GIF animation breathes life into dull site

Webmasters everywhere are busy livening their sites with spinning, sparkling multimedia
through Macromedia ShockWave, Java and Dynamic Hypertext Markup Language. These and a slew
of other new World Wide Web technologies add glitz at a price: They force visitors to keep
downloading new plug-ins and browsers.


Most agency webmasters are understandably reluctant to impose this kind of burden on
the public.


There's an alternative--the Internet's GIF89a specification, commonly known as GIF
animation. GIF animations add movement and vitality to any Web page, and common browsers
such as Netscape Navigator 2.0 can easily play them without plug-ins.


The animations are a lot like flip-books or cel animations. Series of images, shown one
after another, flow into a sort of moving picture.


Source images are created in an image-editing program. Many webmasters prefer to use
Adobe Photoshop's separable layers to edit images. However you come up with the source
images, you must then import them into a GIF animation program to make one animated image.


For an in-depth tutorial on creating animated .gif files, visit the Web site http://www.cnet.com/Content/Builder/Graphics/Webanim.


The first GIF animation programs, such as Yves Piguet's GifBuilder and the GIF
Construction Set from Alchemy Mindworks Inc. of Beeton, Ontario, weren't elegant, but they
got the job done.


The newer generation has better interfaces and more options to make animations easier.
I tested four of the current most popular and powerful GIF animators: GIFmation 2.1 from
BoxTop Software, GIF Movie Gear 2.5 from Gamani Productions, Animagic Gif Animator from
Right to Left Software and Ulead GIF Animator 2.0 from Ulead Systems.


Each package can import images in a variety of formats, sometimes even video. Each can
change the frame properties such as speed, order or position. Most will optimize download
times, and most can do some sort of palette optimization.


I also looked for extras such as transitions and filters that eliminate the need to
create each frame individually. Every frame in an animation is a separate .gif file with
its own individual color settings. If you can combine these color settings, or palettes,
into a global palette, it will reduce download time for the animation.


As with any electronic image, the files need to be as small as possible yet maintain
acceptable quality.


BoxTop Software's GIFmation 2.1, an Apple Macintosh program ported to Microsoft
Windows, can import six file types including Photoshop .psd and Apple QuickTime (.avi for
Microsoft Windows). But when tested, the program did not import .psd-layered files
reliably.


Some of the frames imported this way held extra pixels or portions of the previous
frame. You can correct such errors with the included editing tools--an eraser, color
picker and pencil. GIFmation did not exhibit this problem when importing nonlayered
Photoshop images or other file types.


GIFmation has one of the better interfaces. All the frames are viewable at the same
time, and there's a preview with QuickTime-like controls. An onion-skinning feature
smooths animation by letting you edit as you see a semi-transparent view of previous and
upcoming frames.


Controls for positioning and aligning frames are excellent, particularly when you
combine a series of images of different sizes. Special effects include color inversion and
fade-in.


GIFmation does have an optimization feature, but it works only for image export.


A useful tidbit: GIFmation warns you when an animation might not display properly in
certain browsers.


The Mac and Windows versions of GIFmation are similar. The Mac version can import more
images but has no special effects.


Gamani Productions' GIF Movie Gear 2.5 has the most intuitive interface of the
four and is the easiest to work with. The program is somewhat limited, though, because it
imports only six image types. But it was the only one of the bunch that could import
layered Photoshop images without a hitch.


GIF Movie Gear resizes and crops frames more easily than some of the other programs. It
has excellent palette and optimization tools that let you preview the optimized image and
see how many bytes are saved by a particular setting.


Another strength of GIF Movie Gear is that all the frames of the animation appear on
screen at the same time. You can tell at a glance how the animation is going and which
frames are causing problems.


The main criticism I have about the program is the lack of an undo command. It's a
good, solid GIF animator with an easy interface and several powerful features, although it
lacks some of the functions of other packages.


Right to Left Software's Animagic GIF Animator isn't quite in the same league as
the other three packages. It can only import four file types and can't handle Photoshop
documents at all.


Frames display one at a time in the upper left corner. You can't view all frames at the
same time, although a frame list does help you navigate quickly within the animation.


Animagic does some transitions, although they are less impressive than those in the
other packages and do not include a transition preview.


You can reduce the color depth and optimize. But Animagic gives you only yes or no
choices for optimization and does not tell how much space, if any, is saved.


Overall, the program does the job, just not as elegantly or easily as the others.


Ulead Systems' Ulead GIF Animator 2.0 seems more for beginners than experts, but
it has powerful features. At startup, an optional wizard pops up to guide you through
animation creation.


The program can import the largest number of image types--15--in addition to five video
formats. The interface is not as graceful as it should be. Thumbnails of all frames
appear, but you can't view many at the same time.


GIF Animator has decent image-editing tools and excellent palette controls. It does a
good job of making a small global palette, letting you add or delete colors one at a time.


The optimization wizard offers a good range of options. For example, it tracks how many
kilobytes are being shaved off an image.


The program's excellent transitions and filters set it apart from the competition.
These include scrolling text and an eye-pleasing page peel. The 20 plug-in transitions and
filters make animations attractive with minimum effort.


To expand your horizons, Ulead sells a separate package of 130 custom transition and
filter effects, called F/X for GIF Animator.


Any one of these programs can make impressive GIF animations. I found Ulead's GIF
Animator 2.0 the easiest and best in terms of results.


Jason Hart is a webmaster and analyst at American Management Technologies Inc. in
Washington.


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