Director is a formidable application. Its long-term users are dedicated to its Byzantine workflow, and fluent in its scripting environment. The new Flash MX 2004 compatibility and DVD authoring features are sure to attract new customers however, so it’s difficult to go about testing the new release for the former without alienating the latter and vice versa. So instead, we’ll take an early gander at the new features and their possible applications, with reference to improvements and any shortfalls in expectation for this giant of the multimedia-authoring scene.

At first, not much seems to have changed in the interface since last year’s Director MX release. There are the same handy elements for tidying up your workspace (though still no such functionality on the Mac version), including Docking Channels, document window title bars that you can maximize with a double-click, and a Restore Down button for returning it to its original state. However, there are new control buttons on the side of panels, and windows that make them collapse or retract instantly. These are only available on the Windows platform. There’s a new Help Panel, which provides much better reference than the previous offering, with more images, and a greater amount of topics. This includes the product help, behaviour, and Xtra descriptions, (previously to be found in the Using Director MX book that shipped with the product), as well as Lingo and JavaScript syntax reference guides in one hyperlinked environment.

This is a preview release, so it can be forgiven that some of the hyperlinks didn’t work correctly and some of the entries are incomplete. It wouldn’t suffer to have a few more advanced tutorials thrown in either – this is still a daunting product to the uninitiated.
Other workspace enhancements include the ability to dock Movie In A Window (MIAW) tools alongside your other palettes. MIAW is a Director movie that can play and interact with another movie in a separate window while the main movie plays on the Stage.

There’s a new Start page that appears when no document is open. This gives you quick access to recently used files, help, and tutorials. There are some problems in the main application, in this preview release at least. For example, we found that attempting to change Marker names in the Score window prompted some curious behavioural problems.

Flash support

The Flash MX 2004 support is what most users will be upgrading for. Director MX 2004 supports Flash Player 7, so you can instantly import any of your latest projects. Just double-clicking a SWF file launches Flash MX automatically. Once you edit the file, it’s automatically saved and re-imported into Director MX 2004. This welcome example of roundtrip editing will really streamline design workflows.

Macromedia states that because of significant improvements in the handling of Flash content, you’ll have improved playback performance with movies that contain multiple instances of Flash objects. The company claims performance improvements of 15-70 per cent when doing so, which seems a bit of an over statement, but this application is certainly no slouch.

One of the favourite features among developers that Macromedia introduced in Flash MX 2004 was v2 components. These are modifiable, mini-applications in the shape of movie clips with ActionScript programming interfaces. Now these pre-built elements can be used when building Director applications. Components, such as user-interface controls like radio buttons or check boxes, can be simply dropped onto the Stage, ready to be customized to fit your project, cutting development times right down.

Handily you don’t have to have Flash MX 2004 installed to use the components, but if you do you can create your own, and drop them into the Director Components folder in the main installation folder. You have to restart Director to use them, but this is a minor quibble. There are Flash-related changes in the interface to reflect this new enhancement, with a drop-down area in the Tool Palette for selecting Classic, Default or Flash Component sets of tools.

Talking the same language

It’s not just Flash that gets the roundtrip treatment. Fireworks MX 2004 is tightly integrated in this version, which is consistent with the whole Studio MX 2004 interface look-&-feel. Images from Fireworks can be imported in flattened formats such as JPEG and GIF, or as 32-bit PNG images with transparency.

The Insert menu allows Fireworks HTML to be brought in as a Cast member with sliced, interactive, and animated content. Rollover Behaviors are preserved as Lingo, and in a time-saving move, you can choose to import Fireworks HTML directly into the Score. Then, using the same launch-&-edit integration as for SWF files, you can optimize or make other changes to Cast members by starting Fireworks and editing them from inside Director.

Director is closer to other members of the MX family, linking into the server-controlled technologies offered by ColdFusion MX 6.1, and Flash Communication Server MX. Flash Authoring components for the latter are included on the installation CDs for Mac and Windows, while the Flash Communication Server MX Personal Edition is additionally supplied with the Windows installer.

Another major improvement is the ability to author Windows projectors on the Mac and vice-versa. Previously, users wishing to create cross-platform content had to use the version of Director for either Mac or Windows. The only restriction is that you can’t author projectors for Mac OS 9, which should become less of a problem by the day.

