The greatest software ever… revealed

In the past I’ve hinted at my all-time favorite software, how I have an old backup copy (the original licensed one is no longer used – the company went bankrupt and nobody else knew how to use it) and how I”d love to get a license for it so I can start using it again. After discussing it last week I bit the bullet and contacted the developer.

And they didn’t reply.

Which is hardly surprising, since everything about the developer’s site is geared to current products. For example, just to ask a question you have to specify which product it’s about, and only current products are shown. I found a general sales link that said they try to reply 24  hours. That was about a week ago.

I did find one person who said he had an old copuy of the software to sell, but that was from months ago. I contacted him anyway, but again, no reply.

Since then I’ve done some searching and I’ve found a modern product at a reasonable price that does some of what product X did, so with great reluctance it looks like the world’s greatest software will have to be consigned to the garbage bin of history, because of licensing issues. Oh how I wish there was a sane legal abandonware law. The present law seems designed to destroy the best ideas and punish those who want to be legal.

Anyway the name of the mystery software? (Drum roll please):

Autodesk Animator Pro

(note: this is the classic 1992 version, 1.3, not much simpler 1.0 or the so-promising-yet-disappointing Windows version)

What AAPro does that nothing else does:

* Unparalleled (and easy) palette control. Back in the days of DOS, palettes really mattered. With AAPro you can perform clever time-based changing of individual palette positions, you can assign a particular part of an animation to a particular set of palette positions, you can copy, merge, cycle, shrink, adjust (with or without color fitting) on a position by position basis if you wish. This allows some really interesting effects, low file sizes and general cleaning up of images (e.g. by moving all the errors into a certain palette range then obliterating it).

In comparison, every other animation program I’ve ever seen either makes palettes tricky to access (tiny headache-inducing palette sizes, several awkward clicks for even he simplest change) or more usually, many changes involve automatic clumsy recalculation of the entire palette, losing all your fine tuning, losing the most important colors, remapping everything blindly and adding in unwanted colors. Ugh.

* Huge combination of brush and ink combinations. Little things like outlining, or blurring and antialiasing at 8 bit level without converting to true color first (and thus losing vital palette control), or sweeping for orphan pixels (many still image programs allow this in high color, but not with the palette control that AAPro allows)

* Fully featured layer option (where one animation is placed on or under another). Some animation programs allow you to paint with an animation as a brush, but their level of control of the second animation is crude or awkward.

* Fast rendering (compared with, say, Animation shop of any high color based program). This isn’t a huge deal breaker, but occasionally the difference in speed is huge.

* General awesomeness. OK, this one is a bit subjective. But the whole thing just feels well programmed, and there are so many nice extra touches (sophisticated control of 3D effects, vector morphing with any ink type, heck it even has its own plug-in language). I suppose everyone gets used to a certain way of doing things, and back in the early 90s me and AAPro just clicked.

If anyone knows of another animation product that can do this in the hundred dollar range, I’m interested.

(To be fair, AAPro was originally rather more that $100, but back in 1992 software in general cost a lot more than it does today.) Much of its awesomeness, and why I give it the title greatest software ever, has to be seen in the light of what other products could do at the time. Most of them were still stuck in 640k, or had to run with Windows limitations. Animator could use ALL your memory, and even run DOS simultaneously if you wanted.

To see Animator’s awesomness in context, a couple of years after its release Computer Shopper (or one of the other major computer magazines, I forget which one) did a big feature on animation software. For some reason they didn’t test Animator, but tested all its rivals, including Macromedia Director. Director back in those days was a joke – to animate you needed to individually store seperate frames in little boxes. Ugh! The magazine concluded that there were NO good animation programs available for the normal user. All other animation programs were horribly limited. But ah Animator…

Anyway, regarding the use of Animator in my game, I have to duplicate its functionality (without the beautiful palette control) using a collection of other software: Photoshop Elements (excellent for individual frames, and can output to animated GIF), Animation Shop (can input Photoshop’s animated GIF format and output FLC, plus it’s good for quick and crude frame by frame drawing), Bink and Smacker RAD tools (for conversion to and from other formats – e.g. to input video), the GIMP (for separating frames and only showing changes – useful for keeping file sizes down in AGS), and a new product that I’m currently evaluating (which used FLC mainly) and will blog about if/when I buy it.

Incidentally, Animation Shop has also been discontinued, but luckily I bought a second hand version. This seems to be a trend for animation software: it’s either highly expensive and over-featured (for professional animation studios), cheap but too limited for me (e.g. GIF Animator), aimed at Vectors and Flash (e.g. Toon Boom and others) or it gets discontinued. I guess nobody does 8 bit pixel-level 2D animation any more. Well I do!!

Sorry this post is so long. Again. If I had more time it would be shorter.

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11 responses to “The greatest software ever… revealed

  1. GarageGothic

    Sounds like a great piece of software. I also saw you praise in the Talk section of the Wikipedia entry for Autodesk Animator, you must really love that program.
    I understand you, I have favorite programs like that too. To this day, people are mocking me for insisting on using Norton Commander (or rather, now the Norton clone Total Commander) for file management instead of Windows Explorer. For some reason it’s the perfect tool for me, and its the first thing I install when getting a new computer. If I’m ever forced to work on somebody else’s machine using Windows Explorer, I’m very slow and easily get confused doing things that would take me two seconds in Total Commander.

