Advanced SMR I : The invisible force


Smart Magnet Rigs have been around for almost a decade.
While its core has remained unchanged since the inception, over this period the system has become very polished, commercially viable, extremely flexible and intuitive to use. 

As we were making the UX friendlier with KineFlex, Registration Point adjustments – effortless with Make Edaptable, and rigging very easy with the FreeStyle Rigging tool, the inner workings of SMR became somewhat concealed from the new adopters, who always want to start animating right away and put off studying the documentation for some moment in the future, which never comes.

Automatic insertion of Magnet Targets and Center Markers makes the process almost entirely error-proof, but also tends to trivialize their function and reduce their prominence.
The ease with which MTs are inserted by the FreeStyle Rigging tool, and SMR info removed with a button press, can encourage bad practices, where users un-rig and re-rig multiple times, unknowingly destroying perfectly functioning rigs, and entangling themselves in a mess of contradictions. This happens because of lack of understanding of the principles that drive SMR, and lack of curiosity to find out what tools such as Roll Over Rig Info or Edit Magnet Targets are supposed to do.

In the eyes of the experienced EDAP Tools user, who had the solid foundation of prior 5-6 years of Full Manual rigging, FreeStyle rigging was an amazing development, which significantly increased productivity.
For the new adopters, however, the new uneventful rigging process has worked as a disincentivizing factor, leading to a place, where questions about the purpose of Magnet Targets are never being asked.

Despite all our efforts, we haven't yet managed to clearly convey the dual nature of Smart Magnet Rigs, and because of that, in various publications our system is often likened and compared to other existing ones, without even mentioning that it is totally unique with its magnet joints and non-rigid, generated on-the-fly skeletal structures.

Our success in streamlining the UX and the ease-of-use has brought the huge gain in popularity and growth since the release of v.5 and v.6, but has also contributed to the fact that many of the new users seem to rarely move beyond their simple first rigs.

One common limiting factor is the very poor general understanding of structural nesting as a fundamental Flash Animation concept. The large bulk of demonstration materials that the average Flash/Animate novice has access to, are supplied by incompetent presenters, who in their majority propagate harmful practices. These are not only limited to random YouTube tutorials, but also include large portions of the content produced by Adobe.

Another, even more damaging factor, is the chaotic development of Animate in recent years, characterized by the on-going introduction of incoherent, self-contradicting tools and features, which instead of streamlining the animation process, create confusion within the community.

The good news on this front is that as EDAPT's popularity grows, good practices spread naturally. More and more people are drawn in, motivated by the access to unique functionality and the desire to achieve quality results. Our methodology then forces them to discover and adopt many good practices. When they share their work and production process, they spread this knowledge, which gradually will become the widely accepted standard.

The goal of this article is to re-focus the attention on the interconnected tools, features and methods that will allow those who are already familiar with SMR and have experience with single-angle rigs to further their knowledge and explore a wider range of possibilities.

With the hope that more users will gain the confidence and skills to utilize the full potential of SMR, we will take a holistic approach and attempt to cast light over areas that may have not received the deserved amount of attention previously.

The invisible force, powering Smart Magnet Rigs

To start our journey, we first have to demystify the invisible force, which connects Symbol Instances into a smart and flexible Magnet Rig. 


This force is the metadata, which we also call SMR info.
Think of it as unique IDs, given to Symbol Instances, during rigging.
This information is meta, because it is not readily visible, but can be read and interpreted by the SMR tools.

In Flash, metadata can be written in various places: Library Items, Symbol Instances and the Document. In the context of SMR, it is written into Symbol Instances.

Clear and correct terminology is important for precision and lack of ambiguity. Therefore we need to have a very good understanding of what a Symbol Instance is.

