I’m a big fan of free. Growing up, I was really into animation and games on Newgrounds (you may remember that site - you may be surprised to find it’s still around). I wanted to make them myself, but I couldn’t afford Macromedia Flash… so I hit up Google to find “free animation software” and downloaded a program called Pivot to learn the fundamentals of stick figure animation. Crude, but it taught me a lot that would come in handy later. Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot better at finding freeware. There’s a lot more - and of higher quality - than there used to be. So here’s my guide to putting together the ultimate free creative suite.
Photography and Graphics
The emergence of filters on Instagram and Snapchat has made basic photo editing anybody’s game. Sure, these filters are easily identified and won’t help you compare to the professionals, but they do create effects that make almost any photo pleasing to the eye.
But what if you wanted to achieve professional grade image editing, for free?
GIMP has long reigned as the premiere free alternative to Photoshop. And it’s really never been all that far behind its expensive competitor in terms of features. It may not quite be bleeding edge, but it does have all of the tools required to qualify as professional-grade photo editing software.
Krita competes with the likes of GIMP and Photoshop as well, but its emphasis is on digital painting. It’s a lot newer than GIMP and benefits from a more intuitive interface.
GIMP and Krita both offer excellent raster graphics editing packages. But there is another kind of image format known as vector graphics. Rather than being maps of pixels, vector graphics store the mathematical functions which create their curves and lines. These don’t lose quality no matter how far you zoom in, so they’re ideal for logos and line work.
Inkscape, recommended as part of a desktop publishing workflow by the folks who manage GIMP, offers vector image editing to rival Adobe Illustrator. It’s another program that has been around for years but still benefits from regular updates. Adobe may be the industry leaders, but these freeware tools follow close behind.
Scribus integrates pretty well with all of those tools mentioned so far. It’s a desktop publishing software, great for designing brochures and booklets, really slick PDFs and perhaps even stylised ebooks. The free equivalent of Adobe InDesign.
Music and Podcasts
The Adobe suite goes beyond mere still imagery, and so shall we. There are also some excellent alternatives to… well, practically all of the suite. So let’s chat audio.
Special mention first of all for Anchor, which is what I currently use to record and edit the audio version of this blog, and even to transcribe and output video previews. It’s an awesome little piece of kit, but it isn’t without its limits. For professional grade freeware, we have to go a little further.
Audacity gets us there, a free Adobe Audition alternative. Despite being free, it’s a powerful piece of audio editing kit whether you’re producing music or mastering the sound for a film. Once again, it’s alive and kicking after years of availability and still receives regular updates.
Movies and Live Streams
Ah, there’s a special place in my heart for the moving picture. Like I said, it was a want for animation software that started my exploration of freeware in the first place. I later studied film production at university, where we were able to play with Avid Media Composer, Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere on uni computers. These have always been among the priciest of paid softwares, and not without good reason. Nonetheless, there are some excellent free alternatives worth checking out.
Lightworks is an odd one. It actually does have a hefty price tag and is definitively professional grade software. But it has a very generous free offering that’s well worth playing with for the budding video editor. And as well as its own layout for keyboard shortcuts, it has built in settings to match either Avid or Final Cut Pro, so it won’t feel unfamiliar to the seasoned pro.
Kdenlive is truly freeware, yet still manages to offer a professional, multi-channel editing suite. And because it’s free without restriction, there are no limitations on its features as exist with Lightworks. It really is the full package.
That covers you for video production and publishing, but it doesn’t get you live. And there are a ton of softwares that will put you live to the world online, but only the one I know of that’s free, general purpose and customisable.
OBS - Open Broadcaster Software is the free live broadcasting software. It can be easily hooked up with YouTube, Twitch, Facebook Live and other services; your own custom graphics can be added; and you can cut between multiple content streams on the fly. It isn’t exactly flashy, but it’s a heck of a piece of kit.
Websites and UIs
I never much liked Dreamweaver when I was starting out in web design. In my experience, it always got in the way of writing code by hand. I don’t believe that anything will ever completely remove the need for handwritten code and markup; for that, I currently recommend Atom Editor for beginners and pros alike. It’s totally free, customisable and truly professional grade - it was created and is used by the folks at GitHub. But I’ve since come around to making visual editors a part of my workflow.
