet you can make a production with the entry level consumer HDTV camcorder that is impossible to distinguish from the product of the very expensive camcorder. Will you do it as consistently or easily? Definitely not. Thus, the professionals opt for the high end expensive product if their budget permits.

The same is true with production quality animation software. You can easily create professional grade animation with Studio. However, those special touches and effects that are so easily done in Solo will make your animation immediately stand out as something….well… more professional.

Fortunately, the price difference between Studio and Solo/Digital Pro is not tens of thousands of dollars, though it was, for similar capabilities, just a few years ago.

When Solo was released, it brought Disney-grade production software down to the availability of the smaller animators. Yes, it is expensive, but not nearly what it used to cost.

Have you jumped into Toon Boom software, yet? Don’t start with Solo/Digital Pro. Start with Studio. The price is reasonable and you’ll have more capabilities than you may ever need for years to come.

If, however, you find yourself wanting to add some features and feel you have maximized your potential in Studio, then it is time to upgrade to Digital Pro.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Software Dongles

There has been some criticism of Toon Boom’s decision to use software dongles for Storyboard Pro and Digital Pro (originally known as Solo).

For those of you unfamiliar with Software dongles, a dongle is a small piece of hardware which plugs into the computer to enable the software to run. Typically, it is a small USB plug which unlocks the software.

Note that Toon Boom’s main consumer product, Toon Boom Studio, does not have a dongle. It simply uses a serial number to unlock the software, but there is no “activation” such as software like Windows Vista.

I am normally not a fan of dongles, but for software in the price range of Storyboard and Solo/Digital Pro, I take the dongle as a necessary evil.

In defense of the dongle, let me make these points:

1. Animation software at the level and cost of Storyboard Pro and Solo\Digital Pro has a relatively small user base and is expensive to create. These are professional level products. Specialized software is always expensive.

2. Studio, an amazingly capable and complete software package, comes with no dongle. It also has an amazing price, given its capabilities. Despite its amazingly low price, it is also heavily pirated. The frequent updates on this product place the pirate users at a a disadvantage, but I would be highly distressed if my livelihood depended only on this product. I know the arguments of pirate users simply trying out software that they would never buy, but in this case, I believe Toon Boom is losing sales to the pirates. Each copy’s serial code allows Toon Boom to track the original offender, but the legal hoops needed to prosecute the initial pirate are overwhelming.

3. Another option is to tie the software to the hardware, sort of like Adobe Premiere. The problems with this are multiple:

a. I use my animation software on multiple machines. Obviously, I don’t do this all at the same time. I draw on my Tablet PC. I tend to organize and paint my animations on my desktop PC with its massive screen. When I’m traveling light, I use a tiny Fujitsu tablet PC with an 8 inch screen to draw animations. Using a dongle is simple. I simply move the dongle from machine to machine. This complies with the software agreement, since removing the dongle effectively uninstalls the software from the machine.

b. If I had to work with a set-up like Adobe Premiere, I could never do this. I would need to buy at least three separate copies of the software, even though I am just one user, using one version at a time. The activation process would require a lengthy tech support call the moment I uninstalled the software from one machine to move it to another machine. Plus, the total uninstall and then install process is very time and hassle intensive.

c. I am also frequently changing my main PC’s hardware. A few months back, my hard-drive became too small, so I backed it up to an image, installed a new drive, and then installed the image. Much to my distress, several copies of my various programs were inactivated because I changed my machine’s configuration. Talk about substantial delays! Again, with a dongle, this is not a problem.

4. In essence, these pieces of software, which require complex activation schemes, also have a physical dongle: Certain components of your machine. Admittedly, these components are tough to lose and if you lose them, your hassle is not $250. It is simply hassle on the phone.

5. The other makers of high level animation software also have dongles. Toon Boom is not alone. For instance, Mirage (now TVPaint) also has a dongle.

6. EVERY piece of software that I use with a retail price approaching $1k or more has a dongle, using either a physical device or components of the machine, via complex activation schemes. Have you installed Microsoft Office lately?

My criticism of dongles:

1. For a laptop, dongles are a pain. They stick out and invite damage to the machine and the dongle.

2. The risk of loss makes me very paranoid.

3. The size of the Toon Boom dongles are tiny, meaning they are easy to lose. However, they do have the capabilities of being attached to a string or key-chain, such as with a typical flash memory drive. I have gone so far as to attach my dongles to such a string and add an attached old copy of my driver’s license. This makes it very difficult to lose the dongle.

4. If every software manufacturer demanded dongles, computing would become a major pain. Toon Boom recognizes this and limits the dongles to software that costs close to $1k or more.

In the end, as a business person, I accept that the dongle is inevitable with such a high level program. Frankly, now that I’ve paid a significant amount of money to buy the program, I get very angry at the thought that pirates might distribute such a program. Even a few lost sales of Solo or Storyboard Pro translate into many, many dollars.

Since, it is in my best interest for Toon Boom to be a very successful company, I put up the dongle.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Toon Boom Studio 4 rated a "BUY!"

Toon Boom Studio 4 will soon be available for sale. I had a chance to review a copy of the software this week and am extremely pleased.

My priorities in working with animation software are:

1. Will I be able to learn the software in a reasonable time frame?

2. Can I make a professional grade production using the software?

3. Is the software something that is usable creatively? Is there a creative flow to the software? This is difficult to measure, but when you find it, you know it.

4. Is the documentation good? Is it REALLY good?

5. Are there tutorials? Are they also really good?

6. Features are nice, but I don’t want to drown in a sea of endless features. Other artistic programs often add so many features they make the program unusable.

7. Is the software technically solid? Crashing software only makes me insane.

My conclusions about Toon Boom Studio 4:

1. The software is very logically laid out for conventional 2-D animation. If you are used to working with old fashioned animation and are fans of techniques describes in classic animation texts, you will find Studio is very well organized.

2. The upgrade continues to improve the interface.

3. You can make anything from a web production in Flash format to Film or HDTV quality animation output. You can also output the full spectrum of production from the same project with a few clicks to simply change settings.

4.I find the software provides the best environment for creating animation. The workflow is very conducive to productivity. Amazingly, the upgrade has improved the workflow further.

5. The documentation is incredibly good. In fact, Toon Boom’s documentation with Studio is the best I have ever seen with an animation program. Manuals are sold separately, but a “pdf” file of documentation accompanies the software. I would advise printing out sections on a color laser printer for study. The quality of writing and artwork in the documentation is excellent.

6. The tutorials are very good and give you a fast of the program. Later tutorials give a deeper knowledge of the program. All are very doable.

7. I did not yet investigate the latest features of the program. My biggest concern is always: “How usable is this program?” I did not drown in the added features, so nothing about the upgrade has harmed overall usability. On the contrary, it is even better.

8. The program is solid. On my older Tablet PC, I needed to tweak some settings, but it worked very well.

9. The price point for this program is very generous. No other program of this quality is priced so affordably. This is better than the “professional grade” products of other companies. For anyone interested in animation, this program is a “no-brainer.”

10. Toon Boom is on top of this program and constantly working to provide improvements.

Bottom line:
I am very excited and pleased with this product. I would rate it as an extremely strong “Buy.”

Monday, August 6, 2007

It's Here!

Toon Boom has announced a new high-end animating product!

Check it out at