I’d like to share the process of developing free animation videos for those of you that may be interested in developing your own animations, but don’t have the budget or inclination to purchase commercial software. You will find many excellent references for pieces of this process in the forums for each of the softwares listed. No doubt someone, somewhere has provided an authoratative end-to-end documentation for this subject before.  My hope is that this post provides you with a good starting point for your first animation project.

All the animation, video and audio tools are open source (GNU General Public License) meaning FREE, with NO TIME LIMIT on your usage. You can download all the software and more at

http://sourceforge.net

Animation and Graphics

Software: Vectorian Giotto

Alternative software: Gimp with the Gimp Animation Package

Animation and vector graphics are done in Vectorian Giotto, which is an easy to use vector graphics and Flash animation tool. The software output is a standard .swf file which works on the web with Adobe Reader, but unfortunately isn’t used by iPods to date, and can’t directly be posted on services such as WordPress.com or Youtube. The conversion process between .swf and .avi and .mp4 is fairly straight forward, though it requires a few steps. See the paragraph on “Converting Flash Animation to MP4” below for more information.

Note: I will explore the Gimp Animation Package (GAP)software next time – it may convert direct to .avi format. However, GAP did not appear to have Flash-like features such as a timeline and the vector graphics were crisper in Vectorian Giotto.

Audio

Software: Audacity

Free Audio Clips: freesound.org

Audio tracks used in your video can be pulled from the Creative Commons or public domain.  You are free to use the video and remixed audio for non-commercial use under the following Creative Commons license “Attribution Non-Commericial” as long as you credit the author and identify the Creative Commons license.

You can get free audio clips for sound effects and some music from freesound.org. Note to self: make sure to document the attribution information when you download! Otherwise you’ll have to go back and find it all again.

Vectorian Giotto does have the ability to add audio, but I couldn’t figure out the conversion of the audio into avi (see below) and the Vectorian Giotto audio mixing capabilities were not obvious.

Instead, the audio mixing was done with Audacity sound editor. Audacity has quite an intuitive interface if you are familiar with MS Word or OpenOffice.org word processing tools. Import your sound clips into Audacity, move them around, crop them, adjust the amplitude and then export your final audio.wav file. Audacity is a full featured sound editor – it includes audio filters and many more features I haven’t explored yet.

Audacity exports a .wav file or other audio format of your choice. Audacity will export MP3 format but requires some additional software.

Converting Flash Animation to .MP4 format

In order to convert the output of Vectorian Giotto video – or any Flash .swf file for that matter – to iPod, YouTube and WordPress.com friendly files a conversion process is required. I couldn’t find a free method that would do the conversion in one step. The steps I used were (1) video screen capture (2) crop / edit video and integrate audio (3) convert avi to mpg4.

(1) Video Screen Capture

Note: Please note you may want to skip step (1) and go straight to using the software in step (2).

For video screen capture I used a compact program called CamStudio – Desktop Screen Recorder. CamStudio records/captures audio as well as video; unfortunately I didn’t figure out how the audio capture worked. Run your .swf file in Adobe Reader and record off your screen using CamStudio. CamStudio saves to an .avi format.

(2) Crop / Edit Video and Integrate Audio

Software: VirtualDub

Alternative Software: CamStudio

VirtualDub is a video processing and screen capture application. VirtualDub will allow you to crop your video, and ‘interleave’ your audio .wav file with your video .avi file. The final output is a single .avi file with both audio and video.

Note: For those of you familiar with Adobe Premier – you will find VirtualDub limiting. For example the audio integration is very efficient – but there is no time line. It seems your audio has to be ready to go and timed to your animation before importing to VirtualDub.

To get my audio and video aligned I used a fairly manual process. I used an Excel spreadsheet (actually an OpenOffice.org spreadsheet) and listed the animation key frames from Vectorian Giotto, then calculated the seconds to identify where the audio markers were needed for Audacity.

With a deceptively simplistic looking interface, VirtualDub is easy to use. It has more features than expected….after I had played around with CamStudio I realized that VirtualDub has screen capture – that would have saved me a step. VirtualDub third-party video filters are available, and I’ll try the filters and check out the VirtualDub screen capture next time.

(3) Convert AVI to MPG4

Software: HandBrake

The .avi format is fine for Youtube and iPod except the file size is ENORMOUS. If you are posting on-line or expecting fast upload times you will want to convert your animation video file to mpg4. Check out HandBrake for converting your .avi file to iPod and YouTube friendly mpg. Handbrake does a lot more than this, but don’t let the user interface frighten you. It’s quite likely if you import your video Source, and press Start you will be good to go.

Now you should have a pretty good mpg4 animation file with reasonable audio ready to go. Good luck!

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