Where IS Our Open Source 2D Animation Software?

Nina Paley has blazed a bit of a trail in the animation world over the past few years with her near single-handedly produced feature film, Sita Sings the Blues. In a blog post today, she laments the various restrictions of Adobe Flash and the lack of any truly viable alternatives and wonders aloud whether or not a Kickstarter project could create an open source 2D animation software alternative.

Why Open Source Is Needed

Interestingly enough, it was Nina’s numerous struggles to get the film not made, but released (thanks to musical rights) that has placed her at the center of the nexus between animation and free and open source software. Her blog post highlights the fact that she runs an outdated version of Flash on a necessarily outdated machine; the result of not being able to run the software on a newer operating system, in this case Mac OSX.

As most graphics folks are aware of, many software companies (and both Apple and Adobe in particular) love to use technology and lock-in to force everyone to upgrade their software. (In the engineering world Autodesk earns many expletives for doing the same with AutoCAD). The gist is that newer versions use new filetypes that are not compatible with older versions. the result is that you either upgrade or get left behind.

Nina’s case is one that echos with many independent animators and small studios insofar that constant upgrading is not always viable or affordable. In such cases, the old version has to suffice until something absolutely has to be done.

Such a situation is far from ideal and wastes resources needlessly. Adobe charges thousands of dollars for the suites of programs that are utilised to create animation and from the sounds of things, every version of Flash gets worse and worse. (Heck, even I hate the Flash player that crashes my Firefox and all it’s doing is reading files; I can’t imagine what it’s like to make them.)

Why Open Source is the Solution

Amusingly enough, open source animation software is not completely unheard of and does in fact, play a large and vital role in many animation productions from the independent short all the way up to Hollywood blockbusters (check out Disney’s open source site for proof). Programs like Blender help create 3-D animation and have also become invaluable in graphic FX.

However all that work is 3D, not the more traditional 2D that has been around for more than a century. In the case of the latter, there are some alternatives but nothing coming close to encompassing all the features and capabilities that Flash offers. Nina discusses Synfig but notes her difficulty in getting around the user interface; a key hurdle for something that requires lots of user input.

What open source offers as an alternative is all the same benefits that the open source 3D programs do:

  • Drastically lower purchase costs
  • Interchangeable/compatible industry standards
  • Backwards compatibility
  • Cross-platform support (that’s Mac, Windows and Linux-friendly versions)
  • A non-mandatory upgrade path (upgrade if and when you want to!)

Why it Has to Be Done

Nina arrives at the following conclusion:

Time alone has not made this elusive software come into being. Could money? How much would I have to raise to commission an excellent programmer or two to give me what I want? Should I try a Kickstarter? A project like this should have a million dollars; I would aim for one tenth of that. Would even $100,000 be possible?

The result would be excellent Free vector animation software for everyone in the world.

I tend to agree that open source software often contends with the issue of time. The projects are, after all, mostly done by volunteers in their spare time and God knows there’s never enough of that around. In Nina’s suggestion, a Kickstarter project would essentially fund a full time programmer or two to develop a user interface for Synfig that’s more user-friendly.

That’s a great way to get things going and offering people the opportunity to contribute with something they may have (money) in exchange for something they may not have (time/skills).

Would it benefit everyone? Absolutely! A program that could create 2D animation that doesn’t cost the earth would offer tremendous benefits to every animator and studio alike. Money saved from buying software can be spent on other things (like animators!) and could make areas where animation is currently quite expensive to produce (think North America) more appealing to producers.

At the end of the day, a freely available, open source 2D program would open up doors for literally thousands of people who currently can’t get on the animation ladder thanks to the price of admission that Adobe and others charge. We should encourage this as a means of furthering the technique within the media landscape.

Is this a project you could get on board with or even use? Let us know in the comments!

