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Adobe Flash CS4 Professional

Latest version keeps the good mojo flowin' By Kevin Schmitt

I have bad news for those out there who were expecting Flash CS4 to, well, suck: It doesn't. Far from it. Adobe certainly seems to have responded to the pressure of having viable Flash competition by delivering a polished upgrade that is chock full of thoughtful improvements and useful new features. So despite the fact that I've spoiled the ending, I hope you'll come along as we explore the latest and greatest in the most recent release of the Flash authoring tool.

Let's start with some perspective by quickly summarizing the last few versions of Flash:

  • Flash 5 (2000): ActionScript (1.0) is born
  • Flash MX (version 6, 2002): Revamped timeline and the introduction of Flash Video
  • Flash MX 2004 (version 7, 2003): ActionScript 2 debuts
  • Flash 8 (2005): Designer tools galore in the form of effects, blends, drawing improvements, better easing, text enhancements, etc.
  • Flash CS3 (version 9, 2007): ActionScript 3 unveiled

In the way the even-numbered Star Trek movies were generally regarded as better than their odd-numbered counterparts, Flash has seemingly settled into an even/odd pattern of its own: even-numbered Flash releases are for designers, while odd-numbered releases are for developers. Perhaps that's an overly simplistic view, but it generally fits, so we're going to go with it. It then stands to reason that Flash CS4 Professional, with its version number at 10, would be a designer-oriented release -- an educated guess that just so happens to have been borne out in this case. Enough ado; let's get to what's going on in Flash CS4.


Much hay has been made about the new CS4 design interface, which is shared amongst such players as Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, and, yes, Flash. Flash's implementation is slightly different than, say, Photoshop's, as the Application Frame and Application Bar are permanent fixtures (on either platform) which cannot be switched on and off. However, like those other programs, you can not only have multiple Flash movies open at the same time (which is not a new feature), you now have much more flexibility with how they are displayed. A single window with tabs, a split window with movies in their own space (fig. 1), or multiple floating windows are all possibilities.

Figure 1: Just drag open tabs around to produce a multi-view document area.

Another hallmark of the CS4 design interface is the dockable panel model, which Flash CS4 naturally adopts. It's trivial to drag and dock (or float, if that's your preference) any panel to fit your workspace needs, which is why one of the big "features" that I've seen mentioned in many a first look piece when Flash CS4 was announced -- the timeline's new default position on the bottom of the screen -- isn't really a big deal when you consider that you can just drag the thing back up to the top anyway. (Conversely, you could have arranged your screen this way in Flash CS3, so I'm not sure what the fuss was all about). However, one big interface change that you can't do anything about (not that you'd want to) is the re-orientation of the Properties panel to a vertical layout. This setup may seem weird at first for those of us who go way back with Flash, but it doesn't take long to realize how natural it feels. Properties are displayed based on context, so, for example, the panel shows publishing and general properties in the Document context, while selecting a drawing object shows position and size properties as well as fill/stroke information (fig. 2). The old panel kinda sorta worked like this, but shoehorning everything into a small horizontal layout caused problems at times -- the vertical orientation makes much more sense.

Figure 2: The properties panel is now vertical, making the contextual information it displays much easier to read.

Couple of things to mention real quick before moving on: One, I'm pleased to report that the Library is now on its best behavior -- your sorting options remain intact (even after using Save and Compact), placing symbols into folders no longer results in strange sorting, and I love the addition of the Spotlight-like search feature, which easily tames out-of-control Libraries (fig. 3). And lastly, another nice feature is the borrowing of scrubbable input fields from the Adobe Production programs -- just hover over a number and click and drag to change the entry (fig. 4).

Figure 3: Just type a couple of characters and the Library will display only the symbols that match your search string.

Figure 4: Just hover and scrub -- a great feature from After Effects makes its way into Flash.


Interface improvements are nice and all that, but we're talking small potatoes compared to the enhancement Flash users have been waiting years and years for: object-based animation. Up until now, working with the timeline in Flash was a veritable nightmare of explicit symbol creation, jumbled keyframes, and muddled tweens, and it's not hyperbole to say that animation was the weakest link in the Flash chain. Those days are gone. Here's the process:

  1. Place or draw an object or symbol on the stage.
  2. Right-click on it in the Timeline and add a motion tween.
  3. Move the object.

That's it. Symbols and keyframes are created automatically. Need to stretch it out? Drag the end of the tween to make it longer. Need another keyframe? Just move the playhead and then move the object again. Want to use the motion on another object? You have many choices, from a simple asset swap to saving the motion as a preset to copying the motion as ActionScript. Slick, simple, intuitive, with motion properties finally existing independently of each other. What's more, motion paths are Bezier curves, so you can adjust curves just by dragging (fig. 5). Hopefully you're beginning to realize the power of moving to an object-based animation model.

Figure 5: Just select an object and drag its motion path to create Bezier curves.

But the motion goodness doesn't stop there. Apparently the Flash development team wasn't satisfied with simply overhauling the tweening model. Enter the Motion Editor (fig. 6), which us After Effects/Flash crossover proponents have been hoping for ever since news of the Adobe/Macromedia marriage was first announced. So, for the first time, you can now inspect an object's motion and visually fiddle with motion properties independently. It's worth noting that Flash's Motion Editor is somewhat simplified from the After Effects version, though many similar conventions are used. I'm looking forward to this feature evolving in subsequent versions, but it's a very good -- and very useful -- first cut.

Figure 6: Flash's Motion Editor in action.

I've briefly alluded to this, but the last thing to mention about the motion improvements is the Motion Presets panel (fig. 7). Flash CS4 ships with a pretty nice library of motions that you can apply to any object, and while that's all fine and good, the real fun begins when you save your own. Any tween you make in the timeline can be saved as a Motion Preset, and presets can be saved as XML files and shared with anyone you like. Definitely a useful feature, and a natural extension of the motion sharing introduced in CS3 in the form of copying motion to ActionScript 3.0.

Figure 7: Pick a default preset or make your own.

I've said it before, but it bears repeating: it's not a stretch to say that the motion improvements in Flash CS4 are as profound an upgrade as Flash has ever seen, and if you fall on the design side of the "Flash Divide" (a concept I'll discuss in a bit), these changes are more than worth the price of admission. I'll also repeat my earlier missive published when CS4 was first announced by re-stating that if you take all these motion additions, throw in the filters and blending modes introduced in Flash 8, add a dash of IK and 3D (discussed next), sprinkle in the power of ActionScript under the hood, and Flash is a very, very capable motion graphics program in its own right -- who needs After Effects?

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