Sunday, August 26, 2007

Want to Make an Open Movie?


One recurring theme on the Blenderartists forum is the quest to have a group of online volunteers produce an "open" movie. Brimming with enthusiasm after getting their hands on the means of production, many newcomers to the CG scene decide that the only thing standing between them and an Oscar-winning short, or even a feature movie, is time and ability. The next assumption is that ability will come quickly and that the time problem can be overcome with the help of a bunch of other modellers and animators who are presumably watching the forums waiting for just such an opportunity.

In my time on the forum, I've seen countless such proposals (and probably missed quite a lot too) and there is a general consistency to them. In most cases there is no script - and often no concept at all. The typical pitch goes something like "I think we should make an open movie. It will be brilliant and set the world on fire. Everyone can contribute and we can all vote on everything to keep it really open. All models used in the movie will be made available to everyone. I don't have a script so we can all work that out too. I haven't animated anything before but I'm a fast learner and I know that if we all join together, we can do it."

Then, the starry-eyed Spielberg wannabe awaits the flood of over-excited members literally throwing their services at him (or her) all wishing they'd thought of this idea themselves. It's at this point that reality usually hits home, like a bus hits an errant pedestrian. Invariably, the innocent request for participation is met with a barrage of advice to "put up or shut up" and the discussion descends into a long lesson about how movies don't just happen and how it would be a complete waste for anyone to spend one minute of their valuable time on this project - if it can even be called a project at this point. Other respondents offer finished models for a project that doesn't even have a solid script yet. In some cases, the project may have enough legs to last a year or two but ultimately fails without one second of finished animation being produced and sometimes leaving the most committed contributors, and the originator, almost distraught at the thought their effort was all for nothing. It can be a nerve-wracking experience.

REALITY (and hindsight) suggests that there is little chance of completing a successful movie project where anyone and everyone is encouraged to contribute to and vote on everything from the plot to the final render. It would be like expecting all the world's religions to develop a single spiritual model.

IS THERE HOPE?

So, do open movie projects stand any chance of success and if not, are they of no value whatsoever? As a past-participant in one project, let me say that I learned a lot about modelling and animating and that the motivation of contributing meant that learning was fast-tracked. I wouldn't trade that experience for anything and am very grateful for the opportunity to participate. But I also learned something about how these projects work - and why they ultimately fail (or, at best, drag on with no end in sight).

Reality (and hindsight) suggests that there is little chance of completing a successful movie project where anyone and everyone is encouraged to contribute to and vote on everything from the plot to the final render. It would be like expecting all the world's religions to develop a single spiritual model. It's a feel-good philosophy and it just isn't going to happen, no matter how well-meaning the dozens of contributors might be. Even very short animated movie projects struggle as the decision-making process becomes increasingly overwhelmed from the wide variety of ideas and opinions thrown at them. Give people more than two choices to vote on and, like political elections, you'll be lucky to get a genuine majority decision. What you will get is a lot of discussion and some disappointed members as the largest minority vote presumably wins .

However, what really seems to kill the projects is not just the naive attitude of open-ness but a complete disregard for standard movie-making processes. Models start to appear before a script is even partially written and animation begins before there's a story-board. In fact, huge, complex, poly-heavy sets can be assembled before there's any visual indication of what sets are actually required to tell the story - if there ever is a finished story - or any idea how the final product is to be rendered.

Numerous contributors will spend countless evenings making model after model without so much as a style guide or even a solid commitment to an era, so there's little chance of cohesion unless the director is willing to ultimately exclude some of these contributions and risk upsetting someone who believed the project was open to all styles. And that's if there is a director!!! Surprisingly, this crucial job seems all-too-absent in some of these, almost anarcho-syndicalist, projects.

SOFTWARE is modular and users experience only those parts they need to at any given time but movies are stories and stories are linear and the user must experience every part from start to end if they are to make any sense of it.

