Next: hackademia!

Ok, now the summer break in Swedish academia is over and a new term begins.
A good opportunity to recap my ongoing and recent struggles with producing new knowledge through the epic project of doing a PhD.

First things first: next week I go to the fabulous hackademia week in Luneburg, yay, with a bunch of academics and hackers who deal with, well, hackers. Can’t wait!

Other than that, the passed spring term turned out to be the most productive so far: 5 new papers written, 5 coming out this fall, and some more next year, on various topics such as:

1. My methods of research (multi-sited ethnography and shadowing)
2. How artists hire&motivate developers to code functions in Blender and Synfig, why, and what is it all actually about.
3. How artists end up choosing free software for animation production and when 4. How sharing things online is not just about doing good, but also about moving capital, power and creating hierarchies through obligation and self-regulation
5. How the data industry uses animation rendering to heat homes, and creates a new commodity on the digital economy market – computation traffic.

So, what’s left in the pipeline?

I am working now on finishing an article on Russian computer cultures and hacking. I write about how do creators of digital animation create infrastructures in order to overcome digital scarcity. I use Morevna project as a case in point, and the long history of Russian hacking.

Then, if I am lucky, I will have 1.5 years from now until I need to be done with the dissertation. After brainstorming with friends what is best to do in this time, I got the following list of ideas:

1. Write a book, extending an article into a huger thing (on the side of the dissertation). Strangely enough, the same day I got contacted by a good publisher to invite me to submit a book proposal. Too big a thing to do?

2. Write a teaching portfolio for the precarious time after the PhD.

3. Write a post-doc project (for the same reasons as 2.)

4. Ahm, take it easy and enjoy just going to conferences

5. Write the dissertation.

Not an easy choice to make!




A long-due update on my research

This is a long-due update after a long silence.

Last summer (the one of 2015) the Gooseberry Project was wrapping up and releasing Cosmos Laundromat; the Morevna project team was working on the animatic of the new episode of Morevna while polishing its pipeline; and I was working on summarising my research in progress for what we call “60% seminar”, or an internal seminar with an external opponent who would assess and criticize my work so far. The text in progress (which you can find here) was somewhat messy, but generally accepted well by the internal scientific committee. It seems like this is normal for how a PhD project looks like after half of the research time has passed.

The critique that I got from my opponent, the cross-media and computer games industry researcher from Copenhagen University, assoc. Prof. Kjetil Sandvik, was constructive. His main objection was that I had seemingly read a lot; learnt a lot from my fieldwork and now it was time to produce “new knowledge”. The autumn flew away while teaching, conferencing and reading a course on how to supervise degree thesis of bachelor students. I was hoping to write at least one article then, but instead, in the free time that was left I immersed myself in a massive reading of theories about Transparency.

In early January 2016 I managed to still finish one draft of an article which I wanted to write since long; one in which I discuss the pragmatic use and value of free software beyond the ideology of the free software movement. In this article I have tried to synthesize what I had learnt in my numerous conversations with the Blender, Synfig and Krita users who work in different roles and ways for the media industries today. I bring up the craft sensibilities which the uses of these programs trigger, and the ways in which computer graphics artists try to get engaged in, and influence the development of their tools of everyday work, while negotiating their craft autonomy. The article is under peer review for an eventual publication this summer in an open access journal under a Creative Commons license. I very much hope that the reviews will be positive, or at least that the critique will be manageable.
Download the draft here, with the provisional title: Free software beyond radical politics: negotiations of creative and craft autonomy in digital visual media production.

While waiting for the reviews I am working on another article in which I want to discuss open movie making through the theoretical lens of transparency. So far I have a few scattered unfinished draft papers, and a more coherent abstract for a conference that sumarises the main points. What I find interesting to describe is how the practices of illuminating the invisible work of artistis, animators, modellers, programmers and everyone else working on animation films in the making of Cosmos Laundromat and Morevna, both create feelings of emancipation, and autonomy in their creators, while also subtly structuring their work and organising the work process, imposing a pace, a structure and a control of the work. I will also bring up how creating public archives/repositories of the documentation of this kind of, usually invisible labor, is part of building infrastructures of visibility and knowledge, but also of monitoring the work progress internally, leading to an increase of the quality of the media being made. Lastly, I will discuss what remains hidden behind the radical openness of these projects, and how does this matter. I need to have a finished draft by the end of March, for a publication also this summer in another open access journal. The draft will be shared here too, as soon as it is done.

Lastly, in June I will need to provide a draft of a third article, which I plan to be on the process of “infrastructuring” – or developing autonomous, public infrastructures for professional computer graphics production through making open-source animation films.

In the meantime, one of my earlier writings which was describing my methods of research through discussing Morevna project is finally getting in print, as part of a book edited by Norbert Wildermuth and Teke Ngomba from Roskilde University, Denmark on Methods in Communication for Social Change. You can find the chapter here, the book will come out in print at some point this year (academic publishing is reaaaaaaaaally slow): Chapter-8-Julia-Velkova-Ethnography-of-Alternative-Cultural-Production-edited-JV-final-proofread-web.pdf

In the meantime my academic life consists of also going each month to at least one workshop where I can ventilate my ideas and writings in progress, and work on formulating myself better. This is a process which is very personal, and I do not feel comfortable to disclose in public the very early rough drafts where I just test ideas. I also teach courses on communication theory and media activism, which is fun, but takes too much time…

In any case, the important thing is that things are progressing.

Check out also the section with a list of publications here – I have updated it with a summary of all texts written by me which are currently available to read.

Gooseberry behind the scenes: the everyday and the common

This blog post is about my almost a week long visit of Gooseberry project in Amsterdam, during which I even managed to have a brief meeting with Boud and Irina Rempt from Krita Foundation. I will write here primarily about two things: the current everyday life of the Gooseberry production, and my sudden discovery of Dutch history that is rooted in the idea of managing the public common — or commons. Meanwhile, in another post that is coming really really soon (promise, promise!) I will share a brief report on my research so far, and more details about the concrete topics of my dissertation (book). Any feedback and comments are, of course, welcome! But, first thing’s first: a brief report from my stay.

