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Interview: Bob Sabiston talks about the development of Inchworm Animation for the Nintendo DSi.

A few months ago I heard about Inchworm Animation and rushed off to download it from the Nintendo eShop onto my 3DS. Ever since the days of Mario Paint, I've always had a soft spot for animation programs and really enjoy creating scenes of cats juggling balls of yarn. I emailed Inchworm Animation support and, lo and behold, the programs creator Bob Sabiston himself answered my question directly. We got to talking and the conversation was so interesting that I asked him to do an interview with us. Bob graciously answered my questions and now I'm happy to share with you his thoughts on Inchworm Animation and its development for the Nintendo DSi. Thanks again Bob!

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your company, Flat Black Animation.
My name is Bob Sabiston and I am the principal employee of Flat Black Films. I work with a lot of artists here in Austin doing a form of animation known as rotoscoping, which is done by tracing over video footage. We are best known for the movies "Waking Life", "A Scanner Darkly", and a series of commercials for Charles Schwab. I do all the programming for the software we use, and in recent years I have branched out into apps for iOS and Nintendo, including the new DSiWare title "Inchworm Animation."

Let’s start with an easy one. What is your favorite animated character or show?
Lately it is the Disney show "Phineas & Ferb.". It is funny and clever. I also love Disney's "Alice in Wonderland", "The Little Mermaid", Pixar's "Ratatouille" and "The Incredibles", and Miyazaki's "Spirited Away."

Did you go to school for traditional animation, or is that something you learned on your own?
I went to school more for computer graphics I guess, at the MIT Media Lab. While there I got interested in computer animation and taught myself hand-drawn animation for my second short film, "Grinning Evil Death". (1991)

What inspired you to get into a life of animation and software development?
I have always been into art, drawing and painting, since I was little. I got into computers in high school and was just very inspired by the whole Apple II scene - Richard Garriott's "Ultima II & III" especially, and the Infocom text adventures. I had a friend and in high school we got into programming.

Animation as I say I got into in college, inspired mostly by the little animations on MTV from people like Henry Selick, the traveling shorts festivals with work by people like Mike Judge and Bill Plympton, and then the early Pixar's shorts like "Luxo, Jr.". That one was a biggie for me and a lot of people.

"I ran into a lot of difficulty finding anyone who wanted to publish an animation program."
Why did you choose to develop for the Nintendo DS?
In my thirties I had a girlfriend with an old gameboy, and playing the Legend of Zelda on that really made me want to make something for a small device. I started playing around with home brew for the gameboy color, and then when the DS came out I knew I had to try to write some kind of animation program for it. I wrote to Nintendo and gave them my programming credentials, told them I wanted to make an animation program and asked them to approve me as a developer. This was back in 2004 I think.

What was your biggest challenge while developing Inchworm animation?
It just took much, much longer than I ever expected. Five years, though I wasn't working on it the whole time. It also grew into a more ambitious project than I originally planned. I ran into a lot of difficulty finding anyone who wanted to publish an animation program (this was years before Flipnote Studio). In fact I only was able to get it out there eventually because they came out with the DSi and allowed developers to self-publish.

Inchworm isn’t the only animation program on the DSi. What are some of the cool features you think make it stand out?
Well it is as professional as I could make it. It has nice antialiased lines, transparency, 15 bit color, layers, patterns and basically no limit on the size of drawing you can do. You can adjust the timing of individual drawings on each layer - so you can have a background layer which does not move, and another layer which moves quickly, etc. You can hold on a frame for a while to give it emphasis. There's a cool pattern editor in there. You can also set up a bank of frames and draw on them as they loop, which is fun and can make cool-looking effects.

And the greatest thing, which only got added when I moved form the DS to the DSi, was the use of the camera, so you can do stop motion and time lapse photography and incorporate that into your animation. Also you can export to the SD card in SWF format as well as frame sequences.

Were there any features you really wanted to program into the software but couldn't? If so, why?
There is a huge other portion that I actually did program, a timeline with keyframes and groups of layers, where you can move objects around without consuming any more memory. You could program camera moves and cutscenes. You could also insert sound effects with an included sound effects library and even record your own sounds.

