About Me

I'm just someone struggling against my own inertia to be creative. My current favorite book is "Oh the places you'll go" by Dr. Seuss

Friday, May 8, 2009

Autodesk Animator

UPDATE: New website, animatorpro.org , Source code now online.

Here's a little story about a neat old computer program, and how I plan to save it from the brink of digital death.

For the past few years I've been fascinated by this program. Way back in the beginning, I became aware of the existence of dedicated communities devoted to solely pixel art.

One of the communities, pixelation, had a highly regarded tutorial titled "so you want to be a pixel artist?"

(Links are to mirrors, the original site is long gone). When I read that tutorial was the first time I became aware of the fact that there was a program called "Autodesk Animator". The native format of Animator (fli, flc) was certainly ubiquitous in the 1990's. Even today, Mac OS X doesn't need any special software to play FLI files, quicktime handles them natively. I have also been a participant in the pov-ray community, which used independent dos utilities to string together ray-traced frames into Animator's FLI and FLC format. Why? It was the very first widely available delta compressed video format!

What really grabbed my interest, was this spectacular animation by a guy named Paul Robertson.(NSFW!) who allegedly used Autodesk Animator to make it.

So cargo cultist that I am, I set about attempting to obtain the software. This is really difficult to do, it turns out. Eventually I succeeded. (*whistles). The software can only be run on a modern computer by means of emulation. DosBox is quite capable of running the software. Here's me on the DosBox forums trying to make that experience suck less.

The software is really very much like another contemporary peice of software called Deluxe Paint. Between Autodesk Animator, and Deluxe Paint, you can account for about 90%*(making shit up) of the game artwork produced between 1989 and 1999. These were *the* pixel art programs. They belong to a class of paint program designed around the limitations of computers that can only display small amounts of colors. A style of paint program that has really fallen into obscurity ever since the photoshops of the world took over with their fancy 24-bit color modes. (oh and by the way, Dr. Katz, Home Movies, and Science Court were made in Animator, also, most of these youtube videos, and also, my cool dinosaur animation)

What sets Animator apart from its contemporaries is its direct keyboard control over animation functions, a very useful Sprite animation mode, and a built in scripting language named PocoScript.

What sets it apart from Modern paint programs is that while it is only capable of producing 256 color images and animations, it has a vast number of tools, inks, filters, and effects that modern programs cannot use in their highly crippled 8-bit modes. In addition, the functions available for manipulating that limited palette are unmatched by any other program I've seen. These properties make it ideally suited for producing art for platforms with limited capacity (such as game consoles, mobile phones, toys, etc) in other words, "pixel art". In its own time, this was thought of as a severe limitation. Today, this is its advantage- this is its characteristic difference.

Just one problem.

So, I'm going to do something about it! I had an idea. In my research, I found out quite a bit about the history of this program. I found out that before it was a PC program named Autodesk Animator, it was an Atari ST program named "Cyberpaint'. Before that it was Aegis Animator, and Flicker, and a conglomeration of other small paint programs and experiments, all authored by a guy named Jim Kent, who had a funny habit of negotating software contracts that let him keep the rights to the source code. Hmm. Interesting little story about Jim Kent. In the year 2000, he mapped the human genome using a cluster of 40 commodity PC's in his basement, Beating out a biotech firm by a day, and thus saving the technology, and our genes from patents. Oh yeah, and he likes open source software.

So I decided to email him, asking if he might, maybe, kind of, consider maybe open sourcing our favorite program. This was his response:

Oh, and by the way...

So, he kept his rights to the source code, and now, he is granting me access to the source code, to make it available to you all! Well not so fast. He also asked me to get in touch with Gary Yost to ensure that he didn't object. (Former owner of Yost Group who licensed the original software to Autodesk), Well okay, that wasn't so easy, since he's now a big shot vice president in a tiny little company called Mental Images

But I managed, and I got his support too! So now that all the relevant parties are up to speed with my idea let's go!

Hold on, though, there's some chores to do first before I can release it to the public. I know I know, blah blah blah. First off, there's a bunch of material in these little zip files which suspiciously looks like stuff that Jim Kent did not write. There's piles and piles of documentation that looks suspiciously.. .copyright autodesk. There's piles of fonts licensed from-- Anim8 inc, a company that I can find ZERO information about. (help?) and Sample artwork that I can't use, because I don't know who made it.

There's also the technical challenges. It would be nice before I release the source code, if I knew all the tools and software that it depends on, and how to compile it. It would be even better if I could adapt the code to compile with tools that are Free and Open Source, rather than tools that are proprietary, out of date, and impossible to find

So I know it's frustrating, but I'm going to have to sit on the code for a short while, so I can sort these issues out. I'm soliciting for anyone that can help with writing documentation, any artists that are willing to make sample artwork using the software, any lawyers that are willing to offer me advice on how to avoid stabbing myself in the foot, and anyone who is a particularly clever programmer that knows anything about programming for MSDOS, or is willing to try their hand at pocoscript to make some sample scripts. I'm kind of a clever cookie myself, and given enough time I can probably get a lot of this stuff done on my own, but it will take me a loooong time without help. I will detail the technical challenges in an upcoming post for those interested, and document my progress through this new project.