Wednesday afternoon: I landed on a sunny and springy day from Stockholm.

A postage for Pixel will his new transportation cage for bringing him to the office.

A postage for Pixel will his new transportation cage for bringing him to the office.

Thursday: Thomas Dinges tried to find a convenient time to record several podcasts with the Gooseberry team. I manage to talk more extensively with Gabriel (did you know about his hidden passion to code animation?) and witness one of my first “Dailies” at 11.00, when the artists do a check up on each other’s work and set goals for the day. Yes, slowly but steadily Gooseberry is moving into production, with an orientation towards daily results, and not just weekly results. A normal working day at the Institute starts around 10-11 am and….never ends? No, it ends at any time between 6 pm and after midnight. :) Thursday evening ended up with a pizza in the local pizzeria, and with Hjalti buying a cat – Pixel!

I guess the most notable thing from Thursday was also the first time I witnessed some hardware limitations, such as memory running out and heavy rendertimes, things which seem to be now in the process of being solved. There were some very intensive discussions on IRC about that and generally fixing bugs.

Friday might be, though, a more interesting day to write about more in detail.

I came quite early to the office, around 9.30, to talk to Andy about his early days in Blender before the day really started. The big front door was wide open, and a guy from the grocery store Albert Heijn was offloading big crates and bags of food in the office kitchen. Ton was receiving everything and sorting packs of ready-made soups, bread, cheese, jars of pickles, mustard, boxes of Chocomel (chocolate milk) — the lunch for the 10-15 people working there each day.

Offloading lunch provisions...

Offloading lunch provisions…

At 10 the first person besides me and Ton came to the office. From the kitchen it is often possible to hear the fans of the renderfarm in the shower room spinning loudly and making the room warm and cozy. It is not advisable to hang moist coats inside. Andy and I talk for about 40 mins, after which it was time for a meeting about the Pipeline, basically about seeing how everyone can work together, even remotely, so that different people can work simultaneously on fragments of tasks that complement each other to create a whole animation scene. This is also a very technical thing, because it is about avoiding manual work, agreeing on naming conventions, where objects are saved, how to define a common language, and steps that merge technology and distribution of work. By the time a decision is reached it is already 1pm, and time for lunch! Just a few hours later is the weekly and the traditional Thai dinner afterwords. Despite the fact it is Friday night in one of the most vibrant European cities, at 9.30 pm, and considering that almost nobody on Gooseberry team is local, most people go back to the office and play board games over a beer. Francesco, as usual, is working late studying code.

Board games....

Board games…. in action!

…game in action!


Saturday was a day to visit Boud Rempt, the founder of Krita Foundation and maintainer of Krita. Oddly enough it was only recently I realised that Boud was located just an hour and a half by train from Amsterdam, in Deventer. Arranging a meeting with him was not a problem. After picking me up from the train station, Boud and I went to his home and office, located in a beautiful 13th-century house in the centre of town. I was interested in hearing more about Krita, how it emerged, how it is organised now, and the plans for the future. Before this meeting I think I never really realised the substantial influence that David Revoy‘s wish to move to free software for professional use, and his inability to do it for long time, has had on Krita. As Boud said, “We focused on making David happy,” and Krita didn’t start growing until David said, “It works now.” I kept listening in total fascination to Boud’s story of this and other important episodes of Krita history. This history is important in my research work, partly because Krita is used in both the Gooseberry and Morevna projects that I’m exploring — as Boud said, “To be free you need all your tools to be free.” But also partly because it overlaps with various important topics that I’m trying to cove: visual art production with free software, the importance of communication and tight connection between artists and tool makers, and the differences in approaches and ways of thinking between different free software projects. I do not have the opportunity to develop more on this here, but I will write about Krita more in depth in my work.

On Sunday, Elysia and I had brunch and she gave me some hints and ideas about a question that has been bothering me for a while: why did the Blender project start in Amsterdam, and not anywhere else? One possible answer could be the Dutch culture of fighting water. As writer of popular history books Rusell Shorto writes: “Building up dikes and dredging canals were massive communal activities in which everyone concerned had to see a common as well as an individual interest in order to take part” (2013, 35). He also suggests that this idea has been further developed and in the form of what he calls European liberalism: “The 19th-century Europeans who took to using liberalism as a term for their politics were businessmen who wanted freedom from tariffs – that is, limited government involvement in public affairs. …Liberalism is closely associated with democracy . It also has an economic meaning according to which capitalists claim that a basic component of individual rights is the right to own property” (2013, 17-18). So, I found that some of these ideas could be mapped to the way Gooseberry is ran, but also generally the Blender project, and – maybe Krita too? I will need to research this deeper and develop more on this in my dissertation project. Stay tuned!


The infrastructure, invisible work, and pragmatism of open-source animation production

This is a repost of my post from the Gooseberry’s official production blog. 

Julia Velkova at the Blender InstituteNew Production Phase, New People

Okay, two and a half days at the Blender Institute and my brain is spinning again with ideas and new questions of how to connect the bits and pieces of the open-source animation film-making culture. By all scholarly standards, a brief visit lasting 2.5 days is nothing for getting input for ethnography-based research, but I think in this occasion it worked well — there were opportunities to talk to people and look around, and the rest of the time follow the work through IRC and the weeklies.

Every time I try to plan a visit to the Gooseberry production and wonder when I should come, I get the reply from Ton and Francesco that any time is an interesting time, as there’s always something different happening. This tends to make my visits quite unpredictable and inserts an element of surprise – I never know in advance whom I will find at the office, what new people I will meet and who has left, and what the production atmosphere will be.

This time the new people in the team for me were ElysiaCampbellManu, and Bastien. Typical of my visits to the Blender Institute is the unpredictability of finding opportunities to chat with people, because everyone is always very busy and I do not feel comfortable stealing people’s work time. Campbell was literally running back to coding after grabbing a coffee from the kitchen, leaving just a few minutes of time to talk. Fortunately for me, the second evening a totally unplanned opportunity to talk arose, and I grabbed it.

