Friday, October 25, 2013

Toonboom Bugs 1: Timeline Hard To Read

As I've said many times, I like Toonboom's animation programs better than Flash and other products - mainly for one thing - it has a a good brush and good paint fill tools.

BUT - like many programs supposedly designed for artists, fundamental tools you need are clumsy and it takes too many steps to do basic things you need to do all the time.

I spend 80% of my time digging through hidden menus to find the tools I need and scrolling through unreadable timelines and ex sheets to try to keep track of where I am in the scene. So my drawing and animating keeps getting interrupted by awkward technical flaws that could easily be fixed if the programmers would just listen to us. When I animate, I just wanna go straight through and keep the flow, it is very hard to stay focussed and creative with the constant interruptions that are built into the program. - starting with most basic of animation tools : the timeline.

Here is the timeline of a scene in Toonboom's Animate:

Right away you can see basic traditional animation guides missing from the timeline.

Here's a traditional exposure sheet or "dope sheet" that was used by all the greats and still used by animators and directors who like to plan the timing of their scenes.

each frame of the cartoon is numbered in the vertical column.

And of course the animator needs that, but he needs something else too

that is on this ex sheet

but is conspicuously missing

on the toonboom timeline and ex sheets.

Directors and animators need to keep track of bigger increments than just individual frames.

We think in terms of tempos or in seconds or in film feet.

Just like composers don't write their music in individual notes..they use bar sheets so they can keep track of the structure of their compositions.

They want to be sure that their tunes "add up" to the overall tempos.

Here you can easily see that there are 4 beats in each bar. This bar sheet, like an ex-sheet is a measuring stick - a ruler.

A ruler isn't just a long string of individual tiny increments. It's divided into Yards,feet,inches,half inches and on down to 16ths of an inch. You couldn't read it or measure anything if you had no subdivisions. Imagine if you had to calcute things like "137 1/16ths of an inch".
You'd go nuts.

As I do trying to figure out where I am in Toonboom.

So in music, a bar sheet is a way of measuring big sections of the music and smaller sections. This also makes it easier to be able to tell where you are.

It would be impossible to keep up with other musicians if music sheets looked like this:
In Toonboom, you have an endless string of individual frames but no markers of bigger chunks of your timing.
...and the more layers and the longer the scene gets, the harder it gets to navigate what you are doing.

I improvised a temporary way to try to keep track of the scene by using a layer to create my own tempo or 'bar sheet". In this case, it's a 12x beat x 4 beats. see the yellow layer below.
This is a half-assed way to do it but it's all we have right now. But once you start opening layers and you enter scrolling hell, even this crude tool becomes useless because it scrolls outside of the timeline's view.


There are lots more bugs and missing essential tools in the programs, and if I find time, I will do more posts. If I had a programmer, I could make this program a hell of a lot easier to use.

Short list:

no way to lock off layers so they don't scroll away out of frame.

Can't easily add holds within a scene.

You can't select parts of your soundtracks with your synched animation at the same time to keep it in synch when you change timing.

You can't move whole chunks of timing in one step (which you can do in Final Cut Easily). Instead you have to open tons of layers and select every single frame on every layer from beginning to the end of the scene and any little inevitable mistake gets everything all out of order.

Keyframing torture. You have to make keyframes on frames that AREN'T keyframes before and after the frames that ARE keyframes, so then you end up with tons of extra steps and a completely messy layer that you can't tell where the actual actions are.

many more...these are just timeline/timing issues

all of which would be easy to fix if you could just show the solutions to the programmers.

If you have figured out solutions to the timeline problems, please comment and share your secrets with the rest of us poor souls.


Landon Kemp said...

Have you considered sending this post and any future "Toonboom Bug" posts to the programmers of Toonboom so they could try to improve their software going from your suggestions? These definitely seem like good points that need to be brought to their attention.

Joshua Marchant (Scrawnycartoons) said...

You're speaking my language. I've struggled with pretty much all the problems you've mentioned.

Only we're doing soul-draining puppet animation, as opposed to fun cartoon animation.

James T. Nethery said...

Keyframing torture. You have to make keyframes on frames that AREN'T keyframes before and after the frames that ARE keyframes, so then you end up with tons of extra steps and a completely messy layer that you can't tell where the actual actions are.

Hey John, I think I know what you mean and I believe it's a fairly easy fix (I do almost all of my animation in Toonboom using keyframes) but could you clarify what you are saying here with an example?

Jesse Oliver said...

I can't wait until "Cans Without Labels" is officially finished! but I know it'll be worth the wait!

David Germain said...

I completely agree that ToonBoom needs an overhaul in its setup. I use that program at work. I've gotten more used to it now in the passed month or two, but for the longest time I absolutely hated it and still do. I hate not having any vertical markers too. I need something like that to better see where an animation cycle (walk or whatever) begins and repeats. I have to rely on my own resourcefulness to make that happen which is a solid indication that whoever designed this program was not an animator and thus didn't think everything through.

