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Importing Vector Graphics

There may be times when you have an existing vector graphic that you need to include in a Flash movie. Typically, such a vector graphic is likely to be geometric—although not necessarily. Regardless of the exact form of the vector graphic, unless it's super-complicated, you'll be able to import it into Flash.

Importing from a File

Although Flash can actually import several vector file formats, I can assure you the two most reliable formats are Adobe Illustrator files (.ai) and Adobe Flash SWF files (.swf). A viable third option is to import Freehand files (.fh11 through .fh7) but that product is not being actively promoted anymore. The main choice is whether you try to import a native .ai or .fh11 file or you first generate a .swf (from your vector program) and import that .swf. You can use Flash to export a .swf, but here I'm talking about using a graphics tool to export a .swf. Illustrator and Freehand as well as many other tools have special export features that take special care to generate a .swf that's free from any special features only supported in those tools.

Importing from file is as simple as selecting File, Import and then pointing to the file you want, as shown in Figure 3.1. You see several file types listed, but that doesn't mean they all work equally well. Not only are several image file formats listed (both raster and vector), but video and audio file formats also appear. Let's first look at the vector image formats worth considering: Illustrator, Freehand, and SWF.

Figure 3.1

Figure 3.1 Importing images (or audio) can be as simple as selecting the file you want to import.

Importing Illustrator Files

Flash CS3 added an extremely seamless Illustrator importer feature. All you do is select File, Import, Import to Stage and select an .ai file. The import dialog appears as shown in Figure 3.2 and you'll see all the layers and even the nested hierarchy of groups and path layers as it was laid out in Illustrator. This means it will be as simple or as complex as the graphic artist made it. Having so many layers listed can seem complicated, but there's surprisingly little to learn in this dialog.

Figure 3.2

Figure 3.2 When you import an Illustrator file you'll see all the layers in the original file.

The basic approach to importing is to first decide which layers you want to import and then decide (either individually or globally) the manner in which you want to import those elements. You may want to leave everything in a vector form, or treat some elements as bitmapped graphics. Additionally, there are options that let you create movie clips as you import. (Movie clips are self-contained objects that can be easily recycled throughout your Flash movie—but they're not covered until next hour.) To exclude specific layers from import, simply click to remove the check mark next to that layer. Unchecking a layer that contains nested layers excludes all the nested layers, as shown in Figure 3.3.

Figure 3.3

Figure 3.3 You can select or deselect layers and nested layers when importing an Illustrator file.

After you've decided which layers you're going to import, you can decide how those elements should be imported. The global settings that appear at the bottom left of the import dialog (as shown in Figure 3.4) affect everything you import. The simplest way to import every selected layer is to select the option Import as a Single Bitmap Image. Although this will retain the image and all the fidelity created by the artist, the imported image can't be scaled without losing quality. That is, if you convert the image to a bitmap, the image will have all the characteristics of bitmaps (as described earlier this hour). I should note that such an imported bitmap supports transparency (that is, it will behave as a PNG file, which you'll learn more about later this hour).

Figure 3.4

Figure 3.4 The settings at the bottom left of the Illustrator Import dialog affect every layer you're importing. Individual layer options appear on the right side.

Let me point out a few more global options (the bottom-left area). The option to Place objects at original position is really a no-brainer. Even if you don't force your Stage size to match the Illustrator file (the second check box), having items placed in their relative position is vastly more convenient. I mean, you can always move the items to a new location if you want, but it would be tedious to have to move them into place later. Finally the Convert Layers To drop-down menu defaults to turn Illustrator layers into Flash layers. This makes sense because Flash, just like Illustrator, has layers that affect the visual stacking. The thing is that you can also select to place all imported layers into a single Flash layer and you'll still get the visual stacking you'd expect. In Hour 12, "Using Layers in Animations," you'll learn that Flash layers do more than just affect the visual stacking; they also let you maintain independent animations. The point here is that you don't have to create a new Flash layer for each layer in the Illustrator file. Finally, the option to turn Illustrator layers into Flash keyframes is useful if the artist created an animation frame by frame but put each step of the animation into a new layer. Naturally, this would take some coordination with the artist and—in my experience—most artists don't use Illustrator as an animation tool.

Assuming that you aren't opting to import everything as a single bitmap image, you can individually set options for each layer you're importing. Click the layer (not the check mark) and to the right you'll see the options shown in Figure 3.4.

The options available for individual layers come down to two decisions: First, do you import as an editable vector graphic ("editable path") or as a bitmap; and two, do you want to create a movie clip while you're importing? If you're never going to scale the object and you're either planning to animate the object or the image is very complex, then you may consider converting it to a bitmap. In most cases I'd expect you'll want to leave it as a vector. Next hour you'll learn all about movie clips and you may consider revisiting this dialog then.

Importing FreeHand Files

I feel a bit like a Luddite discussing how to import FreeHand documents, but just because Adobe hasn't updated it since it was acquired along with Macromedia doesn't mean people don't still use it. In fact, when Flash and FreeHand were Macromedia products, they added some pretty decent import options for FreeHand. When you select File, Import, Import to Stage and point to a FreeHand document you'll see the dialog shown in Figure 3.5.

Figure 3.5

Figure 3.5 When you import a FreeHand file, Flash provides this dialog box.

This dialog serves primarily as a way to map features in FreeHand to work with Flash. For example, Flash needs to know how you want to handle pages for which there is no Flash equivalent. All these options are fairly easy to interpret.

Here are some tips to help you import drawings into Flash. First, if you use FreeHand, be sure to take advantage of FreeHand's symbols because they translate directly to Flash's symbols so that graphics can be recycled. You'll learn about symbols and Flash's Library in Hour 4, "Using the Library for Productivity." Also, each object created in FreeHand should be separated into its own layer. Although you can easily put multiple objects on one layer, you'll be able to access individual objects more easily if you create multiple layers.

There are many text effects that you can create in FreeHand and Illustrator that don't translate to Flash. For example, text attached to paths doesn't remain editable when a file is imported into Flash. Also, because only FreeHand supports strokes on text, Flash ignores this effect. Fine adjustments to font sizes and kerning are possible in FreeHand and Illustrator, but they don't work as well in Flash, so font spacing often changes slightly when a file is imported into Flash. Sometimes text automatically converts to paths (which means it isn't editable when it gets into Flash). These are just some general tips. Creating the smallest, best-looking image that imports seamlessly into Flash might take some additional experimenting in either FreeHand or Illustrator.

Importing Flash Player Files

The simplest and most consistently reliable option for importing vector graphics into Flash is to import Flash Player (.swf) files. Most graphics people don't think of .swf as an image file format—it's even listed as "Flash Movie" in the import dialog. Just realize a one-frame movie is really a graphic. Of course, a .swf is not like a FreeHand file or an Illustrator file because it's not fully editable. When using newer versions of FreeHand and Illustrator, you can export your working files directly into the .swf format. They export amazingly well, the final files are quite small, and the images retain all the details and quality of the originals.

The best process is to create a graphic in whatever program you prefer and then if that program doesn't export .swfs, open the file in a program that does (such as FreeHand, Illustrator, Fireworks, or several others). Then simply export it as a .swf. You can then import the .swf directly into a Flash file. Even if the graphics program you use doesn't support exporting .swf files, you can open the file in a tool that does and export a .swf from there. This means that the graphics tool you select must export files in a format that is supported by the tool you use to export .swf files.

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