OPEN-SOURCE VERSUS OPEN MOVIE


Without fail, open-movie proponents point to successful open-source software projects as an example of the viability of the open approach but they miss a fundamental difference between software and story-telling. Software is modular and users experience only those parts they need to at any given time but movies are stories and stories are linear and the user must experience every part from start to end if they are to make any sense of it.

Take Blender 3D animation software as an example. There's no doubt about the increasing success of this product and the collaboration that drives its regular improvement. But Blender isn't a movie, it's a tool. I have used Blender for three years and there are substantial parts of it, like the game engine and a variety of physics-based functions, that I've never even looked at. People have spent hours, weeks or maybe even years developing these aspects of the application and I've no doubt many other people are glad they did - but I can happily use Blender completely oblivious to those parts that don't interest me for now. The same can't be said of a movie. If someone wants to insert a character, building, tree, joke or an entire scene in a movie then when I watch, I have to endure those parts no matter how irrelevant or distracting they might be to the storyline. Imagine a movie where every contributor's "good idea" is included as a result of pursuing a genuinely all-inclusive ideology. The end result would be disastrously fractured (and overly-long) and far from embracing everyone, it would ultimately alienate them.

Online collaborations also fall victim to the tyranny of distance. These projects move very slowly since some of the crew are always asleep or at work or school while others are awaiting or making important decisions. Even simple questions can wait days for answers as key people miss each other on the forums or chat lines - or get sick or go on holidays without informing anyone. Remember, no one's getting paid to do this - it's all voluntary and no one can be forced to make themselves available (after all, you can't fire them for failing to comply).

AND then, when everything is finally done and all the team members look back over the years they've spent contributing all their time for absolutely no financial reward, they give the whole lot away to anyone who wants it. Utopia! Nice idea but it's just not going to happen.

Now, a movie short has some hope for completion but for a feature-length movie collaboration, expect to spend 6-12 months getting a "finished" script together. Spend 6-12 months making concept art. Spend 6-12 months story-boarding the script. Spend 6-12 months getting models made to match the story-board and concept art. Spend 6-12 months getting a rough voice track down. Spend 12-24 months making a 2D story-board animatic to match the voice track. Spend 6-12 months getting voice actors to lay down the finished voice track. Spend 12-24 months animating (this might be a conservative estimate so allow 48 months). Spend 12 months polishing the animation with lighting and effects. Spend 6-12 months writing and recording a musical score and recording an effects track. Spend 6-12 months compositing.

That's at least seven years and while there will be a little overlap in some of these tasks I suspect many of my time-frames could be considerably underestimated if approval of all stages is to be collaborative too. Remember, unlike normal feature films where people are employed to produce the movie, no one is working on your project full-time so hours become days and days become weeks. Tell your prospective contributors at the start that you'll expect them to contribute non-stop for at least seven years and see how many useful volunteers you get. Let's face it, given the difficulties encountered by numerous defunct short-movie collaborations, a feature-length online collaboration is extremely unlikely to even come close to fruition without some serious expertise and management on-board.

IT'S NOT ABOUT THE FEATURES

Another area where these collaborative projects fail is that many contributors are guided by software features rather than the story. So a typical project starts out with incredibly detailed, high-poly scenery, ray-tracing, fluid simulations, soft-body and cloth simulations, explosions, fire and other intensive halo-based effects, reflections, refractions, ambient occlusion, sub-surface scattering, fur, hair, physics engines and so on and so on. The list will grow over the years as more features are added to the software. With this in mind, the project team needs to allow a few years just to render the finished frames.

And then, when everything is finally done and all the team members look back over the years they've spent contributing all their time for absolutely no financial reward, they give the whole lot away to anyone who wants it. Utopia! Nice idea but it's just not going to happen.

