Depths - How they work in Flash
         by senocular

Zones of Depth
In specifying depths for your objects, you need to be aware of the three "zones" in the ranges of valid depth values in Flash. Depths themselves, for visual objects, cannot be less than -16,384 or greater than 2,130,690,045 (there is an exception for createEmptyMovieClip). Indeed, unusual numbers, but those are the acceptable values for an object's depth. No depth will be outside of this range and, as you can see, Flash starts with the lowest part of that range when adding objects to the screen when reading the timeline. Now, within that range there are more or less 3 other ranges. One is the range that Flash uses to handle the timeline, that being from depths -16,384 to -1. Following that is the range, 0 to 1,048,575, the range that specifies the depths at which a movieclip or textfield can be removed with removeMovieClip() or removeTextField(), something not possible within the depths of the previous range. After that range, and going to the end, 1,048,576 to 2,130,690,04, is a kind of reserve range where movieclips can be placed by you, but can't be removed. Respectively I call these ranges, or zones, timeline, dynamic and reserve:


Zone Range Note
 Timeline  -16,384 to -1 handled by timeline with Flash, dynamic removal disabled
 Dynamic  0 to 1,048,575 most dynamically accessible, allows dynamic removal
 Reserve  1,048,576 to 2,130,690,045 overflow - ignored by timeline, dynamic removal disabled


The timeline zone of depths is where Flash handles timeline placed instances, working from around -16384 up giving plenty of depths before reaching the dynamic zone at depth 0. These are all based on arrangement specified in the Flash authoring environment. The very low starting depth mentioned before, where the lowest clips in the Flash authoring environment are first placed, starts at around this lowest depth of -16,384 (usually -16,383). From there it places objects in sequentially higher depths until all of the objects on the timeline are accounted for. Since there are only 16,000 instances allowed on the screen at one time in Flash, that gives plenty of depths for Flash to handle those timeline instances. Now, there's a little more involved here, but we'll touch upon that a bit later.

Next is the dynamic zone. This represents the range in which most dynamic instances would be, ideally, created. After all, intuitively, if Flash asks you to give a depth for an attached movieclip, you would consider some reasonable positive number value and nothing negative or anything too terribly high such as anything above 1,048,575. This doesn't mean that any object created dynamically on the screen has to be within this range. It's just the supposed range for these clips to exists since it is only within this range, and this is the important part, that you are allowed to remove instances with actionscript. Dynamically created instances, however, can be initially attached within any valid depth within any of the 3 zones. Should you want to remove them, however, you would want to place them here. And if not, then you would have to use swapDepths to place them within this zone to remove them. Note, this is valid for instances placed on the timeline as well. Though you may not initially be able to remove any movieclip you place on the timeline in the Flash authoring environment, should you use swapDepths to place that clip in the Dynamic zone, you are then able to remove it with removeMovieClip.

The reserve zone kind of makes up what's left. Its basically just an extension of the dynamic zone with removal disabled. Objects can be created there or swapped to a depth within that zone using swapDepths, but it deems itself unorthodox in that there is no ability for removal and that the simple value of the depth seems ridiculously high. Nevertheless, this allows 2,129,641,470 more values of depths to work with when arranging your objects on the screen through actionscript giving you a lot of room for playing around.

The exception to this set of ranges is for the createEmptyMovieClip method. There is no real limit for the depth when creating an empty movieclip. You can very well define it with a depth below -99999999999 or above 999999999999 and Flash will still create the empty clip despite the fact its out of the 3 valid zone's ranges. The depth of such an empty clip, however, when set beyond 2147483647 on the positive side and -2147483648 on the negative, it will start to fluctuate from what you truly set it, sometimes even being negative if set at positive and vise versa. You never can tell. It seems as though this is the absolute range for timeline instances, -2147483647 to -2147483648, though really only fully attainable through empty movieclips. Other clips, such as those within the timeline or created with something like attachMovie are restricted to the depths of -16,384 to 2,130,690,045 as laid out in the 3 zones.

The Timeline Refresh
Lets go back to the timeline zone for a moment. There is something that happens within that range that can cause a lot of confusion when toying with the depths of clips there, both dynamic and those placed in the timeline. What happens is, whenever the timeline is "refreshed" and all of the instances are redrawn, Flash actually goes through the depths in the timeline zone and removes all of the clips which exist within those depths, whether they were created there through their existence on the timeline or dynamically with actionscript. Flash then redraws the screen for those depths based on the information within the timeline disregarding any movieclips that might have been placed in those depths through dynamic means. An example of this kind of refreshing is caused by using gotoAndPlay to go to a frame which has already passed; going to frame 5 from frame 10 for example. When this happens, Flash does this refresh allowing it to correctly display the screen at this new frame as the progression of the timeline has diverted from normal playback and therefore must be completely re-conceived by Flash.

