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Pre-flight Illustrator Files with Phantasm CS

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Get your documents ready for printing. This is a special tutorial sponsored by Astute Graphics that incorporates the use of their high-quality Phantasm CS (Studio or Publisher) Illustrator Pugins. Phantasm CS contains powerful print preview tools. We'll use Phantasm's tools to find and correct potential printing problems, ensuring the best possible output of our vector artwork!

Final Image Preview

Below is the final image we will be working towards. Want access to the full Vector Source files and downloadable copies of every tutorial, including this one? Join Vector Plus for just 9$ a month.

Tutorial Details

  • Program: Adobe Illustrator CS4, with Phantasm CS Phantasm CS Studio or Publisher Plugin
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
  • Estimated Completion Time: 30 minutes

Let's look at this map. On screen, it looks fine, but it actually contains several potential printing problems. If you were to send it to be printed, as is, you might be unpleasantly surprised at the results &mdash and the cost. Let's review how to correct these print issues in our document. Vector Plus members should download the source file and follow along closely.

Note: I am using Phantasm CS Publisher for this tutorial, the latest version of the plugin. The "Studio" version's windows may look slightly different.

1 - Quick Separations

Let's assume that this map will be printed in a brochure. Nothing fancy, just a standard 4-color offset print job. With Phantasm CS, you can soft proof the file by taking a quick look at each color plate, on screen. First, make sure that Illustrator's Overprint Preview, under the View menu, is checked. Now, go to View> Output Preview> Quick Separations.

Right away, we can see a problem. This is supposed to be a four-color job, but the file contains one spot color. You can inspect each plate by toggling the dots to the left of the color name. You can Alt-click on one color to deselect all others.

Note: Quick Separations displays any spot colors that may be in the swatches panel, even if they are not used in the document (Phantasm CS' full separation system lists only the spot colors used in the artwork).

Phantasm CS lets you zoom and pan through the file while the panel is open, to give a closer look at the details in the file. Simply choose the magnification level, then click the Pan arrows (horizontally, vertically, or diagonally) to get to the area you wish to inspect. This saves you the hassle of having to close the panel, zoom to the desired area, then open the panel again. I wish some of Illustrator's regular panels had this function!

2 - Overprint Preview

With the panel still open, click the pull-down menu and choose Overprint. By default, all objects in the file that are set to overprint are highlighted in red, and all other artwork is dimmed to 10%. These settings can be changed to suit your preference, and again, you can zoom and pan.

If I zoom in on this file, I can tell at a glance that something's wrong. Some of the black text is not overprinting, and some of the white text is. Additionally, the road (an 80% gray stroke) is not set to overprint, but it should be. We'll fix these in the next section, but for now, you can see the advantage of Phantasm CS over Illustrator's built-in Overprint Preview. The red highlighting from Phantasm CS makes it easier to inspect the overprints.

3 - Ink Coverage

The third and final item in Phantasm CS's Output Preview window is Ink Coverage. When colors are printed on top of one another, there is a limit to the amount of ink the paper can handle. Too much can inhibit proper drying of the ink, which can result in rippled paper, muddy color, and other problems.

The Total Ink Coverage (TIC), or Total Area Coverage (TAC) that is appropriate for a specific paper stock is expressed as a percentage. For example, a rich black that is made up of 57% Cyan, 50% Magenta, 53% Yellow and 100% Black has a cumulative total ink coverage of 260% (57+50+53+100). Different types of papers have different limits. Newsprint, which is lightweight and absorbent, can only handle about 240% to 260%. With heavier, coated stock, the limit is higher, about 320% to 340%. There is no single standard, so you should consult your print shop before sending a file for output.

Adobe Acrobat and InDesign both let you preview areas of your artwork that exceed the TAC specified for the print job. Illustrator does not. That's where Phantasm's Ink Coverage preview comes in. Go to View > Output Preview > Ink Coverage (or use the pull-down menu if the window is already open). You'll see four text fields and four colored squares.

In the text fields, you can specify percentages of ink coverage. Each level must be greater than the previous, up to the total, cumulative limit specified by your printer. The colors do not refer to actual ink colors in your file, but are merely visual representations of the various percentages. Clicking on the squares brings up the familiar Adobe Color Picker, which allows you to set the colors to your liking.

In the image below, I have set the ink coverage to 260%, which is the top limit for most newsprint. The purple areas in the preview indicate the places in which the ink coverage approaches or exceeds the limit. In this example, the highway and parts of the embedded raster image are purple. If I change the percentage to 340, those areas now display in the safe range. Note that the preview you see on screen is a rasterized image. This is only for preview purposes, and does not affect the vector file.

In Phantasm CS Publisher, there is an additional option to base the ink levels on the document's color profile. Go to Edit > Assign Profile to specify the proper setting for the type of printing you're doing. By clicking on the Base Levels on Profile button, the ink percentages are automatically calculated, based on the document's color profile, thus taking the guesswork out of entering the values manually.

Publisher additionally offers the Total Ink Coverage as expressed in numeric values. This information is found at the bottom of the window and can be used to estimate how much ink will be needed for the job. You can copy the information in the window and paste it into a text document.

