Recommended generic 2d animation software to use for animating pixel-art?

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Bananmos
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Recommended generic 2d animation software to use for animating pixel-art?

Post by Bananmos » Fri Aug 07, 2020 4:19 pm

Slightly offtopic perhaps, but could any artist who has experience doing pixel-based / "NES-like" movie animations recommend some 2d animation software they've used in the past or present?

My use-cases are primarily:
1) To be able to compose & prototype different parts of NES animation effects for my own workflow. i.e., if I start with some sprite animations or some background animations already prototyped separately (or maybe just existing as concept art) then I'd like a quick way to combine all of this into a multi-layered animation and/or longer cutscene for a preview of how it might look, before trying to combine it all with 6502 code.

Note that I'm not really looking for a program to create the actual sprites / background animation frames, but to compose such animations into longer cutscenes, and animate moving objects independently. A 2d animation program sounds ideal for this.

2) The secondary goal is to get a feeling for what UI an artist would excepts from contemporary 2d animation software, for a little project of mine to simplify the process of making such composed animations for the NES. Although there's only so many programs I'll have time to dig deeper into.

Ideally it would also be a 2d animation program that doesn't have to be beaten with a too big stick to show / snap-to the 256x240 grid the final result on the NES will ultimately be limited to - whilst still allowing me to diverge from the grid for concept art.

I've tried OpenToonz so far, and with its massive configurability it seemed very promising for being an open-source tool. Supposedly used by Studio Ghibli too.

But loading any animations (exported either from Pro Motion or from a NES emulator) in OpenToonz is a PITA, as it's quickly become a case of pick-your-poison:
A) Loading a sprite / background animation saved to an .avi file makes OpenToonz crash in a image library dll as soon as you try to reposition it
B) Loading the original png screenshots as a single image sequence doesn't crash OpenToonz... but doing any operation (such as just repositioning it) now causes a 10-minute delay before the software becomes responsive again. So it looks like there's a way-too-high performance cost to this option.

So in either case OpenToonz now looks like a no-starter. Curious how Studio Ghibli managed to work around all this in their awesome movie productions. Perhaps the program was more reliable before going down the road of open-source...

I'm willing to consider commercial paid-for-software, as long as it is reasonably priced and doesn't require a subscription model, as I plan to work on this irregularly and have no plans to become an full-time 2d animator. I just want to have a quick-n-easy way to compose my programmer art, composing pre-made animations using a timeline or similar GUI.

So I'm really looking for something that has a short learning curve, but is still flexible enough to not make replicating pixel-art difficult... and is moderately representative of how most 2d animation programs behave in these days. And most of all... stable enough not to constantly crash or hang for several minutes. :)


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Re: Recommended generic 2d animation software to use for animating pixel-art?

Post by Bananmos » Fri Aug 07, 2020 5:03 pm

Goose2k wrote:
Fri Aug 07, 2020 4:47 pm
https://www.aseprite.org/
Hmm, as far as I've seen from having a look on the interwebz, I figured it'd fall under the stuff I'm *not* looking for:
Note that I'm not really looking for a program to create the actual sprites / background animation frames, but to compose such animations into longer cutscenes, and animate moving objects independently. A 2d animation program sounds ideal for this.
...but perhaps I've misjudged it. Is Asesprite actually useful for doing independent animation and composition of animations in a non-destructive way? And could it support things like panning a virtual camera around a 2d scene, with smoothing curves and all?

Checking out Asesprite is actually on my TODO-list anyway, but more to see how it fares against Pro Motion for authoring Pixel Art. Didn't actually consider it for the use-case of 2d animation / compositing...

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Re: Recommended generic 2d animation software to use for animating pixel-art?

Post by Goose2k » Fri Aug 07, 2020 5:49 pm

I'm not totally sure if it meets your needs. It supports layers, and animations, and is specifically designed for pixel art, which sounded like what you were looking for.

https://www.aseprite.org/docs/animation/

Have you considered just using Flash? I know a lot of animators that still use it.

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Re: Recommended generic 2d animation software to use for animating pixel-art?

Post by tokumaru » Fri Aug 07, 2020 6:16 pm

Programs like OpenToonz and Flash/Animate are great for 2D animation, but you're gonna have a really hard time getting them to do pixel animations, they were just not made for that.

