Self-proclaimed masters of 'progressive design technology', 2Advanced’s team talks to Ultrashock's Craig Grannell about animation and cutting-edge Flash-based design.
It’s the tail end of the 1990s and you’ve grown tired of negative experiences within the IPO-bound Web machine, pumping out product, so what do you do? Set up your own agency, of course. However, unlike the many fly-by-night organisations that have since vanished without a trace, 2Advanced has gone from strength to strength and is now rightfully recognised as one of the leading forces in Flash-based design.
Despite its high-profile clients, including Bacardi, Ford Motors, AOL, the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins and Warner Brothers, 2Advanced’s beginnings were rather more humble, as a consultancy and personal work portfolio for now President and Chief Creative Officer, Eric Jordan. Significant growth led to the official formation of the company in 2000 and the rest, as they say, is history.
“We now have an extraordinary group of individuals with a diverse, yet balanced set of talents,” says Chief Operating Officer, Tony Novak. “Our team possesses a wide array of knowledge, enabling us to constantly leverage for multiple and varied tasks.” This has led to forays in Flash and interactivity, video, animation, 3D, and traditional application solutions. In fact, the latter are becoming increasingly popular with the team, as they provide the opportunity for collaboration.
Perhaps surprisingly, the traditional application solutions often turn out to be advanced Flash projects, too, as Eric Jordan explains: “We recently did a project for a company that develops hardware solutions to control physical large plant machinery from an interface board within a personal computer. Our Flash-based application sends, receives and actively monitors the controller interfaces.” Flash enabled to team to produce an interface that allows a user to intuitively manipulate 3D replicas of the actual machines and the buildings in which they reside, so that they can control various functions visually.
This highlights the reasoning behind 2Advanced’s advocacy of Macromedia’s darling application. “It appeals to the senses, merging motion, art, sound and interactivity, making a project more of an experience,” explains Eric. “You can capture someone’s imagination in a way once never thought possible on the Web—something you just cannot achieve with static design. It’s also self-contained; whereas HTML navigation has inevitable interruptions and pauses, Flash is far more elegant.” 2Advanced’s Art Director, Pixelranger (a.k.a. Shane Mielke) agrees, commenting that Flash fuels the company’s vision for the future of the Web, which is a convergence of media: “Through it, you can take motion principles from television and bring them to the Web. Flash can then compete at the same marketing tier, but with the added benefit of interactivity.”
Interactivity is key to much of 2Advanced’s work. Because of Flash, the rigid constraints of HTML are obliterated, and the company finds it can construct sophisticated components that streamline and enhance the user experience. “Because sound and motion can be incorporated, we can create interactive environments that emulate anything we can imagine,” explains Eric. “It also enables us to add emotion and provide an experience to distinguish our work from the myriad of URLs already out there,” interjects Tony.
A FLASH IN THE PAN?
But can Flash really make such a difference to online design these days, or is its penetration now so high that it’s in danger of becoming old-hat? “Not really,” claims Eric, “Flash is still very exciting, and also still the only means by which to really engage people on the Web.” He cannot foresee a time when 2Advanced will stop using it: “Flash is a springboard for what comes next when broadband proliferates and the Internet is as fast as television…”
While 2Advanced uses Flash on a daily basis, the team still yearns for it to evolve—and fast! Eric would love to remove the tedium from incorporating full-motion graphics and broadcast quality effects. “Right now, you have to use external programs and develop effects there, output frames of images and bring them back into Flash,” he explains. Pixelranger would like to see usability enhancements, putting Flash on a par with straightforward HTML, whereas Tony wants ActionScript to become more powerful: “As we’re adding advanced functionality to Flash movies, we need more in the way of OOP, controls, libraries, and low-level control.” As a company all-too-familiar with Web piracy and so-called ‘rips’, Tony would also love to see greater protection of SWF files, to keep source code away from prying hands.
All this technology would be useless without the expertise to use it, though, and 2Advanced’s team have various tricks up their collective sleeves with regards to animation—one of the most important ingredients to any project. “The biggest skill you need to succeed with motion graphics is a strong sense of rhythm,” claims Eric. “Try checking out the way things move on the Sci-Fi channel or a good movie.”
He goes on to explain that you should scrutinize every frame, and ensure everything is choreographed to flow together. “You must understand the physics of how things move,” he continues, “when an object arrives on screen it should speed up in an instant and slow down when it has come into view, thus providing an organic or life-like feel to the animation.”
Pixelranger cites speed as a useful ally when creating animation: “The eye can be tricked on the basis of psychology and depth perception; when things happen slowly, people have the chance to pick apart what you’ve done. Condensing work usually improves it, and makes someone want to watch it again to see what is really happening.”
Such speed also helps keep bandwidth down. “You can serve lower quality graphics when animating at faster speeds,” explains Eric. “When in motion, graphics can be a little fuzzy, but such details often go un-noticed.”
You have to take care, though, to not bog down older PCs, and also Apple Macs, whose users have to suffer a sluggish Flash plug-in. “We optimize everything, no matter what medium it’s going to be presented on,” says Eric. “Varying platforms and graphics cards are factors that affect animation, and you can never foresee differences to deal with. Therefore it’s better to plan ahead and optimize for the worst-case scenario!”
Choosing a ‘middle ground’ frame-rate is 2Advanced’s main solution to this problem, along with optimisation techniques that involve careful planning in the creation of Symbols, in order to achieve optimal reuse throughout the Flash movie. Avoiding large graphics and doing too many things at once are other obvious, but much ignored tips.
So what does the future hold for 2Advanced? “We’re determined to always be at the edge of interactivity, as we believe the convergence of new media technology is only going to continue,” says Tony. “As such, we’re rigorously exploring video and 3D, along with advances in Flash.” He also claims that 2Advanced doesn’t envisage growing in numbers: “As a company expands in size, it becomes harder to sustain, as evidenced by the many failures within our industry; ultimately you end up taking projects purely for profitability.” And it’s creativity that drives the company, rather than money. “2Advanced has given people the opportunity to soak up the real potential of Flash and interactive design,” says Eric. “We’ve taken risks along the way, but in doing so have stimulated our designers’ creative abilities by immersing them into motion-rich environments rather than plain, static Web sites.”
1. Bacardi Sound Studio (www.bacardidj.com)
This ongoing, unique and revolutionary effort emulates a sequencer, enabling you to create music from dozens of custom audio loops. With a design that changes depending on the current contest, this Flash MX-based creation contains plenty of highly complex ActionScript to emulate the functionality of a real-world audio product environment. The back-end is comprised of a robust administration and control system in ASP.NET and Microsoft SQL Server.
2. Josh Todd (www.joshtodd.com)
This entirely Flash-based project was created for musician, Josh Todd, who wanted to get attention with the site, in an effort to remain independent from a record label. The feel was meant to be dark, dirty and interactive, and enabled 2Advanced to branch out into a different visual style. AfterEffects was recruited for some of the complex transitions and effects, such as burning photography, sliding rusty panels, and wires falling into place as navigational items. The navigation was created with ActionScript, which gave the effect of sliding navigational items scripted to the actual physics of the movements.
3. Skyworks, Inc (www.skyworksinc.com)
This rather more corporate affair combines Flash and HTML, providing a clean, sophisticated, well-organised site for Skyworks’ newly formed brand and identity. Because Skyworks sells semi-conductors and phone-related products, 2Advanced hit upon the curvy design to symbolise the final product. A cell phone might be described as a window to the world, and this is used as the main imagery throughout the Web site as a window into what Skyworks does. Uniquely, there is functionality that allows for bookmarked pages that can pass variables through Flash.