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Flash Goddess
June, 2006
Thea Eaton

Thea Eaton

King Tut

King Tut


Life Cycle of the Frog

Life Cycle of the Frog

Thea Eaton

Eaton is a Flash developer with a mission - to ensure that people with slow connectivity and / or disabilities can also enjoy the various Flash applications that make online games and classes so fun and interactive. Her studio, Snert, focuses on accessible edutainment.

After her position as Art Director for Anaxos Press, a publishing and multi-media company in Austin, TX, Thea started Snert, a Flash Animation Studio that focuses on accessible children's edutainment. Thea graduated from the University of Texas with a BA in Computer Science and is currently working on a degree in Advanced Character Animation. Thea has worked with Flash and children's multimedia for over 6 years. She is also working on finding new and innovative ways to make Flash 508 compliant through self-voicing features for children K-6.

Why the name Snert Studios?

I am originally from Holland, and ‘Snert' is a Dutch word. It is a Dutch pea-soup. I wanted to tack on a funny word that started with an ‘S' and snert sounded like a word that would make kids laugh!

Can you talk a little about your process for creating games?

At Snert, we go through a development process that is tailored to Flash. We go from a discovery stage, where we create the creative brief, to the pre-layout stage where we create look-and-feel storyboards and screens, to the script. It is very important to have a script that is written on grade level with an edginess and humor that speaks to the target audience and that rivals all the edgy cartoons and animated movies on TV. If necessary we go through a modeling stage, where we create modeling packs, that will have characters, digital model sheets and props/ backgrounds for specific scenes to set and maintain the style throughout the project.

After all this, we start the real storyboarding process- created with Flash and Alias sketchbook- and spot animatics. We take all these things into the production stage, where the actual game and animations are produced in Flash. We do recording sessions with experienced voice-overs and Snert also developed a lipsynching tool called T.A.L.K., (The Automated Lipsynch Kit) that can automate and speed up the lipsynching process. Reports by Nielsen and Norman have proven that information is received more effectively when delivered by a host character, so we always try to make host characters available for any project budget.

Do you do all the illustration, designing and programming for your games?

I started out animating, illustrating and programming the games myself, but now I work with a set of gifted illustrators and contractors on various projects when I cannot do all the work on my own. I have a CS degree from the University of Texas, and recently followed an animation class on animationmentor.com (check them out, they are the best!). Animation Mentor was started by animators Bobby Beck, Shawn Kelly and Carlos Baena, and I was fortunate enough to get Victor Navone as a mentor. I learned SO much, and I am still learning, but animating characters for educational projects is my biggest passion.

What part exactly does Flash play in your development process? What do you like about it? Do you find any setbacks/limitations with it?

No, I absolutely love Flash. The only things that –of course- are on my wish list for Flash is a set of more defined drawing tools and brushes, like in Illustrator. When you output a product for Flash, such as a game, it is really important to know your medium. I've often seen Flash projects where the medium was not put to good use, bitmaps were imported, storyboards and prototypes were not made to fit the Flash environment, and all this either added to the production time, or increased the file size of the final Flash product. If you are designing content for the web, you especially have to keep file size in mind, and adhere to best practices such as symbol cycling, etc… It can make a huge difference.

Could you give us a brief description of 508 guidelines and the importance?

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires that all Federal agencies output electronic and information technology that is accessible to people with disabilities. As of yet, this law only applies to the Federal, not the private sector, although there have been lawsuits in the private sector on online content that was not accessible to people with disabilities. The section 508 was mainly written for online HTML content. For accessible Flash content, you would also have to refer to Bob Regan's White paper on ‘Best Practices for Accessible Flash Design', since Flash is such a different medium then HTML.

Making your site or online content accessible to people with disabilities is just a matter of making ‘usable' content. Accessibility is about accommodating a minority group, but if you have a site that draws 10,000 hits a month, and 1% of your audience can't see the graphics, then you are alienating 100 people. That would be buses full of people you are turning away from your site every month! I think a lot of people are just not aware of the number of people that have a disability and that might hit their site and how many visually impaired people get on the web with an assistive technology.