One program that might do what you want is Photoshop. Since it's essentially a bitmap editor, sticking to the pixel grid shouldn't be a problem, as long as you don't do any scaling. It can do frame-based and timeline animations. Frame-based animations are less versatile, since you basically get to set the positions, styles and visibility of each layer on each frame, but it's great for testing short sprite animations. If you want to create actual videos, longer than a few seconds, then you'll need to use the timeline, where you can use keyframes and tween the various properties of each layer.

Unfortunately, Photoshop (at least the version I use) can't apply any easing to the tweens, everything animates linearly. If you want to simulate acceleration, you may have to create multiple keyframes and space them according to how you want things to speed up and slow down.

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Re: Recommended generic 2d animation software to use for animating pixel-art?

Post by calima » Sat Aug 08, 2020 1:08 am

Synfig is similar to opentoonz except already open source, and from the commercial world you might consider old PaintShopPro versions. I remember making gifs in AnimationShop which came with PaintShopPro 5 IIRC.

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Re: Recommended generic 2d animation software to use for animating pixel-art?

Post by Bananmos » Sat Aug 08, 2020 4:11 am

So I downloaded Asesprite, and first impressions is that the GUI is just atrocious. Can't see why the author figured a pixel editor had to have a low-pixel GUI as a show-off. I'm thinking to myself that if he ever goes into making audio software, it'll all be controlled by voice commands only! :wink:

That said, it *does* look more capable than I thought at a first glance. The timeline animation looks pretty capable for what is primarily a pixel painting program, though I have still to get my head around how it works with duplicated and linked cels. It's not very well visualised either, requiring me to click on frames to show what's linked. Or I'm just not finding the right views. It does appear to support the basic use-case of animating positions.

But it kind of falls short of the use-case I'm looking for. Two immediate problems I see:
1) I'm not really sure how I could load a ready-made animation of say an idle pose of a character, and have that animation loop independently on its own within a bigger scene. It looks to me like Asesprite would just expand everything into one layer, and I would have to mess around with manually selecting the linking / duplication of cels. This causes a large expansion of my animated data that will make it a lot more difficult to make changes to once imported into Asesprite, where in contrast I really want to keep them separate. i.e., to build pixel-animations in a pixel editor, and then use a composition / animation program to animate their speed / movement / effects.

It also seems difficult to deal with an animation that has say upwards to a 1000 frames. Asesprite only displays the two least-significant digits in its timeline, and I can't even figure how to select a large range other than dragging the mouse and waiting for it to scroll enough to select

2) Quite crucially, it looks like Asesprite's scaling and rotation is fully destructive. i.e., doing any scaling or rotation will write new pixels to the frame. And as my my use-case involves doing some Mode7-like animation with LUT-based scaling and shearing, I'm really looking for a program which can animate such properties, even having some perspective projection thrown in for 2.5d. It really doesn't seem like Asesprite will be a convenient flow for this, unless I'm missing something.

I might still consider Asesprite as an alternative to Pro Motion for pixel editing. It seems to have a lot of features, even if the UI is fugly. Then again, learning two pixel art programs is a bit of a hassle - I'm still not familiar with even half of Pro Motion's features...
Last edited by Bananmos on Sat Aug 08, 2020 4:44 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Recommended generic 2d animation software to use for animating pixel-art?

Post by Bananmos » Sat Aug 08, 2020 4:29 am

Goose2k wrote:
Fri Aug 07, 2020 5:49 pm
I'm not totally sure if it meets your needs. It supports layers, and animations, and is specifically designed for pixel art, which sounded like what you were looking for.

https://www.aseprite.org/docs/animation/

Have you considered just using Flash? I know a lot of animators that still use it.
Yeah, Flash does sound like it would tick most boxes. I actually tried it very briefly almost 20 years ago, and it's obviously what most quickly comes to mind for this use-case, due to how immensely popular it was back in the day.
Unfortunately it's also discontinued and not available for purchase anymore since Adobe acquired it and made into Adobe Animate. And I'm not too keen on the idea of continuously paying a subscription model of $20 / month. Not to mention I get the feeling they're also putting vital functionality into the other packages they offer to bundle it with for discounts... :?

Call me old-fashioned, but the whole SaaS-model doesn't sit too well with me. I like to own software - especially software that might sit on the shelf for extended periods of time.

I had also hoped the world of animation had moved on now and that'd there would be stable alternatives to Flash that haven't gone down the SaaS-route? But if there aren't many decent alternatives, then perhaps acquiring an old version of Flash is indeed the best option. I guess the last non-SaaS version must have been released in 2015, just before Adobe rebranded it into Adobe Animator?

