Introduction to ActionScript Animation in Flash

James Rice
James Rice

So you’ve learned the basics of Flash, but you still don’t understand how designers create such sophisticated Flash Websites and Interfaces. In this tutorial, I’m going to show you a simple way to create interactive animation with ActionScript.

In this example, ActionScript will be used to scale a basic shape, but this same procedure can be used for motion, transparency, color effects and more. I will assume you have some knowledge of basic ActionScript syntax and the basic Flash interface/tools. If you become overly confused, I would suggest you pause to read a few beginner Flash tutorials, such as Flash 101 here at SitePoint.

Our project will consist of a slider bar with a handle that controls the size of a square on the stage. As we slide the handle, the square will smoothly grow or shrink.


Getting Started

First, we need to set up our stage and create a few symbols. Open a new Flash document and set it to 550 pixels wide and 500 pixels tall. Set the frame rate to 25fps.


Next, we want to create 3 simple symbols, all Movie Clips. To make each symbol, choose Insert > New Symbol. We want these symbols to be stored in the library; we’ll place them on the stage later.

Name the first movie clip "shape", and inside it create a 10 x 10-pixel square, using the align panel to center it both vertically and horizontally. You should now have a little square with the clip’s registration point located at its center (note that square is being shown at 400% zoom in the image below).


Let’s move back to the main timeline and create the symbols for the widget that will control the size of the square we just created. Create a new Movie Clip named "handle" and in it create a small rectangle 8 pixels wide and 30 pixels tall. Like the square, center this rectangle horizontally and vertically (again, the image below is shown at 400% zoom).


Move back to the main timeline and create the last symbol. This will serve as the track on which our handle will slide. Create a Movie Clip called "slider". Inside this clip, simply place a horizontal line 400 pixels long, using a 1 pixel stroke. Align the line so the left end is at x=0 y=0. This can be done using the Align or Property panels.


We’ve made the 3 symbols we’re going to need. Now, it’s time to combine the handle and the slider to make a working control bar. From the library panel, click back into the slider symbol we just created. Insert a new layer above the layer that contains the line you made. As pictured below, drag an instance of "handle" from the library on to the stage. Use the property panel to set the position of the handle to 0,-15 and name the instance "handle". The handle should now be positioned at the left end of the line and have the properties show below.


Your slider should now look like the one pictured below.


Bring On the Code!

It’s time for a little ActionScript! Create a third layer above the two existing layers in your slider symbol and name it "actions". Select frame 1 of the actions layer and open the Actions (ActionSript) Panel. Copy or retype the following code into the panel for frame 1.

handle.onPress = function(){ 

handle.onRelease = function(){

This code contains two action handlers. The first handle.onPress function defines what happens when the mouse button is pressed while the cursor hovers over our handle. In this case, we want to use the Flash function startDrag(); This will allow us to drag the handle left and right. The limitations on the dragging motion are define by the numerical parameters we pass to the startDrag() function. The syntax for this function is the following: startDrag(lock, left, top, right, bottom).

The "lock" parameter is true or false and tells Flash if it should lock the pointer to the center of the object while dragging. In this case, we give that parameter a value of false. We are more concerned with using the numerical values to limit the motion of the slider. By examining the values passed to the drag function, you’ll see we set both top and bottom to 0, which prevents the handle from being moved vertically. We set left to 0 and right to 400, to allow the handle to slide along our predefined track. The second handle.onRelease function says that when the mouse is released, the handle will stop being dragged.

Moving back to the main timeline, create a layer called "control", place an instance of slider on the stage in your new layer and position it at 75, 450. If you select Control > Test Movie, you should have a working slider. It doesn’t yet control anything, but it should drag left and right as expected.

Next, create another layer on the main timeline, called "shape". Drag an instance of your shape symbol onto the stage, position it at 270, 210 and name it "shape" in the property panel.


As for the slider clip, we now need to add some actions to the main timeline. Create a layer above the existing layers in the main timeline and call it "actions". Click on frame 1 of that layer and open the actions panel. Place the following code in frame 1.

shape.targetWidth = shape._width; 
shape.targetHeight = shape._height;

shape.onEnterFrame = function() {
   var speed = 5;
   this._width += (this.targetWidth - this._width)/speed;
   this._height += (this.targetHeight - this._height)/speed;

The first 2 lines initialize our two variables. We create the variables targetWidth and targetHeight and set them equal to the initial height and width of our shape symbol. Note that this initialization happens only once, at the start of our movie.

The second part of the code assigns an onEnterFrame handler to the shape. This might be new to you, but you’ll soon get to know it very well! onEnterFrame defines some action that’s executed in every frame. So, if the frame rate is 25 frames a second, the code in the onEnterFrame handler will run 25 times a second. Basically, it’s a way to achieve real-time interactivity.

Inside the function, we use a mathematical formula to define the change in size of our shape. Both code lines for the width and height evaluate to the same value in this example, because we’re dealing with a square and uniform scaling. This could, of course, be modified to handle all sorts of more complex actions. Since both lines do pretty much the same thing, I will examine only one of the lines of code.

this._height += (this.targetHeight - this._height)/speed;
this._height is the actual height property of the item; changes to this value will be visually reflected in the movie. 

this._targetHeight is a variable we use to keep track of what we want the height actually to be.

This code increments the actual height of the object by a fraction of the difference between the actual and target heights. As this line is executed at every frame, the actual height will quickly approach the target height. It will also track any changes made to the value of the targetHeight variable and size our shape accordingly. This is the key to this entire exercise.

If you are confused by the math used here, try doing it out with a pen and paper. If you write it out starting with a height of 10 and a target height of 100, you will see what happens when you execute the code again and again: the value of height will get closer and closer to the target height. Adjusting the "speed" variable will determine how fast the actual height reaches the target height.

Make it Work

We're almost done! You can test the movie again if you want. You will see your working slider at the bottom and a small square just sitting there, motionless. Why doesn't the square move? Because we have haven't told the slider to change the value of targetHeight and targetWidth.

Double-click the instance of slider to edit that symbol again, click on frame 1 of your actions layer and re-open the actions panel. You should now be looking at the code that controls the dragging action of the slider. We want to add a little more code to this, to complete the functionality of our movie. Trade the existing code for the following code snippet.

handle.onPress = function(){ 
handle.onRelease = function(){

handle.onEnterFrame = function(){
 _root.shape.targetWidth = this._x +10;
 _root.shape.targetHeight = this._x +10;

The first two functions remain the same, but the third is new. At this point in the lesson, this might look familiar. We are using an onEnterFrame handler to form a relationship between the position of the handle and the value of the targetWidth and targetHeight variables. We set the value of the target width and height to be the X position of the handle + 10.

As defined in our starDrag() function, the X value of handle will be between 0 and 400, so we will be able to scale our shape between 10 pixels and 410 pixels. You could remove the "+10" but then our shape could be sized down to 0, and I didn’t want to let it disappear.


Move back to the main timeline, click Control > test movie …and there you go! If you have followed all the steps correctly, you should now have a working movie. I hope you found this tutorial helpful in learning Flash.

Download the full source code here.