January 24, 2006

Synfig 2D vector animation program opens source

Author: Nathan Willis

Robert Quattlebaum's animation house Voria Studios existed for only a short time, but while active it produced some top-notch demonstrations using an in-house-designed 2D animation tool. Now that Voria is no more, Quattlebaum has released the animation tool as an open source project under the name Synfig.

Synfig is a two-dimensional vector animation studio, similar to the commercial product Moho. In vector-based animation, artists draw characters, scenes, and objects as vector shapes, complete with control points (as they would in Adobe Illustrator or Inkscape). However, Synfig artists have to draw only those frames that mark significant points of change. The animation engine interpolates the frames that belong in between.

In addition to basic motion, Synfig integrates some video-processing tools useful to the animator, including filter and transformation layers. Filter layers allow effects like shading, focusing and blurring, and color correction, so that the animator can add camera effects to the finished animation without redrawing the scene elements. Transformation layers enable distortion effects for reflections, rippling water, and other events. Synfig uses OpenEXR to store all projects in high dynamic-range format, and it can output to any resolution.

Quattlebaum began coding Synfig while a student at the DigiPen Institute of Technology, after being shocked at how primitive existing tools for 2D animation were. He founded Voria Studios after graduating, but closed its doors in December of 2004.

Despite this setback, however, Quattlebaum was resolute that the centerpiece of the operation -- the animation studio program -- was a first-class product that deserved better than mothballing and obscurity. Consequently, he continued to work on Synfig in his spare time, initially hoping to find a corporate buyer. When that failed to happen, he chose to open the product's source code rather than let it perish.

The first release was marked as a "developer preview" last November. Judging from Quattlebaum's blog, response was rapid and close to overwhelming. In the next few weeks, he set up a SourceForge project, a bug tracker, and mailing lists, and he made several bug-fix releases.

The current release is 0.61.04, available in binary form for Windows and Mac OS X (using X11) and in source tarballs for Linux. Several individual users have built their own Linux binaries into RPM and DEB packages, though as yet none are official.

Download Synfig

To try out Synfig yourself, download the source packages ETL, Synfig, and Synfig Studio. At the time of this writing, several bugs pop up when compiling with GCC 4, so try export CC=/usr/bin/gcc-3.4 or the equivalent to be on the safe side. ETL is a template package, Synfig supplies the core program, and Synfig Studio supplies the front end.

So far, the only documentation is a getting-started guide available in HTML and PDF at the Synfig site, though Quattlebaum has set up a wiki to attract user input, including feedback on documentation. In the meantime, though, the guide does a good job of explaining the Synfig workflow and how to get started on your first animation.

It's important to note that although Synfig is described as a vector-based animation tool, it's not simply another vector-based drawing tool. The tool set is not the same as the one used in Inkscape, because Synfig is not a Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) editor. Vectors are involved in both workflows, but they perform different tasks.

See what Synfig is capable of by taking a look at the examples on the Synfig gallery page. You'll find production-quality work produced by Voria Studios, demos, and examples of diverse animation styles.

Quattlebaum blogged recently that he is beginning to see the first work produced by users of the newly open source Synfig. Who knows what kinds of work you'll see from animators a year from now as the project has matured?

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