Symbol instances

What is colloquially referred to as “a Graphic Symbol on the Stage” is always a Symbol Instance.
Symbols only appear in the Library or in Edit mode, where they can be edited from the inside either in place on the Stage or in isolation.
When we drag a Symbol from the Library to the Stage or inside another Symbol, we create an instance of that symbol. We can have multiple instances of the same Symbol (look at the 'use count' number in Library) and we can alter their properties independently.
For example, one instance can be scaled up, another one can be rotated, and a third one can have a color tint applied. All these transformations are done to the instances on the Stage and do not alter the Symbol itself. Also, this is what we do, when we create Keyframes.

Instances can be duplicated by Alt-dragging with the Selection tool, copy/pasted on Stage or as part of frame blocks or layers.

To any moderately experienced Flash user this is all very obvious, and the only reason we are repeating it here is to ease into the next section without leaving any room for misinterpretation.

Instances with metadata

SMR info, the Magnet Rig metadata, is written into Symbol Instances.

This is what makes SMR infinitely flexible. The rigs, being instance-based are frame- and layer-independent. Elements can change layers or even reside all on the same layer.

The metadata is usually written into the instance during rigging, and stays there until it is deleted or edited.
Copy/pasting or Alt-dragging to duplicate the instance retains everything, metadata included.
(Changing the instance type from Graphic to Movie Clip or vice versa will wipe out the metadata.)

Matching metadata pairs

In fact, during rigging, metadata is written not in one, but in two places – the Symbol Instance (child element) and its corresponding Magnet Target inside the parent element.

The Magnet Target itself is also a Symbol Instance, whose function is to determine the exact location where the child element's Reg point will snap to magnetically.
Just like any other instance, the MT can be devoid of metadata, but once tagged will carry this metadata until it is edited or deleted. Copy/pasting or Alt-dragging a tagged MT will duplicate it, preserving also its metadata.

For SMR to function, a child Symbol Instance and its MT inside the parent symbol form a pair, which has to have unique and matching metadata IDs.

Because SMR is instance-based, multiple instances of the same symbol can be used on the Stage, each carrying a unique ID.
For example, the left and right upper arms of a character are instances of the same symbol, but during rigging each of them is tagged with a unique ID, and each of them has a corresponding Magnet Target inside the torso symbol; each of these MTs carries a unique ID, which is matched to its corresponding child element.
This ensures that the left arm will always snap to the left shoulder, and the right arm will always snap to the right shoulder.

Duplicates, ID conflicts

When a tagged instance is duplicated, the duplicate carries the same ID and this creates a conflict, as the SMR tools require all instances to have unique IDs.
In such cases KineFlex and the rest will display a clear error message in Output.
These conflicts are easily resolved by deleting the metadata from the duplicate by pressing the Remove SMR info button . (After that, this instance can again be tagged/rigged, but this time it will receive a unique ID.) 

Video – KineFlex: How To Resolve ID Conflicts

Missing metadata, incomplete pairs, frustration

As we have stated above and elsewhere in the documentation, when rigging with the FreeStyle Rigging tool or tagging instances via the Smart Magnet Rig panel, metadata is written in two places – the instance and its corresponding MT in the parent symbol. When magnet snapping is invoked, the instance looks for the location of its corresponding MT (only on layer(s) called MagnetTargets) and identifies it by its matching ID.
If the MT is missing or the ID has been altered, the snapping is not possible and will not occur.

This seems to be one of the most common problems faced by inexperienced EDAP Tools users.
They create a fully-functional rig with the FreeStyle Rigging tool, but later manage to somehow either delete or replace the MTs with ones that have the wrong IDs or no metadata at all.

KineFlex continues to work fine and it isn't until the inexperienced user tries to snap an instance, when they realize that something is wrong with their rig.
Instead of loading the rig for inspection in the SMR panel and Analyzing it, the user then removes the metadata from some body parts and re-rigs them in the current keyframe, creating inconsistency of IDs with the rigs on other keyframes. If inside the parent symbol there are multiple keyframes for the Magnet Targets this complicates things further, and after a few more such 'repair jobs', the rig is totally broken, and the only thing left is to start over.

