Tube open movie founders on art, war and Blender

Tube open movie founders on art, war and Blender

Have you noticed the recent fundraising craze? Games and gadgets are incredibly successful objectives, but does it work for art? Apparently it does.

The Tube Open Movie campaign, started in April, exceeded its first goal in under a week and is now working its way towards the $50K goal having mere 6 days to complete.

The movie is directed by Bassam Kurdali whose contributions to Blender community range from directing Elephants Dream, the first open movie by Blender Foundation, to the popular ManCandy rig, to various useful add-ons for animation production.

What is the movie about? The plot goes:

The Tube Open Movie is inspired by the Gilgamesh poem, which comes down to us as an incomplete, conflicting set of fragments and variations, the clay tablet remnants of more than a few ruined libraries. The epic centers on the Sumerian king who ruled Uruk, in ancient Iraq, who for his tyranny the gods teach friendship and loss, and through them, the fear of his own death. In the end, the immortality he achieves is different to the one he first seeks.

Nearly five thousand years later, Gilgamesh, a woman and a soldier, rushes into a station in pursuit of a fragment of paper blown about by the passing of trains. In an ever-accelerating vortex, her hero's progress becomes the animation's own frames.

Why is it an open movie? All materials, Blender files, sound files etc. will be available under a Creative Commons license so that everyone could study how real animation movies are done.

The team also extensively uses free software for production: Blender, GIMP, Krita and MyPaint for 2D graphics and 3D, and Ardour for sound effects design.

For the open movie, URCHN Media, the USA based film and animation studio behind the project, partnered with the Bit Films computer graphics incubator of Hampshire College. The crew has been putting a lot of work on the open movie into teaching context for last couple of years by means of internships, which combine a local team and contributors from around the world in a net-based production pipeline.

What's the current stage of the project?

Thanks to crowdfunding at this point the crew can hire more animators to move further. In fact few days ago they announced another internship program.

LGW interviewed Fateh Slavitskaya, writer and producer, and Bassam Kurdali, director of the movie.

Teaching and internships seem to play a huge role in the project. What's the most important part in the internships for you? Is there a bit of “teacher learns from students” as well?

Bassam: Many of our interns are students with very little or no experience, outside of the classroom. Some have been pretty seasoned pros however! A thing that surprised us early on was how many applications we got from the Blender community around the globe.

Some of these interns are much better in the field of specialty than I am — for instance, Dimetrii Kalinin, who is still working with us and lives in Russia, is probably the best modeler I have ever met. The dude is beyond nasty! Just watching him work is a learning experience.

Fateh: Tube and another independent short, Caldera, have been the pilot productions of the Bit Films incubator program. Caldera is in 2.5D style, made with Maya and other proprietary tools that have been the standards of Hampshire's official curriculum.

It's been a great group of people and interesting for all of us to compare the different approaches, strengths, and tools of each project and each individual artist who has come to work as part of the Bit Films nerdodrome — a lot of nice cross-pollination. It used to be that most of the local students interned on Caldera, and the internationals came to work on Tube.

Gilgamesh, the protagonist

But our local colleagues have got more and more interested in Blender and some of the other F/LOSS tools; now that Caldera production has concluded — and yesterday won Prix Ars Electronica's Award of Distinction! — its head artists are starting to explore Blender for themselves and have been raving about it.

One of Caldera's two chief artists is Tube's legendary anim supervisor, CT Bishop; he came on Tube initially as a concept artist and also teaches animation at two of the local colleges. Gradually Blender is becoming a bigger part of the local toolset.

Speaking of which, how did you get partnered with Bit Films?

Fateh: Ah — this was a bit of producer's magic :) I first met Chris Perry years ago in my kitchen; he played soccer with my housemate when I was in school. This was long before I met Bassam or became interested in animation, but I remembered him as a nice guy who had the longest commute I'd ever heard of — going from New England to California every month so he could both teach here and work at Pixar.

