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Review: Toon Boom Harmony 14 - What I learned in 21 Days

Toon Boom Harmony is widely considered the industry standard for primarily 2D animation. You don't get to be that if your software isn't exceptional.

However, industry standard and exceptional usually translates to steep learning curve and probably contains more features than I'll ever use. So, in reviewing the latest version, Harmony 14, I'm setting out to answer two questions; How easy is it to learn the basics and is it software an independent artist/animator, like myself, should seriously consider as their go to, 2D animation studio of choice?


Toon Boom were kind enough to give me a 90 day Harmony Premium license for this review (Harmony is also available in Essentials and Advanced versions) but I thought, since they offer a free 21 day trial, I'll give myself that to write this review. Will it be enough to answer my two previous questions and is a 21 day trial enough for you to make a decision as well?

Let's find out...

To be clear, I'm not setting out to review features and compare them to other animation software I've used because Harmony is quite a complex animation studio. With virtually no prior knowledge of Harmony, how much could I seriously learn within 21 days to be able to say this is the tool for you?

Watch Toon Boom's promotional video below. If it inspires you to know more then this review will tell you what's in store when it comes to trialing the product for yourself.




Time is not on your side...


The first hurdle is, who has 21 days to learn anything? It's more likely you'll get maybe five to seven non consecutive days to learn as much as you can before your trial expires. I think I managed about five or six full, non-consecutive days, before writing this review. I should say I wasn't expecting to learn everything but I was hoping to get an insight into the Harmony features that would make a compelling argument for me to adopt the software as my preferred 2D animation studio.

Unfortunately I was barely able to scratch the surface of what Harmony has to offer in the time I was able to devote to learning the basics. It's likely that will be your experience too. In 21 days it's hoped you'll get a feel for what Harmony has to offer and be inspired to purchase a subscription.

I did learn enough to see Harmony is definitely a formidable tool but at the same time, it can be completely overwhelming if you don't get the right introduction and pathway into the learning process.


These are not the tutorials you're looking for...


Although, at first glance, Harmony looks difficult to learn, with it's User Interface covered in icons for all manor of things, the basics can be learned very quickly.

My first character drawing in Harmony. This Monkey
helped me learn some of the drawing tools.
Being a visual person I gravitated towards Harmony's video tutorials. Specifically the ones linked from the software's welcome screen. This lead me to a bunch of video tutorials originally released for Harmony 12 but still very relevant to Harmony 14.

If you need to learn Harmony fast, I cannot recommend these tutorials based on my own experience.

I spent three days following the tutorial videos in order,watching 62 individual videos with a running time of 3 and a half hours before I decided I needed to look elsewhere. There were still more videos to watch but, after 62 videos, I still hadn't really learned the basics of putting together a scene, animating it and then exporting it to a video file.


Learn Toon Boom Harmony in 30 minutes - Even if you've never animated before!


The video by Jesse J. Jones, below, is the tutorial you need if you're trialing Harmony. I learnt so much from this in just under 30 minutes, covering more ground than those previous 62 videos did in 3 and a half hours.




Jesse's video is a bare bones walk through of Harmony's core function, animating scenes. It's by no means comprehensive but, for a first look, you definitely feel like you're prepared to move on to more advanced concepts.

After watching this I went back to the previous tutorial videos and followed through the one on Character Creation and Rigging with much more confidence than I had the first time.

I created a character from scratch, using Harmony's drawing tools, and then rigged it without any difficulty at all after having followed the character rigging tutorial.


My very first original character drawn and rigged in Harmony.

Harmony Kick Start Tutorials.


Once you've done the above 30 minute tutorial a good next step is the Learn Toon Boom page of their website. Don't scroll the front page at all. Click on the start learning now link. Then click Harmony tutorial, followed by clicking on the version of Harmony you have. Finally click on the course its self and you'll be taken through a detailed project from start to finish, complete with videos, and the same course materials used by the instructor.

If you follow along, and actually try out the things you're being taught, you'll need at least a couple of days to complete it (depending on how fast you work).

At the time of writing this review I was part way through the Premium tutorials, attempting to construct my own scene with my own characters based on what the tutorial was demonstrating. You can see my efforts thus far in the screen shot below.

Rigging my original character design based on
Rey from Star Wars Episode VII.

How Much Did I Learn in 21 Days?


The short answer is 'not enough'. Perhaps I would've gone further if Toon Boom's learning pathway from within Harmony its self was better targeted. The current video tutorial link is a complete miss for trial users and is better suited to beginners who have already bought a subscription.

