Open source on the big screen: Matt Ebb tells tales of Elephants Dream

Lead artist from Elephants Dream speaks about what it is like to make your own open movie using open source tools and the power of the community.

Need a project for the new year? You could consider supporting, contributing to, or starting an open movie. The open movie concept gained attention with the release of Elephants Dream in 2006. Following its success, the Blender Foundation is developing a follow up open movie called Peach, set for completion later this year.

So what exactly is an open movie? And what is involved in putting one together? Lead artist from Elephants Dream, Matt Ebb, gives Computerworld some tips and inside information on the process that he describes as simultaneously one of the most difficult and rewarding experiences of his life time.

How do you define the term "Open Movie"?

Our definition for open movie was quite extensive for Elephants Dream-- there has been other artwork with the final product released under creative commons licenses before, but our big difference was that not only did we let people edit and copy the final product, but we also released all of our production files (our sets, characters, textures, animation data) under an open license, for people to study, re-animate, or do whatever they like with. With the software and content contained on the DVD and online, it's possible to completely re-make the movie. On top of this, we aimed to also use open development for our tools, using and developing open source graphics software.

Was the creative process itself, also "open"?

Yes, in addition to [Elephants Dream producer] Ton Roosendaal and our technical director in the studio, there were a lot of external programmers helping us out. At the beginning of the project, when we realised what sort of software features we'd need, we put a general call out asking for programmers to help us out, and the community was very helpful in providing software improvements.

We also had some open collaboration from the public for the artistic aspects, though it was in a much more limited fashion. It's quite hard to work on a creative project in a distributed manner. One of the reasons the team got together in the Amsterdam studio for seven months, was so we could work together and share our ideas more easily. The other issue is that with a project such as ours with real milestones and tight deadlines to get things produced, it's hard to rely on external volunteers for anything too crucial, since there's no guarantee that people will actually do what they volunteer to do.

However, we had some public involvement in things like creating props, and we had a great response when we asked for people to take photos for us of various objects and surfaces that we used for reference and for creating texture maps.

In Elephants Dream you focused on the visual aspects of the movie, working mostly on concept design, sets, texture painting, lighting and compositioning, as well as a number of animation shots. You were also responsible for creating the title sequence, credits and other 2D design tasks. What was the most enjoyable aspect of your role and why?

Although it was one of the more difficult things I've done in my life, it was also one of the most rewarding and enjoyable too. Just being around the other artists in the team, being involved in the flow of ideas and seeing the great work we could create together always brought a smile to my face.

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