Chatting with Campbell

Our conversation starts in a slightly unfocused and unsure way, jumping between themes. Gradually it begins to flow, and when we look at the time it is suddenly approaching midnight. We realize that we have spent over two hours talking Blender, open source, APIs, patch trackers, working full time for the Blender Institute, volunteers, Stack Exchange, open movies, and everything in between.

Campbell and I spend a lot of time talking also about renderfarms, and the advantage of having your own, and generally building your own infrastructure: “Things would always fail and we would not have enough control to be able to figure out why.” In other words, it’s better to be in control of the technology you depend on. I find the rendering process fascinating in its triviality and practicalities: the fascinating thing for me is that it connects animation to really material things – it materializes the actual movement and life of animation, a process which seems like a separate struggle on its own, where bits can get flipped, hardware can burn, and many other things can go wrong. But when they go right, they produce magic.

In the beginning of our conversation, I asked Campbell for some guidance on how to think about (1) the artist-developer relationship in the Blender Institute film productions, and (2) how the software actually gets developed during the film-making process. Where should I look to grasp the dynamics of it? What should I look at? When? What’s his experience been in the previous productions? This somehow leads us to talking about the pleasures of coding, the enjoyment of solving interesting problems in a clever way, and the boring but necessary work of maintaining infrastructure.

My mind latches onto the “clever” problem-solving, as it reminds me of a quote from Gabriella Coleman’s book on free software and the Debian community (2013, p.93):

“Hackers value cleverness, ingenuity, and wit. These attributes arise not only when joking among friends or when hackers give talks but also during the process of making technology and writing smart pieces of code. Take, for example, this short snippet of what many hackers would consider exceptionally clever code written in the computer language Perl:

#count the number of stars in the sky
$cnt = $sky =~ tr/*/*/;

This line of Perl is a hacker homage to cleverness; it is a double entendre of semantic ingenuity and technical wittiness.”

I am yet not sure if I should think of Blender developers as hackers, but I think the attitude of working with software and finding pleasure in the coding is close to the attitude one can find in hacker and open source software communities generally.

Campbell also talks about “clever hacks,” which aren’t necessarily elegant, but provide quick solutions, sometimes with real advantages over more complex solutions. His example is an early ad-hoc render farm that he wrote 6 years ago. “Simply write placeholder images, never overwrite anything, point systems on a local network to a shared location, and press render,” Campbell explains the code. “It’s a hack really — but in a pinch it’s less hassle than installing full-featured farm software. We ended up using it for the Big Buck Bunny credits, for example.”

From there we jump to the topic of how Blender development would be different from, say, Linux-related development. We end up in a discussion about the way in which developing for an operating system can be very systematic, and in certain ways easier to decide on what improvements should be made. In Blender, we conclude, it works differently because of the dependency of artists on the software, which makes it very sensitive to change as it can affect existing work-flows. Also, the many requests for features and bug-fixing need to be prioritized, and the things that are actually causing problems get ranked higher than the “merely” hypothetically useful things. It seems difficult to say, “I will make this user friendly,” because what is very user friendly for one artist is not for another. Small changes can disrupt whole work-flows, causing users to suffer.

In this sense, Campbell says, the work done for open movies like Gooseberry helps to temporarily focus the software development on things artists are actually struggling with on a daily basis. You don’t have to imagine what problems they might have and what features they would need: in production you experience the problems first-hand. In this way you can go beyond the domain of “speculative programming” and have a really pragmatic and practical approach to solving what really needs to be solved when setting priorities. My takeaway: pragmatism rules over hypothetical thinking and is a really distinguishing “Blender” feature compared to other free software communities and practices.


Bugs in Action

The Sunbeam bug

Earlier that day I got to see a mini-illustration of this, when Pablo experienced a weird bug when using Sunbeam. (Sunbeam is a “cheap” way, in terms of rendering, to simulate the effect of volumetric light, Pablo patiently explained to me. I think, ‘Hmm, is this an example of a smart technical solution in the field of 3D animation — another example of hacker culture translated into the pragmatics and technicality of 3D making?’) In the process of rendering an environment, Pablo’s image appeared as if it were corrupt. After mentioning this in passing to Lukas, who happened to be walking by, by the next day Lukas had solved the bug. Having a developer around who knows the code looks indeed like a pragmatic and efficient way of working and solving technical problems in the process of animation making.

Screenshot from Pablo's work on environments
Screenshot from Pablo’s work on environments


Manu’s Perspective

Campbell and I also talk about the satisfaction that the work on Blender and for the Blender Foundation gives. It sounds like a very non-alienating work experience, giving a great degree of moral satisfaction, autonomy, and self-responsibility. This was actually something I was curious about when speaking to Manu: how is it different to work on Gooseberry for the Blender Institute in comparison to his work for (“Angry Birds” studio) Rovio. We talk about this while Manu takes screenshots of the visible elements of the island, improving his skills on command-line use of GIMP and ImageMagic to crop frames and screenshots automatically. He tells me that a substantial difference is the benefit of showing your work, through the sharing and weeklies, as well as the release of assets as commons – in the industry, months or years of work can be put into something that may never see the light of day, and it may be impossible to even include it in a demo reel. (Watch Daniel Plink talk about the 3 principles of motivation — autonomy, mastery, and purpose — for more insight into Manu’s philosophy.) The Blender Institute way of making films exposes this “hidden” work, and makes it possible for everyone to use it. This visibility of work is something that was also mentioned by developers in my previous visit – coding is one of those things that often remains hidden, but Blender’s public sharing helps cast a light on this work.