What's worse is that the people at ToonBoom won't ever listen to animator's cries because they're simply in it for the money. They're putting on a visually aggressive campaign to make their product mandatory studio equipment whether we like it or not. Add to that they charge everyone a whopping $5000 a month just for the divine privilege of using their shoddy product. If it were up to me I would kick them to the curb. But I guess you can't stop the march of progress.

Harvey Rothman said...

What ToomBoom should do is have on the scene properties menu, a beats and bar box that automatically puts in the vertical lines. It would be nice to set not only frame beats, but also the musical BPM for musicals or something. I hope ToonBoom comes across this thread one day.

RonToon said...

I've used this software since it was first introduced to the world as USAnimation back in the 90's. The problem with the development of this software is that is began to drift away from traditional animation principles and geared it's workflow towards the way the Flash works on a horizontal timeline. The original simple intuitiveness became buried in menu options. The R&D team needs to focus on the needs and workflow of traditional animators as well as the cool things they come up with.

alexdude1085 said...

Try Digicel Flipbook. It is easy to use, and many pros use it. It also helps get your work done faster.

Scott Cardona said...

Ive just switched too toonboom from flash souly on your word. And I find it simplier to do each scene seperatly then import the swf into after effects and piece em together. Can you elobarate how you use the xsheets in toonboom. I tottaly feel like im losing alot not being able to understand it

Bill Perkins said...

Hi John. Read you post with a lot of interest. In the 1990's I was involved for several years with Digital Scanning / Ink / Paint and com-positing software for use in Traditional Animation studios. Product I managed was called "Toonz" , it was developed by a company based in Rome called Digital Video. when I started working with them I had some influence in the software design and implemented a digital exposure sheet based on a real exposure sheet and a camera module that worked much as a Animation Camera Stand. Peg-Bars, N/S E/W moves, Multiplane, the whole nine yards. The product took off largely due to it's real world correspondence and was used at Amblimation Studios for "Balto" and as well Fox Animation Studios for "Anastasia" and "Titan A.E."
It continues to be used to this day by, most notably Studio Ghibi. Where I'm going with this is when it became obvious that Traditional Animation Production was closing up the software developers, again, Digital Video, followed the Flash Animation lead and developed paperless, vector based animation products. I worked with one called "The Tab" several years ago and found it quite intuitive. Most important the software designers kept the Traditional Animation interface, a vertical exposure sheet vs. a horizontal time-line. You might want to checkout the company and the software. go too: . I'm also sure they would be interested in your input re: new and more workable features.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Wow! A terrific post! I haven't used this program yet but what you say has the ring of truth. Programmers would rather die than simplify.

My guess is that programmers are only interested in one audience, and that's other programmers. Programmer culture rewards new functionality and completely ignores ease of use.

A programmer that concentrated on simplifying would be a parriah. None of his associates would want to go to lunch with him.

My suspicion is that programmers are Social Darwinists. They believe superior computer skills mark them as the next stage in evolution. Helping primitives who have trouble with programs
would be counter progress, a sort of devolvement or backwards evolution. Like the wooly mammoth, non-techies should just die. It's nature's least that's the way programmers see the world.

I can't believe that businessmen hire people with this bias.

The Monster said...

I'm a hobbyist animator and programmer, and the more limitations I encounter with existing art and animation programs, the more I want to just make one myself =P

JPilot said...

I just wanted to say that, after years of working in CG animation studios and even working at ToonBoom when it was a start up, coming from traditional animation, the program was developed earnestly in being geared to familiarity and ease of use for traditional animators.

But in today's world, Eddy Fitzgerald statement nails it to a T.

Just like engineers, it seems to me they believe any artist's degree isn't worth the paper they wipe their asses with.

Frank Summers said...

I've got an idea. Why don't you just limit yourself to 7 or so layers (including BGs) like an xsheet from the 40s. Trace back all your holds like they used to, too.

The use of vertical lines to visually mark off the beats is completely useless and redundant, because sitting right there in your timeline is the actual audio track to work from. It's complete with a visual waveform to locate your beats, which often do NOT fall every 16 frames or so. I am almost 100% positive that any animator working in the 50's would've traded in a line on a piece of paper for an actual recording that they could scrub at their leisure. But let's use a ruler instead.

Your complaints about Toon Boom are not "bugs". An example of a bug in a piece of software is every time you push the enter key to play your animation back it crashes the software.

I do agree the timeline in TB can become very disorganized if you don't take the time to wrangle it, but you are not utilizing some of the built-in features to manage it.

Nic Sweet said...

I had a gig with a university around L.A. and I wasn't up to speed with flash yet, so I went back to paper...and inked in photoshop and used an NLE which is still my prefered way to work, I know it's slow but I get more control that way...since then I've had a few gigs that required flash/toon boom which works, but it's clunky and too easy to cheat...I also downloaded a free beta for TV Paint, which I think is the most intuitive program Ive used yet that keeps the old school feel..I'm saying this but I know I still have a long way to go in becoming a cartoonist/animatior...but if we have to keep it in the computer I feel like using tv paint for roughs and doing clean up in photo shop and final exports in final cut is the best way to go...this does fly in the face of the way deadlines/speed works in a vector based job market for 2d people...

