“Open source” is in some ways the new “synergy” out in the professional world, a concept that that has become the center of passionate debate on the internet, and is another way for companies to seem altruistic and progressive (with varying degrees of dedications to the actual idea). While the term means many things to many people, it is essentially the idea of transparency, the free flow of ideas and is most often applied to applications and software that make their source code easily available to the public. It’s a viable platform for energetic competition in a market, and most agree that it ultimately leads to a better, more energized environment for the web and web products. Google makes a big deal out of supporting open source, but obviously they are big enough to innovate faster and more effectively than most. Other companies have used the “open” release of varying sources codes to create confusion, for which they can charge a pretty penny to bring clarity to their customers. A ton of smaller companies and individual developers create their products with the code naked for all to see, and there is a thriving ecosystem of applications, plug-ins, and full software suites- though how much revenues is being generated varies wildly.  It’s a complicated subject and the arguments for and against can all be painted with varying shades of gray, but how can this apply to flimmaking?

The idea of “open source filmmaking” is a tricky one. What would the open-source screenplay be like? There have been efforts to find out but it’s a difficult thing to effectively force committee-style innovation on what should ultimately be a piece of personal expression (the irony of that sentence as applied to Hollywood does not escape me, but I’m talking about big pictures here). A script and its eventual visualization isn’t a UI or a web application or a compiler, it’s a piece of art that should reflect human ambiguity and fluid ideas, not just be efficient or achieve a very specific goal. There is a place for “open-source artwork” certainly, but narrative film writing may not be it. So if it’s not so easy to apply the concepts of openness to the ideas behind a movie, what about the more manufacture-based elements? That’s tough too — live-action films are huge endeavors that represent thousands of man-hours of real-world blood, sweat, and tears. It’s nearly impossible to apply any kind of open-source sensibility on the carpentry of a set, or the arrangement of lights- certainly not the kind of sensibility that has developed on the net. This brings us around to a world that can allow for the application of transparent ideals- animation.

The biggest difference between a live-action and an animated film is that the man-hours employed for the sheer creation of the images is done in a computer or by hand in a single location, as opposed to the actual staging of events that occurs in live-action production. Animation therefore, can benefit directly from the open source tools that are becoming increasingly available, tools like Blender.

For those not familiar, Blender is an open-source (formerly freeware) piece of software used for generating 3D images. It’s capable of being used for “modeling, UV unwrapping, texturing, rigging, water and smoke simulations, skinning, animating, rendering, particle and other simulations, non-linear editing, compositing, and creating interactive 3D applications, including video games, animated film, or visual effects.†” It’s a progressively developed piece of software that the public can modify and contribute to (and often do), with everything overseen by the Blender Foundation. The software has had a mixed history, regarded by some only as a hobbyist’s program and one that wasn’t up to standard for professional work, but a growing community of users and progressive development have brought it closer and closer to that level. A number of projects have given Blender an opportunity to grow and improve, fostered by the challenges of larger scale projects. Think of it as the Blender Foundation shoving the software out of the nest and forcing it to suddenly develop well-coded and efficiently designed wings. The foundation has overseen four of these kinds of productions, the latest and largest-scale of which is Sintel, a short film about a young woman and her best friend, a dragon.

In the film we meet a lonely girl – voiced by Halina Reijn – who is saved on a barren snowfield by a shaman – with the voice of Thom Hoffman. In the hut of the shaman she tells her life story; how she found a wounded baby dragon in a dilapidated city, and how a deep bond grew between them. When the little dragon is kidnapped violently by an adult dragon, she takes a long quest. After her visit to the shaman she then undergoes a dramatic confrontation with the adult dragon.