I think part of the mission is to remove some of the barriers that come with making content accessible. One of them is the use of assistive technologies, such as screen readers. You can download the trial version of the screen reader JAWS, by Freedom Scientific here:
Free DEMO of JAWS 7.0 for Windows XP/2000 (52 MB)
It's easy to download and to run. It will run for a limited amount of time, before you have to re-boot, but it is long enough to test out a few websites. Just open a website in Internet Explorer (it won't run on other browsers) and it will start to read the content of the website.

What is self-voicing?

Just as you can make HTML content accessible, you can program Flash to become accessible to screen readers as well. Text in dynamic text boxes are read by a screen reader, and you can add Alt text to images and movieclips via actionscript or the accessibility panel in Flash. Self-voicing is when you make Flash content accessible, through system-level voices, instead of using a screen reader to read the content. This could mean, programming audio rollovers on buttons and adding voiced Alt descriptions to the system. Self-voicing is a great way to go for certain applications. Kiosks, in museums for example, do not run in an HTML browser, but run stand-alone. Since screen readers only work when the Flash content is within a browser, self-voicing is a great solution for stand-alone Flash executables, or for any other stand-alone Flash content on CD-ROMs for example, when screen readers are not available. Screen readers also come with a learning curve, so younger visually impaired users might not know how to use one yet, and self-voicing is a great solution for that age group as well.

Snert has come up with a unique way to make a Flash application self-voicing through the use of only one button. You can see an example here:
You can solve this puzzle game by using the mouse, but you can also tab through the elements to turn on the self-voicing features. Visually impaired users will use the tab key, to tab through online content instead of the using the mouse. The Accessibility Button gives information on the visual descriptions of the screen, and instructions on how to play the game by using only the tab key.

You spoke on the Design and Social Responsibility panel at SXSW 2006.
“Balancing the preferences of your clients against what you know to be good practice for usability, accessibility, standards compliance and other socially responsible elements of information architecture can be difficult. Panellists will help you make good choices and communicate effectively about them.”

Could you tell us a bit about this? Do you ever speak at other conferences or user groups?

Yes, I was invited to speak at this panel by Knowbility, in Austin, TX and we tried to make the humane case, instead of the business case for making online content accessible. We put together a list of rebuttals, against statements that clients might make against making a project accessible. I spoke on the topic of Flash, and one of the things you always hear on Flash and accessibility is If we implement 508 in Flash, we will have to sacrifice interactivity- and fun.' I showed that we are working on templates to make all the features that were used to be deemed inaccessible, accessible, such as Drag and Drop and visual games such as puzzles. One message that I am trying to get across is that Flash can be interactive, fun, and accessible at the same time! Many of the accessible features also contribute to overall usability of a game as well, so it becomes good practice. I have also spoken at other occasions on accessible Flash, such as the UT Flash User Group.

Could you tell us a bit about Knowbility and how you are involved?

Knowbility is a non-profit company in Austin , TX that provides accessibility consulting and advisory services. They are well-known nationwide for AIR, the Accessibility Internet Rally, that is held in Austin, Houston, San Antonio and Boston, where web professionals get together and make an accessible site or enhance existing ones and make them more accessible for people with disabilities, in one day. Knowbility does wonderful work and also hosts many informative classes on accessibility, like the Access-U Accessibility Conference, and other nationwide conferences, where I work with them and teach classes on accessible Flash.

Do you have any last words of advice for newcomers and aspiring game developers? Can you recommend any good resources?

Usability is very important. Always get as many people as you can playing your games, collect their comments and make changes to make them as usable as possible. Most of the time you are too close to your own work, to get the feedback you need.

As far as animation goes, check out the classes at www.animationmentor.com or sign up for their newsletter. They are THE best resource on learning advanced animation. The Animation Meat website www.animationmeat.com is also a great resource for the latest news on animation and model sheet examples.

As far as process goes, The Don Bluth Academy gives great insight into the animation process: www.donbluth.com/academy.html.

When you program in Flash, always apply Macromedia's Best Practices and Coding Conventions for Actionscript 2.0, to keep your code nice and neat.

Thank you Thea for a very informative interview!

Also read Thea's article on self-voicing Flash which was written for Adobe: http://www.snertstudios.com/articles/Accessible_Flash_PDF.pdf

Interviewed by Ann-Marie Cheung
Freelance Creative