I recently downloaded the free trial version of a simple to use yet very powerful tool for building Flash files, and I would like to share some of my experiences with you. If you have ever wanted to use Flash for your site's splash pages, banners, nav bars, and more, but were daunted by the price and complexity of Macromedia's authoring tools, read on:
A recent XBiz' Weekly Webmaster Poll asked our readers if they used Macromedia Flash on their Websites. Respondents to this survey indicated that 54% of you do use Flash, while a further 17% of you would like to employ this technology in your designs, but do not currently do so. After talking to a few Webmaster's who would like to use Flash but don't, I discovered that the number one reason cited was the 'complexity' of the authoring software, and its perceived steep learning curve. Having personally tried the software a few short years ago, and having tried several of the tutorials, I had to concur. As a non-professional designer, I simply could not justify the time I felt was necessary to master this software and utilize it to it's fullest potential.
Still, I saw much promise in the attractive and increasingly pervasive Flash banners and other ads that caught my ever-roving eye, even if I felt that most of the bandwidth-gulping splash and tour pages were overkill for a target audience that is still dependent on slow, dial-up Internet connections. Being the curious type, and a born problem solver, I began searching for other suitable options, and I eventually found a product offering from CoffeeCup Software that fit the bill for the simple tasks I had in mind. The product is 'Firestarter' and while I offered version 4.5 as a previous XBiz' 'Download of the Week' there is a new version, 5.0, that is now available, and I thought that I would give it a try, and see if I couldn't make a simple animated banner ad using this software.
According to the authors, "CoffeeCup Firestarter is the fastest and easiest way to make Flash™ Effects for your Website. It quickly creates complex text and image effects with just a few clicks of the mouse. You can make Flash™ Intro pages, navigation systems, graphic logos, or whatever you want! Firestarter has over 50 built in ready to use effects like Assemble, Explode, Fade, and more, a collection of cool MP3 Sounds, plus it's all in an easy to use interface. No more struggling with expensive, complex software, with CoffeeCup Firestarter you will be making really cool Effects in a Flash!" Sounds good; maybe I should have joined their affiliate program! ;)
I downloaded the small executable file, and after performing a straightforward installation of the software, I was ready to begin my Saturday afternoon experiment. I opened the software and was greeted by the Quick Start dialog box. Not usually being one to start by reading the instructions, I jumped right in and selected a 468x60 pixel sized canvas with a red background and white text from which to make an animated, standard sized banner:
A brief glimpse at the intuitive function icons and I was on a roll, tweaking settings and trying new effects. Like a little kid in a candy store, I was presented with a mind bending array of options for easily manipulating my chosen "FREE EROTIC STORIES" text. Expanding, contracting, dissolving and exploding characters were running rampant across my canvas with an ease that I wouldn't have thought possible given my previous 'Flash' experiences. Sliding the 'timeline' control back and forth let my text remain visible before exploding letter by letter in every direction. The handy 'preview' function let me keep tabs on what I was doing, and in less than 5 minutes, I had made my first animated Flash banner.
As shareware, my banner was produced with a "Created with CoffeeCup Firestarter Shareware" tag that can easily be removed by paying the $49 registration fee. This is a very reasonable price for anyone who needs to easily make a number of banner ads, but as I currently have Micrografx tools that do a great job of building low-bandwidth animated GIFs, I would need more of a reason to make a purchase. Sure, the wide range of effects were really cool, but 'really cool' doesn't pay the rent. What else can this tool do for me? I experimented with a few other animated GIFs and realized that I needed to learn much more about Flash files and how to manipulate them...
I went back to the documentation and read the software's list of features. I found this: "Converts any Animated GIF to a Super Small Flash file." While I am not a Flash expert by any means, I understood that converting Flash banners into animated GIFs was a great way to reduce file size. Had I understood wrongly, or was this software employing some new-fangled wizardry that would make some of my favorite eye candy load faster? Obviously, I had misunderstood the software. I used a small, waving American flag as a test subject, thinking that Firestarter would somehow reduce it's file size, but instead, the resulting '.swf' file was 5k larger, bringing the animated GIF from 30k up to a 35k 'Flash' animation that played as a large sized movie in my browser. Hmm... I experimented with a few other animated GIFs and realized that I needed to learn much more about Flash files and how to manipulate them, because there were some intriguing possibilities raised by my trial and error button pushing that warrant further exploration.
Offering automatic HTML generation, a built in FTP client for easy movie uploading, and a handy utility for converting WAV files into faster loading MP3s, CoffeeCup Software's Firestarter 5 will find a home in my toolbox, and is likely to get quite a workout in the very near future. Try it for yourself, and start adding all of those hot Flash effects to YOUR site today! ~ Stephen