It is difficult to know how often users inflict such self-harm, but we have seen it happen numerous times. It can lead to frustration and disappointment, and could be so easily avoided, if only said users had taken our advice to first get comfortable with SMR, while rigging simple boxes for a couple of days, before moving onto real characters.

SMR is unique in so many ways and this also plays a part in the initial confusion, when new adopters approach it with expectations ported from other rigging/skeletal systems, which they have some past experience with.

Writing, editing and erasing metadata

SMR is a mature, complex and elegant system, which blends seamlessly into classic tween pipelines and provides ultimate flexibility with no UX dead ends. Mastering it requires studying of the associated documentation and revisiting said documentation periodically until all aspects become familiar.

Once the concept of metadata in two matching places is fully understood, the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. Everything becomes simple and logical: All that the user needs to ensure is to not erase the matching IDs of rig elements and Magnet Targets, or if it accidentally happens, to use the various repair tools, included in the package to inspect and fix the issues with surgical precision.

Metadata is initially generated by one of the rigging tools – either when tagging instances via the SMR panel or when FreeStyle rigging.

After a rig is created, its node representation can be loaded into the Smart Magnet Rig panel for inspection and analysis.
Analyze Rig will recursively go through all elements and will try to identify any potential issues. It can be a good starting point of trouble-shooting. It is very likely that its report will give hints what should be inspected next.

Instance IDs can be seen in Smart Magnet Rig panel's status bar, when hovering over nodes.

Roll Over Rig Info will transfer the metadata of the instance from the current frame to the ones on the left or right of it. This will work not only for rig elements (body parts), but also for Magnet Targets as long as there is only one instance per layer.

Magnet Targets can also be inspected and their metadata copied, erased or re-written, using Edit M Target in SMR Helpers. If there are multiple MTs on a layer and there is only one or two that need to be fixed, metadata can be copied from a 'healthy' MT and written into the problematic one.
Or, sometimes, this can be done even more easily by just deleting the damaged MT and copy/pasting the healthy instance in its place.

Removing the SMR info and re-rigging is another viable option, esp. if there are more than two or three issues with the rig. Even if some amount of animation has already been done, there isn't any problem to re-rig, although, of course, less radical methods of repair should be attempted first.

It's important to understand that because it is instance-based, removing the metadata in one keyframe will not remove it anywhere else. (All other keyframes are independent instances.)
But this does not pose a problem. The character is re-rigged in the current frame and then this new metadata is Rolled Over to the right (and left), thus rewriting the SMR info in all those other instances.

All our videos are 1080p. If for some reason full HD is not available here, try watching them on youtube.

Infinite flexibility

SMR is like nothing else!
We should repeat this more often.

The duality of SMR, where elements can be moved and modified freely as just any bunch of random instances on the Stage, but also can maintain a hierarchy and respond to high-precision FK/IK tools, opens endless possibilities for posing.
This, combined with the magnet functionality and element welding, gives infinite flexibility to riggers and animators to create structures which perfectly serve their goals, without constraining them.

The simple fact that SMR is 'transparent' and users can see and adjust the positions of Magnet Targets makes it incomparable to other systems. Once IDs are understood, advanced rigging and editing become easy, fast and effective.

Tweening of Magnet Targets

Inside symbol containers, Magnet Targets can be tweened and repositioned to match foreshortened limbs or a flexing torso.
Or positions of the body parts can be set at character level first and then MTs can be snapped to match them.

Symbol swapping

On top of that, symbol swapping also works: the instance retains all transformations and metadata, while after swapping it becomes an instance of a different symbol.
If the new symbol needs to have MTs inside, these can be easily copy/pasted from the original symbol. It is often even more practical to copy/paste the MagnetTargets layer(s).

All our videos are 1080p. If for some reason full HD is not available here, try watching them on youtube.

In Part 2 we will continue our exploration of advanced SMR techniques, and the options available to character riggers for designing of multi-angle Smart Magnet Rigs.
Nickolay Tilcheff
April 2022


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