  2. GarageGothic

    Oh, and are you familiar with Pro Motion (http://www.cosmigo.com/promotion/)? It seems to be about the closest you can come to old-school animation programs, but perhaps it doesn’t have all the features you need.

  3. re: Total Commander – is it anything like XtreeGold? I used to LOVE that program. I know there’s a Windows version but I’m terrified that it won’t be as good so haven’t tried it. For me I’d boot into Xtree and then press ‘a’ for Animator within seconds. Xtree was just so darn fast. I simply don’t understand why Windows explorer is so sloooooooooow. Yes, I know it tries to do a lot more, but modern computers are supposedly a thousand times faster than my old 286, yet my old 286 managed its files instantly and with my modern box I count the seconds. I totally understand loving a good file manager.

    re: Pro Motion
    LOL! Cosmigo Pro Motion is the software I’ve been testing, and the reason why I might be able to wean myself off Animator. I’ll do more tests over the next couple of days. It’s weaker in a lot of areas, but hopefully it will have new features that I’ll discover to make up for that.

    And you spotted my Wikipedia edit? I have no secrets! (but I notice that somebody added ‘citation needed’ – the Philistine!)

  4. Oh hello. Looks like I’ve had a bit more luck than you. I managed to not only get permission to use the software, but I’ve got it’s source code. I’ve begun attempting to port it over to a cross platform posix/sdl environment in earnest. I’m not a very good programmer though. If you know anyone that could help, that would be great. My intent is to eventually release the whole thing as GPL once I get the goahead from the rights holders. (hint, it’s actually not Autodesk, surprisingly. They were just licensing from yost group, a now defunct company)

    Along with the source code came a gigantic pile of information about the program and its history that has never been revealed to the public. I’m still sorting through it, but I’m just one guy with a small amount of free time. Hello!

  5. oh also, check out the neat animation I made with it!
    (Currently you can run it inside of DosBox)

  6. Oh, one way you could help right away is help me figure out how to get in touch with a man named Gary Yost, who is now a big shot at a company called mental images. I wrote a snail mail letter to him, but there’s no way to know if he got it, or if he did if he took me seriously, or plans to respond. I mainly just want him to know what I’m doing, and make sure that he’s okay with it.

  7. Wow! I’m speechless! I wish I could help – but right now my profile is very small and so my contacts are almost non-existent. What you said is VERY interesting.

    I actually got a reply from the Autodesk sales people, eventually. They said I should contact whoever I bought it from originally. I replied that I didn’t buy it, that’s the whole point, that’s why I need their help to get legal. They then replied and said I should contact my local reseller. There is zero chance that my local reseller has 1992 software lying around, so I left it at that.

    But what you’ve said sounds amazing!

    Regarding Yost and not Autodesk, that’s impressive. I mean, I know it was created by Yost (that’s in the copyright text) but I never went to the trouble of going any further. I did note that Animator Studio was made by someone else and was slow and buggy. And a programmer friend of mine opened Animator Pro in a hex editor and noted that it was made with a fast language and all his other experience suggested it was probably an impressive bit of coding. But I could have told him that – I love that program!

    Regarding contacting Gary Yost (May He Live Forever), the only thing I can think of is to post a request on Slashdot. Someone who posts there must know, and what you’re doing is interesting enough that it might get a reply.

    Meanwhile I’ll blog about it today. Who knows, someone might pick up on the link by accident.

    Regarding creating an updated version, if you got the rights would that allow you to make it available along with DOSBox? I’ve had great success with trying it in DOSBox (apart from my computer restarts without warning every couple of hours, but maybe that’s just my computer). Making it available for use with DOSBox might encourage more people to use it, and that might encourage more people to get involved in porting it?

    My own coding skills are almost certainly worse than yours, edit after reading your excellent blog: pathetic compared with yours, but I am very, very interested in this. Thanks for getting in touch!

  8. Pingback: Does anyone know how to contact Gary Yost? « Enter The Story!

  9. “Animator Pro in a hex editor and noted that it was made with a fast language and all his other experience suggested it was probably an impressive bit of coding.”

    Well it was coded using a mixture of Assembler and C. The bits of hex your friend was looking at were probably tuned by hand. It’s those parts that are giving me the biggest problems at this point. The construction of the program is quite interesting. I should probaly make a blog post about it at some point.

  10. “Regarding creating an updated version, if you got the rights would that allow you to make it available along with DOSBox? ”

    I can’t really promise anything this early in the game. I’ve essentially been given access to the source code. I can ask for explicit written permission to release Jim’s portions of the source code as open source. But the situation is rather complicated by the fact that it appears to be mixed in with the work of several other authors, much of the documentation is still copyrighted to Autodesk, and it relies on obseleted proprietary technology (pharlap dos extender, assembler, masm, borland turbo c).

    I have not yet fully explored what areas of this software might even be patented. Before I release anything, I believe I have to resolve all these issues first, which may take a while.

  11. Hey there, Just a quick update. I’ve finally uploaded the source code. There’s a long road ahead, now though.

    Happy new year.

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