Welcome to the final entry in our series exploring the creative software we have at our disposal outside the familiar world of Adobe. In this article we’ll be going over some awesome alternatives to Animate CC, formerly known as Flash.
Animation in Flash has been used heavily in both game dev and in animated shorts and shows, so we’ll be taking a little look at software you can use for both these purposes. Most of these programs have a strong focus on “skeletal animation”.
For that reason, in case you’re just getting into animation and deciding which tools to use, we’ll start with a quick rundown of skeletal animation to help you better assess the features of each application and which is most suited to you and your projects. Let’s go!
Quick Skeletal Animation Rundown
External Art Creation
The first step in the skeletal animation process is typically using an external application to create artwork comprised of multiple pieces on different layers. For example, you might create a character with separate limbs, torso and head.
When your art is finished you import it in pieces into your animation software and reassemble it. Some tools provide means to automate this import process, saving you the trouble of individual layer exports and manual reassembly.
Bones and Rigging
Once your art is laid out on the canvas correctly you then create a skeleton for
your character. Skeletons are comprised of “bones”, and bones get attached to each of the
pieces in your character art. This process is typically referred to as “rigging”.
Now when you move a bone the attached images move and rotate along with it, and by manipulating the position and rotation of the bones you can set your character into various poses. Animations are created by putting your character in various poses at different points on the timeline and allowing the software to “tween”, (automatically create frames in between), those poses.
If that doesn’t fully make sense just yet don’t worry, as you’ll see some videos of this process below.
Some software takes the skeletal animation process a step further with the addition of “meshes”. Normal bones typically only adjust the position and rotation of attached images. Meshes on the other hand add a series of points over the top of each image, and if any of those points are moved the image’s nearby pixels move too. Through manipulating these points, either manually or via attached bones, you can perform sophisticated bending and warping of shapes, allowing for effects like pseudo 3D rotation or cloth moving in the wind.
Many skeletal animation softwares provide something called “runtimes”, which are libraries of code that allow animation to be rendered at run time in certain game engines or other code based environments. Using runtimes has a couple of benefits.
Firstly, you can dramatically reduce the file size your animations take up because rather than needing an image to represent every frame of a prerendered animation all you need is your artwork in its original pieces and the data on your skeleton and its poses over time.
Secondly, you have the ability to change how the animation works at run time. For example, you might switch out the images associated with your skeleton so you can change your character’s appearance or attachments on the fly. It also allows for smooth transitions between one animation and the next, such as gradually coming to a stop from a running state rather than the body suddenly switching its pose.
That covers the fundamentals of skeletal animation, so now you know what to look for let’s jump into looking at our software!
Spine is a skeletal animation application focused on character animation for game development. It’s one of the most popular tools of its kind, and for good reason. It’s packed with features, has a smooth user experience, and includes a comprehensive list of official and third party runtimes that cover 19 game engines & toolkits and 7 programming languages. Among leading game engines provided for are Unity, Unreal Engine, GameMaker, Construct 2 and Phaser.
Spine comes in two flavors: the “Essential” version for $69 and the “Professional” version with more features at $299. However, the inclusions in the “Essential” version are strong and will take you a long way. You’ll be missing out on meshes, free form deformation, clipping, and constraints, but you’ll have everything else.
I find working with Spine to be a very smooth experience and its rigging process is, in my opinion, probably the fastest most efficient among applications of its kind. Once rigged, posing characters is intuitive and straight forward. And from there you can activate the auto key function which allows you to just move the playhead to a particular time, pose your skeleton, and all the appropriate keys will be added for position, rotation and so on. Alternatively you can set keys manually if you’d rather have finer control.
Spine has a skin system that allows you to create animations with one set of attached images, then use the same animations again with a totally different set of images. You can use this to create different versions of the same character or creature, such as switching gender for example, or changing the clothing or weapon images being used. These differing skins then provide either an easy way to render out multiple spritesheets or, if using a runtime, the ability to change these things on the fly
In another feature helpful to game developers, Spine allows you to set bounding boxes that can be used for collision and physics in games. This means you can still have accurate collision even as your character’s shape changes throughout their animation cycle.
With the addition of scripts to Spine, images for animating can have their import automated from GIMP and Inkscape. And if you’re working with both Affinity Designer or Photo you can use its built-in Spine batch export feature. With any of these processes you can start with all your body pieces arranged where they should be, as opposed to manually placing them.
Spine also has the ability to export to video, (AVI and Quicktime), meaning you can use it for all kinds of animation purposes as well as game graphics.
