Tools – software Ep. 1

Episode 1: The Beginning

A little history. This is episode 1 after all…
I got a Windows 3.1 PC in the winter of 1992. Previously I had owned several Commodore computers and my father had an XT, but I did not get serious about computing until I had that 486DX33. I got some games from a friend, but other than Risk and Wolfenstein, I didn’t really care about them. What I really wanted to do was make images and use the computer to help document my theatrical scenery and lighting designs.

I farted around with whatever software I could afford from our local bookstore until 1994, when I was able to go to USITT for the first time and I picked up a coupon for a price break on Strata3D for DOS. After discussing it with my mother, she agreed to pay for the software and I got to work with my first professional program (or so I thought). It turned out sucking pretty bad and I barely learned a thing. I also tried POV ray and was able to render one frame at 800×600 after 13 hours of compute time.

A little less than a year later I got an undergraduate grant and purchased Caligari Truespace right as v.2 came out. It changed my life. I was finally able to get work done and it was great. I also got XCAD, which was a short lived, but excellent 3D CAD program. I built a portfolio and senior thesis with these tools and it was great. In the last year of college I was also working on Premiere and Photoshop on the Mac at school as well as getting introduced to warez, which would get me through grad school and the early days of my freelance professional career (and my expertise with 3D Studio, 3ds max, After Effects, Combustion, Maya, and Photoshop).

I learned a lot over those years as far as tools, pipelines, and the industry was concerned. I was actually living the evolution of high-end graphics on the desktop thanks to the warez and being a student and later a professor at Purdue University. The persistent problem though, was the price of those tools. In the early days the software could cost into the 10s of thousands of dollars. Today the top programs still cost several thousands of dollars even though they are practically all owned by the same company (not all, but the top 3 in 3D). The cost of software and alienation of the user has led me to pay much more attention to open source projects, such as Blender, MyPaint, GIMP, Inkscape, and open programming languages, in particular, Python.

Blender is a great model for how to make an open source project work. There are several talented developers, a core governing body that is well organized and funded, and many devoted users. In 2007 I was approached to work on a very large film project and I was using Maya at the time. I had to decide whether to invest in Maya professionally or go another way. Blender had recently implemented a nodes system for compositing and other major developments were on the way. I had peeked in on Blender a few times in the past, but had not taken it seriously. After a month of creating one thing in Maya and being able to recreate it in Blender I decided to commit to Blender for 3D animation. I have not looked back since.

Though it is not perfect, nor is its features as complete or as broad in many cases compared to commercial products like 3ds max, Maya, Softimage, or Cinema4D, I find it to be professional quality, fast, reliable, and I am addicted to its fast and active development community.

I am also constantly opening my eyes to open communities and projects. Open standards, open courseware, open source between visual effects studios, and the exchanging of ideas.

Episode 1 was a little history and point of view. The next episodes will include topics such as “professional” tools, interoperability, and looking at the whole filmmaking pipeline. With each topic I will support my POV on commercial/proprietary software, the cost of tools, and how it all fits into the business of the Indy artist/freelancer.

— Scott