Sintel (which you’ll be able to watch in its entirety below) came to my attention through Colin Levy, a fellow student at the school from which I graduated, the Savannah College of Art & Design. Colin is a long-time user of Blender, and through his relationship with many of the key people in the foundation was actually chosen as the director for the project, which would employ Blender’s largest dedication of funds and full-time employees ever. As if it wasn’t already impressive enough that Colin landed this position at all, keep in mind that he landed it as a 21 year old junior in college. This isn’t entirely shocking for those that know him. Colin was an immediate success in the film department as he brought a great deal of energy, natural talent, and refined skills for filmmaking and visual effects. I was even lucky enough to have Colin contribute a VFX shot for a project I directed during my junior year (a short called All For Lobsters for which Colin kindly rendered one of my best friend’s heads being blown off! One day I’ll share it with you).

I asked Colin to speak to me a little bit about the project, its goals, and his role.

Okay, so I understand Sintel to be a project from Blender. The purpose of which is to promote Blender and open-standards in general. Talk about that, and if there are additional goals.

Yeah, it’s an interesting project. It’s goals are multi-faceted: like you say, to promote blender and open culture, but also to actually push the software forward – to spur its development.

Some of the technical targets for this project was to improve things like simulation (hair sim, smoke sim), for example.

So I assume things were invented in the process?

Yeah, there was a lot that was pretty much impossible to do at the beginning of the project. I’m trying to think what the other big things were… We were basically using alpha software at the beginning. Blender 2.5 was a complete rewrite and it was basically in its infancy, so we were getting crashes all the time, and lots of basic features were still missing. Multi-res modeling, library linking and compositing improvements were listed as early technical targets as well.

Cool, so you’re gathering attention for the software and open standards, as well as pushing the software forward simply by virtue of the ambition of the project.

The project is situated in an interesting place. Because in a sense it’s really about being able to make good, professional-quality work with free and open-source software. That’s the motivation behind these Open Movie projects.

But as director, my goals for the project were very different. All I really wanted to focus on was the final short film, and making sure it was good enough to stand on its own.

Looks like you’ve achieved that goal. So I know you were involved in the script, and then your role as director had to be extremely specific (since you get nothing for free or by happy accident making a film in this medium). Was there ever a concern when coming up with the story or envisioning the piece that you might be biting off more than you could chew? In terms of pushing the story farther than the tech/crew/budget could manage?

Absolutely, you’ve basically summed up the first three months.

The process of developing the story was incredibly painful, actually. It’s hard to explain that without delving into the details of the situation, but when I came on board we were already working with existing ideas. We didn’t really have the opportunity to take a step back and start from scratch, so we had to take what we were given and shape it into something usable.

I was surprised by how long the process took, and once we had something that we actually thought we could work with, the main issue was exactly that — is this actually doable? Can we cut it down?

I would say that for the majority of the duration of this project, we were very concerned that we wouldn’t be able to pull it off.

It should be noted that before he jetted off to far lands (Amsterdam) to do massive work on Sintel, he had recently completed photography on his impressively scaled thesis project. Again, as a junior. It’s nearly unheard of to produce a project, much less one of such quality, at that point in a student’s path in the film department. While Colin had access to some very high-quality resources and talented collaborators, it was all a result of the intense passion and dedication he brought to his idea. That short, called En Route, is currently hitting festivals, including the Savannah Film Festival that I’m attending at this very moment. You can see a trailer for it below.

Sintel though, was completed earlier this year and is itself starting to hit festivals and screening across the world. The website and YouTube channel contain a lot of information, making-of videos, and links to buy the discs, but ultimately you can watch the full film below, hosted publicly like a true open-source project should be. As you will be able to see, a lot of care was brought to the storytelling and sophistication of the visuals, as much as developing better software.

Keep an eye on Blender, and projects like their open-source animation efforts. The spirit of openness and “shared self-interest” that have grown so wildly with the saturation of the internet throughout the world are important concepts for collaborative art. As fields like animation, ones that allow for more immediate application of open-source approaches, pave the way it will become more clear how these concepts can be integrated into other kinds of filmmaking. Ultimately it will benefit artist and consumer alike, and will make the next year, decade, century of art all the more interesting.

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En Route:

† Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blender_(software)