As I'm wanting to be a bit more grown-up in my life nowadays and pay for software I can definitely afford, I'd like to acquire a copy the legal way. But I'm guessing it'll be tricky to find a second-hand-copy of a discontinued product...

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Re: Recommended generic 2d animation software to use for animating pixel-art?

Post by Bananmos » Sat Aug 08, 2020 4:37 am

calima wrote:
Sat Aug 08, 2020 1:08 am
Synfig is similar to opentoonz except already open source, and from the commercial world you might consider old PaintShopPro versions. I remember making gifs in AnimationShop which came with PaintShopPro 5 IIRC.
Yeah, OpenToonz and Synfig were both on my shortlist, and I spent quite a bit of time googling and Youtube:ing both Synfig and OpenToonz to find out what people preferred before settling on OpenToonz, being under the impression it was the more popular and capable of the two. But I'm really starting to think that might have been a huge mistake.

And by the way, it actually turns out that the repeated crashes in OpenToonz was a user error of sorts: I was confusing the UI and using a move tool that didn't set the position for animation, but attempted to move the pixels within the movie / image sequence, causing either a crash / 10-minute delay. But it's difficult to realise you're doing things wrong if you can't even see the result due to crashes or 10-minute delays.

And the software is still terribly unstable with pitfalls of random crashes spread out everywhere, and very laggy in general. Seems to be a bit too over-powered for my use-case too. Perhaps Synfig might pull this off better.

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Re: Recommended generic 2d animation software to use for animating pixel-art?

Post by Bananmos » Sat Aug 08, 2020 4:41 am

tokumaru wrote:
Fri Aug 07, 2020 6:16 pm
Programs like OpenToonz and Flash/Animate are great for 2D animation, but you're gonna have a really hard time getting them to do pixel animations, they were just not made for that.

One program that might do what you want is Photoshop. Since it's essentially a bitmap editor, sticking to the pixel grid shouldn't be a problem, as long as you don't do any scaling. It can do frame-based and timeline animations. Frame-based animations are less versatile, since you basically get to set the positions, styles and visibility of each layer on each frame, but it's great for testing short sprite animations. If you want to create actual videos, longer than a few seconds, then you'll need to use the timeline, where you can use keyframes and tween the various properties of each layer.

Unfortunately, Photoshop (at least the version I use) can't apply any easing to the tweens, everything animates linearly. If you want to simulate acceleration, you may have to create multiple keyframes and space them according to how you want things to speed up and slow down.
Well, same problem with Photoshop and other Adobe software packages. All these products have been turned into things you can no longer buy - only rent for a (quite substantial) monthly fee. I'm not against paying for software, but don't want to pay monthly for software I might eventually end up using only a few hours a month.

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Re: Recommended generic 2d animation software to use for animating pixel-art?

Post by tokumaru » Sat Aug 08, 2020 5:30 am

Yeah, Adobe programs have never been easy to obtain for sporadic users, but if you're open to alternative ways of running the software you may find that an older, unofficial portable version is enough for your needs.

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Re: Recommended generic 2d animation software to use for animating pixel-art?

Post by Bananmos » Sat Aug 08, 2020 7:15 am

tokumaru wrote:
Sat Aug 08, 2020 5:30 am
Yeah, Adobe programs have never been easy to obtain for sporadic users, but if you're open to alternative ways of running the software you may find that an older, unofficial portable version is enough for your needs.
Well, at the moment I can't even find out which was the last version of Flash sold with a one-time-purchasable license before the subscription model. Though my best guess would be it's "Adobe Flash Professional CC 2015 (15)", as that was the last version before it got rebranded as "Adobe Animate".

With all the hate Flash's been getting, it does feel funny to adopt it now. Then again, I don't really give a damn about web security issues as I don't plan to use this for any web publishing anyway. :roll:

Gonna have a go with Synfig in the meantime... and maybe do a little comparison of what I might be missing out on with Adobe Animate.

And I suppose my use-case is a bit niche: I want an animation tool where I can make imported images/movies display as pixels on a defined grid without applied filtering (to save me having to rescale my content to mitigate filtering). So if that's too hard, the tool will be limiting.
But equally, I'd also like the option to be able to skip the grid and apply filtering as usual when the pixel grid is not crucial (makes it easier to do concept art, or just temporarily rescale your programmer art something if you realise you need to redesign it later). Hence why the simplest tools with a short learning curve may be a tad bit too simple if they don't offer configurability.