4 - Fixing Problems

Now that we've previewed the file for potential printing problems, we can use Phantasm CS to correct them.

A Note about Filters vs Effects: Phantasm CS plugins use both Filters and Live Effects. Adobe did away with the Filters menu in CS4, so Phantasm's filters are found under the Object menu. Phantasm's effects perform the same functions as its filters, but they remain live effects, and can be edited without altering the base file. To commit to the effect, you must expand the appearance, under the Object menu. In the following section I will refer exclusively to the Phantasm filters.

In the first example, we used Quick Separations, and discovered an unwanted spot color. In this case, it's a quick fix, but had there been several different spot color objects in the document, it would be time consuming to manually find them all and change them to process.

To ensure that all spot colors in the file are converted to process, we'll use Phantasm's Swap Channel tool. Go to Object > Filters > Phantasm CS > Swap Channels. This tool can be used for creative coloring of an illustration, but here we'll leave the CMYK channels alone, and simply convert the spot color to process. Click on the color name in the Target column. In the drop-down menu that appears, choose Process CMYK.

In the map file, the red square was stroked with a spot color. Checking it after running the Swap Channels filter reveals that it has been changed to process. Any spot colors can be changed this way, and Phantasm saves your settings for the next time you use the filter.

Our next problem was with overprinting. Again, having to comb through the file and manually correct these instances would be time-consuming. And if you miss any, you might be left with costly printing mistakes. To fix the overprinting issues, we'll use Phantasm's Shift to Color filter.

First, Select All. Then go to Object > Filters > Phantasm CS > Shift to Color. You'll notice that Phantasm automatically hides the selection edges when one of its filters is in use, making it easier to see the artwork. The Shift to Color dialog will appear. We're not actually shifting the color, so leave that at 0%. If the advanced options are not visible, click the triangle to reveal them.

Make sure that Safe CMYK is un-checked, then skip down to the Rich Black section. For this map, we want the text and roadways to appear sharp and readable, so we want to make sure there is no rich black (made from a combination of process colors) in the file. If a thin black line is stroked with rich black, for example, and the press registration is off even slightly, the line will appear blurry.

To convert any rich blacks in the file to 100% black only, check the Rich Black to: box. Click on the color swatch to make sure the color is set to 100% black with no other colors. The percentage slider goes from 90 to 100%. A lower setting will catch a wider range of rich blacks and convert them.

Next, choose Remove Overprint when White. Since there is no white ink in four-color print jobs (white is the absence of any ink), any white that is set to overprint will disappear. Sometimes white objects can accidentally get set to overprint, so this will correct them.

Lastly, check Overprint Pure Black. This will ensure that 100% black objects, such as text, will overprint.

Now those overprinting issues have been resolved. In the Attributes panel we see that the white numeral that was previously set to overprint is now visible. The 100% black text, which was previously set to knock out (that is, to not overprint), will now print as it should.

5 - Getting Serious with Separations

While Quick Separations is a fast, on-screen overview of the various color plates in a document, the Separations Tool generates full separations. This is the most accurate way to check the file before printing. To access the full Separations Tool, either select it from the Window menu, or click Generate Separations at the bottom of the Quick Separations window. Depending on the size and complexity of your file &mdash and the speed of your computer &mdash it may take a while to complete the process.

The result is a new document, with each color separated onto its own layer. The Separations panel now changes to show each plate, and just like the Quick Separations, you have the ability to view individual plates by toggling their respective buttons. You'll notice that when a single plate is selected in the Separations panel, it is displayed in grayscale. This makes it easier to see lighter, less contrasted colors. These are also options to include various printer marks, and offset them from the artwork.

The main layer in the new document is locked, and named "DO NOT MODIFY." And that's for a reason: Any changes you try to make at this stage will result in an alert message (on the Separations panel) that prevents you from releasing the separations and working with them further.

To examine each plate and make changes to it (if necessary), you must first release the separations. To do this, click the button on the bottom of the Separations panel. Now each plate will still be on its own layer. The vector objects remain as editable vectors, and the transparency is flattened, according to the document's flattener and raster effects settings. The Cyan plate contains cyan objects, the Magenta plate is magenta, and so on. If you prefer, choose the Release Separations as Black at the top-right of the Separations panel, to make each plate's objects grayscale.


By now the file should be ready for flawless printing, but you can still tweak it using Phantasm CS filters. For example, you may want to adjust the total ink coverage on individual plates. Simply target any layer/plate, then revisit the Ink Coverage panel to make changes. You might also choose to copy objects to a new layer, for example, in order to print a varnish on just those objects. Since the plates have been separated from within Illustrator, you have ultimate control over the file.

Additionally, Phantasm CS filter functions can be recorded and saved as Illustrator Actions. So if you find you use the same tools regularly (for example, the Shift to Color settings demonstrated above) you can quickly apply them using an Action.

By using the Phantasm CS plugin to identify printing problems and correct them, you will save a lot of time, headaches and money when you're ready to print.

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