Overall Visibility

In fact, there is a tremendous amount of invisible work that goes into the production of an animation film. Since Gooseberry is a project with very high and ambitious goals, but without the resources to match (compared to the productions currently leading the industry), the film-making process is in constant fluctuation. Things seem to change and face new developments at every moment, and while the basic ideas are clear, details are not. Where should Franck look in a scene? How should he grip and release the dragonfly’s antennae? In fact, how should the dragonfly fly, or rotate, and when? How many dragonflies should there be in a scene? Should they be there at all? Should there be any other flying creatures? The various options must be tested to see how they look in practice. What remains obscured in this process is the amount of work put in and that becomes invisible and untraceable in the process of constant recreation. In fact, the only way most followers at home will glimpse these pieces is through the weeklies — as, for example, Elysia wrote about how several different layouts of the same scene changed and evolved in the course of two weeks. Still – seeing the video of the layout hides the actual volume of work behind it, which is significant.

For example, while Manu has been doing some preparation work before starting to model the island setting of the first scenes in the film, Mathieu has been working on the layouts of the opening shots, shortening lengths. What does that mean in practice? That, while Manu has been taking the screenshots of the visible elements of the island, some of these scenes have been cut. I wondered: is this a coordination problem? Or a natural consequence of the animation workflow? That the workflow is a “future-oriented” process, as researcher Limor Shifman would perhaps say, in which every step leads to the next one, but each step requires a lot of work to insert a high degree of precision of details to save resources for and ease the next step? Figuring out the details means also an exercise in communicating visions and ideas of movement, a rather challenging task. At the stage in which Gooseberry is now, trying to find the answers to these questions is about actually reproducing the possible movements, and trying to map the image of the movement to the feeling of the film developed by the director through actually seeing the movement in practice.

While Hjalti can spend two days on the layout of a scene that lasts as-yet-undefined number of seconds, this effort is oriented toward visualizing the way the director sees the film. If it does not look, work, or feel good for some reason, more effort is put in to create a new representation that the director and artist feel works better. So, in one moment Hjalti’s and Mathieu’s work on the layouts represents a collecting point that merges the fragments of everyone else’s work in the production into a movement, but it also represents the means to communicate each one’s individual representations of the director’s imagination of the film and how it works in the context of the film. (Sorry if this is a bit abstract, but I hope you understand my point! :)) The work loop can repeat as many times as necessary: whatever does not work is put back into the loop of fragmented polishing and re-work.


Uncovering What’s Hidden

By the way, while Mathieu is a director, he is also working on layouts at the moment, and recording sounds, and doing perhaps a hundred more things…just like everyone else. This is very different from how it works in most of the industry, where directors might sit on a different floor from the artists — where the layouts are done via a trial and error process that involves everyone. As work-intensive they can be, these layouts are also a life-saver when moving to the next step – the animation process itself. As Hjalti explains to me, when moving on to the animation phase, any cuts and changes hurt much more because of the tremendous effort and personal feelings involved in creating unique character animations. Hjalti gives me an example: Disney used to have an award for the person who spent the most time on things that didn’t make it into the final film, and tells me about a person who had been working for a few months on some very difficult scene that afterwards, because of a small change in the script, was totally cut out.

All this brings me to the thought that producing an animation film is a very big practical exercise in collective dreaming over a long period of time — of imagining how something might be. On the other hand, the production process is very pragmatic, as well as craft- and technology intensive: shaping the objects, worlds, and tools that make animation possible. It is fascinating how much effort and emotion is put into this collective imagineering process, which in the end will produce a laconic yield, some minutes of animation — which needs to be all the more soulful to compensate for its brevity. Considering this effort, the exposure granted by sharing this work in public gives the artists’ a way to extend its value, garner more appreciation, and allow for more value creation (in terms of knowledge, etc.) from it.

Two weeks in Siberia with Morevna Project, open-source animation tools, and animé

* all graphic, video and audio materials are licensed under Creative Commons-Attribution license.

This post is about my almost two-week long stay in the city of Gorno-Altaysk in Siberia, Russia. As part of my research on the production of open-source animation films – made with open-source tools and released as commons with sources – I have been trying to figure out the webs of connections between this place in Siberia, free software graphics communities, and Morevna Project. I was curious to see the context of producing an open-source animation film in a place like Gorno-Altaysk and how does this context matter. I wanted also to meet more of the people involved in the production of Morevna Project.

Before coming to Gorno-Altaysk I have been talking a lot to Konstantin Dmitriev online and I have been following his Morevna anime film project and Synfig developments. I knew that the place from where he works is somewhere far away in Russia, and that there are some other people involved. It was however very difficult to get any better of idea of who these people were, and what were their roles only through the accounts of Konstantin – which were surely helpful but not enough neither for me, nor for my research.

So, in the same way as I went to Amsterdam and the Blender Institute earlier this year, I went to Gorno-Altaysk in the beginning of November to learn more.

Gorno-Altaysk is not Amsterdam. Until I actually tried to get there I could not realize how far it was. The trip took 3 days of travel. And, hey, we live in the 21st century and everything is fast – how was this possible? Well, I flew relatively quickly from Stockholm to Novosibirsk – the capital of Siberia, leaving on Monday and arriving on Tuesday morning. Konstantin met me there, and the next day in the evening we boarded the night train to a city called Biysk (Бийск). From there it took another 1.30 hours of bus ride to Gorno-Altaysk on a scenic road built by prisoners deported to Siberia by the soviet regime. We arrived on Thursday morning, at 08 am.


Frosty, and sunny, and squeezed between mountains the city looked cozier than the industrial, humid and highly polluted Novosibirsk. High buildings co-exist with traditional Russian log houses, reminants from the Soviet past reside side by side to a 4d cinema and a mall. The frosty air was saturated with the smell of winter – smoke from the chimneys and stoves running on coal.

A barking dog met us in the log house where Konstantin lives and where we went for breakfast. Konstantin works mostly from home. Entering his workplace, the first thing I noticed was this hand-made stereoscopic screen.stereo-screen-proc

Stereoscopic screen (without polarization glass)

The screen appeared to be fully functional and we got to test it by watching a 20-min stereoscopic 2D/3D animation short made with Synfig, Blender and Krita, which Konstantin has been directing and working on in the past few months for a client from Novosibirsk. Below is a brief fragment of this project, which also won an award at the International Festival of Stereofilm in Moscow in 2014.