THE "MAKE AN OPEN MOVIE" LIST

Having said all that, I think there is a possibility one of these projects will see results. Since it is said that every good blog should have a list (and who am I to ignore such wisdom?), here's my list of things to consider in order to stand some chance of open-movie success. This assumes the typical situation in which the project leader and contributors DO NOT have solid, professional experience in making movies:

  1. STORY IS EVERYTHING: Movie-making is story-telling. Without a story, the movie is pointless unless it is being made to serve some other purpose such as developing or advertising software capabilities. And don't expect amateur modellers and animators to necessarily be good script writers. If you need scripting advice, consider seeking guidance from writers.

  2. THINK SMALL! Animation takes a long time. Depending on complexity (see "KISS" below) and experience, a one or two minute short will be enough to test most online collaborations. Keith Lango wrote in his Fool's Errand series about the problems faced by the independent animator and Keith's list of concerns is equally valid for open-movie collaborations. If you can take a one-minute short to completion using a collaborative model you will have succeeded where many before you have failed and you'll be far better placed to move onto something bigger.

  3. HAVE A STYLE GUIDE: Once you have a rough script and some firm idea of where you're heading, you can start on some concept art so prospective team members will know if this project is their "cup of tea" (some people like fantasy, others like hyper-reality while others like toons). Better to start with the right people than to try and retro-fit a team as the project progresses. Ultimately, style flows through to more than just the models and sets - it involves decisions on lighting, using fluids, fur, cloth and other features that need to fit together to deliver a cohesive finished product.

  4. BE A DIRECTOR: (or appoint one). While the opinions of employees at film companies might be valued, the director makes the final decisions and this must be the case with an open movie project too, if it is to succeed. The director has authority to decide what does and does not make it into the script, the sets and the movie. He or she should probably take advice from a select group of project members (see below) but it just isn't realistic to make every decision a democratic one for the whole group.

    Don't underestimate the importance or workload of a director. Keep the team informed with regular updates , be prepared to say "no" and don't go on holidays just as things get difficult. If you don't think you can wield supreme executive power or stick with a project over the long-term, then maybe you should contribute to someone else's project instead of trying to run your own.

  5. APPOINT TEAM LEADERS to handle some specific areas. Team leaders should have demonstrated experience in their area but they still work for the director. Team leaders are the first level of control in ensuring contributors are following the plan as laid out in the script, storyboards, art-direction and animatics.

  6. KISS: (Keep it simple, stupid) Again I'll refer to to Keith Lango's advice regarding the urge to mimic Pixar in your own animations. Unless you have a big budget or free access to a render farm, you might want to forget RAM hogging features like ray-tracing and ambient occlusion. At the very least, be clever enough to limit the use of these features to a few scenes where they're necessary. You may even be able to tell your story without complex scenery. Look at everything in your arsenal to limit your modelling, animation and rendering times. It's much better to have a simple movie that looks good than a complex movie where corners had to be cut just to get it finished. It's really a question of balance. If you keep things simple then a 30-minute short wouldn't be out of the question for a well-managed project but if you want or need visual complexity then trade this off against the length of the movie.

  7. FOLLOW THE RULES: DVD movie releases from major animation companies like Pixar, Blue Sky and Dreamworks are awash with examples of the movie-making process yet most wannabe movie-makers seem all-too ignorant of the basics. Either that or they simply don't believe they need to consider them. You can't expect to make a movie efficiently if you start modelling before the script is written and the concept art and story-boards completed - it is the first sign of a pending train wreck.

    If you're going to do it, then why not do it right? Have a story, have a design concept, have story boards and an animatic, with a rough audio track. Then, when you know what you actually need for the movie, call for models, record a finished soundtrack THEN move on to animation and effects. The director should ensure no one is doing things before they are required. Even if someone volunteers to make a model, politely ask them to wait until requirements and specifications are published.

    You'll also want to understand accepted techniques (you can ignore them by choice, but you still should know them). If you don't know a pan from a dolly, learn. If you don't know a cut from a fade, learn. If you don't know what "the fourth wall" and "crossing the line" are, learn.

