Convergence, the unification of distribution channels, is a powerful concept in the entertainment industry and the goal that everyone is after. Cramming TV onto the web was for a long time the approach of choice and proved only mildly successful. With Flash, there is now an Internet tool, that sets out to make its way in the opposite direction, into TV.
Flash is an efficient software for the Internet and for animation on all sorts of computer appliances, no doubt about it. For all the well-known reasons, it has deservedly become the web entertainment's industry standard. But can it also become a viable tool for TV, video, or even film? Can it compete with established video motion graphics and animation technologies or find its niche?
Whenever a technology or an application from one media platform makes the quantum leap to another, there's a lot of buzz around it. If you filter the hype, though, the fact remains that broadcast TV now features music videos, trailers, commercials, and even entire cartoons, fully or partly produced in Flash.
Opportunities and Challenges for Flash as a Broadcast TV Tool
Even though there are companies that try to patent Flash-for-TV workflows, the application is still far from being a fully established or trusted broadcast animation or motion graphics tool. A lot of experimentation will have to be applied, before we can see all the possibilities that Flash might open up for broadcast media. In the commercial sector, it might need some strong arguments to win over clients who are used to spending big bucks for the most expensive video technology. When it comes to broadcast content or graphics for TV, Flash has four arguments going for it:
All the preceding arguments that speak so strongly for Flash as a broadcast tool were successfully tested in the production of Piggidog (see Figure 11.4), a cartoon character for a German TV show concept developed by Schwanstein Entertainment. The funny cartoon look, the great talent of Flash animators (Smashing Ideas' Matt Rodriguez in this case), the possibility to use Piggidog both on the web and on TV, and last but not least the incredibly quick and efficient production convinced the executive producer Stephan Reichenberger that Flash is indeed a viable broadcast tool, especially for creating cartoon characters.
Figure 11.4. Piggidog was a Flash-generated sidekick for show-host Erich Lejeune..
In the show's concept, Piggidog was designed to be keyed into footage of a virtual 3D set shoot to serve as a cartoon sidekick for human show host, Erich Lejeune. There had been earlier Piggidog designs by a traditional animator, but they had clashed too much with the look and feel of the computer-generated 3D set. Flash on the other hand offered the possibility to create a 2D character that combined tongue-in-cheek cartoon style with the sophisticated look of computer-generated images.
Producing the Flash animation took about a week, from first brainstorming to delivery of the finished files. After the client had selected the final design from a range of scanned and emailed pencil sketches, they sent an MP3 with Piggidogs's voice-over from Berlin to Seattle. With this soundtrack as a reference, the Flash animation was created: Piggidog talking, running, and jumping. In the end a whole set of mouths and body movements were uploaded as bitmaps onto the client's FTP-server. No recording to tape or burning CD-ROMs, no hassle with transatlantic overnight delivery. Back in Germany, the Piggidog files were keyed into the video, using After Effects and Media100 to composite, resize, move, and sync the animation's single frames with the video and the soundtrack of the virtual studio recording.
Planning Your Broadcast TV Project
Because Flash has not yet been fully integrated into professional TV workflows, such as other "prosumer" software like After Effects or Photoshop, there aren't many standardized Flash-for-TV procedures you can rely on at this point. Production methods, workflow, and workarounds will yet have to be invented, tested, improved, and standardized. For the time being, every new Flash-for-TV project is likely to pose new challenges.
Video production is a great deal more expensive than web production. You should therefore plan your Flash-for-TV project and its workflow carefully. Taking Flash-to-TV's specific challenges and limitations into early consideration can save a lot of frustration. Time and money for experimenting and testing is more wisely spent in Flash-preproduction than in expensive broadcast post. Be aware, that a "we fix it in the mix" attitude can prove increasingly dangerous the more technologies or formats are involved.
A lot of broadcast TV content and graphics are being produced on computers, and a lot is then played back on the Mac and PC via the Internet or local media such as DVD or CD-ROMs. Conversion procedures from TV to computer and vice versa are commonplace and, in theory, there's a technical solution for almost every transfer problem. If you've been on the wrong track, the good news is that thanks to all the different standards, formats, and technologies in video production, there's hardly anything that hasn't been converted, corrected, resized, or reformatted. The bad news is that the end product might not look like you wanted it to. Losses in quality, unforeseen problems in the conversion, and, most of all, the unexpected, and often considerable, costs that come with it can be frustrating.
And sometimes even the most sophisticated post production can't bail you out. Maybe the technology can't improve the look of your converted content or maybe it's just too expensive to fix. Your last resort could be to film your animation from a good computer screen. This had to be done for a well-known web cartoon, because no conversion process produced acceptable results for TV.
