• FS Repaint

    Abacus FS Repaint

    By Andrew Herd (29 September 2006)

    I bet there have been many times when you have looked at a plane in Flight Simulator and thought, 'I wish they had done that one in green...' or some whatever else your favorite color happens to be. Maybe that wish was as far as you got, or maybe you looked into it a little further and thought, 'Well, gee, I have got a paint program, let's see if I can fix that myself...' and, guttering torch in hand, you have taken the plunge and explored into the deepest recesses of the aircraft texture folders, given a little whoop when you discovered that there was nothing more complicated in there than a few bitmaps, set aside an evening to do the work, and then discovered that those textures ain't no ordinary bitmaps, because they won't open in a normal paint program. Not even the mighty Photoshop can prize 'em open, because they are in a format unique, as far as I know, to Flight Simulator - although I am sure someone will correct me on that.

    At that point, the more persistent among you will have searched for a tutorial on repainting, and you will have read it from end to end, cover to cover, up and down, inside out and - bearing in mind the better repainting tutorials are all in the file library here - you will have decided that (a) life is too short, and (b) that people who repaint FS airplanes have brains that work differently to the rest of us. Which is true, they are more persistent, but whatever. If you are anything like me, you will have gone back into your snooze and thought, 'Well, I guess I might get to like that color scheme after all, now I know how much trouble it would be to change it.'

    And that was that, the end of your (and my) career as an FS repainter. I'll make no secret of the fact that I have cherished the idea of doing my own repaints of a couple of the FS planes, not least because I have used Photoshop since near enough the day it came out and know it like the back of my hand, but there is a problem getting the files in and out of Photoshop... or PaintShop Pro, or whatever pleases you. The answer - before anyone emails me - is in a recent edition of The Corner, Chip Barber's column, so if any of you have image editing skills busting to get out, and a copy of an editor man enough to do the job (MS Paint does not cut it), read no further and head over to this link. Thanks, Chip - although I would caution people to be a little wary of following the link to mwgfx, as it triggers enough pop ups and suggestions that new programs need to be installed on your system to make your eyes cross - the DXTbmp program that this link is all about can be found in our files library (DXTBMP45.ZIP).

    But what if you don't know anything about image editing?

    The answer is Abacus FS Repaint. Just to show I am not kidding, I used it to do change the color on the fuselage stripe on the default 182 livery shown above and it inspired me to use Photoshop to add in the wing flashes as well - these could be done with FS Repaint, but it would take time to get everything looking just right.

    First, a word of warning. FS Repaint is not the tool I would choose to paint a Sistine Chapel scheme across the wings of my favorite 737, but it is a good way to dabble in simple aircraft repainting tasks, because not only does FS Repaint hide all the file format conversions extremely well, it actually lets you see what is going on while you work on your masterpiece. You will understand the importance of this latter point if you have ever managed to open an aircraft texture file and thought 'This mess translates into a plane?'. I too, assumed they must be kidding when I first got one of those files into Photoshop, but for those of you who have never had the pleasure, the textures that cover Flight Simulator's planes are held in a template format that our grandmothers would instantly understand, because the only thing I have ever seen that looks anything like it are dress making patterns from the fifties. I have included a screenshot of one of them above right.

    Unfortunately, if you aren't one of our grandmothers, the FS texture templates can look pretty daunting, which is what makes most of the people who do manage to get one of the little tinkers open give up. The greatest virtue of FS Repaint is that it manages all the file conversions for you and by the time you have started editing the template and looking at the changes displaying live in the preview window, the job doesn't seem anywhere near as hard as it does when you are having to ship edited files in and out of an editor via a separate conversion program, only to discover that you just painted the wrong bit red. The greatest compliment I can pay FS Repaint is that it gave me the confidence to set about doing a proper job of repainting one of the default planes in Photoshop - which is something I have wanted to do for years. The app showed me enough of the guts of the process that I finally managed to get my head around it, but I can also vouch for the fact that even if you lack image editing skills, FS Repaint should be enough to get you started. For many simmers, it will be the only tool they ever need.