Special mention for Adobe themselves on this one, since they’ve actually made Adobe XD - their UI and UX design software - available for free.
As alternatives go, Figma comes highly recommended. It starts as free for three projects; to track any more, you need to upgrade to a subscription.
Dreamweaver, however, is not free. Fortunately, there are alternatives.
Blue Griffon looks to me like the best and broadest solution as visual editors go. It doesn’t necessarily have all of the features of a more advanced IDE, but that could be to its merit. There are so many programming languages now used on the web, the best IDEs are often those that are specific to one or two. Blue Griffon does away with that, and just offers a sleek HTML editor. Integrations can always be fine tuned using a text editor like Atom above.
Animation and Interactivity
Back to where we started, a lot has changed since I was 13 or 14 and taking an interest in animation. Macromedia was bought by Adobe, so Macromedia Flash became Adobe Flash. And now the production software by that name no longer exists. It’s been replaced by Adobe Animate. The product still exports to Flash based media, but this is no longer a recommended solution for web animation and interactivity, so it also exports to HTML5 Canvas and WebGL for the web and Adobe Air for desktop and mobile applications.
Otherwise, Animate appears to offer everything that Flash used to making it ideal not only for animation but for interactivity as well.
Animation can always be achieved a couple of ways. There are tweens, which animate motion and shape change between two keyframes, and there are frame-by-frame drawings - the more traditional format.
Synfig Studio is a popular piece of animation software which does very well at the first of these, though users have complained about the absence of an easy to use frame-by-frame option. Still, by handling keyframes, layers and vector graphics it is professional grade by my standards and can certainly be used to create any kind of animation you could imagine.
Open Toonz on the other hand has some really exciting accolades. It’s based on the software Studio Ghibli use in their animation, and was even made in cooperation with them and the company who designed their original software. Being as its original purpose was anime, far more attention is given to the frame-by-frame animation option.
For HTML5 animation and interactivity of UI components, I’m going to recommend Google Web Designer for the time being. It looks slick as hell, and the code produced from its visual editor is human editable should a developer need to dive in and fix it up or add a little extra.
3D Graphics and Video Games
Flash did a little more than animation and basic interactivity though. There were also a ton of hugely popular Flash games. And Animate doesn’t let us down - that’s still possible. You could even use the free tools mentioned so far to achieve a browser-based gaming experience. But there are others worth considering with a greater focus on gaming. In fact, there are a ton of options depending on your specific needs. So I’m going to list a few tools that offer the broadest range of possibilities.
Unity is the daddy of free game development software. It’s the engine that runs a ton of popular video games, both 3D and 2D, across all major platforms and the web. Because it’s a game engine, it already has a load of logic and code baked in so that developers can focus on the design and structure. Some coding knowledge is definitely recommended though.
Unreal Engine also offer their kit for free. Commercial licensing terms differ between Unity and Unreal, so it’s worth having a read before committing to either. Either is a great way to get started developing video games, but while I personally prefer the capabilities offered in Unreal I have to recommend Unity for its being perhaps more beginner-friendly - if only for its community alone.
Blender is a program you’re going to love whichever game development package you choose. If you’re working in 3D, it is the free 3D graphics software. While you can do some 3D work in other softwares already mentioned, Blender is the only one dedicated to the medium, with a whole suite of sculpting and rendering tools. And you can export those 3D models however you’d like, for use in game development, UX design or whatever.
That’s one hell of a package! Photo and graphics editing, painting and publishing, audio, movies and live streams, websites and user interface design, animation, 3D graphics and video game development. All of it for free! It goes without saying that these programs compliment one another excellently as well. Textures for 3D renderings for use in video games could be edited in GIMP, applied in Blender and utilised in a Unity game. Whatever your interest or your creative stream, I hope there’s software here to suit.
In future entries I’m going to look at mobile variants to see how much we can do from our pockets, and I’ll also be looking at business related freeware and other products. Stay tuned.