Now, there’s the Projector Publishing Panel – a one-stop shop to simultaneously publish standalone projector applications on Windows and Mac OS X, as well as a Shockwave file (DCR), and additional HTML and image content.

Apart from halving the price for dual-platform authoring, this speeds up the process by bringing all necessary dialog boxes into one place and saving projector settings on a per-project basis. This sounds like a major bonus – and it is – but it’s shocking that it’s taken Macromedia this long to add a feature that Director users have been demanding for years.

RealMedia and Apple’s QuickTime 6 are supported on both versions, bringing features for streaming MPEG-4 video and MP3 audio to Mac and Windows Director projects. AVI files and the new provision of Windows Media, however, are only supported on the Windows version.

Learn the Lingo

If you’re completely new to Director, don’t be put off by Lingo, the application’s scripting language for adding interactivity to movies. A set of pre-packaged Lingo instructions called Behaviors is available. You just drag these onto sprites and frames. If you’re already familiar with the Flash scripting language ActionScript, you’ll be pleased to see that you can combine that with Lingo, using a Flash Asset Xtra to maintain any Flash functionality in your new Director MX project.

The main MX 2004 improvement on the Lingo front, however, is support for JavaScript syntax. A drop-down box on the Script editor lets you choose between the two languages and, in a further spark of genius, allows you to use both sets of syntax in the same project.

Another enhancement for developers is the ability to assign custom names to sprites, and manipulate them without altering existing code. Assigning a new Member name in the Property Inspector changed the name instantly in the Score and the Cast, and on the Stage. The new version can move sprites and channels without modifying code, reducing editing time, while assigning a new name lets you refer to the sprite by that name in Lingo or JavaScript, and not just by the channel number that it occupies.

US Government conditions for accessible multimedia content continue to be met by this version of Director. The Speech Xtra extension, which enables text-to-speech capability in a Director movie, is included, offering support for Microsoft SAPI 4 and 5 on Windows, and all versions of text-to-speech on the Mac. As well as the cross-platform publishing features, the developers of accessible content will benefit from being able to add custom JavaScript scripts for text-to-speech functionality, as well as using Lingo. Director MX 2004 features drag-&-drop Director behaviours that let you control speech, tabbing, and item highlighting, as well as the captioning of words for use by Screen Readers, which go some way to maintaining its lead on other multimedia authoring tools in this field.

DVD to go

DVD authoring certainly seems to be the multimedia flavour of the month, and Director MX 2004 leaps into the fray with new DVD-Video capabilities. As soon as you select DVD from the Window menu, any DVDs you may have in the drive are launched within the modified media editor window. This now features a DVD tab, as well as QuickTime and RealMedia tabs with associated controls to preview you media. The Windows version has two additional tabs – in line with its Windows Media and AVI video support.
Content can reside either on a DVD disc, or a DVD Volume on a local hard disk. You’ll need to have a DVD player and decoder, and a DVD drive, for the DVD support to work. You don’t actually make changes to DVD content within Director, but you can make changes to the attributes of the DVD media.

Using the Property Inspector, you can set up in advance how the content will play – you can specify the current viewing angle if the DVD content supports multiple camera angles, for example. Apart from the fact that the Direct-to-Stage (DTS) option doesn’t work with digital video on this format, using DVD-Video as a cast member is roughly the same as using any other media element.

A new tool, the DVD Event Manager, lets you use Lingo scripting to add event-based controls to the movie while it is playing. You can trigger events, such as firing Web pages, or swapping cast members during DVD playback.

The Flash component support has the ability to add DVD playback capabilities to projectors or Shockwave-enabled Web pages. The pre-built DVD Controller components come in three different styles to control the DVD movie navigation.

Although on the surface it may seem that the options are fairly limited to delivery and control, it has to be noted that Director isn’t a DVD authoring package like DVD Studio Pro or Encore DVD. The ability to embed DVD-Video as part of a Shockwave eLearning application, or a cross-platform hybrid DVD presentation, has great potential for the entertainment, corporate, and educational markets. Long the champion of a foundering format, Director MX 2004 with DVD support could be the final nail in the coffin of the multimedia CD-ROM.

Cross-platform output makes Director MX 2004 an essential upgrade – though for the wrong reasons – the addition of DVD-ROM-specific authoring features, JavaScript support and Flash MX 2004 integration makes it very appealing for the right ones too.