    There is nothing particular worth talking about as regards the installation, which installs the program and creates a new group under the Start menu in Windows. This contains links to a 'read me first' doc, which sets out the basic details of how to set the program up and get painting. After you have pointed the app in the direction of one of the three versions of Flight Simulator it supports (FS2004, FS2002 and CFS2), the program builds an index of all the planes you have on disk and then loads the interface. On a default installation, this should be fairly quick, but if you have lots of addon planes and particularly if you have an AI package installed, it takes time - the only annoying thing about the program being that it reindexes every time it starts, which took up to 45 seconds on my system. I would have preferred to have an option to refresh the list as required, rather than having to see the app grind through the \aircraft folder every single time it loaded, but maybe that is for version two.

    Once you have FS Repaint up and running, the next step is to use the list in the left hand pane to select the aircraft you are planning to deface - apologies, enhance - and then scroll through all the liveries that go with it to choose one to act as a 'base' template. When you select a plane, it appears in the right hand pane, initially in profile, although you can turn it around by clicking and dragging with the mouse, zoom in and out and even take advantage of the 'animation' option to make it spin endlessly around and around, although quite why anyone would wish to do this, I cannot imagine. With a livery selected, the left hand pane can be used to select the textures associated with the scheme, which is where erstwhile repainters traditionally give up, because even the default planes have four different texture sets associated with each livery, with no clue as to which does what. You can see the what the thumbnails look like in FS Repaint above right.

    The first step in an FS Repaint adventure is to create a new 'variation'. Variation is the term Flight Simulator uses for different paint schemes and my best advice is to create one every time you start a new repaint, because the alternative is to work on the original textures and unless you are very familiar with Flight Simulator, the only way to return the default liveries to their original state is to reinstall the whole game. Not fun. The help file describes this procedure extremely well and even newbies will find it hard to go wrong.

    The next step, having selected the new variation you have created (which is simply a duplicate of an existing livery, but with a different name) is to click on the textures tab at the top of the left hand pane and select a thumbnail of a texture set which ends in _T.BMP. I would strongly suggest starting with one of the default planes, because they have simple texture sets, unlike the more complex addons, which can have a confusingly large number of the little critturs. Having found the file you want - easy peasy with the default planes, 'cos there is only one that answers the description - you double click on the thumbnail and FS Repaint's image editor opens as a new window, which can be dragged onto a second monitor if you have one. You can associate another editor with FS Repaint if you want, but pay attention to the compatibility list, as in my experience, programs which aren't on it may not to work with it, including the latest version of Photoshop.

    The editor window has a toolbar down one side and a color swatch down the left. The range of tools provided is more than adequate to get beginners going, which means it is wider than Microsoft Paint, but restricted by comparison with PaintShop Pro and miniscule compared to Photoshop. The manual could be expanded in this area and given that FS Repaint is clearly designed to be used by graphics virgins, it would have been good to see a more words about tool techniques, but as it is there should be just enough to get most people off the blocks and I was able to get a very basic repaint completed twenty minutes after loading the package for the first time. One of the best things about using FS Repaint is that you can see what you is happening, because what you do in the editor is reflected in the preview window and this, more than anything else, teaches you what does what in those puzzling dress pattern-style templates. Grandma, needless to say, would have finished the job in five, thrown in ten minutes of unlimited cross-stitch and given me a lecture on tidying up my bedroom. When you complete the job and exit the editor, the preview window reindexes... again.... and you can use the mouse to examine the finished job from any angle you want, before loading FS and flying away in it. Piece of cake. The screenshot above shows an edit in progress using the built in editor - note that the you will need to use the scrollbar to pan across the larger image when you click through, as this was taken to show what FS Repaint looks like on a twin monitor setup. On a single monitor, the edit and the preview windows overlap.