The project has been an arena for testing and developing open-source software based stereographic animation pipelines by combining Blender, Synfig, and Krita. It has also helped develop new tools to simplify and speed up the animation process, for example by developing RenderChan. Not least, it has been paying the bills at the moment for the three people involved in the project – Konstantin Dmitriev, Nikolai Mamashev and Anastasia Majzhegisheva (Nastya).


RenderChan mascot by Nastya Majzhegisheva

The image of the screen sharing a desk with a Lenovo Thinkpad x220T and a workstation with an 8-core CPU, all running Linux, together with the view of Konstantin cutting and moving sound and animation with a Wacom pen on his screen recalled in my mind the image of David Revoy’s techie sculpture made of Cintiq and Linux. I get reminded of the connections between tools, open-source software and graphics that integrate into people’s whole lifestyle.


Konstantin and his Lenovo tablet during the stay in Novosibirsk

I soon notice several things. Besides the stereoscopic animation for a client, Konstantin works also on a new website for Morevna Project; coordinates Synfig’s development with developer Ivan Mahonin; and teaches twice a week free animation classes to teenagers in the premises of a small local extracurriculum art school. The teaching is in fact shared with Nikolai Mamashev, the art director of the Morevna film demo. I start wondering how does this all relate to Morevna Project and its production – the object of my initial interest and reason to come here. It also brings up an even bigger question – what exactly is Morevna Project now? I mean – after all, it completed its first goal to make a demo film in 2012, but since then there has not been new animation produced. Instead, there have been appearing fan artworks drawn by Nastya; a Synfig training course; and improvements on Synfig’s code primarily done by Ivan Mahonin who has been working on and off on coding (in dependence of how the Synfig donations were developing).

I meet Nastya. She is 15, and she is local. In fact, everyone is local, and I am one of the very few foreigners and non-locals currently in town. Nastya tells me about her passion for drawing, animé and falling in love with Krita: “It was magic – to draw with a pen on a tablet. And later, when I tried Krita, we became soulmates”. This friendship has recently led her to a move from Windows to Linux for the sake of stability and better functionality of her drawing tools which she seems to use intensively. She names four different animation short projects in which she is involved as artist among which Morevna, and ‘Neighbour from Hell’, a short on which she works as an artist with two more girls in the animation classes led by Konstantin and Nikolai.

Forest background - work in progress, Nastya M.

Forest background – work in progress, Nastya Majzhegisheva

Nastya drawing on a Cintiq

Nastya drawing on the old studio Cintiq

Below are two scenes from ‘Neighbour from Hell’ – the short for which Nastya draws the tree background.
Neighbour from Hell (sample scene 2).
Artwork: Anastasia (Nastya) Majzhegisheva (15 years old)
Animation: Tamara Hudyakova (19 years old)
Made in Synfig, Krita, Gimp and MyPaint.

Neighbour from Hell (sample scene 2).
Artwork: Anastasia (Nastya) Majzhegisheva (15 years old)
Animation: Anastasia Popova (19 years old)
FX: Anastasia Majzhegisheva
Made in Synfig, Krita, Gimp and MyPaint.

I get to visit twice the animation classes during my stay. They take place in an ad-hoc studio at the premises of the local art school Adamant. In a room that has to be reconfigured every time and where any equipment of value is kept in a safe the first thing I see is a first generation Wacom Cintiq, representing the working place of Nastya. ‘Chinese animation studios sell off old equipment and, so we managed to get it for $300′, explains Konstantin. This is one of the two drawing tablets of this type that the students have, and the attempts of Nastya to draw on one of them in Krita in high-resolution quickly gets in conflict with the low amount of memory available on the connected workstation. At the moment the art school and Konstantin have no resources to fix this, and in the same time nobody in the area seems to be able to understand the importance of helping out with improving things. The art school lacks Internet too – another underprioritised and underfunded thing.This is of course sad considering that Konstantin’s classes represent the only animation school in town and in the whole nearby region. They are also probably the only ones in Siberia that teach only open-source software based pipelines.

Adamant art school where the animation classes take place

Adamant art school where the animation classes take place

Gradually, six students, all teenagers start arriving with their own laptops of all sorts of budget brands, most of which assembled and produced in Russia. Some have also drawing tablets – anything from a 2001 Wacom Graphire, to relatively new Wacom Bamboo pads. I overhear the following conversation:

A student, Tamara, shows her new drawing – a horse with a rider.
Vika: Did you draw him in Krita?
T: No, in GIMP.
V: I try to draw in Photoshop but I find it very complicated.
T: Well, this is why I draw in Gimp. I did not manage either well with Photoshop.
V: Can I see some more of your work?
Tamara shows her more drawings explaining: I did this in Photoshop, this in Gimp, this in MyPaint.


In class

Many of the students use Krita, Gimp and MyPaint for drawing in various combinations depending on the tasks. The students animate in Synfig which helps Konstantin and Nikolay to test new functions and discover bugs. Here is a little preview of the different projects they currently work on:

Sample scene by Anna Erogova (16 years old):
Artwork and animation by Anna Erogova
Made in Synfig and MyPaint.

Poet and Robber (sample scenes)
Artwork and animation by Igor Sidorov (13 years old).
Made in Synfig, MyPaint and Gimp.

Dolls and Rain (animation sample).
Artwork and animation by Vika Popova (16 years old).
Made in Synfig, and Krita.

It suddenly strikes me that everyone in the studio, including Konstantin and Nikolai, are passionate animé fans. And while the start of this passion has been different for everyone, in the end they have all been attracted by the specificity and peculiarity of the genre. As Nikolai describes it, ‘It is very different. It is perceived very differently. It is like food. Imagine that you usually eat one thing, but one day you get to try a totally different food that you can not comprehend at all – Chinese, Japanese, something spicy, specific that you can not understand at all. Then you are – wow, what is this? It was like that with animé for me. I was very impressed.’