  • GW

    I’d like to see this software produced. I’ve been waiting for something like this ever since I had the idea to use Karl Sims’ image evolution methods in order to evolve a particular image of small resolution. Plus I’ve had the idea to take Sims’ forms of image evolution to evolve geometric shapes based on their outlines. And I’ve pondered the idea that with computers, two artists might be able to work on the same image at the same time without bumping into each other. Maybe that idea is of interest to some. I don’t know.

    • http://animationanomaly.com/ Charles Kenny

      No, it’s an interesting concept and the beauty of open source is that such an idea could be produced if it got enough interest and support behind it.

      Closed and proprietary source software is dependent on the owner’s willingness to suffer the consequences should an investment like that fail. With open source, the risk is still there, but it is spread out among so many people, that is becomes much less of an issue.

  • http://twitter.com/StupixAnimation Jonathan Lyons

    I couldn’t agree more. I’m sure an open source 2D animation app would get lot’s of support.

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  • sdfsdfsdf

    I like your idea. Today there are no usable in production opensource alternatives to Flash.

    I see a couple of problems on your way. Animation software is very complicated and even if you are going to use Synfig as the backend, you still will need way more than two programmers to write the cross-platform frontend (user interface, it is like 60~70% of the whole project). And it will also take a year or two to finish the whole thing, so you will need to gather a lot of money. Another problem is the speed of Synfig’s renderer. It is so f**king slow. On my 10 year old computer, Flash works quite fast, while Synfig works inadequately slow. I consider the best solution will be is to rewrite the backend too = not use Synfig at all. I guess, it will take another two years of work to build the backend, but you will get much better results. So, I guess, you will need to gather maybe a couple of millions of dollars to make it. Also, I am not sure that your project fits the Kickstarter’s requirements.

    Anyway, if you will make it, I will be so happy!

  • goshahoney

    Thanks everyone for describing good points on 2D Animation Studios. Please share more and more info.

  • Jose Moreno

    Greetings, i just happened to be browsing for open source 2D alternatives, and i must say that there are actually quite a few, you have to take a look at them though, in order to stablish a priority in their worth for your own work.

    Right now i’m part of a community effort to resurrect an open source classical animation software called “Pencil 2D”, you can find it here for more info http://www.pencil2d.org

    There’s another one called Synfig, which despite some things, is a decent “tweening” animation tool, open source as well. More info here: http://www.synfig.org

    There are some more like the one called “Tupi” or even a software branch of a painting software called MyPaint.

    By all means if you know developers who would be willing to work in “Pencil 2D” or any of the stated applications we, the community in general would be grateful. For the moment, i would suggest you try some of those to see if anyone fits your workflow.

    Interesting blog by the way, keep it up.

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  • Jagadish Pothigachalam

    what’s wrong with Synfig Studio? Come on, easy user interface? nothing is easy until you get into it. Synfig Studio is one of the best 2D animation software from open source community. Though the user interface is not traditional, it frees up your workspace from all the tools that sit on the edges. Its somewhat like GIMP (another beast raised from the open source community, which till date is the only program that can be billed as a worthy competitor to Adobe Photoshop.

    Agreed Synfig Studio has not developed into the stature of Blender 3D, the de-facto 3D animation software from the open source community, used in many studios around the world. That’s because people has a mentality that 3D is better than 2D and not much support has been given to Synfig Studio, which is still in 0.64.1 version but without doubt very powerful! Don’t get cheated by seeing the version number, this version is itself a BIG GIANT! Just like INKSCAPE, another open source vector drawing software having version number 0.98! but very POWERFUL! and so easy to use that you will be up and running in a few minutes and again Inkscape and Xara LX, both opensource vector drawing software are equal and powerful enough to compete with Adobe illustrator.

    Its just we should shift our focus on “what we want” to “what we NEED”.

    These above mentioned software can make any serious animator’s dream come true. Yes, if you are a pure animator who just wants tools to bring your creativity out and not waste your time to learn the tools then there is always GOD GIVEN HANDS & FINGERS & PENCILS AND WHITE PAPERS – the best animation tool ever created by God.

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