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Video in Flash:
A New Online Option

by Jon Leland
Originally published in Videography Magazine, April 2001

There’s more to video on the web than streaming, and there’s more to Flash than vector graphics. Video inside of Flash has suddenly become not only accessible; but, in some cases, the way to go.

For years, I’ve recommended the use of Macromedia Flash’s vector-based multimedia file format as an extremely efficient way to get more motion graphics bang for the Internet’s limited bandwidth. And as many of you must know, as a result of these benefits, Flash has become increasingly popular on the web for everything from animated corporate presentations and guided online product tours to animated cartoons, games, and much more.

Flash Ubiquity
While streaming is increasingly popular, Flash is practically ubiquitous. Flash is now pre-loaded in every major web browser, so that virtually every web user now has some version of the Flash player pre-installed. No plug-in download required. According to Macromedia, as of February, 2001, 93% of browsers had Flash Player version 3 or later, 86% had version 4 or later, and 32% already had the relatively new version 5. And, Macromedia claims something like 3 million downloads of the new Flash Player every day; and they also say that two out of the top ten web sites are already using Flash on their home pages.

No streaming format can claim anything close to this level of penetration (most are closer to 40% - 50%); and more importantly, pre-installed plug-ins equal better ease-of-use for audiences. With online advertising (and presentations of all kinds) hungrier than ever to reach as wide an audience as possible, as easily as possible, the value of Flash’s extended reach should not be underestimated.

Beyond Animations
In addition, not only are vector graphics far smaller in file size than their bitmap cousins, but Flash (which has recently received a significant upgrade to version 5) has become increasingly sophisticated in many ways. From its recent incorporation of the MP3 audio format to its robust ActiveScript programming language for the incorporation of interactivity of all kinds, the Flash file format (known as .SWF or a “Swiff” file) has a lot to offer. Now, there are new ways to incorporate video into Flash as well, making Flash a new and very interesting Web video platform.

I should also note here that Flash is a progressive download, similar to the familiar QuickTime progressive download, and it is not a true streaming format that offers the benefits as well as the encumbrances of a dedicated server. As illustrated by the many web sites that use QuickTime in its progressive download format (rather than its streaming format), this form of online multimedia delivery ensures the delivery of a quality media file that is as close as possible to what the producer had in mind. However, progressive downloads (whether Flash, QuickTime of MP3) are more practical for the shorter clips that are more common on the Web, rather than for longer programs (which are better served via streaming)

Now, there are new options for using the Flash application to author downloadable interactive multimedia files that include video side-by-side with Flash’s animation and interactivity.  
   

Now, in my opinion, Flash has become an even more interesting progressive download option because of the combination of video with its dynamic vector animation capabilities and its powerful interactive features.

Video-Flash Convergence
Now, there are new options for using the Flash application to author downloadable interactive multimedia files that include video side-by-side with Flash’s animation and interactivity. In fact, there are multiple approaches.

Previously, I’ve written in this column about using Adobe GoLive’s QuickTime editor to combine video and Flash; however this requires considerable pre-production. Likewise, Flash exports QuickTime, so if you import your video file into Flash with care; then, by using the QuickTime vector track, it is possible to output a QuickTime file that includes your Flash animation (but not it’s interactive features). In a similar vein, Flash can also be played in the RealPlayer, but to combine video and Flash in the Real format requires the use of the somewhat cumbersome SMIL layout programming language.

Alternately, you can process a small set of video frames and import them into Flash. This type of video delivery becomes more like a sequence of video frames rather than a complete video clip, but it can be done successfully and to good effect. A designer who does this type of Flash-video production very well is Hillman Curtis, who is also the author of “Flash Web Design, the art of motion graphics” (New Riders, $45. US). Curtis’ book provides illuminating detail as to how he processes his video frames for playback in Flash.

In fact, as an aside, I highly recommend Hillman’s book as an inspiring combination of design esthetic and how-to that is creatively well beyond virtually any online multimedia design book I’ve ever seen. (If you’re interested in getting started with the basics of producing Flash animations and using the Flash platform to communicate on the web, I’d recommend the solid and very friendly “Foundation Flash 5” by Sham Bangal, Amanda Farr and Patrick Rey, from publisher, Friends of Ed, $29.99 US.)

Let me introduce you to the latest Flash-video encoding tool with a little bit of drama.  
   

A Hot New Tool
Now, let me introduce you to the latest Flash-video encoding tool with a little bit of drama. I’d like to set the scene because I've never seen anything quite like it. .

I was attending the FlashForward2001 conference. It was almost at the end of a workshop by conference co-producer, Lynda Weinman of the multimedia training company, Lynda.com. Lynda and her video guy, Sean Blumenthal, had been describing the hassles of importing QuickTime video into Flash in order to then export it out again as a multi-track QuickTime file. They saved seven minutes at the end of their workshop for a demo of a new product, Flix by Wildform Internet Media Software.

Bottom line, it was a very rushed and superficial demo; and, just the same, the crowd went wild! They loved that FINALLY, digital video (not just QuickTime) can be encoded into Flash's native SWF file format. They also cheered the $99 price point. So far, Flix is available only by download from the Wildform.com web site and is PC-only, but a Mac version has been promised for release around the same time as this column will be published.

It was exciting to see a small, self-funded software company find a such a rich niche. Based on the real world market feedback that was demonstrated at the conference, Wildform (a three person company) has created a product that is needed by video and online multimedia professionals. The demand for it was palpable and real. And you can’t say that about too many new products. Clearly, this small company has struck a chord, and its not too hard to understand why.

In my opinion, Flix provides a missing link that makes Flash the path of least resistance for the integration of short form Rich Media (including video clips) into the Web sites.  
   

Finally Flix

This relatively simple, but respectably robust encoding tool does something that not even Cleaner 5 can do. It compresses video (from almost any digital file format, i.e. .MOV, .AVI, .WMV, .MPG. etc.) — utilizing an impressive array of preset or customizable bandwidth and compression options — into the native .SWF file format (including audio encoding options as well). The quality is very good, if not exceptional, but more importantly, producers no longer need to import sequences of frames to get video into Flash. You can now use the much more convenient Flash “Load Movie” command to incorporate your video clips into your Flash productions.

In my opinion, Flix provides a missing link that makes Flash the path of least resistance for the integration of short form Rich Media (including video clips) into the Web sites.

Creative Community
An added bonus of producing with Flash (with or without Flix) is the vibrancy of the Flash creative community. I was very impressed by the producers and programmers in attendance at the FlashForward conference. They demonstrated a spirited openness in the way that they shared ideas. I wish I saw more of this kind of collaboration in the streaming industry.

Flash’s brand of creative community is also illustrated by the array of Flash community web sites that share resources very much in the same way that you can see programming code shared by members of the Open Source software movement. For example, you may want to check out http://www.virtual-fx.net/ or http://www.flashkit.com/. These sites include 100’s of free Flash tutorials; and there is also a list of Flash resource sites at http://www.virtual-fx.net/links.html.

In addition, other Flash-video producers are developing creative production bridges to Adobe After Effects as well as to a virtual array of other techniques and Flash animation tools. For example, Electric Image’s recent upgrade to its powerful and user-friendly 3-D software, Amorphium PRO, now renders Flash .SWF files. Visit http://www.electricimage.com/ for more information.

Conclusion
As you can see, despite the recent financial downturns in the dot-com world, the best online video and multimedia is yet to come. Stay tuned.


Jon welcomes feedback and suggestions via e-mail at jon@combridges.com
     
   
 
 
 
   
 
 

 

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