Years later I would sometimes suggest Bassam introduce himself so he could enjoy having some CG colleagues in the area. One night, Bassam was in Buenos Aires working on Plumiferos, and I was having a glass of wine when I noticed the guy sitting next to me was chatting to the bartender about CG. He was one of Perry's graduates and we got to talking about Elephants Dream — he knew of the movie but wasn't aware that Bassam was right underfoot.

I guess word got around, because soon after, Perry invited Bassam to give a presentation to his class. Then they became interested in finding a shared studio space. We realized that with five colleges in the immediate vicinity, we should be able to make a relationship with one of them to provide the facilities we needed.

Project timeline

Perry already had the machines and a render farm in place at Hampshire. Its campus is pretty space-limited, but he is an MIT Media Lab alum, and was able to excite the college about the incubator model as a natural outgrowth of his very excellent animation courses, which combine individualized learning with the collaborative projects of a studio environment.

Teaching is an outlay for us, in one sense — in terms of time — it definitely adds to the cost of production; but in exchange for this training and mentoring, Hampshire gives us studio space, production machines and a render farm. It's also nice to be part of the Hampshire community, by virtue of which we've developed important alliances outside of the formal internship program. It's turned out to be a really solid program, and a huge benefit to both us and the students.

Bassam: In 2007 after Elephants Dream I was invited by Chris Perry, Animation professor at Hampshire College, to speak to his class about the project. BitFilms existed at the time as a studio for school projects, at the time, the movie “Tower 37” was being made by successive classes of anim students.

Much later, Perry, myself and two other Hampshire alums were discussing renting shared space to work on our various projects — but then he had the idea that this could be done better as sort of “residency” program, bringing in professional animators to work with students as a teaching / working environment. And thus “the nerdodrome” was born: a collaborative space / studio where these animations are now taking place.

The promotion video says in the end that some of the participants in the project come from countries that are at war. Well, first of all, at war with somebody else or with each other?

Fateh: Some of these countries are at war, technically or effectively, with each other, themselves, or everyone else!

Bassam: The answer is a bit of both: some of these countries are technically at war with each other, and some of them are practically at war with their own populations, and some are just at war with some other country (or in a perpetual ”war on ____”) I'll leave you to fill in the blanks.

How do you think war affects perception of art, the art itself and artists?

Bassam: In a practical way, it might make some of the artists hesitant to participate with an 'enemy', but on the other hand, participating in this project is a sort of anti-war, beyond those divides.

Fateh: Bassam and I are both influenced by our own subjective relationships to the war machine — which is one of the things at the heart of the Gilgamesh poem, and no doubt part of what initially drew him to the material.

Some people respond to a culture or event of intense violence with the idea that we can't even think about art anymore. But art is important as a zone of play that allows a dimension of imaginary freedom from the forces exerted in the world, and which can sometimes become one that quite powerfully engages them.

Looking at the render of background characters I can’t help myself wondering if there is a rationale behind body proportions. They seem to have a consistently longer neck.

Fateh: Gilgamesh in particular has very stylized body proportions. We like her brontosaurus neck. In part this is related to problem of “uncanny valley”. We are not trying to make photorealistic CG animation, because then what is the point?

Tube characters by Dimetrii

We went to see Werner Herzog yesterday. He said if you want to find the truth, you have to invent — stylize. But at the same time — working so long to get Gilgamesh's concept right — staring at those particular proportions, I found it interesting how my own body started to look almost wrong to me :) The sight of them trains your eye in a certain way.

This is why people in Polish animation always look Polish — and why people tend to draw a lot of versions of themselves. So I am not sure if when Dimetrii made those characters, he had been somehow trained by working on Gilgamesh.

MyPaint sketch of Gilgamesh

There was no conscious art direction. In fact, though, Bassam explicitly wants to break up the gilga-portions, as he calls them — interrupt, rather than reproduce, the pattern with other characters

Newer stylized Tube characters

Her character design, however — as opposed to the others you asked about — has certain specific objectives. I am trying to decide how much to say about them :) It is always this situation of not wanting to spell out the meaning, as if there were only one — and leave room for the viewers own ideas.

