Director has finally joined the MX range of Macromedia products, with a long-awaited upgrade, an overhaul of the user interface, and some key new features. But while it delivers on the major wishlist features, this isn’t as comprehensive an upgrade as Director 8.5, which introduced Shockwave 3D – and a new concept in multimedia authoring.
As befits the MX tag, the look-&-feel of the application has been updated to match the rest of the range. The most evident change is the use of dockable, collapsible palettes, which you can use to neatly arrange the myriad of windows and dialogs that abound in Director. The Property Inspector, the Library palette, Text Inspector, and so on all dock neatly to the side of the screen. The Score, Cast window, Message window, and Script editor can also can be docked together
in a giant floating window. While this works well, you’ll still need a high-resolution display (or ideally, two displays) to fit all this and the Stage on screen.
The functionality of some of the windows has been overhauled, too. The Script and Debugger windows used for editing and testing Lingo scripts have been unified so that you can make changes directly while debugging. A welcome addition is line numbering, and the colour coding of recently changed variables is a nice touch.
The Message window – which can be used to provide feedback while a movie is playing in the authoring environment, and for entering Lingo commands directly – now has a split-pane Input and Output area, to separate what you’re putting in from what’s coming out.
The new Object Inspector lets you analyze the state and property of sprites and track variables, offering a greater degree of feedback than the previous Watcher window. Understanding what’s going on while movies are playing is the key to debugging.
All this is well and good, and great for enabling you to work faster and smarter, but there’s very little that’s fundamentally different about DMX (as it has already become known) from previous versions. The two major changes are Flash MX integration, and the addition of Accessibility features.
Director has supported the import of Flash SWF files since version 7, but with each new version of Flash, there is always the inevitable delay until the Flash Asset Xtra for Director is upgraded to support the new file format. With Director MX, the integration between Flash and Director is closer than it’s ever been. Once imported into Director and placed onto the Stage, the Flash sprite can be controlled through Lingo, with properties such as its scale, rotation, colour, and so on all scriptable.
More significant, however, is the ability to pass data from the embedded Flash movie into the Director movie. For instance, if the Flash movie was an interactive, animated room, clicking the door out might take you to another Director movie. To do this requires the Flash movie to send a message to Director, which can then call a Lingo script. Likewise, a button in the Director movie to switch the lights off might instruct the Flash movie to jump to a frame showing the darkened room.
Such manipulation of the Flash movie from Director has been improved considerably with DMX. Previously, variables could be set only within Flash, or the user had to instruct the Flash movie (or movie clip) to go to a particular frame. Cunning frame scripts would be needed in order to contain any more-sophisticated scripts.
Now in DMX, you can set ActionScript object properties directly. This is significant, not to mention complex,
stuff, and only for users familiar with both ActionScript (the scripting language for Flash) and Lingo (Director’s scripting language). So it’s bizarre and disappointing that there are no tutorials on the CD to help get to grips with this.
You can also create empty Flash objects through Lingo using the added newObject command, which means that the Flash movie does not have to be pre-imported into the cast; you could work with remote Flash movies from the Web – great for a jukebox player for Flash movies, for instance.
A great feature of the Flash MX and DMX integration is the ability to launch and edit the parent Flash movie from Director. Once the Flash SWF is imported, you can specify the path to the source FLA file. Double-clicking the SWF file automatically opens the FLA file in Flash MX for editing, automatically rewriting and updating the embedded SWF file. Having recently worked on a CD authored in Director with extensive embedded Flash content, I know what a boon this will be. But it also blurs the divide between Director and Flash. Roundtrip editing is also supported for bitmaps with Fireworks MX.
Flash MX Communication Server is Macromedia’s latest product for multi-user content, and this is also supported by Director MX, allowing you to create Shockwave content that can use installed cameras and microphones for live voice and video feeds, and for multi-user features such as multiplayer games.
A copy of the Flash Communication Server Personal Edition is included, which permits up to ten concurrent users. For more than this, you’ll have to shell out £3,009 plus VAT for the Professional Edition. Authoring is supported on both Mac and Windows, but for deployment, the application requires a Windows
server. Fortunately, you can still use the Shockwave Multiuser Server for most of this kind of functionality, and it’s included free on the CD. There are also other multi-user servers available from third parties.
Support for Flash MX Remoting provides a secure way of connecting the Shockwave Player to a ColdFusion MX Server, allowing you to pass data between ColdFusion and a back-end database, and a Director movie – allowing the creation of Web applications within Director. An XML parser Xtra can also handle the import and manipulation of XML content.
Accessibility is one of the most heralded features of this upgrade, and has been added to enable the development of applications that adhere to recent US Government legislation – specifically, Section 508. This makes the provision of content accessible to visually impaired or disabled users a legal requirement for many institutions, but it’s also good practice. Here, the
issue of Accessibility is reduced to three tenets: text-to-speech; captioning; and keyboard navigation. While this is a gross simplification of what providing accessible content really means, Macromedia has doggedly provided support in these three areas in Director MX with the Speech Xtra and new accessibility behaviours.
Adding Accessible content involves applying behaviours to an element (a graphic, for example) to specify it as an accessibility item, and to specify its Tab-order for keyboard control. The Speak Item behaviour is used to speak a descriptive phrase, or in the case of text elements, to narrate the text. The Speak behaviour uses the Speech Xtra, which in turn uses the system speech synthesis implemented within both Max OS X and later versions of Windows. While it’s relatively straightforward to add Accessibility Behaviours once you have the hang of it, there’s no tutorial supplied to help you get started. In this case, though, there’s one on the Macromedia Web site.
Mac users finally get OS X support with
this release, but there’s a sting in the tail in that previous OS versions are no longer supported for authoring. For the delivery of Director content in Projector mode, previous versions (Mac OS 8.6 onwards) are supported, meaning you can playback across all platforms. On Windows side, Director runs on Windows 98, 2000, and XP for authoring, while for playback, all 32-bit versions of Windows are supported – including Windows 95 and NT 4.
Switching from OS 9 to OS X for authoring movies is not to be undertaken lightly. The good news is that DMX movies will open in version 8.5, so unless you’re using new Lingo or integrated Flash MX content, you will probably still be able to run them. But you may need to get specific OS X versions of some Xtras you use, which aren’t always available, and many developers are charging registered users to upgrade to the OS X versions.
With Flash being so popular for creating and delivering interactive content, games, and dynamic applications on the Web, does Director have a future? The answer is emphatically yes – especially for delivery on CD, DVD, or kiosks – or for applications that combine multiple media such as long video clips; bitmaps; applications that interface with the operating platform; or for applications that launch files such as Adobe Acrobat PDFs, or Microsoft Excel or Word documents. Flash is only just beginning to offer this sort of extended functionality through third-party tools, whereas Director’s Xtras architecture means that there are hundreds of additions to Director’s core functionality.
On the Web, too, Shockwave 3D is proving a popular way of implementing real-time 3D content and games.
With this release, Macromedia has made a real effort to show that for multimedia authoring, it isn’t simply a case of having to choose between Flash and Director. Director MX demonstrates the benefits of the two programs working together, drawing on the strengths of both. This excellent upgrade affirms Macromedia’s commitment to the product that was once its flagship, and proves that there’s still life in the old dog yet.