  8. MANAGE YOUR ASSETS: The story-boards and animatic should give enough information to allow the director to determine exactly what assets are required for each scene. If a building is to be seen in the very far distance, there's little point using a highly-detailed model containing thousands of polygons. Either use a low-poly model with an image texture indicating architectural details or better still, make the building part of a matte painting (you can render a single frame of a complex model and use this as a matte painting).

    If a shot involves an exterior view of a building, don't use a model with a fully-dressed interior that won't be seen. Every polygon affects render time. Take a tip from live-action movie sets where many buildings are little more than facades. Also, background shadows can be baked to save on render time and scenes can be split into separate render layers or even rendered separately and composited in post-production to save time.

    Another thing to consider is where to host all this activity and how you'll get it rendered. You'll need good forum and database facilities with fast and easy access. As the project grows, members will be handling huge amounts of data as they upload and download assets. You will definitely want to take the project out of the very public eye of a general forum community if only to maintain some level of sanity. Regular reports can still be made to other forums in order to maintain public interest and possibly attract new members but for the most part you'll hopefully be too engrossed in production to be dealing with constant questions from passers-by. And make sure the host site is secure and stable (idiot hackers apparently get their jollies by demolishing anything vaguely positive) and that you won't lose everything at the whim of the server's owners (this happened more than once on the project I contributed to). If the site requires subscription, make sure to keep it current. It's embarrassing to have project members see some weird generic splash screen where their favourite open movie site used to be. For rendering a high-poly movie, you'll need a decent render farm that supports your file-type.

  9. KEEP IT LEGAL: If a project stands a good chance of success it would be wise to ensure all members are truly committed to the open-source ideology. It would be very embarrassing, and possibly costly, if a contributor decides that their contribution had strings attached and demands compensation for their effort. Spell out the nature of contributions, using one of the many Creative Commons licence-types or GPL, if appropriate, then get the release forms signed and returned by everyone.

    Keep tabs of who worked on what and if you don't have a release (or some form of consent) for something, don't use that asset. You could make it clear that every model submitted must be accompanied by a text file releasing that model under the chosen licence-type or it won't be used. (NOTE: I'm not qualified to offer legal advice)

  10. HAVE FUN: That's why you're doing it in the first place. Never lose sight of that. Maybe this should have been point number one. Oh well, if you want it that way, consider this a count-down list and your wish is granted ;)

SHOULD YOU CONTRIBUTE?


To anyone looking to contribute to one of these projects I suggest that you should do so if the project itself interests you. If the style and story interest you and there are areas where you feel you can assist - and if that assistance is wanted - then go for it but go in with your eyes open. If the project fails some of the above tests then it may ultimately fall victim to the ever-present open-movie Grim Reaper. But as I said at the start of this article, the commitment of contributing can help to fast-track your learning process. Just don't set yourself up for heartbreak by assuming that all other members are as committed to the project as you are in your early days of contributing. Be prepared for the likelihood that your contribution will ultimately not see the light of day in a finished movie and if this happens be happy to write the whole exercise off as a valuable learning experience.

SO, WHAT EXACTLY IS AN OPEN MOVIE?

The term "open movie" (and open-source or open-content movie) is relatively new and has come to have a variety of meanings. It can refer to a movie produced using only (or almost entirely) open-source software, but the film itself may have restricted rights applied to it. Open movie can also mean a movie produced by a public collaboration of people who choose to contribute to it - ie, it is "open" to anyone to participate - but it may involve proprietary software in parts of the production. In possibly its broadest definition, and this is largely the situation I'm discussing in this article, an open movie is one which is open to public participation AND which uses only open-source software AND which is released to the public domain without restriction AND where all the source files used to produce the movie are ultimately released for free to anyone who wishes to use them for any other purpose.

21 comments:

Roland said...

Andy -- this is a great write-up. From now on, any silly new-project people that show up on forums will be directed by me to this brilliant, comprehensive explanation of why they need to actually do what it is they are supposed to do. I've not seen this topic addressed better.