By the way — there is an obvious pun in the name Gilgamesh, right?

The -mesh part?

Fateh: Yes, -mesh :) But I also recently noticed that in Akkadian and ancient Hebrew, the name of Uruk is Erech, and means "to extrude". It made me laugh. It’s like a prediction!

What do you think is the most complicated aspect of storytelling?

Fateh: We like to respect the intelligence of the viewer by allowing room for their own thoughts and interpretation. We don't want to be super simple and telegraph one single meaning. But I also try to respect the viewer's investment of reading by ensuring the legibility of our ideas on-screen — I want the material as tight as we can make it, so it really hangs together according to our own ideas — which are also sometimes not identical!

Subway shot

When you are doing something unconventional, it can be tricky to find the balance that asserts the narrative or conceptual structure clearly, but with a light enough hand that it doesn't become reductive and pedantic.

Bassam: There's a huge gulf that separates “I've got a great idea” to having a working animatic / storyboard that can actually be made into a film. Getting there is time consuming and even emotionally draining; the hardest part is sacrificing great ideas, shots, images, etc. because you are trying for a cohesive whole, not a collection of short moments... so perhaps the hardest thing is this “killing your babies” aspect to making a film, and it has the potential to last from the first conception till the very last cut.

Some babies get killed because they just didn't quite fit in, others because they were way too “expensive” to realize. After a while, you get a taste for it, and become a serial babykiller. Then the hard part is stopping before the movie becomes a single frame between the opening and end credits.

Which recent animation movies got you reflecting most and why?

Bassam: Well, it so happens I just saw something amazing: "38-39 degrees C". I'm also quite enamored of Caldera, made by my friends here at the Nerdodrome. Countdown is a beautiful piece that I watched over and over again when it came out.

In most cases my reaction is purely aesthetic — all three are quite beautiful in very different ways. Another common thread is that none of them is specifically designed to appeal to children — they treat animation as an expansion of art, and no artistic technique should be limited in genre.

Finally I like the kind of dream logic of visual association in Cinema, and animation for me is perfectly suited to match that rather than adhere to very simple narrative plots it is usually consigned to. This is most true in the first two pieces I mentioned, especially the first. The list is of course far longer than that, but having a good discussion about it would take too long!

Fateh: MAD GOD!!! A few years ago Phil Tippett released this incredible teaser for a new stop-motion feature. Apparently he said they'll just put out whatever is finished when he's dead. Is it a joke?! Or a sad comment about the lack of industry support for totally inspired work that's not considered saleable. I daydream about how I can engineer this movie's fruition.

It's so tragic that my favorite animators disappear into the scenery of advertisements, effects movies and kiddie toons. Those things are fine as far as they go, but shouldn't be the limits of the world. I'd like to change that, and redraw the map of how animation gets made.

Bassam, you are probably one of the most eloquent evangelists of Blender's video sequencer I ever met :) Still you often mention that it needs much more work. What do you think are the crucial areas of improvement in VSE?

Bassam: Thanks :) Well, the most mentioned area I've heard is in terms of having a 'bin' area, where you can have clips, etc, set in and outpoints, so and so forth. For me this is not so much a problem, but it is a big part of some people's workflow, so they miss it for sure. Other issues are features of 2.49 that never came back (There used to be a preseek and threading, I don't believe either returned).

Tube project in the Blender video sequencer

There's also a lot of room for small tools and workflow enhancements that individually wouldn't be big but could add up to a lot of speedup in practice. Finally there's things like making an edit decision list, offline editing, and so, and I do believe a lot could be accomplished in the last few areas using the Python API alone.

Did you think about documenting best practices of working with remote participants in terms of assets management and suchlike?

Bassam: Yes! And to some extent we already do, since we need this documentation internally. So we have documents on animation workflow, layout, lighting workflow, etc. Our add-ons (not all of them sadly) also use the add-on wiki feature to link to documentation.