Also, most importable animation formats don't tend to support transparency, making animated NES sprites problematic to simulate easily. This was actually relatively easy to work around in OpenToonz by adding a chromatic-keying post-process-effect, exactly due to how complex OpenToonz's rendering pipeline is. But shame that so much work in OpenToonz went into supporting features and reliability seems to have been of little concern. The number #1 advice the internet provides in OpenToonz tutorials is indeed "Save a lot". Even the CTRL-Z undo functionality is extremely crash-prone. :?

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Re: Recommended generic 2d animation software to use for animating pixel-art?

Post by Bananmos » Sat Aug 08, 2020 4:14 pm

So I've spent a day getting to know Synfig... with cautiously-positive-to-mixed Impressions.

The good:
* UI is both simpler and nicer than OpenToonz, with a bit more emphasis on keyframe animation rather than post-processing (which is good as the NES animation program I'm working on will have that focus as well). Generally it's quite intuitive and Flash-like (or at least how I vaguely remember Flash from years and years back)

This really needs saying again: Really nice and friendly UI in my opionion. Open Source UI:s tend to be pretty horrible and rely too much on hotkeys. (Looking at your Blender3d!)

* Setting up correct image dimensions and an 8x8 (or even 1x1 if your so prefer) pixel view grid is simple enough.

* It's trivial to change imported images / image sequence interpolation from linear to nearest neighbour, to avoid blurring your pixel art.

* Hierarchical Layer system seems quite powerful, even if I haven't explored it much yet.

* Keyframe animation is again mostly intuitive and similar to what you'd see in a 3d renderer. Good for familiarity.

The bad:
* When moving / scaling / rotating any objects, there's no continuous re-drawing of the object - you only see the change once you release the mouse button and commit to the change. It's extremely annoying to not have this visual feedback.
There's a 3-year old ticket on their github for this issue, with no comments: https://github.com/synfig/synfig/issues/423

* Even though the UI widgets exist for it, it doesn't seem like you can really rotate objects interactively. Only changing the angle animation properties using text input worked for me.

* Onion skinning appears to be completely broken. It'll make your position/scale animated objects disappear if enabled, and mess up the colors in your sprites backgrounds.

* Seems to be a bit less crashy than OpenToonz... but only slightly. So far I've managed to make it crash when editing animation properties, and when trying to preview my scene. :(

The ugly:
* There's no way to directly import movies. Any animation sequence needs to consist of a simple text based .lst file which specifies a sequence of images, either hand-written or produced by a simple asset processing script.

Code: Select all

FPS 15
sprite_frame0.png
sprite_frame1.png
[...and so on for as long as your main scene will last, as looping these frames appears to be unsupported...]
sprite_frame0.png
sprite_frame1.png
This is not such a bad limitation in practice as I write tons of Python code anyway for asset processing and part of it already uses a similar text file+.png format. But it's a bit of an odd choice for something that otherwise appears to be targeting artists rather than programmers.

* When loading pixel graphics, the scale is in no way aligned to the pixel grid. However an X/Y scale of 60 appeared to give to give the perfect 1:1 match with the 256x224 screen pixels I setup. And I later discovered a random post saying 60 pixels is a "synfig unit", which I guess explains where this value comes from.
You also need to manually change the origin of the loaded object to (0,0) to get your imported sprite / background have their pixels aligned with the grid, as this also gets set to some weird value causing misalignment until you change it.

* Snapping to the grid sort-of-works. It will only perform snapping if you move the mouse pointer very slowly and get really close to the grid lines. If you expect "snap to grid" to mean that it will always snap and prevent you from misplacing pixels between the grid, you may easily believe the feature doesn't work at all. Odd design choice to say the least.

* Doesn't seem to support as many or as sensible post-processing effects as say OpenToonz. A lot of the ones that are there appear to be "c00l" examples made by programmers who wanted to play around, more than being of practical use. For example, I can't really imagine why I'd want built-in functionality for putting a Mandelbrot or Julia fractal into my scene... :roll:

What I'd really love though is a configurable particle system, but there appears to be none built-in. Apparently someone's made a demo of how it can be implemented using existing functionality: https://wiki.synfig.org/Particles_V2.0
But it's from 2015, and runs at around 1 FPS on my laptop. So unusable in practice...



But all-in-all, I guess it's a quite decent program for being given away for free. With some massaging it might prove useful for some simple NES graphics mock-ups. Though I'm still sort-of-worried about the stability issues - even if it's got a very slight edge over OpenToonz here. :)

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