MotionArtist Easily Turns Art Into Animation

Karen Luk , PCWorld

Karen Luk is a freelance illustrator and art instructor who creates comics. Her work has been featured at the Cartoon Art Museum and Google. Recently, she successfully funded her upcoming Steampunk ABC children's book on Kickstarter.
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Smith Micro touts MotionArtist (free beta) as the answer for graphic novel and comic creators who want to create motion/interactive comics without coding. You upload your artwork from any of a number of common file types and export the animation in video formats that play well in HTML and YouTube. The latter is a boon for creators uploading motion comics on their own sites without the use of Flash or After Effects.

Smith Micro MotionArtist
Imported PSD files in MotionArtist maintain their individual layers, order, and labels, as in this art by Karen Luk.
Importing original comic pages into MotionArtist from Adobe Photoshop was simple. PSD files come in layers, each with its own original layer name in the scene or flattened as a composite. Each layer is loaded in the time line with a default 30 frames per second. Vendor Smith Micro states that MotionArtist will also accept the following formats: AI (Adobe Illustrator), JPEG, PNG, and raw TIFF. Animators will recognize the timeline and some animation tools in the toolbar, but there are no drawing tools like those in Flash and Anime Studio. The emphasis is on rendering existing pages for video playback.

When MotionArtist opens up, the comic artist sees the familiar industry-standard 11-bv-17-inch artboard and a single panel with camera view attached. MotionArtist has two modes, Presentation and Advanced. Basic understanding of animation timing is useful but not required, given the default settings in Presentation mode. MotionArtist users will switch back and forth between the modes to refine camera movement and panel-to-panel focus. Having little animation experience, I found it tricky to align my own camera and panel paths properly for rendering. It's faster to import a PSD file, let Presentation mode create a camera path between the panels, and then edit it. The caveat is where the camera path starts and ends. In a few of my imported files with layers, the camera render would start on the last speech bubble. Adjustments in the time line and paths fixed this.

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Free Media Player VLC 2.0.2 Plays Almost Any Video File

If you don't have VLC, aka the VideoLAN Player, installed on your system, the chances are you don't watch a whole lot of video. VLC has millions of users and supports virtually every type of video found on the Web, as well as audio. It's also mature, stable, cross-platform, and provides a lot of features not found in Windows Media Player or the Quicktime player.

VLC screenshot
VLC 2.0.2 can play almost any video you can find.
VLC is my default player, simply because I never get a message saying that a codec isn't supported. That includes playing commercial DVD movies. Indeed, the only type of movie that VLC doesn't support is commercial Blu-ray discs because of the copy protection involved. It does, however, fully support the .mkv files commonly rendered from these.

There are boatloads of controls, tweaks, and effects to be found in VLC. Brightness, contrast, saturation, playback speed, audio lag compensation, a spatializer, EQ, blur, motion blur, color removal, lighting… I could go on. The latest version, 2.02, also has the ability to boost volume up to 200% of normal. Make sure you adjust the volume in the preferences dialog to start at normal or your preferred percentage. The volume boost causes distortion and will wake the neighbors.

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Pokki Offers a Slick, Free App Store for Web Apps

The line between Web apps and desktop applications grows ever blurrier. Chrome OS, for example, puts the browser front and center and makes it the core of an entire operating system. Also, in recent years simple smartphone apps have really come into their own, with millions of users and developers in two thriving ecosystems (iOS and Android). And now, it's the desktop's turn: Pokki is a free Windows application that tries to make Web apps as easy to use as desktop apps and as discoverable and fun to install as smartphone apps.

Pokki store interface
Pokki's interface is beautiful, and somewhat similar to that of the Chrome Web Store.

A desktop app store is not a new concept: Mac OS X has had one for a while, and so has Ubuntu Linux. Windows 8 has one as well, for Windows-8-style apps. But unlike the Windows 8 Store, Pokki works on existing versions of Windows.