Thank you!

Dave said...

These are the words of a very wise man. Thank you, Andy. Very well written.

Cessen said...

Andy: another big difference between open source software and these attempted movie projects is that open source software is typically already written and functioning before any real outside momentum starts helping out. In fact, I'd say that's a bigger and more important difference than the one you mentioned (modularity vs story).

Virtually every successful open source project starts from a code base that is already functioning or that is at least nearly functioning.

When people try to retroactively start open source software projects from scratch (similar to these open movie projects), it rarely works. To be successful, the originators of open source software projects have to be committed to getting the software to a functioning level on their own first.

I think that--similarly--for an open movie project to succeed, the originator needs to first get the movie to a state that is already entertaining, that already communicates the story, and that stands on its own to some degree.

For example, perhaps a rough version of the whole film would work. Like a rough edit with rough models and blocking, and with voice acting already recorded and roughly timed. Then outside artists can contribute by progressively improving its quality.
(And if someone wants to make changes that the maintainer of the "official" version doesn't want, then they can always branch it.)

Andy said...

Thanks all for the comments. It's good to get responses.

Cessen: I have to agree, though my knowledge of open source software is limited to Blender and Audacity - and I'm not familiar with the origins of Audacity though Blender's history is well known.

A sense of direction is established with a solid start and it's much easier for contributors to decide if they can assist in useful ways than to take part in the confusion that surrounds the typical vague "wanna make a movie?" pitch. A solid start to a movie would also take care, to a large degree, of the inserting of disjointed ideas. I think a story-board animatic and some concept art would be a good way to launch a short movie project.

Branching for movies intrigues me. Software I can understand because it's an ongoing concern for users so you want a version that meets your own needs. But I wonder how many concurrent versions of a single movie the average viewer can take - or would want? If I download ED1 and don't like it, would I necessarily bother with ED2 and then 3 or 4 etc? And could I really enjoy version 4 when I finally get to it?

Cessen said...

Andy -- I think that in practice branching wouldn't be common. But the option is always there for people that might get disgruntled from their modifications being refused from the official version.

Trying to organize something like this would definitely be interesting. Perhaps (key word: perhaps) after Peach I'll take a crack at trying to start a short 3-4 minute open movie project using this sort of model.

I think the bottom line is that up to a point, the more that's already done on the project, the better. Like you said, the more other's can see what the project is, and the more it's already organized the more likely they are to participate.
I think ideally rough scene files should already be made and organized, in addition to a written story ("script"), storyboard animatics, and a fair amount of concept art.
There would also need to be a well defined way to contribute (how and where do you submit your stuff?) as well as a place to see what is most in need of being done and perhaps what people are already working on. And, of course, the files would need to be organized in such a way that you wouldn't have to download the files for the entire movie, only the files for what you want to work on.

Dunno, it would be an interesting experiment. Lots of logistics to work out, of course. But it seems worth trying.

Cessen said...

Oh, also, if one or two shots were already in a fairly finished state, that wouldn't hurt. It's important (or at least extremely helpful) for people to see finished work, I think.

Karl said...

Well said indeed :) At university I saw more than one animation film project go down the pan, simply because the group involved wanted everything to be a group decision, and so nothing was ever decided upon. You need a strong director with a vision to guide their team, otherwise you'll get nothing short of a mess.

I'd like to point out another difference between open source and movies. If a user is able to code an addition to the program and submit a patch, then it already implies a certain aptitude for programming. The same doesn't hold true for films - anyone can suggest changes to a script, regardless of whether they have any experience writing or not. And experience tells me that many people *think* they can write, whilst much fewer actually *can*...

amoose136 said...

bookmarked!

Karan said...

Really thanks , This was what I was looking for. Thanks a million.

Like me there might be more artists who want to know more about the legal stff and the "selling" part of the animation. weather it is a short movie or a series, please throw some light on the marketing part, whom to approach - the distributors, publishers, networks or production house etc. what do these people do, who actually ' buys the animation?

