3D-animation tools are ten a penny, and despite the 3D market going through some growing pains, most digital artists can easily name five or more 3D programs. Try the same trick for 2D animation, and you’re likely to be stumped after two or three.
Toon Boom Studio is one of the few 2D-animation tools out there. Yes, there are a number of Flash-based Web-animation apps, but Toon Boom Studio is designed from a traditional cel animator’s perspective, and for those used to working with real ink and paint. Thus, the program is infused with traditional cel-animation methods and nomenclature – exposure sheets, light tables, dope sheet and others – which is no bad thing. Traditional animators should feel right at home with Toon Boom, and digital/Web animators will likely find the workflow easy to grasp.
The program is based on the company’s high-end 2D-animation system USAnimation used by big studios for large 2D-animation projects. Despite such pretensions, Toon Boom Studio is quite a humble, friendly application to live with, and almost anyone is likely to get on well with the software.
Version 2.0 is the latest release and, according to Toon Boom Technologies, it’s almost a completely new product. There are some differences to the layout of tool buttons, such as the onion-skinning layers buttons, which are now unfurled instead of popping up. But, aside from that, the interface looks much the same as before – though we were comparing it to the Mac OS X version. There is a fairly long list of new features, including: colour-tweening effects; Clip masks; a polyline tool; Cutter tool; Auto gap close when filling; and more.
The drawing and painting tools in Toon Boom Studio are basic, but OK for most uses. There’s support for Wacom tablets, which gives you a bit more expression in your stroke – but the system is mainly geared towards simple clean animation styles, rather than detailed sketchy strokes. Auto smoothing of strokes helps to minimize jitter.
When painting, strokes are drawn as filled contours, which means there is a vector path defining the perimeter of the stroke. You can edit strokes using the Contour Editing tool, but this edits the outer edge. What would be far easier is if Toon Boom recorded your stroke path as a single vector path, as well as a contour so that you could edit the shape of lines without modifying the actual shape of the stroke. It would save loads of time, too. However, the Perspective tool allows you to scale, shear and distort any selected element in your drawing using a simple bounding box, and you can simply select and move elements as you see fit. A new Reposition All tool lets you move and scale all elements in a frame as one.
Aside from offering 2D-drawing and -animation tools the Sceneplanning mode provides a full 3D-animation environment with cameras allowing you to create complex pans, dollies and zooms in your animations. New in version 2.0 is the ability to create cycles, so you can easily repeat a sequence of drawings – such as a walk cycle or parts of a motor whirring round for example – while you animate the object’s scale or translation. The system is 3D in as much as you can view the scene from above and to the side, and change the relative depth of objects. The view from the camera is always orthogonal with little or no perspective, as when you move objects backwards in the scene they reduce in scale – so essentially it’s a 2.5D system. No rotation of objects or cameras is possible, except around the axis that is perpendicular to the image plane. This makes it more like working with flat sheets of cel acetate, so you don’t need to worry about problems such as perspective distortion.
The most annoying thing about Toon Boom Studio, at least when you begin using it, is how to actually animate something. Those used to other kinds of animation programs will be confused – there are no conventional keyframes tools or Add Keyframe button, for example. To animate something you must create a Peg, a null object that has animation attributes. You then link – by drag-&-dropping in the timeline/object list – your object, be it a camera, drawing or other media to it and animate the Peg using its function curve. It’s not very intuitive, but gets around all sorts of problems that might occur animating objects directly, and you do get used to it.
New Colour Transformation effects can be applied and animated allowing you to change the colours in an animation globally, for example as the lighting in the scene changes. There are also Clip masks, which can be used to hide and reveal parts of a drawing, and then animate the transition over time.
The main staple of Toon Boom is inking and painting. In 2.0, the painting feature has been improved with the new auto-gap-closing feature. You can’t fill an area that isn’t closed, so you have two options: redraw the outline or edit it so it closes the zone; or use the Close Gap tool to draw an invisible line across the hole. The new Auto Gap Closure feature automatically closes zones as you paint. It does this invisibly and doesn’t actually change the drawing. There are three tolerance levels for gap closure, depending on your style.
After the production of an animation is complete, you can output it as either a QuickTime movie or as a Flash animation. You can alternatively use the Toon Boom Studio Importer (TBSi) for Flash MX to allow you to import entire Toon Boom Studio scenes in to Flash MX to add interactivity, such as scene selection or other types of playback controls
Toon Boom Studio is a very good animation solution for the Web, particularly suited to traditional 2D-character animation and the like. It could benefit from better drawing and editing tools, but at least there’s Illustrator import if you need to do something specific – such as decent text creation. Keyframing control could be better and more consistent through the interface, but aside from that it’s a well thought out system that both traditional and digital-savvy animators should take to.