Obviously, this can cause several problems. One being the obvious of you losing any dynamically place instances within that range during a refresh of this sort, placed there either during their creation or as a result of swapDepths. What can you do? Well, you can not put dynamic instances in that range for one. Alternatively, if you know that you wont run into a situation where something like that will occur, say a controlled movieclip consisting of only one stopped frame, then it can be pretty safe to have clips within the range of the timeline zone with minimal worry.

Another problem, which may not be so obvious, is that concerning depth-swapped timeline instances. If you use swapDepths to bring a movieclip which was placed on the timeline in Flash out of the timeline zone and into a depth above 0, then in a timeline refresh, that clip will not be removed in Flash's clearing of the timeline instances and a new instance of that clip will be placed on the screen at its original depth, effectively duplicating it. Similarly, to avoid this, don't do it. Again, its safe in controlled timelines, but otherwise, its risky. Something to be aware of nonetheless.

Kind of along those same lines is the progression of the Flash timeline from one scene to another. This does not constitute a timeline refresh, nor, really, any other particularly special event. Scenes themselves are only slices of the main timeline which, when the Flash movie is published, get added on to one another as one big, single main timeline. Because of this, any dynamic instance you create (or any instance swapped above 0 depth) in one scene will be present in any other scene as the timeline plays through them. If you would not like this to happen, then you would need to use removeMovieClip/removeTextField to get rid of them at the end of the scene which they were placed.

Execution Order
Another somewhat overlooked role in depths is their influence in determining execution order of ActionScript. Actually, the depths themselves don't necessarily affect execution order but rather the order in which instances are created does. However, since movieclips are created in the order relating to their arrangement (depth) on the screen, there is that connection, at least in terms of the timeline. In regards to actionscript, its more a matter of the order in which you create any of those instances that you decide to make. Those you create first (these in the same timeline) will have their script run before those you create afterwards. Otherwise, the Flash authoring environment decides the order of execution based on arrangement or order created. Oddly enough, for instances on the timeline, those created last are those who's enterFrame event scripts get run first.

By default, instances are created from the timeline starting with the lowest layer upward. This is at the Bottom Up load order setting in you Publish Settings options. You have two options for load order, Bottom Up and Top Down, both which control the order in which layers are created within Flash. Frame scripts in these layers are run in the order they are created, so in a Bottom Up situation, any scripts on lower layers would be technically run first. However, as mentioned, enterFrame events are opposite that -and this includes both onEnterFrame and onClipEvent(enterFrame). In a Top Down situation, the opposite is true. So, with the default Bottom Up setting, assuming you have two movieclips on your timeline, one in a high layer 1 and the other in a lower layer 2, if both contain an onEnterFrame event as well as some script in the first frame of their timeline, then the movieclip in the lower layer will first have its timeline script run followed by the timeline script of the movieclip on the higher layer. Then the enterFrame event of the clip in the higher layer will run followed by that corresponding to the lower layer. Note, however, that script order within the frames of the layers themselves are always run from top to bottom, so the scripts in higher layers are always run before the scripts in lower layers. What this concerns is the execution of scripts within movieclips themselves as separate objects.

Depths can be a tricky subject. You may be one of those people who never have any trouble in using them, and then again, you may be one of those people who have all the trouble in using them. It all depends on what you try to do and how accepting Flash is of that. What's been discussed here pretty much covers all that can and will go wrong when attempting manipulate depths in Flash. I think the biggest consideration is the timeline zone and how it can influence your handling of clips, both timeline and dynamic. Many of the more common and unusual troubles experienced with Flash and depths deals with that range of depths and the repercussions of putting or removing clips from that zone.




Some depth related scripts:

/* removes any movieclip */
MovieClip.prototype.killMovieClip = function(){


/* gets the highest or lowest depth in a movieclip */
MovieClip.prototype.highestDepth = function(){
var curr, high = undefined;
for (var clip in this){
if (!isNaN(curr = this[clip].getDepth()) && this[clip]._parent == this){
if (curr > high || high == undefined) high = curr;
return high;
MovieClip.prototype.lowestDepth = function(){
var curr, low = undefined;
for (var clip in this){
if (!isNaN(curr = this[clip].getDepth()) && this[clip]._parent == this){
if (curr < low || low == undefined) low = curr;
return low;


/* returns an instance which occupies the passed depth (if exists) */
MovieClip.prototype.instanceAtDepth = function(depth){
for (var clip in this) if (this[clip]._parent == this && this[clip].getDepth() === depth) return this[clip];
return undefined;


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