In short please tell more about the "selling " part of the animation - series and short.

Thanks again
Karan

Dread Knight said...

I had a similar open-movie project a while ago called "Shards of Asgard". Feel free to google about it :P
What i can say now is.. that this is a very great article :)

Eric said...

Great advice andy! I was thinking of doing this in the next year or 2 and now I know what to do to increase my chances of having things work out well!

sd said...

I agree with most of what was said, however, some of the conclusions are not correct in my experience.

For ex.
CGT set up a crew that followed most if not all of the guidlines outlined in the article.
They had a leader and a team made up of CGT mods and talented people to show the community how to properly run a collab, they had stroyboards, they had style guides, they kept it simple and short….none of that made a difference …after the usual, initial burst of excitment the project went into atrophy and last I saw it was pretty well abandoned.

On the other hand I have been on and lead collabs that followed almost none of the industry accepted workflow but did produce meager but high quality product.

shirowproject.com
minastirithproject.com

Karan Shah said...

It would be really helpfull if someone throw some light on the selling part of animation

Thanks again Andy

Karan

Andy said...

Thanks all.

On the issue of selling your work I am not even remotely qualified to offer advice. Essentially it must follow some basic rules - make it, market it and hope - but as for specifics relating to film, you'd be best to seek out dedicated forums or industry advice. Learn about copyright and other legal issues too.

sd: thanks for your input. I guess that, as with anything, the rules are always there to be broken and there are always exceptions to the rule. Following every rule is certainly no guarantee to success - even Hollywood has its failures and cutting room floors are littered with exceptional material that might one day, at best, make it to a DVD bonus reel.

The main thing is to give it a go but be vigilant for the signs of impending doom and be prepared for the reality that the project may not finish but you might learn some valuable stuff along the way.

Anonymous said...

Hello I'm not sure who will read this as its my first time to this site i was looking for someone who knows how to make an animated movie as i have one and i didn't want to write a book about it due to the loss of appeal i would rather a real movie but i know that is a process i am not entitled to since i am not wealthy i don't want an open movie as you say because its such a good story with really awesome special effects that could be created with animation ( better if it was a movie ) if anyone is interested in it please email me i will share it with you on a personal basis but not to get shafted and my story stolen and then used later with some details changed this would be a box office hit and I'm sure all would agree thank you for your time dreamguy912@yahoo.com

Andy said...

anonymous:

I assume you've written or are proposing to write a script?

If so, there are screenwriter's forums around where you could get much better advice.

As I understand it, the recommended process is to register the script with a copyright agency so as to confirm your ownership.

Then, assuming it is professionally presented and conforms to all the rules of script typesetting, etc, you send it off to producers and cross your fingers.

I honestly no nothing much about it at all so maybe try:

Here
or Here

Andy said...

That should read "I know nothing about it."

Damn! How to I edit my own comments on my own blog???

cringer said...

Hi Andy,

I enjoyed your writeup on making an Open Movie. (I found link to your article off of Blender Artists forum.)

Do you think a more bottom-up approach may work?

By bottom-up, I mean get people used to the idea of working together for just a couple of weeks on something small.

a2zaa said...

Hey Andy,

Thanks for this great blog. Your blog, as well as some of the posts have clarified some things I have been wondering.
And also raised a few more questions.

a2z

Anonymous said...

Reading this guide has opened my eyes and disheartened me at the same time. I'm going to be the bigger person and drop out of a current project that isn't moving. Though I was looking for a chance to just learn and get better this has shown it won't happen if it never moves. I appreciate this article. Best to hear the dead truth first.

Andy said...

Don't be disheartened. Put it down as a learning experience. I learned a lot by working on a project that went nowhere. In fact, it's what really pushed me to learn Blender much faster than I might have otherwise. But it was a shame to see these things start so often and never finish.