It is really my secret desire (OK, this is not much of a secret) to produce a Making of Tube that is part fun stories, but mainly documents how we did this (and thus how to use the assets).

What does the relationship between Tube and Blender (Foundation) look like in terms of development? BF's own open movies tend to grab the most of public attention, but maybe there are some big wins here too?

Fateh: Bassam has been involved with Blender as a professional user for a long time, supplying bug reports, workarounds, and feature suggestions based on his experience or his observations about other programs. He follows the coders' meetings with interest, and knows the trends in Blender development. When there is a problem, he sometimes knows in which ear to whisper, and because he is able to clearly articulate what he experiences as a demanding user, coders can be responsive to his comments.

It is always incredibly satisfying when something driving us crazy gets fixed right away because he just pointed out the issue to the right person. Some things are more controversial / heavily debated, or part of deeper structural facets of Blender and so part of larger development conversations. We in turn are working to extend Blender's functionality to better accommodate independent artists working in a distributed pipeline.

Another subway shot

Bassam: While BF projects might get more attention, I think we are a bit more free to focus on the art side and not on the code side. In other words, BF projects have a technical mission that they must achieve to be successful. With us, we can focus more on the filmmaking aspect, but at the same time, we are massive beneficiaries from the technical improvements that come from the BF projects.

Sintel artists had to suffer for a while with extremely alpha 2.5 software, and BF hammered it into shape before we made a fairly painless switch; while we don't think we'll use that much of Cycles in Tube, future projects are going to be so much better off with it.

We can also focus in our technical explorations on non-Blender aspects, which is why we are very concerned with asset management / project management side of filmmaking. Hopefully either our software or our lessons learnt, or both, are a benefit to BF and to the community at large.

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11 Comments

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  1. Interesting.
    “...which is why we are very concerned with asset management / project management side of filmmaking.”
    - Are they using the Helga project for this? http://helgaproject.org/
    It seems to be a close relationship between Bit films and Helga.
    I’ve researched open source project/asset management for animation/film and Helga seems to be the only one. Development seems slow though and I haven’t been able to get it working…
    Will Helga evolve with Tube? Will it be available to the public and in a usable shape?

  2. Yes Helga is one of the tools being used for collaborative development, along with other ‘standards’ that have been involved like SVN, etc.

  3. In case it wasn’t clear (Reading it after I posted it I realized it wasn’t) the above comment is directly in relation to Tube.  Yes Tube is using Helga along with other tools.

  4. I am happy that the audio for this one is being done with open source software like Ardour (what else is being used?)

  5. The SFX design is being done in two phases.  The first phase is using Mixbus and is getting in rough audio to match the animatics and preview renders.  This is currently in progress.  The basic design will take shape during this phase, but almost all the audio is going to be redone in phase 2. 

    The reason for this is that for phase 1 I am pulling from an SFX library, but since we are trying to release everything as CC, and that includes SFX, I am going to be recording new sounds for just about everything myself to go along with it.  That is phase 2.

    At this time I am likely to use Ardour3 for Phase 2.  This will be combined with a variety of plugins (Much like I used in Phase 1) including those from LinuxDSP to create the soundscape.  So while some closed source DSP is still being used, it is stuff that will hopefully be easily available for everyone to access.

    Since i am not doing the music for it, I can’t speak to that, sorry.  I don’t suspect he will be doing it in Ardour however at this time, but haven’t spoken to him in some time on that topic.

        Seablade

  6. Ah, I thought you were doing the music also, Seablade.

  7. Nope just SFX.  Jan is doing the music I believe.

        Seablade

  8. Caldera is mentioned a number of times in the article, but never linked. So, for more information about this film, go here:
    http://www.calderathefilm.com

  9. Alexandre Prokoudine 13 May 2012 at 2:44 am

    @Dan Adding a link to Caldera in the text: done :)

  10. This is amazing creation but I think its need a lot of time to learn, from design it until become a video 3 dimension its great work.

  11. I cant even belive that is posible to make so great movie with open source software. Great work im impressed.

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