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Toon Boom Studio 5 review

Our Rating :
Price when reviewed : £349.99
(about £213); Edition for Education £132.25 (£115 ex VAT)

An amazing program that's packed with useful and clever features.

Version 5 of Toon Boom Studio, the 2D drawing animation package, has just been released.

If you haven’t heard of it before, the name may sound like children’s’ software, but don’t be fooled. This is a very capable and professional-level drawn animation package. It’s recognised and used in the industry, and it’s part of the toolset of top-level animation degree courses such as the one at UWE Bristol.

One thing you’ll immediately notice is that Toon Boom Studio is not like most other Mac applications. There are parts of the software that feel a little quirky, the interface is idiosyncratic, and the shortcuts are non-standard. However, once you start getting used to it, you’ll find that it really is surprisingly effective, with Flash-like drawing tools that are, fortunately, somewhat easier to use than the originals. There are also nice usability touches that many users tend to miss, such as cycling through tools using single key shortcuts. (Speaking of shortcuts, you can change and add your own to the software’s myriad commands should you want to optimise your workflow to this degree.)

The application comes with a set of Quick Start tutorials to help new users get started. These are quite important, which is why it’s a shame that they are still based on a previous version of Toon Boom Studio. If you already know the software well, you’ll figure it out without too much trouble, but if you’re a new user, you will stumble here and there with the various changes to the interface, and may have to refer to the large PDF user guide to figure things out. The tutorials are still invaluable, but updated documents would be welcome.

The drawing tools are tuned for cell-style drawing, the classic method of animation creation. There are also many features that make the animator’s life easier through tricks such as shape tweening, automatic painting across multiple frames, support for pressure-sensitive pens and tablets, the ability to rotate the drawing area for more natural drawing and cut-out shape management.

Stop-motion image capture is another trick up Toon Boom Studio’s sleeve, with a ‘Colour Keying’ chromakey feature (with YUV, RGB and Luma options) to drop out backgrounds, so you can replace them with your own drawn content. Just as importantly, Vectorisation (a form of clipping path) helps make the final cut-out as clean as possible. Admittedly, the stop-motion side of this application isn’t quite as sophisticated in some ways as iStopMotion, but it’s still impressive and well integrated with the rest of the package.

Another of Toon Boom Studio’s particularly useful abilities deals with that bug-bear of animators, lip syncing to audio tracks, and this is handled well. Admittedly, it isn’t a straightforward process, but it does help organise and assign sets of your own drawn mouth shapes to different parts of imported audio files and, impressively, even manages to automate a major part of the process once you identify which shapes are for which sounds.

Going further, Toon Boom provides control over the camera plane and multiple cameras, and while this is a 2D animation package, it also offers full multiplane animation control. Create several layers of drawn content – backgrounds, characters or whatever – and spread them along the z-axis to create depth. If you then animate the camera across and through these layers, you can create stunning 3D-effect results from your 2D artwork.

Once you’ve finished your animation masterpiece, you can export it in a number of different formats: Flash (as a ready-to-play SWF, although with a rather clunky visible frame and play controls), QuickTime Movie, AVI, DV stream, image sequence and, in a nod to social networking, formats for YouTube and Facebook. These last two can automatically upload your work along with metadata if you give it the go-ahead. Toon Boom Studio 5 is an amazing program, with a host of useful features built around its Flash-style drawing tools. It takes time to learn properly, but if you want to create original drawn-style animations this, rather than Flash CS4 is the software to use.

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