It does not take too much time to exclude the well-known problems from the beginning. So the most important advice when producing for broadcast TV is probably that you should consult with video professionals before you start to work in Flash and design even your Flash workflow accordingly. Test the entire production and conversion process with video engineers at your client network's facilities or consult independent post-production professionals before you sit down to your Flash animation.
Do consult the video pros, preferably at your client's network, and have them provide you with detailed technical specifications about what your Flash movie needs to have to do the following:
The different combinations of formats and technologies that you might encounter when working for TV, are probably too much for any non-video artist to keep up with. Your job as Flash producer should be to create great Flash content. You don't need to know everything that is happening on the video end of the production. But you should know, which issues are known troublemakers and what to ask from the video pros so that you can do your job of delivering high-quality Flash content that needs as little as possible correction.
The following section should give you an idea about what to keep in mind and what information to inquire about.
When outputting Flash to professional video, most careful pre-production planning should be applied to the question of which resolution format to use that is, which aspect ratio your Flash movie should be created and delivered in especially when it needs to be processed in a professional broadcast environment.
Beware, if all you know is that NTSC's "standard" format is 640x480. Even how-to articles for Flash often don't go further than that. But when working with commercial broadcast television and professional video post production, you will have to interface your computer workflow with professional videography and post-production technologies. In this case 640x480 might be the wrong choice.
Video technology has a long and successful track record of converting TV content back and forth between the different formats, and you won't be completely lost if you worked with the wrong format. But it is extra effort and extra cost, so for optimal results and smooth workflow, determine these things early with your TV client or your video pro consultant.
The following description of TV formats can serve as a checklist when planning your project.
NTSC (National Television Standards Committee)
NTSC is the American TV format used in North and Central America and also in Japan. It was developed in the 1950s and uses 525 horizontal lines to display an image. The frame rate for NTSC is 29.97fps.
When you work on an NTSC project, you have to watch out for the following resolution options in which you might have to deliver your files:
PAL (Phase Alternating Line)
PAL is the most widely used television standard in the world, especially in Western Europe (except for France, which uses its own system, SECAM), in Australia, in much of Asia, except Japan and Korea, and in most South American countries. PAL was developed about a decade after NTSC and is generally considered to be the overall superior system. Images are better and sharper than NTSC's, because PAL uses 625 horizontal lines and a standard resolution of 720x486. A disadvantage of PAL is that it displays only 25 frames per second, which makes flicker worse. On the other hand, 25fps is not a fractional number, like NTSC's 29.97, and it's also close to film's frame rate of 24fps and therefore converts easily from and to film.
When you work on a PAL project, it never hurts to heed everything we suggested for NTSC projects. You won't have to be as concerned about colors, because PAL does better there, but the testing procedures should still be followed to avoid surprises.
Keep in mind that PAL, like NTSC, also uses different resolution formats: Analog PAL has 720x486, digital D-1 PAL has 720x576. Like D-1 NTSC, digital PAL also uses rectangular pixels, only with horizontal orientation as opposed to digital NTSC's vertical pixel orientation. To create rectangular pixel art from square pixel sources requires the same procedure as previously described for D-1 NTSC. The resolution to be used is 768x576.
The best television format available today is HDTV, High-Definition Television. It still has only a niche existence but it is growing. HDTV's frame ratio is 16:9 and its resolution is either 1920x1080 pixels for interlaced images or 1280x720 pixels for progressive scanning system. Progressive scanning means that images are created in one pass and not two as with interlaced images.
Frame Rates and Timecodes
One of the first practical tasks when developing Flash animation for TV is to set the frame rate of your Flash movie. We have already discussed the methods of how to adjust frame rates of movies that have been created with less fps for the web. Here, the focus is on projects that are primarily or entirely aimed at TV. These projects of course should be produced from the beginning with TV frame rates. The following section should help to clear up some confusion about frame rates and timecodes, especially with NTSC. PAL's frame rate is 25fps, which for Flash projects is also handy, because all you need to do is set your movies frame rate to 25 and export to your NLE. No further considerations needed.
With NTSC on the other hand, it's once again not quite as simple. NTSC's frame rate is often given as 30 frames per second. This, however, is only an approximation, because the exact frame rate for NTSC is 29.97fps. The NTSC system departed from the previous perfect 30 fps for technical reasons when color TV was introduced.