It is heartbreaking that I had to pull it out, but it was looking like I would never get it finished so I had to simplify. All that stuff works though and I even did the interactive tutorials for it, it just needs extensive testing and debugging. If I ever do a 3DS version I will for sure get that back in there, because that timeline stuff will be extremely useful for manipulating 3D layers.

Are there any lessons have you taken from past software development, such as Rotoshop, that you applied to Inchworm animation?
Yes, the antialiased line code is basically the same, I ported it to the DS's fixed point arithmetic and 15 bit graphics. There is also a very useful facility in Rotoshop which allows you to draw underneath a layer, rather than on top, and that is in Inchworm too.

"They do not seem to have the same approach to developers as say Apple or Android, where anyone can do it."
What is it like to be a small developer working with Nintendo? Any words of wisdom for small developers out there looking to work with the Big N?
Well it takes a lot of patience. They do not seem to have the same approach to developers as say Apple or Android, where anyone can do it. They prefer to work with established, larger companies I think. Me not having any prior experience with them was detrimental, as I was unaware of a lot of procedures and standard practices. I think I was very lucky that they put up with my ineptness in a lot of areas.

So basically you need to have your shit together, if you will pardon my French. You probably need to have the semblance of a company and a decent amount of money to put into it. For example, the development equipment is several thousand dollars, and to put out a title costs several thousand more once you deal with insurance, ratings boards, QA costs, etc. So it is not like a hobbyists thing.

Gamers can share and upload their animations to What is the “studios” section and are there any future plans for the site?
Yes the studios are just where you can go in and look at each user's gallery of uploaded animations. We have been lax in getting that live on the site, but it is basically ready to go now. We recently added the ability to tweet and Facebook post links to individual animations.

There is so much I would like to add. I want to provide HTML5 support so the site is viewable on iPads and iPhones. It uses flash right now. I think we will soon have a button where it will export the FLV file for you, so you can post them to YouTube. We may even just have a "post to YouTube" button. I would like to have comments and ratings for the animations. I would like to put a sound recorder on the site to attach soundtracks. But we'll see how far we get. I just have one friend working with me on that stuff and he is pretty busy. And I am getting the European submission ready.

What’s next for Inchworm Animation and Flat Black Animation? Will we see a 3DS version with 3D animation capabilities?
As I say I am almost ready with the submission to the European market. I had to get the incredibly long instruction manual translated to German, French, Italian and Spanish.At first I had some volunteers and students doing it but in the end I am getting a professional QA company to go over the work and get it all right.

Last week I added a video onionskin feature to that version, since it was easy to do and people have asked for that. It's a bonus feature for people who have been waiting for it over in Europe. I wish I could issue an update for the US version...

I woul love to do a 3DS version, it would be cool and like I say I have all those features that didn't make it into the first version. I applied to be a 3DS developer and am waiting on approval. But whether I go through with the whole project depends on some other factors like our film projects, how the 3DS sells in the longer run, etc...

Thanks again for your time, Bob. Is there anything else you would want 3DS/i owners to know about Inchworm Animation before you go?
That probably about covers it! Thanks for asking me to do the interview.

Available on:
Nintendo eShop for $4.99
DSiware for 500 points


  1. those Charles Schwab commercials are so lame.

  2. LOL, yes it's hard to make finances and stock gambling interesting even with cool animation.

  3. "Lately it is the Disney show "Phineas & Ferb.". It is funny and clever."

    Nice! I became a fan of the show after my wife(or I) added it to our Netflix queue for our oldest son to watch.
    Dr. Doofenshmirtz is probably my favorite character on the show, because of his antics and Perry the Platypus always attempting to spoil his adventures.

    After watching the trailer for the "game" I gotta say that I was very impressed by what it can do.

    "For example, the development equipment is several thousand dollars, and to put out a title costs several thousand more once you deal with insurance, ratings boards, QA costs, etc. So it is not like a hobbyists thing."

    Ouch! Didn't realize it was quite that expensive for a game with Nintendo's digital services, though I do know they want a "physical" office address, that doesn't include your garage.

    Thanks for taking the time to do the interview Bob, and thanks for putting it together Brad!

    BTW, any chances this, or a version of it, could hit the iPhone/iPad service?

  4. Thank Coffee, he did speak a little about looking into the possibility of an iphone/ipad. But had no concrete plans at this point. It is interesting to note that the app is the ranking for most downloaded software. So hopefully it encourages a sequel.


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