The comprehensive and expensive authoring tool Adobe Flash CS5 started life as a humble animation program. Firing up Pencil for the first time, we were reminded very much of those early origins and the simple features that made it seem such a great application.
Pencil is an animation tool with very similar layout, functionality and features to early Flash. There are no interactivity tools, no Action-scripting, symbols or database connectivity. What you do get is a keyframe-based timeline, with the ability to create animation using bitmap or vector drawing tools on their own separate layers.
The program’s documentation suggests a quite different workflow to Flash animation. It encourages you to use pen and tablet to create bitmap line art, and then tidy up using a vector layer over the top. The keyframe-based timeline enables you to build up animation frame by frame, using onion skinning so you can refer to previous imagery.
When you finish an animation there are several choices for export. The obvious Shockwave Flash format is joined by QuickTime movie and X Sheet. The latter creates a static document, like a storyboard, traditionally used by stop-motion animators to plan sequences.
Alas, Pencil doesn’t deliver on several fronts. There are no primitive shape draw tools – just a geometric line drawing tool. Click the Pen tool and, disappointingly, it turns out to be a freehand vector-drawing tool, rather than one for creating Bezier curves. This makes your vector animations a distinctly freehand affair.
In our search for a tool that can stand in for Flash, Pencil is one of the better efforts – and certainly one of the best free options available. If you’re after a simple, stop-motion animation tool, we’d suggest trying Smoovie (www.smoovie.tv), a dedicated solution for old school cartoons.