    As I remarked earlier, FS Repaint offers everything that the casual repainter is likely to need, but the tools have their limitations compared to more advanced editors; for example, the magic wand tool doesn't appear to be able to partially select pixels, there are no masking facilities, and a complete lack of anything as sophisticated as say Photoshop's history brush. To their credit, the developers have taken this into account and have made it very easy to set FS Repaint up so it can use an external editor - the compatibility list including Adobe Photoshop 5,6, and 7; Jasc's PaintShop Pro 4,5,6,7 and 8; Corel Photopaint and MS Paint, although the latter is less capable than the built-in editor. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a way to make FS Repaint work with Photoshop CS2 and as far as I can tell, the way the app works makes it necessary to quit the external editor before any edits can be seen in the FS Repaint preview window, because the action of quitting the editor triggers the refresh of FS Repaint's preview window. If you are working with an external editor, make sure you have the color management set up so that the program isn't assigning color profiles without telling you, and also make sure that you flatten any layered images before saving them.

    On the plus side, in addition to the magic wand, the built-in editor has rectangular and polygonal selection tools, which are highly necessary, given the complicated shapes common to aircraft liveries. The method of building up selections using these tools is slightly clunky, as it involves clicking on '+' or '-' signs on the top editor bar, these staying operative until you deselect them, and there is also an 'intersect selection' button. Other tools include a pencil, a brush, a spray gun, an eraser, a gradient tool, a fill bucket, a type tool, an eyedropper for color selection and four different shape tools. Control over the pencil tool is limited to altering its width; the brush tool being a little more sophisticated, two different brushes are provided and you can edit these yourself to produce new ones, but there is no control over softness and spread. The right hand toolbar lets you choose between editing the RGB and the alpha channel (casual users can safely ignore this) and offers a color swatch. At first sight the swatch offers a limited range of colors, but double clicking either the foreground or background colors brings up a color wheel that lets you add any color you want to the swatch.

    Using the built-in editor, FS Repaint is great fun and a capable tool, but sooner or later most users will run up against its limits. Chief among these is the inability of the tools to make subtle selections - even the default planes have fine gradations on their panel textures, the cheat lines on the 182 being a good example of this, as the shade of blue used varies all the way along the fuselage, with darker areas where panel joins and rivet lines are crossed. The 'all or nothing' nature of the FS Repaint tools means that it takes more mouse clicks than high end graphics users would expect to select an area like the cheat line - and that once the area is selected, changing the color wipes out the graded areas, rivets and panel lines where they cross 'under' the paintwork. Okay, it isn't that tough editing them back in again and if push comes to shove, if fine detail like that is left out, it isn't visible except on the closest inspection, but it does set a quality bar above which use of the FS Repaint editor doesn't make a lot of sense.

    So does FS Repaint have any place on the disk of users who are using DXTbmp and say, Photoshop CS2? Yes, I think so - the screenshot above left shows me editing a texture file in Photoshop while I was in the process of writing this review. Using such a setup, DXTbmp takes care of all the file conversion issues and passes the file back and forth between Flight Simulator and Photoshop in a couple of mouse clicks, but the only way the user has of previewing template edits is to load the plane in FS (the aircraft selection preview window isn't big enough). This takes time and FS Repaint offers a quick way of previewing edits, as long as you can live with the reindexing time. Not only that, but you can browse through the textures in the left hand pane and select the ones you need to edit, so, now that my career as an aircraft repainter has formally begun, the app stays on my hard disk.

    Hardcore livery painters undoubtedly know all about FS Repaint, so this review and indeed the product aren't aimed at them. Where FS Repaint does excel is as an introduction to repainting FS aircraft liveries and such, it is the best integrated package I have had the privilege to review. The vast majority of ordinary simmers will find that FS Repaint does everything they want out of the box, and if other people have as much fun with it as I did, well, it might just inspire them to move on to greater things.

    Andrew Herd
    [email protected]

    Learn more here


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