HernĂ¡n G. Fuentealba said...

need to get someone who can program a plugin if the programs allows to add them, sadly poeple who make programs usually dont condier things you realise only when your doing animation with it actually

Yoni Goodman said...

Hey John

I'm not sure if you know this function, but you can use tempo lines in the Xsheet window in toonboom (rightclick-view-set tempo marker)
you can also write whatever type of direction in an annotation column.
It doesn't show on the timeline, which is a bit of an annoyance because it's an easier way to view your animation and to get around with, but you can get all this stuff you want in the harmony Xsheet view

kurtwil said...

Having been using digital animation tools since the early '90's, I sympathize with JK and others who find the new generation of software a digital hell. No fun for me either.

After Effects makes it easy to move whole blocks of keyframes, but try to delve into their puppet tool and you'll get a mind boggling number of layers and key controls.

Unfortunately, most programmers think in a different manner than JK or other artists. All too often the code, not the tool that the code "creates" that matters.

Chickens and Beandip said...

...There are vertical markers every ten frames.. And someone mentioned that you can scrub audio so you don't need beats... I didn't bother reading the rest. It all just sounds curmudgeonly.

underarea51 said...

Hi John,

Check out:

Dragonframe is a stop-motion animation software, which contains an x-sheet system that might come closer to what your describing.


pedro alpera said...

Has anyone tried new Toon Boom Animate 3? Is it worth to upgrade?

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Sonja Violette said...

Hiiii I actually know a programmer.

He draws and animates too: not like a seasoned pro but I think his opinion is of merit as he is a professional programmer and knows a thing or two about art :

Toon Boom started in 1998, and the core engines take a long time to develop for efficiency. They have to run smoothly and with few bugs or errors. They also usually are developed from scratch, in terms of math and physics, etc etc. Think of programming as a let statement. They have to abstract what you want as an animator, and translate that to math, then give you back what you want. If you think this is a simple thing, great for you and please program a better animation software in 2 weeks and show it to us. (that's like saying, animate a feature film in a week on paper and show us your Oscar!)

Programmers have to program from their perspective, like animators have to animate from their perspective. We're human and have our own opinions, and in our groups and professional relationships, our own standards. I agree with what John says about animation fundamentals and I want to see Toon Boom Harmony with musical timing ex sheets as well.

An average programmer who is not an animator, or traditional animator works full time as a programmer for their daily bread. They'll make a gaming platform, or work on websites, whatever pays them!

...They don't necessarily know what musical timing is for a drawing, what animation principals are, or the other forms of education animators must know and find obvious to do their job well so...

A solution is to team up with open source programmer aficionados, develop with them for 10 years , or less depending how organized you are and how much free time they have, and make something better than Harmony. (No you can't use Harmony's code or you will be sued!!!) Your successful result will be applauded and I hope money is thrown your way for providing solutions.

I recommend starting a blog or FB page on what you want to see for the future of animation programming, and organize the result, get me involved too please!

Eg) a step one could be to:

Write a list of what you HAVE to have as an animator for software, then write other goals as well for what your program should do. Make it translatable so anyone can understand your view!

Also think about whether you're making this for Windows, Mac, Linux, etc.

Is this helpful?

Niels Krogh Mortensen said...

How can I get in contact with you John K?

I am, Niels Krogh Mortensen, animator and creator of Animation Paper - a new software (in development) designed for professionals - focused on hand drawn animation. I'd like to show our concept to you and hope you'll have some comments. I believe you will be very pleasantly surprised.

Animation Paper is going to be beautifully simple, super responsive and easy and fun to use. I believe it will prove to be the best and most AWESOME software for drawn animation.

I'll be delighted to send you links and listen to your thoughts.

niels (at)

Niels Krogh Mortensen said...

Hi John - I tried replying twice to the email I got from you, but it was a strange reply-address, so you might not have gotten it.

So I'll post my message here in stead for added chances ;)...

Thanks for getting back to me. My email is this

My website is

I recommend digging into the details of the interface image and menus, which reveal a lot of what the functionality is going to be. Here:

A few days ago I started a crowd funding on Indiegogo. You'll see a couple of videos of me explaining my overall vision for Animation Paper (and crowd funding talk) ;) Here:

The core values of the concept of Animation Paper are based on Plastic Animation Paper (PAP) - an acclaimed and popular program a friend and I did many years ago. Maybe you heard about it - or even tried it? The values are to keep it simple and light weight, with high quality drawn lines (input from a Wacom or other) and great speed and responsiveness in every function. Also keeping it intuitive and easy to use. What it is NOT going to be is a "full suite" with all kinds of fancy over technical possibilities for effects and color grades and textures and this and that, cluttering everything up. These things are much better done in compositing anyway. Also it is bitmap based - not vector based. No manipulation of spline points and poor automatic inbetweening. With Animation Paper you sketch and draw - and feel the flow.

Anyway, looking forward to your reaction. I'm hoping we can get talking and discussing details of how to create the best software for drawn animation - of course only to the extend you feel comfortable with. :) Your time is very much appreciated!

Niels KM