The students in class are so obsessed by anime that they draw it, breath it, live it in every minute of their lives. They tell me that it is their way to experience life and learn about life, and in the same time it is their life. They say: it is unconventional. It has psychology, and pedagogy. They compete to tell me stories of uncontrollable inspiration which can come while writing a school exam when they start drawing on the exam sheet which they can not bring home. It is the animé passion that has brought them all to animation and to Konstantin’s studio and classes.

Anime/open-source tools gang

Anime/open-source tools gang

This suddenly helps me connect the pieces and see better what Morevna project is. It is a fruit born in this passion for animé which has sprawled beyond the mere consumption of it, and pushed Konstantin into making something more. Morevna project is the dream and the project of making a particular animé film which fills many local people’s lives with meaning. It is the dream of making a feature animation film which integrates the strong fandom to the animé genre with the local Russian culture through the script based on a folk tale many people in Russia knows.

Inspired by the example set by the Blender Institute, Konstantin has been trying with Morevna Project to establish a similar environment but focused on 2D animation/animé film development. Open-source graphics instruments – primarily Synfig, but also
Blender, Krita, Gimp, MyPaint and Pencil have provided the logical solution for how to realize this idea in a reality where many people can not afford to buy high-class drawing tablets, branded computers or expensive mobile phones. In the same time, open-source tools have given the freedom of adapting the tools, developing them for the specifics of 2D-animation production pipelines and have given the freedom for creative expression. The animation classes transfer the knowledge on working with open-source graphics instruments locally and help create some of the future contributors to the project. This knowledge, and daily work with Synfig drives further the development of new features which when shared online expands the community of Synfig users. What I realized during my two-week stay in Gorno-Altaysk is that Morevna Project is a framework – it is a film project which represents a driving force for creating an environment and pipelines for 2D open-source animation which has driven the substantial development of Synfig in the last years. It is also a channel that transforms consumption and fandom into a culture of making; and a place for experimenting with models of sharing in which tools, artwork, and knowledge get created. And similarly to the spirit in which the things are done in the Blender Institute, what keeps ideas and projects developing is the wish for making things, and the fascination to the magic of animation – a will of such strength that slowly pushes things through despite the (still) smaller scale, and limitations of the local and national context in which they are made.

During my stay I met many people, and had the opportunity to record many hours of interviews and personal histories about animé, animation and open-source tools. This has been an invaluable experience to understand better the spectrum of similarities and differences of the different environments and specifics of open-source based animation production, and the nature of the graphics communities wrapped around these projects. In conclusion I want to say a big ‘thank you!’ to Konstantin, Nikolay, Nastya Majzhegisheva, Igor Dmitriev, Ivan Mahonin, Toma, Nastya Popova, Vika and Ivan  for the opportunity to meet you and get to know a little piece of your world.

I would also like to share here one of the interviews (in Russian) – with Morevna Project’s artist director Nikolai Mamashev who tells about his daily work with animation, Morevna project, anime, open source software, Blender, and Synfig. Enjoy listening!
Click here for the audio (in ogg).

Mapping tastes! Free software, animé and 3D graphics

Since some time ago I started getting the feeling that there are two very big groups of users of free/open source graphics tools – the animé fans, and the 3D graphics fans. They certainly overlap, but not necessarily always. Can you help me figure out whether this is true or not? Am I totally mistaken? Whom I have missed? I have set up a little survey to try to figure this out. Your answer is totally annonymous and highly appreciated. It might help us understand better who is into these communities. So, please, if you feel related in any sort of way to any free/open source software graphics community (incl. just hanging around), it would be great if you could share your animation tastes here :)

(I will be showing here the results of the survey as it goes – expect a first update and results in the first week of December!)

I wonder how many of you, who are part of the free software graphics communities – are into animé, and how many are into 3D?

To marry a tool

I am in the process of transcribing interviews and going through the notes and audio recordings from my one-week-stay in the end of August at the Blender Institute. It is both a frustrating and exciting work. Exciting because I see many interesting themes popping up which I would like to write about, but frustrating because they all come into fragments from a sentence here, a sentence there which people said, and I have not yet a clear idea how to arrange the puzzle together, and not even how to keep track in a well structured manner over the fragments and themes that matter. This particular puzzle is also more difficult because it does not have one right solution – there are many depending on the way one combines the puzzle. Tricky.

In any case, I thought to share here a few interview fragments from the first  talks that I have gone through. I have chosen them as a very first attempt to illustrate an aspect which I find important and interesting to write about – a culture of craft/making that is developed in the relationship tool-artist-maker in the process of mixing animation, open-source, digital technologies and the Internet.

When talking on IRC to David Revoy about the relationship between tools and artists, and how does he reason about his choice of open source tools he used the metaphor of marriage to describe it:

<deevad>“[I]n 2D the skill of painting or drawing is core. Software, pen, painting is really secondary. But sometimes after using a tool, an artist can melt/marry his style with it. Just a rendering, or a feeling. I prefer to mate here with an open-source solution. I would be afraid my style depends of the market price of a software, and if he will be continued or discontinued by the publisher”.

I liked the metaphor of mating and marriage. It speaks about the tight, personal and intimate relationship between an artist or generally – a maker and a tool. It is also a relationship developed over long period of time through the complexity and effort of learning – an effort which seems to increase when moving from the world of 2D to 3D tools. As Mathieu Auvray pointed out:

“You have to know the software very in-depth to be able to be very efficient with it […]. It can take 10 years to actually master [a 3D tool]”.

This reminded me also of something which Bassam Kurdali from the Blender community mentioned in his talk during the LibrePlanet 2013 conference when he spoke about Blender.

“…if you look at similar software from its class, it (Blender) has a steep learning curve, but then it all goes smooth. But using Blender is better – because you install it on your brain, not on your computer. Once you “install it in your brain”, you can not migrate to anything else.”

All these metaphors – installation, mating, marrying confirms and illustrates what Ton briefly summarized as a different – special relationship which people have with Blender:
“…for Blender most people have a different relationship….[Be]cause it is a different way of working. We are more on the edge of what is possible.”

I think all this is important in several ways.