- Website: http://esotericsoftware.com
- Platforms: Linux, Mac, Windows
- Price: $69 for “Essential” version (no meshes, deformation or constraints), $299 for “Professional” version
DragonBones a completely free program that is very much like Spine. It doesn’t have full feature parity, but it is quite close and given you don’t pay a penny to use it that makes a pretty compelling case. In Spine you’ll need the “Pro” version to access meshes, IK constraints and free form deformation, but these things are included out of the box in DragonBones.
DragonBones, however, doesn’t have as many runtimes as does Spine. It currently caters for C# (can be used with Unity), JS/TypeScript (use with Pixi, Egret), C++ (use with Cocos2d), ActionScript (use with Flash, Starling), SpriteKit and Java.
One of my favorite features in Spine is the “skins” system, and the same type of functionality is available in DragonBones too, it’s just referred to as an “avatar system” instead.
The fact that DragonBones gives free access to all its features features, including meshes and free form deformation, (the ability to stretch and warp images), means you can create some very cool effects with zero cost software:
Setting up bones is a pretty straight forward experience in DragonBones. It has an auto binding feature where with the “create bone” tool you can just click in the image you want a bone to be bound to then drag out to the desired length. This doesn’t work flawlessly for every image you need to bind, but it certainly gets you part of the way there.
The dev team behind DragonBones is Chinese, and while there are English docs you might just have to read a little carefully as English is the second language of the writers. However I haven’t found any significant difficulty in understanding how things work, which I think is helped along by the fact that tools are placed in the UI in a way that is quite intuitive.
If you’re on Mac or Windows and want to get your skeletal animations rolling with a free application this will be a superb place to start. Note that you will, however, need to login to a free account in order to save your work. Other than that, it’s all open access.
- Website: http://dragonbones.com/en/index.html
- Platforms: Mac, Windows
- Price: Free
Spriter is another application in the vein of Spine and DragonBones, being focused on creating animations for games. It’s a little different to the above two options however in that it doesn’t include any meshes, but it does include some interesting features that can help with pixel art assets.
If you’re a pixel artist looking for a way to speed up animations Spriter is a stand out option for you due to its “Pixel art mode”. With this mode active you can only move sprites in whole pixel increments, preventing any blurred half pixels. Additionally, no sampling happens between pixels as they move, so throughout animations your sprites will always retain crisp, blur free pixels.
There is also a great color palette swapping feature that can be used with art in indexed mode, i.e. restricted to a palette with a fixed number of colors, as is most pixel art. With the help of a runtime this makes it possible to provide players with the ability to change a character’s clothing color, hair color, skin color, eye color and so on.
As with Spine and DragonBones, Spriter also offers the ability to swap out the images associated with your bones when using a runtime. In this case the feature is referred to as “character maps”.
And if using Spriter for game development, you can use it to create collision boxes that can be used in game, again as long as you’re using a runtime.
For Linux users a Spriter build is available, however it’s targeted at Ubuntu 14 and relies on Gstreamer 0.10 which isn’t bundled with the software. On older distros or anything based on Ubuntu 16.04 you should be able to easily install the required Gstreamer version manually. However on later distros you may find only Gstreamer 1.0 or higher is in your repos, making Spriter use problematic. Hopefully the developer will be able to update their Linux version soon, otherwise just be aware you may have to work around this issue.
Spriter has both a free version and a “Pro” version for $69, making it an affordable application among its peers. That said, the free version of Spriter is a solid tool even without the full feature set of the “Pro” version. It allows you to create skeletal animations with basic easing control and basic IK so you can really get a strong feel for the software before deciding whether or not to grab the “Pro” version.
- Website: https://brashmonkey.com
- Platforms: Linux (Ubuntu 14), Mac, Windows
- Price: Free version, and "Pro" version $59.99
In Creature we have another skeletal animation tool focused on game development. However this one is a little different to the above applications because not only does it include meshes in both its versions, in actual fact everything is a mesh.
In Creature as soon as you import an image it becomes a mesh, as opposed to meshes being something optional you can add if you choose. As everything is mesh-based it means all parts of your image can be deformed, and bones can be used to affect any portion of the mesh as well. Through these features you get the ability to create graphics that have a 3D look to them even when done entirely in 2D.
The standout features of Creature are, in my opinion, in its bone motors and force fields. Bone motors give you ways to control the positioning of your bones procedurally, rather than solely through manual posing. And force fields create environmental influences that can further impact how your motor-driven bones move.
For example, to make hair that can blow in the wind you would add bones to the image meshes that make up the hair on a character, then apply a “bend motor” that would apply the physical properties of real hair, e.g. adding the effect of gravity on the hair, determining how stiff the hair is and so on.
