Fifteen years ago, when I got my first look at an Apple Macintosh computer, I was fascinated by a little program called MacPaint.
It let you draw lines, boxes, circles and freehand shapes. You could fill those shapes with a variety of patterns (all black-and-white in those monochrome days). And if you didn't like something you'd drawn, you could erase it without a smudge.
The artist who accompanied me to the store thought it was a hoot. In a few minutes, he was happily filling the screen with cartoons, sketches and caricatures. Of course, when I tried it, all I got was lines, boxes, squiggles and fill patterns. The difference was that he could draw and I couldn't.
For those of us who are graphically challenged, the world has changed since then. Walk down the aisle of any software department and you'll find dozens of programs that let you and the kids create pictures, fliers, banners, photo greeting cards, buttons, stickers, party invitations, paper airplanes, even refrigerator magnets.
(At this point I should warn you that these programs are all part of a gigantic conspiracy by printer manufacturers and the paper industry to put you into hock for ink cartridges and fancy paper supplies, but that's another column.)
In any case, if you want a good look at the state of this particular art, check out Disney Interactive's Magic Artist Studio, a delightful drawing and animation program that hides incredible programming behind a simple facade designed for children of all ages.
Available on a hybrid CD that runs on both Windows 95/98 and Macintosh computers, Magic Artist Studio presents you with a canvas and a set of artist's tools like nothing you've seen before.
Of course, you can draw the usual freehand shapes (using a pencil, chalk, crayon, paintbrush, marker or spray can), or you can turn on the 3-D effects and draw with melted crayon, blobs and globs, whipped cream or toothpaste. The textures, which include lighting effects and shadows, are state of the art, but they're so easy to apply that unless you're a computer-savvy graphic artist, you'll have no idea how much is going on under the hood.
So much for the basic stuff. For real fun, pick up the Spray Bottle and spray a stream of animated ladybugs, popcorn, mushrooms or butterflies on your picture. Or choose the Wild Art Tube and lay down a stream of sizzling hotdogs.
If you get tired of drawing freehand, you can click on another set of tools and pick a predrawn background (such as a tropical beach, moonlit desert or the inside of a garage), or import your own digital photograph from a file or directly from a scanner or digital camera.
At this point, you can choose from 180 "stamps," including pictures of Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy and the rest of the usual Disney suspects, along with a variety of silly props. You can resize, rotate and plop these stamps down anywhere in your picture. Or click the "play" button and watch the figures come to life, dancing to 13 musical backgrounds.
To add your own simple animations, choose the Doodlemorph tool, which allows you to draw a series of basic lines and shapes at different places on the screen. When you click the "play button," the shapes move and morph into one another. This illustrates the "key frame" technique -- one of the cornerstones of animation. If you're interested in learning more, a simple five-lesson tutorial will take you through the basics.
When you're through with your masterpiece, you can print it as a full page, greeting card, sticker, postcard or animated "flip book." You can also save it as a standard bitmap (bmp) file and send it as an e-mail attachment. If your scene is animated, you can export it into a standard "avi" file that can be played by anyone with Windows' standard media player. But be warned -- these video files are very large.
One of the most intriguing features of Magic Artist Studio is that the entire interface works without a single Windows/Mac menu or word of text. All the drawing and animation tools are icons, which is supposed to make the program simple enough for young children to use.
That may be the case, but adults will probably need a little more guidance -- especially since there are so many sophisticated tools at your disposal. Luckily, there's a short but well-written user's manual and a quick reference card to guide you through the process. Read them first. You'll discover a secret keystroke combination that activates grown-up menus. You'll also save yourself a lot of aggravation and learn about features that you and the kids probably wouldn't stumble on by random clicking.
In short, Magic Artist Studio lives up to its name. It's a wonderful creative tool for kids (if the adults ever let go of the mouse long enough to give them a crack it at). And at $29.95 it's one of the entertainment bargains of the year.
To run Magic Artist Studio, you'll need a Pentium PC running Windows 95/98 at 133 MHz or better, or an iMac G3 running Mac System 8.1 or later. Both require 32 megabytes of memory, 70 megabytes of hard disk space and a quad-speed CD-ROM drive. Information: 800-228-0988 or www.disneyinteractive.com.
Pub Date: 09/20/99