Open source at the movies

Open source at the movies

Many of the visual effects you see on the big screen are created with commercial tools, but open source is asserting itself post production

The ever-improving realism of cinematic visual effects and animation hasn’t come without a price, with both the volume of effects work and the tight studio budgets pushing post production companies to look for savings everywhere they can.

Whereas visual effects was once the realm of proprietary software vendors, increasingly users are turning to open source technology to both keep costs down and streamline the processes of handling files between the multiple companies in the production chain. It is no longer surprising to see rival industry participants banding together to develop open standards and tools.

According to the co-founder and director of the OpenAustralia Foundation, Matthew Landauer, 10 years ago the vast majority of the post production industry ran off Silicon Graphics machines. But the company went bankrupt in 2009 and sold its assets to Rackable Systems.

“So there was already a long-time use of UNIX, and as Silicon Graphics started to become less competitive, people started looking for alternatives,” Landauer says. “Some moved over to Windows, but then they started transitioning to Linux. And today, Linux is driving the vast majority of medium to large post production facilities across the world.”

Landauer himself is very familiar with the market, having worked in research and development at the Australian post production companies Rising Sun Pictures and Animal Logic.

While much of the visual effects creation and compositing itself is still done with commercial tools such as Autodesk’s Maya or The Foundry’s Nuke, Landauer says open source is asserting itself in fields such as data manipulation and transformation. One of the primary attractions of open source tools is their cost — or lack thereof. With studios looking to squeeze every last cent out of budgets, visual effects companies are no longer able to charge for much of the data handling work. “There are a lot of specialist tools that people were writing for asset management and a whole bunch of very specialised things, and there has been an enormous amount of duplication of effort across the industry,” Landauer says.

And today, Linux is driving the vast majority of medium to large post production facilities across the world

And whereas previously experts would move around the industry creating custom applications, today post production houses are much more willing to share expertise. “Because it is a specialist market, people are seeing the opportunity to collaborate with other companies to build open source tools on the problems that they have in common, and actually compete on the stuff that distinguishes them, which is making pictures.”

Landauer says the sector is also blessed by having many smart people who are highly technical.

“It has lots of software developers, so there is a natural overlap between those two worlds,” Landauer says. “And where people are then using open source software, the next step is to see the advantages in contributing and creating back to open source. That is the evolution.”

The former chief executive officer of Rising Sun Pictures, Didier Elzinga, agrees that open source is now common in the backend of the post production process.

“A lot of the IT in filmmaking is completely unsexy, and it’s about moving large amounts of data around and parsing it and reparsing it,” Elzinga says.

He adds that the transactional workloads in post production are very different to those in other sectors, such as in a bank. Hence many of the tools must be created from scratch.

“[A bank’s] IT infrastructure is built around processing large amounts of very small files, whereas visual effects are built around processing much larger files,” Elzinga says. “A standard film frame is 10Mb per frame, and then you may have 50 layers, and you have 24 frames per second. So even a little thing like how you configure your file server is different in a visual effects environment than a bank or in a corporate.”

Rising Sun, for instance, built its own rendering management solution by taking Sun Microsystem’s open source grid system and extending the core library to support what was required to handle images.

“We built our own internal tool on top of their platform, and a portion of what we built we pushed back into the open source community for other people to use,” Elzinga says. As the workstation of choice has migrated from Silicon Graphics to Linux, Windows and Apple, with tools coded in Python rather than C or Perl, the door has opened to the development of open source tools, he says.

Large post production companies such as Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) and Sony Pictures Imageworks have also started to work collaboratively on open source specifications, such as Imageworks’ Open Shading Language. Another project for the standardised handling of colour will make it possible for workers at different companies in the production process to see the same colours regardless of the type of monitor they are using.

The US Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is also developing an open source linear colour file format called the Image Interchange Format to replace the OpenEXR format developed by ILM.

According to the visual effects supervisor at Method Studios Sydney, James Rogers, these efforts are designed to simplify many of the more complicated aspects of visual effects.

“There are a lot of really big visual effects films that come out now, and they can’t possibly be done in one place,” Rogers says. “So they have to be done in a number of different places. And the studios are demanding that all of the visual effects studios share information.

“And there just weren’t the tools to share the information, so what this has enabled is advanced tools that allow different places to transfer stuff. What they are trying to do is take a lot of the more complicated things and simplify them down.”

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