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The TAB is a curious little animation tool from the maker of Toonz – the previously Softimage-affiliated product that was used in the making of Spirited Away. The TAB 2.0 (it stands for Toonz Animation Board) is, however, aimed at the realm of Flash and other vector-animation software.

Installation is a bit strange. The setup process installs an additional folder called The TAB Stuff, which is where all the assets are kept. This was not installed in the main program files directory along with the application, but rather at the root level of the disk. This made for tough going with nothing more than basic functions working until we found the problem. Even then, Bad Format errors plagued attempts to load supposedly compatible image files.

That aside, the rest of the application is impressive, if a bit unintuitive. The actual way to load images is through the Browser Room where you drag the files from a hierarchical menu in the tradition of Windows Explorer. The TAB is organized into a series of these Rooms, which you move between by using the tabs to the right of the menu bar.

Users create the original artwork, sketch, or import images in the Drawing Room. Although BMP, JPEG, TIFF and others are supported (no PSD though), you have to drag the files in from the desktop rather than use a dedicated import function. In the Animation Room you can copy the original sketch into more panes and levels, modifying each one to create an animation series. This sequencing is controlled by the Scene Editor, which is organized into columns, then further divided into cells that display the content in the column at a particular frame. The frames are rendered by reading the images from left-to-right in each row.

A bigger Scene Editor is available in the Compositing Room, where you can really start planning the scene, adding images, clips and soundtracks. As has been mentioned, the Browser Room is where you load scene elements and saved scenes. Here you can set the size of the camera and the frame rate for the animation. Properties are set back to their default values when you quit the TAB.

The TAB’s toolset is rather unusual. Just as in Illustrator, once you have drawn an object or line, you can reshape it by adjusting its path with a variety of tools and commands. However, the TAB’s tool palette somewhat resembles a Blue Peter DIY project in a garage, with a pump, sellotape dispenser, iron, and pliers icons among others. As well as being rather quaint, these all have useful functions.

The Pump Tool increases the stroke thickness (or the width of the lines) in an object. The sellotape (or Tape Tool) lets you join the open ends of two strokes, and the Iron Tool simply removes creases from strokes, flattening the bends the more it is applied. Using the pliers (Bender Tool) allow the strokes in a defined segment to be bent. The Magnet Tool is used much like the Warp tool in Illustrator, letting you deform several strokes at once. All of the deform tools have the added bonus that all filled textures stretch to fill any warped space.

The TAB includes selection tools, fill tools, and brushes. Though the menus are a bit sparse in the way of commands, there is a Tool Options bar where you can adjust Brush effects by setting a minimum and maximum stroke thickness. Digital Video expects its users to work with a Wacom tablet, so the accuracy of your pen strokes can be preset in the Tool Options bar.

Drawing takes advantage of preset Styles, which are interactively linked with strokes in the scene. If you modify the style in the Style Palette, all instances of strokes and fills using that style will be updated. This can be useful, but a bit of a pain if you forget to deselect the style before moving on. Special (such as polka dots), textured, and custom styles can be used and you can set a new default style by clicking the Style Picker tool on an existing style in the drawings. Another type is Sketches Styles, which are used in the construction of a drawing as guides – they don’t show up in the final rendering of the animation. Grids and line guides are available for positioning and composing scene elements.

Every element in the scene can be moved and rotated, including the camera. Contents can be moved along a motion path, with or without independent rotation. You can link columns in the Scene editor to create a knock on effect – this is useful for a form of IK with figure animation – or nest hierarchical sub scenes within main scenes. The scene
can be viewed in different modes. There’s a 2.5D view for moving elements and composing the scene in a theatre stage environment, a standard view where all the elements move by the work area, and camera view where the camera remains stationary and the other elements move around in relation to it.

Animating is made easy in the TAB by simple tweening of original and modified copies of artwork. It’s best to just deform the strokes of the original, as erasing or adding strokes and colours seemed to throw the interpolation engine into a spin. You can import AVI or QuickTime movies into the scene then draw on top in a new column. Rotoscoping like this can be used to trace a subject throughout the whole of the live clip, or to trace only certain image frames as keyframes for movement and then use the tweener to interpolate the rest. You can easily clone an animation sequence and set it as an additional level to be manipulated, or to have two levels that are similar but not identical. Onion Skinning is possible in both the Scene editor and Level strip, letting you view previous or following drawings and their positions relative to the current frame.

For exporting animation, projects can be output in limited form to .SWF format as well as full projects to QuickTime and AVI files (so it’s also useful for compositing applications). It can import audio too, in uncompressed WAV and AIFF formats to provide a soundtrack for your animation. Digit’s review copy was the shipping version of the product, but Digital Video is adding more Rooms all the time, so check out the Web site for updates.