Coming from a primarily CGI background my drawing skill sets developed after my skills in modeling, lighting, texturing and rigging. Because of this reversal in traditional vs. digital skill sets my traditional skills never have quite been as strong as my digital and therefore things such as quality 2d animation always felt a bit out of reach. However based on the simple fact that I am writing a review on a piece of software whose primary focus is 2d animation, things have obviously begun to change.
Regardless of who you are, or what your background in animation is, there will most definitely be something for you in the ToonBoom Harmony package. It’s variety of tools and work flows really to me are what set it apart from its digital 2d animation competitors. You can work traditionally, you can work entirely digitally, you can draw frame by frame, or you can even go 3d with a full effects suite. No other 2d package even comes close to matching the shear volume of features.
If you wish to stay old school, ToonBoom will allow you to scan in (or use a down shooter) art work and allow you to do an animation test right from the get go. Features such as peg alignment and registration as well as batch scanning make this task relatively painless. If changes need to be made they can be done right within the software or of course you can adjust a drawing, rescan, and plug right in. You can then ink and paint your drawings directly within the software using layer systems to preserve your original artwork.
If you are fully ready to move into the modern century you can go the entirely paperless route using the entire suite of pressure sensitive tools that can mimic traditional media (such as pencil) using the built in texture support or you can go for nice clean ink/vector style lines that can even be readjusted or reshaped after being drawn. The ability to rotate a piece of paper on your desk to get specific angles and lines is also available in ToonBoom Harmony, enhanced if you are using a pressure sensitive device. Much as with any painting package you can easily customize brushes and build your own toolset over time for quick and easy access.
To ease the process of animating you can easily use the integrations between StoryBoard Pro and Harmony to have your animatics visible as reference as you animate. To further give you more control you can choose to work with both an exposure sheet and a modern timeline. The fact that an exposure sheet option is included really speaks volumes as to ToonBoom’s mission to preserve the traditional animation experience. This mentality also is visible in the onion skin option as well as the flip features. However we can see modern technology help us in ways it could never before by allowing us to use the intuitive shift option so what drawings can be temporarily overlapped to help keep them on model.
If you are really ready to leave the past behind you can migrate into the state of the art character rigging tools. This cut out puppet style work flow can allow you to break your character into multiple overlapping layers, set pivot points, create hierarchies, use patch techniques and deformations, add IK (inverse kinematics), push elements into the depth in addition to vertical and horizontal motions, add bones that can deform limbs, use curves for mouths, tails and hair, as well as use tools to bend, squash and stretch. The sheer numbers of ways to build and animate characters is staggering.
To further aid in animation the lip-sync and morphing features are robust in their own right. While it is no surprise that you can import your own audio clip and do traditional scrub style lip syncing, the true treat comes in when using the auto-detect lip-sync features that can use 8 present mouth shapes to automatically create a first pass on your sync. After that you are free to come in and add, remove, or change as many mouth shapes as necessary. The morph feature can then help blend the different mouth shapes together to creature a smooth/more seamless animation.
ToonBoom’s scene setup and camera system really are what in my opinion push it above and beyond anything else on the market. Yes we are well aware that most any software can allows us to import multiple formats as well as use a layer system and a timeline, not much new there. However the fact that we can bring in and preserve the layer system of a psd is very unique. This opens a whole new world as we can now take these layers within a psd and shift them through time and space (depth!) and even use a camera with perspective to give us true parallax. The camera system work seamlessly in the true 3d space having all of the features we are used to seeing in cameras in 3d packages. However features such as always having certain 2d elements always face the camera or to be permanently pinned to the cameras field of view are not as common and very useful.
The true 3d workspace allows the artist to import most traditional 3d formats such as OBJ and FBX and rig and animate them right within the software. Admittedly the system for animating and rigging objects can never truly rival a system like Maya and 3dsmax, however the ability to share, import, and export files easily between multiple software makes it easy to use the 3d objects within ToonBoom for placement and timing and still using an outside package to render the true 3d objects.
When it comes to compositing we do get a mixed bag. Much as with the 3d portion the compositing system cannot rival full fledged software such as Nuke or Aftereffects, however it really does hold it’s own. It is in fact a node based compositor with all of the traditional effects we might expect (glows, focus, transparency, highlights, shadows etc…) and is great to have for simpler composites. New to 10.3 we have effects such as turbulence and several kinds of advanced blurs.
The particle system within ToonBoom is truly fun to use. Presets let us easily jump between different types of rain, fire, speed lines, grass effects and more. Each of these as well as others are fully customizable and can be used in conjunction with real world forces such as gravity, wind, and can even simulate real world physics such as being able to bounce and slide on a surface. If the prebuilt particle engine is not to your liking you can even bring in your own effects drawings in sequence and use those to adjust and augment existing effects.
When it comes to rendering, Harmony’s freedom of choosing so many output formats is fantastic. From QuickTime, to flash files, to frame sequences, it’s all there at the click of a button. There is full render farm support for those tougher render jobs as well as multiple resolution/format exports at once to save time (for example exporting high resolution frames as well as a low resolution QuickTime during the same render).
While I could easily go on and really get in depth with the vast feature set of ToonBoom Harmony 10.3, I will leave that to each individual artist to explore and discover. The great thing about ToonBoom Harmony is that with the multiple workflows it is really easy to make it “your” software as most likely everyone will use it a bit differently. I would applaud ToonBoom for their latest release within this article if I could (need some emoticon support!), however I will end in saying that I am anxiously awaiting the next ToonBoom release as with each new version they bring about wonderfully innovative tools that are making a traditionally tedious field accessible to a much wider array of artists than ever before.