For nonvideo professionals, the confusion often sets in when they are confronted with the fact that, NTSC timecodes obviously do use 30fps, as NLE's settings will often reveal. The answer lies in not confusing actual frame rate with timecode, which is simply a method of numbering your videos frames and synchronizing the numbers to time and duration of the video.
The timecode in 30fps is used for practical reasons, because nobody in video production can afford to figure out fractional 29.97fps with a stopwatch and pocket calculator to get exact duration and timing of video clips.
Having a real frame rate of 29.97 and a slightly "off" timecode, numbering 30fps, obviously generates an increasing discrepancy between a video's real duration and its stated duration on the timecode display. Therefore, standard NTSC timecode uses a trick to recalibrate its count to realtime. It doesn't drop or skip actual frames like the name "Drop-Frame Timecode" suggests, but only frame numbers. It simply skips displaying frame numbers in regular intervals to make exactly one hour of video appear as one hour in timecode.
Now where does that leave you as a Flash producer who has to deliver an animation for TV? The only thing to really remember and be aware of is that NTSC equipment always records and plays back at a precise frame rate of 29.97fps and not full 30 frames.
In other words, an exact hour's worth of programming will consist of 107,892 frames and not 108,000 as the 30fps might have suggested to you. If you deliver the latter, your animation is 108 frames or over 3 seconds too long.
Considering the practical workflow and the nature of Flash animations, this difference probably won't matter much in most productions. You may of course set your Flash movie to 29.97 as some video pros suggest, but the time and frame display in Flash is not as precise as in video equipment, so while creating your animation this might easily lead to additional confusion (see Figure 11.5).
Figure 11.5. For video purposes Flash's time display is too inaccurate and can lead to confusion.
Flash still displays a setting of 30fps in the field below the timeline, even when the actual frame rate is set to NTSC's exact 29.97 in the movie settings. However, Flash obviously calculates the correct duration of fractional frame rates. But this value is again given only in minutes, seconds, and rounded split seconds, not in minutes, seconds, and frames, as a TV time code would. To determine an exact timecode for a given frame in the timeline would require some calculation.
Longer Flash-generated programs, like cartoons, will almost certainly have to go into video post anyway, at least to mix and resync the sound to broadcast quality. In which case, it is always better to have a few frames too many.
If you have to deliver shorter motion graphics that need to fit an exact length, because they are used in a composition or because they are exactly timed for a programming window, then you should have your client give you the required length in precise frames and not only in minutes or seconds.
Once again, the frame rate issue, is something that should be mentioned and solved in preproduction planning. It is not a big deal for all practical reasons with most productions, but it's better to keep the terminology straight and not have to worry about the confusion it could create.
Interlacing Issues in Professional Post Production
Consult with your post-production partner not only on how to achieve best results for common interlacing problems, but also on how the process of interlacing or field rendering your computer graphics is handled. Depending on the nature of your animation or post-production's workflow, it might sometimes be better for you to provide a double 60fps instead of 30. (Make that 59.94 instead of 29.97, if your video techie is pedantic.) Interlacing fields from noninterlaced source material, the so-called "field rendering" process in programs like After Effects can yield better results when there is a full noninterlaced frame provided for each interlaced field to be created. Once again, considering that most Flash animations don't contain rapid motion, it probably won't make much of a difference. But ask the video pros, especially when your animation consists of fast-moving objects, shapes, or fills and you have made full use of your frame rate; that is, when every frame consists of a different in-between image.
If you don't have fast motion in your animation, your video pro will most likely tell you not to bother and simply to deliver 30 (29.97) fps for NTSC. For the "Piggidog" project in PAL, we submitted only 25fps and not the doubled 50. But because cartoon animation doesn't need fast motion to simulate movement, the composed video didn't confront us with any interlacing issues whatsoever (see Figure 11.6).
Figure 11.6. Piggidog's design didn't create any interlacing artifacts. His outlines are thick, anti-aliased, and there are hardly any thin horizontal lines.
Our conclusion on the Piggidog project was in every respect a successful test-run for Flash-for-TV production. Developing the character was easier and quicker than with any other animation method I have seen so far, and both the production workflow itself and the interfacing with the video post production was also smooth enough, that I don't see why Flash shouldn't make its way into broadcast TV. In the end, professionals and clients want an efficient technology that provides the best solution for the tasks at hand. Flash has its strengths and weaknesses when applied to video-oriented projects. One key to Flash's success in jumping the platform gap will be to take advantage of its strengths and to interface with other solutions and technologies wherever Flash can't do the job best. Thinking outside the box and designing innovative ways for workflow and technology interaction will be eminently important in planning and setting up Flash for TV projects.