The inexorable rise of open source

Open Source was once a curiosity and the question always asked, but how do you make money? Turns out, that's not the question. After a good decade and a half of proving the point, open source tools are enabling companies to save huge amounts of money by re-using and adapting code already written. Developers making use of open source tools are leveraging the talents of a worldwide army of programmers dedicated to making software work better.

Kathleen Maher

Siggraph for us this year was all about open source. Not that it’s new. Lord no, all those danged acronyms have been floating around for ages. Who keeps track of ‘em all?

The leading open source software applications used in content creation are developed by patron companies including, DreamWorks, ILM, Pixar, SPI (Sony Pictures Imageworks) and Weta Digital. These companies are meeting the demands of the end-users of the software. Increasingly, technology vendors are also getting in on the act. AMD, Intel, and Nvidia are notable examples and so is Autodesk, the Foundry, and SideFX.

Last year the Academy Software Foundation was founded to help maintain and nurture open software tools and additional development. As of this writing, the organization has taken on Open EXR, OpenColorIO, Open VBD, Open Cue, and Open Timeline IO. More will come. The organization looks at the relative maturity of software tools it is considering, and organizations have to apply to the AWSF for software to be included. Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) of the AWSF makes decisions.

For open software that is heavily used and shared by companies and users, it’s important that there is some way to maintain software so that it does not become corrupt. In an online paper published by Foundry that talks about the importance of open software to the creative community, Christy Anzelmo, Foundry Group Product Manager, says that the free and open spirit of the open source movement has to be tamed a bit for professional use. “With no guidelines and often little resource dedicated to reviewing and accepting updates, the standard can become stagnant or be forked into many different versions which can dilute the value of the standard.”

The founding of the ASWF is a testament to the need for a governing body. In the Foundry paper, it’s stated that of the 200 most popular movies of all time, the top 137 were either visual-effects driven or animated. It can also be said, that almost all movies made today use some form of digital effects. The planning group for the ASWF before its founding found that more than 80% of the industry uses open source software.

The studio system for content creation has changed and as it has creation has changed as has the development. We write a lot about digital transformation and nowhere have the effects been more obvious and fast-moving than in content creation. The evolution of the studios and VFX houses looks alike the opening titles of Game of Thrones. Houses rise and fall and armies of artists, directors, and producers move to the next big project. “You want a dragon?, Sure, we can make you a dragon.”

Once more for old time’s sake: the work of content creation is increasingly interlocked in terms of people and tools


Studios have recognized they have nothing to gain by keeping development work in-house. Rather, as people pick up the tools and work with them, they make them better. It’s an advantage for the roving bands of creative experts to be able to build on the work they’ve done before and to communicate. 

The driving issue for open software development has been data exchange. Almost all the early examples were for exchange formats, or strategies that will enable members of a team to share work and add on across software platforms and companies. When software companies were slow to meet their customers’ demands, their customers built their own tools and it’s been interesting to see how quickly the software companies have realized, just like the studios, it’s not to their advantage to be isolated in an industry that thrives on collaboration. 

And the software companies are finding considerable benefit. They don’t always have to build every single tool their customers might need. Sometimes it makes more sense to take an open source tool and add on to it – make it easier to use, improve the way it works in their products. They can use open source technology as a base for better, more accessible tools. 

Perhaps more important, software companies don’t have to speculate on what their customers want, customers are telling them and showing software companies exactly how to do it.  

Open Source software puts the customers in charge. They no longer have to make do with a particular vendor’s software when a certain task could be accomplished elsewhere. Open source tools are breaking the barriers between software products in both very general ways and very specific ways. 

The ecosystem for creative content is rich, and it’s diversifying. We may see some astounding changes including fewer software companies, and more streamlined product lines. Rendering will become more standardized. Content creation can become more efficient so that more time can be spent developing better content.

For now, we’re talking about the entertainment industry and content creation tools because those people and companies are engaged in highly collaborative work and the workforce is mobile but this is a trend that is happening everywhere. The pressures that have transformed content creation are also transforming the industry, architecture, transportation, journalism, and every market and activity that is being transformed by digital technology and open source, along with cloud infrastructures, distributed workflows and workers are among the solutions that we’ll see more of.  Follow the pixels, ya’ll.