A while back, independent animator and open culture advocate Nina Paley pined for an open source, 2-D vector animation program. Now her prayers have been answered; sort of. Tupi is a Kickstarter project whose goal is to create a fully functioning 2-D animation program that is also open source. But that’s not all, there’s also another Kickstarter project that aims to upend the ubiquituous animation GIF.
Technological developments in animation have allowed the technique to prosper considerably since the early days of Mickey Mouse. If it wasn’t applicable to film in general (colour, stereo sound, etc.) then it was specific to animation in ways such as the multi-plane camera and acetate cels. While all these improvements helped animation, software can also handicap it, which is what we’re discussing today.
Computers Are To Blame
There’s no doubt that computers and IT in general have done wonders for animation, and not just in the strictest production sense either. The internet has enabled the co-ordination and production of a single film in multiple locations around the globe and has resulted in many fine films being produced that otherwise would not have.
Where computers fail though, is in their longevity. No-one uses a computer from 15 years ago and certainly nobody is using the same software that ran on such a machine.
The issue is that the animation produced on such machines may not be able to be read on a modern machine. Sure, Pixar is still in business, but what of other studios? Plenty have either gone out of business or been shut down. The animation they produced resides somewhere but may not be accessible. There’s a big difference between the two.
Rapid changes in IT and computing technology mean that nothing that relies on them can stand still. Hardware and software must be constantly updated to remain competitive and there is always the risk that something will either get corrupted or worse, deleted.
Animation Software is Even Worse
For all the faults that hardware has, it is not the worse culprit. That title belongs to software. The impetus for this post is the recent announcement from Adobe that customers will no longer be able to purchase Creative Suite software. Instead, they will subscribe to ‘Adobe Creative Cloud’ for a monthly fee. Essentially customers will not even be renting the software but access to it.
What the Adobe Announcement Highlights
First and foremost, any proprietary software firm will be quite adamant that as a customer, you never ‘buy’ software. Rather, you buy a license for it. In most cases this is a perpetual license, but it is still a license. You cannot do what you like with the software no matter how much you paid for it (legally).
For animators and studios, what the move highlights more than anything else is that the technology that they rely upon for their continued operation is fleeting at best. Adobe, like Microsoft and Apple, does not maintain their software forever and especially in the latter’s case, has shown a willingness to cut off users of older software; essentially forcing them to upgrade or find another provider.
Finding an alternative is all grand and good, but what if there is no alternative? That is to say, what if no-one else makes the piece of software that you need to open/read files?
The Ticking Timebomb
Consider Adobe Flash. It won’t be around forever and at some point in time, Adobe will stop supporting it. That’s grand and good you say, you’ll just keep and old copy on an old dumb terminal just like Disney did with their CAPS system.
A fine theory, but completely improbable if you rent the software instead.
If Adobe decides at some point in the future (willingly or not) to suspend access to Flash or another creative program, you are quite literally very far up the creek without a paddle.
How many studios out there use Flash or a similar program? A lot. What could happen if those programs disappear? Mayhem.
That isn’t to scaremonger either. Old files are much more than just animation data; they’re content! If that isn’t cause for concern, consider the many 35mm films in Hollywood archives that literally represent history rotting away. We’re talking about the digital equivalent of that. Goodness knows Pixar got a shock when they discovered that the original Toy Story files had been corrupted while being digitally archived
What Can Be Done
First and foremost, its important to identify what is causing the problem; namely technology that is no longer profitable to produce/maintain but whose customers require access to.
Proprietary technology is notorious for causing these headaches and while they have been tolerated for the most part, we re getting to the point where there are no more excuses.
As I wrote in this post, open source software offers an alternative that may lack slightly in the features department, but more than makes up for that with its open nature that promises at least the ability to always be able to create a way to read/edit files. Proprietary systems lock this ability up and are under no obligation to release it.
Animation studios (and independent animators too!) need to consider things such as this because they have the potential to cause very expensive mistakes at some point in the future and surely it’s better to actively avoid them than to try and deal with them, right?
Existing programs such as Blender and Synfig are steps in the right direction; we just need a major studio to step up and promote the idea that if we are to rely on technology for creativity, then we should at least be able to build some permanence into the system. It works for pencils and paper after all.
Do upgrade prices give you high blood pressure? What about Adobe’s Creative Cloud? Is it a bad idea and if so, why? Let us know with a comment!
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!