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The Endless Mural and the tools of the trade

From: Branden Hall: Interactive Architect and Digital Maker

Video: The Endless Mural and the tools of the trade

Branden Hall: The Endless Mural project was in many ways inspired by work that Josh and I had done in the past with a framework we built called the HYPE framework. The whole point of which was to bring the fun back to Flash. So much of what I talked about in the early days of Flash, it was fun, because it was so simple, because you could really quickly dive in and start making visual things and iterate them. Whereas I think with ActionScript 3, so much power came to Flash, but it lost a lot of that ease of use.

The Endless Mural and the tools of the trade

Branden Hall: The Endless Mural project was in many ways inspired by work that Josh and I had done in the past with a framework we built called the HYPE framework. The whole point of which was to bring the fun back to Flash. So much of what I talked about in the early days of Flash, it was fun, because it was so simple, because you could really quickly dive in and start making visual things and iterate them. Whereas I think with ActionScript 3, so much power came to Flash, but it lost a lot of that ease of use.

What was a gentle slope for learning has now become a wall. It just kind of got pressed up into a wall. And while that's fine from the technical standpoint--the new things that the language brought were incredible-- the fact that there wasn't this learning curve anymore saddened me. I loved seeing people play, and there wasn't as much of that. So Josh and I worked together to come up with HYPE. I wrote the majority of the code, and Josh acted like essentially, the first product user.

He was constantly testing it to see what was working, adding ideas, and we built the different behaviors and all the pieces together. It's a really fun project, and it's led to a lot of different places, because people have seen it aesthetically and seen what we can do with HYPE. It's led to a number of interesting projects, including the Endless Mural. With the Endless Mural, we had to take these ideas and turn them into HTML5 and Canvas for Microsoft.

It was a very short project. We had five weeks from the first day I was told about it to the launch. And that was--it was definitely brutal at times, because while I've done some work with the HTML5, I'd never done anything that was at this caliber, where it really was meant to be something that was good in its own right, not just good in--oh, but it's not Flash. It had to be just awesome in its own right. And for my own sake, like even though it was made for Microsoft for IE9, I was going to do this right and it was going to work in everything.

It was going to work in Chrome; it was going to work in Firefox. So I tried very hard to hold myself to a higher standard on this, and my whole team worked incredibly hard to make it something that, as I said, is really fun and excellent in its own right. And people do right-click on a lot and say oh is this, is this in Flash? Wait a minute. This isn't Flash? The play between Flash and HTML5 is really a per-project one for me. I'm not terribly interested in the overall politics over whose winning or not.

For me, that would be like the politics of hammers versus screwdrivers. I don't care. They are just tools. For me, it's just about choosing the appropriate tool for the job and not getting religious about it. There's so many people arguing over it on both sides who have purely religious arguments. Flash is bad. It's proprietary. Or then they come for the HTML5 stuff. It's not going to be ready until 2022, and it's different in all the browsers. Well, that's fine, but when you are actually on the ground building things, what matters are the details, the details about the job you're building, about your client, about what they have, what they are using.

And for me, it's just, it's the same thing I do when I go down to my woodshop. What's the appropriate tool for this job? I've got eight difference saws, handsaws. This isn't even getting into the power saws. But they all have appropriate uses. I wouldn't use my like Japanese pullsaw to cut metal, but I have a hacksaw. Great! I will use that for cutting metal brace and then putting inside of bookshelves. And for me, that's all it comes down to, is knowing your tools. The biggest mistake I think people make is they just take other people's word for it when it comes to the tools they use. They don't sit down and just build stuff.

If I'm not working on a project, again in my woodshop, nine times out of ten, I'm there making sawdust. I am playing with something. I'm trying to figure out, okay, what's the best way to use this hand plane. I am starting to getting obsessed with hand planes and how to use those, and that's something can literally take a lifetime to master, and I am all for it. People, I think, need to start taking that same approach to digital tools if-- always worked to master them, because it's fundamentally the sharpness of the tool and how sharp you are with the tool that ends up dictating how great or not the thing is that you're building.

A lot of the stuff we had to do with Endless Mural, we had to build our own tools. We ended up building library just for doing the animation, just for drawing things to Canvas very rapidly, because what people like to compare Canvas and Flash, Canvas is much more low-level. Canvas is initially just like the drawing API in Flash or the bitmap data object, and that's it. It doesn't have all of the user interaction objects. It doesn't have the way that you can stack and add and remove objects in Flash visually.

It's a very raw canvas, and that's it. So when we came into the project, the very first thing we ended up having to do was saying, what tools do we have in Flash that we don't have in Canvas, and let's build them. So in many ways, a lot of what we did was to take ideas that are native to Flash and bring them to Canvas. And other people have continued to do so. My friend Grant Skinner actually took a lot of the same ideas for a project he did, called the Pirates Love Daisies, and built this library called Easel, which is this same idea for the library we built for Endless Mural, which we called Okapi, and took it even further.

And in fact, I've used these along on a couple of projects now myself, because it does make it easier to build with Canvas.

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