First – it seems like artists’ choice to go for open source tools is mostly pragmatic (with perhaps just a pinch of ideology) – something that creates a difference with other areas where open source software is used and developed, and generally draws a line of distinction with the free software movement – something that I will write separately more about.

On the other hand from a cultural perspective this sort of relationship – the tools, the artists and those who improve the tools (be it the artists themselves, or developers in cooperation with artists) is really interesting. It is close, it is personal, it is intimate – as a marriage is. It is based on knowing each other really well in order to hold together and change as each one of both sides evolves and changes too – making things “on the edge of what is possible”. Marriage is also complex, complicated and could be full of frustration. Frustration leads though to new developments.

This is also the core of craftsmanship. In how to think about it, I like the way the British philosopher Richard Sennett defines it: the craftsperson has a special attitude and mindset to the process of work defined through the desire to do something of quality – for its own sake, and the engagement in a problem-solving – problem finding rhythm in close relation to technology, skills development and closeness to materials (Sennett, 2008, Chapter 1). Craftsmanship is also related to a concern with the procedure of making (what people would call otherwise a workflow) and the way of working rather than simply getting things to work (ibid, p.20). I also like this quote from Peter Dormer who defines craft “as knowledge that empowers a maker to take charge of technology” (Dormer, 1997, p. 140)I think both Sennett’s and Dormer’s way of speaking of craftsmanship are close to the way one could understand Blender (and Synfig – the other tool which I look at) – their development and use can be seen as an exercise in public craft which is made in a new way – by combining the physical space, the “workshop” where people craft their tools and develop them in a relationship of frustration and “resistence of the material” (Sennett), but it also takes place in public by sharing and discussing things online.

The craftsmanship attitude – a specific mindset – can also go beyond the limits of a particular tool, or a particular project. It could migrate to a whole lifestyle where crafting, tools, art and open source merge. A nice illustration of that is this work by David Revoy:

David Revoy’s mixture between a table and a Cintiq. Image by David Revoy.

<deevad>I started to mix a drawing table and a Cintiq. I’m still working on the air system.
<konfeta>I am looking at the picture, trying to understand what does it do. It reminds me a little bit of a painter’s stand – but it is a table and you have a cintiq on it with a linux station connected. Very geeky, and still – very classic.
<deevad>: yes, it’s a classic. I wanted to get the position of old drawing table but for modern hardware. It’s still just a test. I still prefer a classic workstation for working daily.
<konfeta>: perfectly illustrates the mixture of an artist and a geek
<deevad>: Yes, I think I like to have it as a sculpture. For what it represents […]. I keep it around for the ‘potential’ it has. But for daily work, it’s not enough practical.
<konfeta> But you draw on it?
<deevad>: sure, I draw on it. Little sketch here and there, at evening, after ‘work’.

How is this important?

So, naturally, here comes the question of why all this is important to bring up and talk about? Well, when discussing my work on open-source based, open-content animation films with colleagues and scholars who research alternative ways of media production I often meet the assumption that the film productions within the Blender and Synfig communities should be a product of amateurs. Why? Because of the own tool development, the own models of work , etc – the different way of work. This assumption stems most likely from a common theory on participation and alternative media which says that “The entire ideology of alternative and community media is built on the concept of providing access and participation to non-professionals” (Carpentier, 2011, 341).

The key word from where everything gets difficult is of course “non-professionals” because connecting alternative or different ways of work to the image of the amateur leads to the conclusion that what is produced in the end is a work of lower (as compared to professional) quality. This is especially common in the context of discussions of the new ways for collaboration and distribution that the Internet has enabled.

What I think however is that the division professionals-amateus is not really productive to refer to the Blender and Synfig projects, especially when bringing up the work of the Blender Institute – which can hardly be called amateurish. Even if taking Leadbeater and Miller’s definition of a “Pro-Am” – who try to expand the definition of amateurs by using the term “professional amateurs” who have skills and competence at professional level but are otherwise seen as “hobbyists”, I find it still not really proper. What I think could be better instead is to borrow terminology and ideas from theories on cultures of craft and making where skill and mastery over technology are seen in a different way, and where the division professional-amateur is more difficult to apply. Can we speak of a professional craftsperson? Or an amateur craftsperson? This sounds a bit nonsensical because craftsmanship  obviously refers to identity and attitude, and somehow manages to go beyond the politico-economic way of structuring which the professional-amateur implies. This does not mean though that market and the media industry are irrelevant to craft. It means simply that there are more axes and dimensions than the polarity of quality-non-quality or prof-am allow for.

And I guess it is the question of quality which ties together the relationship between tools and people. The whole work of improving and mastering tools is in the end, as Ton pointed out, to develop the quality of the artistic work. “in the end, of course you make a film. With a sheep. That’s awesome. And that’s…and that’s in Blender.”


Cited authors:

Carpentier, N. (2011). Media and participation a site of ideological-democratic struggle. Bristol; Chicago: Intellect.

Dormer, P. (1997). The culture of craft: status and future. New York: Manchester University Press ;

Sennett, R. (2008). The craftsman. New Haven: Yale University Press.


One week at the Blender Institute

Reposting here the post I wrote about the week I spent in Amsterdam at the Blender Institute.


It has been an awesomely productive week. Leaving my silent and somewhat lonely office in Stockholm I arrived last Wednesday to vibrant Amsterdam with a slight feeling of thrill. During a week I would stay at the Blender Institute and see how the Gooseberry production goes, who works here and talk to people. All this should give me some input and become the foundation for developing the PhD dissertation project that I am working on (very prelimiary title: “Open-source in cultural production: animation in the network society”). I want to write about the mechanics of producing an “open movie” through following a real, on-going production and exploring the culture of making and sharing of the Blender and Synfig communities. Time will show whether this goal is too ambitious.

My research method is ethnographic – meaning that knowledge and theories are built through immersion in the environment or project being researched. This may sound simple in theory, but it is a bit of an unpredictable social experiment. How to approach people whom you have never met? How to melt distance? How to integrate in the environment without disturbing people’s work? Without knowing much about the codes and culture, and even sometimes the language of communication – it was a sort of a teleportation in another reality…I will lie if I say I was not nervous the first day when I arrived.