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Chinese Zodiac Windows 7 Theme Is Appropriate All Year Long--Every Year

The Chinese zodiac is thousands of years old, so what better decoration for your glossy, state-of the-art PC? The twelve zodiac animals make a stately parade across your Windows 7 desktop with the Chinese Zodiac Windows 7 Theme. PCWorld editor Kim Saccio-Kent selected these wallpapers from the many available at deviantART, an online community showcasing user-created art and photography.

deviantART user immanuel's horse, in Chinese Zodiac Themepack
DeviantART user immanuel's horse seems to stand on thin air.
The wallpapers depict all the animal signs in the Chinese zodiac and follow the twelve-part cycle, beginning with user kacza-ino's image of a rat and ending with MPtribe's tattoo design of a pig. Each of the images is striking in its own way; many use contrast to show the beauty and power of the animals. Most impressive is a close-up of the piercing eye of a tiger. User fennecx's big cat is nestled in a fiery golden coat, with ripples of black and white. KalleVictor's snake has a sublime appeal, with its lush scales of varying green tones against a background of darkness.

Other deviantART images include the Chinese zodiac ox by KatVonB, the rabbit by Vajk, the Chinese dragon by orgastic, the horse by immanuel, the sheep by inoxorum, the monkey by SubterfugeMalaises, the rooster by Iceandsnow, and the dog by branka42.

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Immerse Yourself In the Beautiful, Quirky World of Botanicula With This Windows 7 Theme

If you're new to the indie game Botanicula, then this free Windows 7 themepack will serve as a visually splendid introduction to it. And if you've already played it…well, is that any reason to deprive yourself of the delightful visuals and quirky sounds that are such a big part of the game's charm? PCWorld has put together the Botanicula Windows 7 Theme to bring the distinctive feel of Botanicula to your desktop.

Botanicula themepack
In a subaquatic realm, the friends come across a giant crab.
Botanicula comes to you from Amanita Design, the same folks who created Machinarium--although there's little family resemblance. This game is set in a colorful world of nature rather than a brown and beige steampunk universe. The story involves a team of five insectoid friends who travel through the branches of a tree--their homeland--to save it from energy-sucking parasitic enemies.

The wallpapers in this themepack give you a good feel for the game's eclectic spaces and inhabitants, from the ethereally beautiful domains of the enemy, to escapades on the moon and on glowing pastel branches, to encounters with giant tortoises and crabs, and worms hidden in vibrant green sprouts.

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Four Free Services to Help Plan Your Run

It's that time of year when mosts of the Northern Hemisphere is starting to warm up to the idea of being outside. Going for a run in the fresh air sounds appealing, but don't lace up your shoes just yet. Spending a few more minutes at your computer (or in some cases, your mobile device) can help you choose the best route and make the most of your workout.

MapMyRUN

MapMyRun screenshot
MapMyRun helps you plan a running or jogging route.
Free (but ad-supported; ad-free paid versions available) cloud-based service MapMyRUNoffers a host of tools for runners of all levels. MapMyRUN lets you search for nearby running routes, or you can create your own on its embedded maps. Getting started with MapMyRUN is a breeze: Sign up for a free account, and you'll be good to go. Your options for planning and tracking workouts and nutrition are neatly laid out, in a tabbed interface across the top of the screen. From your Home screen, you can see your recent activity, including workouts you've completed and food you've logged.

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First Look: ZoneAlarm Free Antivirus + Firewall Launches Today

ZoneAlarm is an old and trusted name in the field of computer security. Its free personal firewall has been popular for years, and now, it has decided to step up its game: Its latest product takes the solid foundation of the free firewall, and adds a free antivirus on top. With this move, ZoneAlarm Free Antivirus + Firewall competes directly against Microsoft Security Essentials and the built-in Windows firewall. PCWorld has not yet tested this product's effectiveness, but I sat down with the software to evaluate its features.

ZoneAlarm Free Antivirus + Firewall installation screenshot
By default, ZoneAlarm Free Antivirus + Firewall tries to install a toolbar, change your search engine and homepage, and omits an option to easily undo the changes.
This isn't ZoneAlarm's first crack at creating an antivirus: PCWorld previously tested and reviewed ZoneAlarm Extreme Security 2012. Although we were impressed with the malware protection features of that product, we were disappointed with its scan speeds and impact on PC performance. ZoneAlarm Free Antivirus + Firewall may perform similarly, but we will know for sure only after PCWorld completes performance testing of this product.

Unfortunately, I can't say my first impression from ZoneAlarm Free Antivirus + Firewall was entirely positive: I picked the detailed installer option to see what the defaults are, and was surprised to discover that ZoneAlarm wants to install a browser toolbar, replace my default homepage and search engine with ZoneAlarm-branded pages, and not provide me with an easy way to undo those changes (even though such a feature exists--the checkbox is disabled by default). These options are collected on one step of the setup process, making them easy to spot and disable. Having done so, I continued with the setup with no incident.

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