Free as in: Big Money


One of the introductory keynotes to this years Fosdem addressed the widespread use of Linux systems in Hollywood film production companies such as Walt Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks. Speakers were Robin Rowe and Gabrielle Pantera. Both work for an entertainment and technology company based in Beverly Hills focusing on ‘upbeat commercial projects’, which might explain why their talk in the context of an Open Source Developers meeting was slightly out of tune. Rowe is also project leader of Cinepaint.

I was looking forward to an occasion to hear about the relationship between the film industry and the free software world and was hoping on some insight in how commercial Linux based application can help further develop free video software projects. I have followed only the last three issues of Fosdem and noticed an abscence of developers / rooms on video related issues, so this prominently announced talk seemed an outstanding opportunity to catch up on this.

Rowe wrote “Linux Powers The Spiderwick Chronicles”; a well informed article for this months Linux Journal in which he gives examples of linux based production in Hollywood, using his own experiences in the field. It should be no surprise that the use of Linux renderfarms and commercial linux animation tools are widespread since most animated features involve shiploads of CPU power and commercial successes such as Titanic, Matrix Reloaded, Nemo and many others have proven that Linux tools can be perfectly exploited as money making machines. Linux is the best, fastest, most cost effective platform for rendering huge animation projects. (Yawn ..)

In his article Rowe mentions a few examples of commercial tools. cMuscle is a Maya plugin for simulating muscle movement, skin smooting and sliding effects. When checking the site of developer Comet Digital I ran into a notice saying: “Comet Digital, LLC is pleased to announce that Autodesk, Inc. has acquired the cMuscleSystem plug-in and technology. We feel this transaction is in the best interest of our customers and the long term development of the technology.” Let’s hope users of the software share in the fun of selling this ‘product’. Links to support pages and documentation are cut, sending a bug report, or request per email is about all you can do as a paying customer.

CineSpace is “the most widely adopted colour management system for the film and television industries. It’s the most flexible solution to colour pipeline challenges. It’s become the de facto standard for monitor calibration in the visual effects world”. The project is closed source, and not to be confused with the CINeSPACE art project.

One of the more interesting tools mentioned in the article is Pixie ( A photorealistic renderer which communicates with modelers or your application through a RenderMan – like interface. Pixie is not a modeler or an animation system. So it does not have any graphical user interface. The scenes you want to render are described in a text file in a language very similar to Pixar’s RenderMan. Pixie also comes as a C/C++ library which you can link against your application. In order to find the details of this interface, you should read RenderMan Companion or RenderMan interface on

The Fosdem keynote talk included visual icons of agressive US foreign (marketing and military) policy without any contextualisation. Not my average desktop, professional or even entertainment imagery. When you lecture and show images of big breasted Californian advertising models and you have nothing more to say than: “The waves are not real, but the woman are”, when you show animated Apache helicopters which are stripped from their murderous ‘real life’ origins and propose them as cool (“real or unreal ?”) 3d motives, when you appear in front of an audience of 1400 developers interested in Free Software and have no deeper thought than: Linux is fast and already used in commercial circles, I really wonder …. Am I dreaming? Is this a Hollywood sponsored scheme to infiltrate and take over the minds of predominantly male geeky but sincere developers sensitive for the beauties of the female body? Are we as members of their audience somehow contributing to the fame and fortune of these cheerful Californian dreamers?

A valid question from a representative from the Blender Institute (“Is there some resentment against Open Source in the film Industry?”) was washed away with the answer: “The open source world is not very friendly towards the film industry”. The question remains how the appropriation of open tools for commercial film production produces positive effects on the development of open source tools? Are we facing a one way direction relationship in which Open Source is good for business, but companies do not contribute to the enhancement and distribitution of free software? Another good remark (“Besides exploiting Open Source tools, Hollywood also imposes un-free codecs, drm and restrictive norms which make viewing of the final product virtually impossible for those not wanting to install proprietory codecs”) was again not adressed seriously, giving me the impression that a cultural gap of oceanic proportions lays between the speakers and the room.

For future editions of Fosdem or meetings of the same nature it would perhaps be a better idea to feature projects that are contributing to new standards. Linux video outside Hollywood deserves much more care and attention and it is not at all necessary to allways measure “success” against the financial spreadsheets of commercial film companies. There are other film scene’s out there! Next year I am looking forward to the FreeJ meeting, the Cinelerra developers room and the Free audio / video Codec’s conference.

Posted on: Saturday, February 23, 2008 by: in category: News