The first thing which struck me was the informality, friendly atmosphere and openness of the team here. It is not uncommon that scholars researching the media industry (especially TV and film productions) need to spend months to obtain written agreements with people about secrecy, anonymity and non-disclosure of information – all things that put limits both to what can be researched and who can be approached. My experience was quite the opposite. Starting from a rather ad-hoc quickly planned trip after a brief email exchange with Ton, landing my first day in the Blender Institute I was met by the informality and welcoming atmosphere created by the people here.


The official roles which everyone in the production has – director, animator, production coordinator, artist, etc. give a structure to the process and create flows of collaboration. This division is though not absolutely solid and can fluctuate depending on the current needs of the production. Everyone in the team has a broad range of skills, much beyond a narrow-niche specialization that assigning a role in the production gives. This helps to work on broader amount of tasks and make the production both more efficient, and richer in what it can produce. In the same time this division seems to blur in the more banal moments of the production day and the general everyday life of people. Sharing flats, sharing cleaning, sharing an open office space, cooking dinners for 10 people, fixing broken things and dishes helps to make bonds, blur hierarchies and cultural barriers in the otherwise very rich in different nationalities team where most of people have never met before.

Small rituals and rules make life under production easier for everyone – from rotating weekly in the role of the MonkeyButler who fixes the kitchen – to buying candy and beer on Fridays for the weeklies – this all seem to help integrate people and create a smoother flow. Of course, everyone admits that the smootheness and calmness are probably temporal – it is still pre-production time and things would get more intensive soon.

One aspect that I was curious about was to see the flows of communication, and how does something get published online. Was there any process to that? Or things were happening spontaneously? How does all this beautiful artwork make it to the Internet and what remains behind the curtains?

The production rhythm is set by the 5-day working week, which starts with a kick-off on Monday and finishes with the weekly meeting on Friday where everyone reports the progress from the week. This helps create a work routine, a sense of completeness and a feeling of achieving a small but significant step, a fragment of the whole that brings everyone closer to the final goal – the film. This rhythm sets also to some degree the pace of communication outwards. More things might appear towards the end of the week, when the goals set in the beginning start to take shape. For example, the tornado image which David Revoy made arrived on Thursday from his office in Toulouse, and after a spontaneous get-together and a moment of admiration around Francesco’s screen the image was promptly shared on the Gooseberry blog. So, there is no really structure to the publishing process, and no sort of censorship (except perhaps a pinch of self-sensorhsip up to each team member).

The sharing of material was very interesting to observe in relation to the Friday weeklies. Despite that what is reported is work in progress there is a sense of importance and rituality to these meetings. Already on Thursday everyone was thinking not only about the ongoing work or challenge to be solved, but also on how to communicate it to everyone in a comprehensible, and visually appealing way. Here it seems that the people working with the technical part experience the greatest difficulty, as they need to find inventive ways to visualize their work on coding very complicated stuff. This is undoubtedly a double challenge, but music and humour helps :)

Of course, work is not always smooth and fun, tensions might grow, exhaustion might take over, or a sudden creativity block happens. But being open with the problems and talking through them helps move constructively onwards.

The biggest challenge is though perhaps to negotiate private lives, the displacement for long periods of time from one’s own country and close friends. Many have left behind their private lives for some time in the firm belief in the value of what they are doing.

The greatest value of my stay here was the possibility to see for real the dynamics between artists and developers, and personally talk for an hour or so to each member of the team – to learn their stories, their Blender “careers” and how different the paths of joining the community, and the Gooseberry project team can be. I will need to write a different blog post on that, but it was exciting to realize the concentration of talent, experience and skill in this production.

I also learnt a lot about the craftsmanship and enormous work being done here to make a few seconds or minutes of high quality animation, and I firmly believe that sharing content and work in progress is the proper way to maximize people’s experience from the film. It is incredibly difficult for an external person to realize the details and complexity of making an animation film of industry quality. But sharing content, software and knowledge in the progress of making can really help raise the appreciation, knowledge and the understanding of the wider public of how difficult and rewarding it is to make the magic of animation.

The culture that unveiled itself during my week at the Institute is a culture of making, crafting, handwork and passion – a combination which seems to drive this sort of open projects, and the openness is needed not only to transform the film industry, but also to transform audiences.

Leaving the institute makes me sad, but also happy to get the chance to start working on writing in greater detail about the mechanics of all this, and the way people make it happen. Thank you Anthony, Dalai, Francesco, Hjalti, Lucas, Mathieu, Matias, Pablo, Sarah, and Ton for your time, openness and help during my stay. Until next time.

Trying the new pencils
Buying brushes
Matias got a photo table! First storyboards.



Talk at Virtual Work conference

I have been for a week now at the Blender Institute during the production of Gooseberry, interviewing people and following the production. It has been a totally awesome experience about which I will blog soon in a separate post.

I am leaving tomorrow morning in order to present some work in progress ideas during the international conference “The Dynamics of Virtual Work” in Hatfield, the UK. There I will be sharing some first thoughts on two themes that I will be developing in my dissertation on open content movie production.
1. The craftsmanship in this sort of productions
2. The creation of value – staying between commodity and commons.

The first material and inspiration to write on these themes comes from my hands-on experience in creating the first video training on Synfig.
The title of my talk is “Workflows, labor and value in open animation production: an ethnographic study of a distributed animation training creation” and here you can get the short text and the slides of the presentation (don’t be too critical on designs pls). They are also available in the Repository section in the blog.

Talk at Hacker Public Radio

In November 2012, Konstantin Dmitriev (Morevna project leader) and I gave a talk during FSCONS on Open Animation Projects: state of the art, problems and perspectives. @alltinomit took then an interview with us for the Hacker Public Radio which was put online and streamed today. In this interview, Konstantin and I talk about the many projects that are initiated with the idea to be “open movie” but that often quickly die out; we talk also about making animé with Synfig Studio, and ongoing developments in 2D animation and Morevna open movie project.

Listen to the interview here!