When researching how to make a cartoon on the computer, one will quickly notice there is quite a reputation around skeletal animation and vector model design. There’s a good reason for its being so highly praised, and contrary to popular belief, it’s very easy to use.
The best tool for designing your vectors, hands down, is Flash. Anyone who’s used to any image editing program will instantly feel at home with Flash’s layout, and much of its thought processes. It’s best to use CS5, as earlier CS releases tend to be a tad slow on average computers.
You’ll notice almost instantly how easy it is to create stylistic lines and fills with Flash, drawing lines, snapping them together and bending the lines into curves. With any artistic talent, this process can lead to very crisp, beautiful cell models that any animation studio would be proud of.
Artistically-minded animators will also find that Flash is great for importing sketched models of characters, and rotoscoping them directly into Flash itself. To do this, simply import an image to the layer that the project has by default. Create a new layer over it, and make a white rectangle over the image. Set its color opacity to about 60% (though it may vary depending on the heaviness of the sketch’s pencil work). Make one more layer above this, and then lock the two layers below. Begin following your sketch with the line and pen tools, and in moments, you have a beautiful cell model that’s true to your original sketch.
Now, be sure to convert all of the moving pars of your model into distinct symbols (movie clips) by right-clicking on them and selecting “convert to symbol”. Remove any rotoscoping layers and imported images at this point. Now, it’s a good idea to distribute your moving parts to their own layers, stacked top to bottom by the order they overlap. Group your parts by what they belong to, so that all parts of an arm, for example, are in one single layer. Upon doing this, you’re ready to animate your model.
Now, the wonderful thing with Flash since version CS4 is, you don’t need another program in order to use skeletal animation on your model. Skeletal animation is also called “bone animation” or “inverse kinematics”. Flash refers to this as bones.
When ready to animate, for example, the arm, select the bone tool. From the shoulder, drag a bone to just past the elbow. From this joint, drag another to just past the wrist. Now, selecting the pointer tool, you will find that dragging on different parts of the arm will result in the arm bending in the same way that a real arm would move. Well, you will notice it bends to extents that your arm cannot. To solve this, click on one of the bones, and in properties, simply play with the restrictions until you have it to where it seems proper for your character.
Now, once you’ve given your character all of his moving parts in this manner, you want to make an animation of them moving. This is very easy to do. Copy the existing frame in your timeline, and decide how many frames in length the motion should take. Select the empty frame for that distance, and paste the frame there. The timeline between the frames will fill out with just a long stretch of the original frame at this point.
In the final frame, move the parts of your model to where they should be once the motion is completed. Now, select all of the frames, and right click on the selection. You can create a classic tween, or a motion tween; Animators have had mixed results in comparing which of these works better, so it’s best to try both, and see which one works best for you.
Voila, you’ve mastered vector model creation, and advanced skeletal animation, and you did it all with one program, in less than two hours!
This is a distinctly faster, and more streamlined method of design and animation than the classic frame-by-frame method that has been used since the birth of the art form. However, in being distinctly different from classic animation, it also looks very different. It takes a skilled animator and designer to not make skeletal animation look “puppety” or robotic. It lacks the organic feel that classic animation forms possess. However, when you look at how much time is saved with this animation style, and if you’re willing to practice with it, the tradeoff is most often well worth it.
One last precaution, though, for those who really find this Flash animation method to be promising: don’t design your backgrounds in Flash unless you want a vector look to them. Being vectors, Flash cannot provide the painted, detailed types of backgrounds most quality animation forms integrate.