Industry of Change: Linux Storms Hollywood
The industry has learned that the secretive nature of their business is in its twilight, soon to be replaced by the more sharing nature of the open-source world. The cooperative spirit required to move the industry to Linux is allowing studios to solve common problems more quickly. Pixar's Peachey says his studio welcomes the change:
We're all competitors in one sense or another, but [migrating to Linux] has helped us share a little more than we historically have about our thoughts and plans. Not surprisingly, those problems are very common across the many studios. We're starting to see that if someone solves a problem that isn't central to the art we do [as individual studios], and there is a technological component to that art, but many of the things we have to solve are not related to that art, there is suddenly a feeling we can all benefit from it. That's encouraging. It's fun to see.
DreamWorks' Leonard says he'd still like to see the Open Source community look toward entertainment as a partner in innovation as well as recognition:
One of the hard parts of dealing with open source is that it's still viewed as a bit of a hacker's world, as long as you're willing to hack at the code you'll get what you want. A reality for the VFX industry is that as real businesses we need to find a way to channel the talent in the open-source world so that we can get value from it.
Leonard adds that the industry is probably easier to work with for open-source developers than other industries might be:
The VFX industry is willing to take risks. Our solutions don't have to be wrapped with a pretty bow--we're willing to work together to make these things work. I think the application for what we solve together with open source can be applied to a much larger community.
Ray Feeney agrees. "We're the canary in the mine shaft", he says of the willingness the industry has to push Linux in new ways.
Still, many in the industry have concerns about working with open-source developers. One early example of conflict came about while making the GIMP, the open-source world's answer to Photoshop, better suited to the needs of film industry. GIMP is highly thought of in the industry, but the 1.2 version lacks 16 bit color channels, something the industry needs to maintain the high quality color found in films. A separate Hollywood branch of GIMP was created to solve this problem, but the solutions it offered, which were made available back to the Open Source community, weren't accepted directly by The GIMP developers. Instead, they opted for a redesign that would be more practical over the long term, but also not available for a much longer period (they still aren't available more than a year later).
Unfortunately, says Pixar's Peachey, this left a bit of a bad taste in the industry's collective mouth:
Extensions were done by the VFX industry but weren't picked up by the project. This left some members of the industry feeling that because we're a market segment different than what open-source developers are interested in, the industry can't get any open-source developer seriously interested in what the industry needs.
"The industry", Peachey says, "is interested in doing open-source work, but if you do the work and no one accepts it, how do you get that work to survive?"
Feeney agrees. "The Linux community works well with the development savvy, but how do you get film makers and open-source developers communicating? For the industry, it's a complicated issue." For example, The GIMP always has lacked a professional color management facility. There are plenty of external proprietary systems that are available and could (with the right technical work) be added to the program. But there are logistical and political issues to resolve as well, such as how those proprietary systems can be made to work with GPL code like The GIMP.
Does the VFX industry know what the GPL is or what it means and how it relates to proprietary software? Feeney says probably not. "In our community, the open-source push is great when you need to reach consensus and standards. But what our customers do requires differentiation through their own specialized approach. There is a big difference between open source and shared source." Feeney thinks that the application level that the VFX world works in is more of a shared-source world.
Despite concerns on how to work with open-source developers, the VFX industry continues its wholesale conversion to Linux. The operating system gives them more control of their own futures, both individually as studios and collectively as an industry.
At this point most of the major tools used by the industry are available. The major conference and tradeshow for the industry, SIGGRAPH, was full of Linux offerings in August 2001. This includes modeling and rendering tools, tools for distributing rendering work and 2-D compositing tools such as Avid's Softimage XSI.
While VFX is the first major industry to adopt, others may follow very soon. If Ford does deploy 33,000 Linux desktops, industry insiders say that it will likely push GM, Daimler and others to make similar moves due to the cost competitive nature of the auto business. And that will make Hollywood's Visual Effects industry move look like a silent film.
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