Then once you give the hair appropriate physical properties you can add a force field that simulates wind. This will interact with the bend motor on the hair to create the effect of the hair blowing in the breeze. The same process can be used to make clothing, flags and other flexible materials behave with flowing, physical realism.
On top of in-application force fields, another incredibly cool feature Creature has is the ability to add live bend physics into a game. This allows elements of your images to bend in a realistic way according to their movement in game. For example, you might create a fox character whose tail and ears bounce around naturally when they move:
As for what you get in the $99 “Basic” version, you get mesh creation, but not mesh sculpting, optimization and refinement. You get bone motors that can drive bend physics, rope physics, rotation cycles and walking, but you don’t get mesh deformation motors. There’s no path use, but there is spline use. In the “Basic” version you can also swap the sprites associated with meshes, referred to as “skin swapping”.
Right now Creature is available on Mac and Windows, though the lead dev has said Linux support should be coming in the future. Creature has a lot of powerful features that other animation software does not, so it’s definitely an application to try.
- Website: http://creature.kestrelmoon.com
- Platforms: Mac, Windows
- Price: $99 or $199 for "Pro" version
OpenToonz is different to the other animation software we’ve covered in that it’s not focused on game dev, but rather on traditional animation for video. Also unlike our other applications OpenToonz is designed for you to be able to draw directly inside the software. OpenToonz is most well known for being the primary software used by beloved animation house Studio Ghibli, as well as being used in Futurama, The Maxx and other popular animated shows and movies.
The animation method in OpenToonz is a different paradigm to the software we’ve talked about so far. There is quite a bit of emphasis on drawing animations frame by frame, though an “auto in-between” tool is available for filling in gaps in your timeline. However, skeletal animation tools are available too, with support for both regular bones as well as meshes.
The included drawing and painting tools are quite robust, with included smoothing / stabilizing and pen pressure support. It also has support for vector based drawing with the ability to modify your art after laying down strokes. Even when working with vectors here the drawing process feels very natural, with no noticeable difference to drawing with raster strokes.
OpenToonz used to be known as Toonz, and since 1993 was a closed source, paid, enterprise level application. Luckily for all of us, it was released as free and open source software in March of 2016. If you’re animating for video it’s a must try.
- Website: https://opentoonz.github.io/e/index.html
- Platforms: Mac and Windows official, plus community Linux build
- Price: Free
That’s five awesome alternatives to Adobe software in the animation space, each one with a version available for a one time purchase of under $100, (or free). Let’s quickly summary our applications, and crunch down how to decide which fits you best.
Spine right now is the leader in 2D skeletal animation due to its smooth
workflow, stack of features, and runtimes for just about everything. The full feature set in the “Pro” version would cost you more than our series price cap, and is more expensive than the highest price point on any of our other software. However the “Essentials” version gives you well enough to get on your way animating. If you’re in game dev there’s a good chance this might be the right animation software for you.
If you’re considering Spine and don’t need Linux support, you should definitely check out DragonBones as part of your decision making process. It’s not quite as smooth to use as Spine but it is very close. It doesn’t have all the features of Spine, but it has several of them. And of course it’s completely free. It does have fewer runtimes available however, so your choice may come down to how important Spine’s extra features are to you, and whether a runtime is available for your chosen engine and / or coding language.
Spriter is has a free version, and also a “Pro” version that’s cheaper than Spine’s “Essential” version, so price-wise it stacks up well against Spine. On the other hand its paid version doesn’t have some of features that DragonBones offers free, which may make it tough to choose over DragonBones. However Spriter does have some great pixel art specific tools that aren’t in other applications and could be very useful for pixel artists. It also has Linux support, which DragonBones does not. So Spriter might be for you if you want those pixel art features, and / or if you’re on Linux and looking for a lower price point than Spine.
Creature is different to the other skeletal animation software we covered in that everything
you work with is a mesh, and it has powerful bone motors and force fields. This means you can do all sorts of cool things like warping images to create pseudo 3D, adding realistic physics effects to images so they look like they’re blowing in the wind or being naturally effected by movement. Creature might be for you if you’re on Mac or Windows and the mesh based animation style appeals to you.
OpenToonz is the standout option if the animation you are producing is for rendered video rather than for games. You can paint directly inside the software in either raster or vector format, with stabilizers and pen pressure support. You can’t do much better than the software used by Studio Ghibli, available completely free of charge.
Of course every one of these applications has a massive list of features that is too long to cover completely in this article, so be sure to try each one out for yourself to see everything they have to offer.
That’s a Series Wrap!
And with that, we’re also wrapping up our series exploring the realms beyond our well
known Adobe applications, looking to see what other cool software might
be out there. Hopefully you’ve found not just some new animation software,
but a whole slew of new software to enjoy. Have fun being creative!
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