Despite that I did learn and experience quite a lot of Harmony's capabilities including;

  • A basic understanding of the drawing and painting tools and that each frame has its own series of sub Art layers (Underlay, Color, Line art, Overlay) but the relationship between these from frame to frame and even layer to layer isn't quite clear to me.
     
  • Harmony's old-school xsheet mark-up capabilities, making it great for traditional hand drawn animation if that's your thing.
     
  • Rigging a character for cut-out or puppet animation including how to swap out body parts in character rigs for even more versatile characters.
     
  • A basic understanding of the timeline and how exposure works in this software (why everything can't just be 'exposed' by default unless you manually turn it off (or un-expose it) is a mystery to me?
     
  • The different types of layers on the Timeline including Bone, peg, sound and camera layers.
     
  • Basic frame by frame and key frame animation with automatic tweening.
     
  • Libraries and how to create custom palettes.
     
  • I got a kind of introduction to the node editor, that's only available in the Premium version of Harmony. A kind of flow chart composite of your scene, it looked really powerful but the point at which I did the detailed, video tutorial on it was way too premature for me to put anything into practice.


Overall I learned enough to animate a basic scene as well as I can in any other software, albeit with a little bit of revision over various tutorials to make sure I was doing things right.

Below is my finished Star Wars, Scene which I completed, mostly without having to go back and re-watch tutorials. Though there was a few times I needed to revise on where to find various tools.




As you can see I've got a brief camera pan and parallax effect. A rigged puppet character with robes blowing in the wind using deformations to animate them. If you look really closely you can see a slight deformation of the head and face at the beginning to give the impression the character is turning her head toward the camera. All the animation has been done with key frames and tweens. There's no 'hand drawn' animation at all.

In the end I didn't really learn anything that would convince me hands down this is the software I should be using for 2D animation. I didn't learn any of the really great features you see in the Harmony demonstration videos. I mostly learned the way Harmony handles the same basic animation techniques I'm already familiar with in other animation software.


To Answer My Questions...


Is Harmony easy to learn the basics?

I actually think it is. Jesse J. Jones's 30 minute tutorial is proof of that. He teaches enough to give you a quick overview in a time that any software company should be pleased about.

From that foundation you can then start to look around for tutorials that are specific to what you need Harmony to do for you (for me that was character rigging and from there I'd be going on to lip syncing). I'd probably start picking up more and more of the intricacies of the software as my confidence with it grew.

I feel Toon Boom needs to create a learning path where you can learn the basics in an hour or less and then move on to individual tutorials that show how to do some of the more impressive things demonstrated in Harmony's promotional videos.

For example, I would have liked to have added the light shading feature to my character animation but have yet to come across any kind of tutorial to show me how to do this.


Is Toon Boom's Harmony something an independent artist/animator, like myself, should seriously consider as their go to animation studio of choice?

Harmony is definitely a worthwhile investment if being a 2D animator is something you aspire to, either as a hobby or profession. Toon Boom has a full range of subscription licenses making it affordable even on a modest budget.

If being 'industry standard' matters to you then I'd definitely recommend Harmony for all your 2D animation. It's clearly capable and suited to most 2D animation styles and you'll always be prepared with options should you decide to freelance for studios or seek more permanent employment with an animation company.

Since I'm the least 'Industry Standard' visual artist professional I know, that's not a concern for me.

At heart, I'm more of an illustrator who likes to animate than a straight up animator. As much as I was starting to enjoy Harmony's drawing tools, I much prefer to draw in software dedicated to illustration. (My illustration software also can handle hand drawn animation too – so there's that).

I don't doubt Harmony 14 Premium is really capable software. For me it just feels like too much for my needs. That may be reason to consider either Harmony Essentials or Advanced but I'm an 'all or nothing' kind of person. I prefer using the full versions of software rather than their 'light' versions.

For me, Harmony isn't an essential tool, it's more of a luxury item. I would definitely use it but, based on my brief time with it, I can't say I've seen enough to be convinced my production schedule would be greatly improved over the software I currently use.


To Conclude...


I do believe Toon Boom Harmony 14 is truly capable of being able to handle most 2D animation techniques. Based on the demonstration videos it's easy to see why some animators swear by it and why it has become industry standard.

Whilst Toon Boom have created several different learning pathways into Harmony for beginners, I feel, of the ones I experienced, they don't get you up and running with the basics quick enough.

Personally I did not find the learning curve particularly difficult. The biggest hurdle for me was actually time. People often stay with the software they know because learning something new takes time. To me that's the issue with Harmony. The learning curve is only steep because there's so much to learn, not because the concepts themselves are hard.

If Toon Boom were to take up my suggestions for how to implement their video tutorials, so anyone trialing the software could get to the impressive features quicker, I think they'd give people a very compelling reason to buy a subscription license.

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