May 15, 2007

Art meets open source at Libre Graphics Meeting

Author: Ted Gould

Unlike a typical Linux get-together, at the Libre Graphics Meeting (LGM), half of the attendees are developers and the other half are artists. The conference, which was held earlier this month at the Polytechnique Montréal, featured speakers from as far as Australia and Europe. In three rooms, speakers presented techniques for everything from generating photorealistic vector drawings to producing full movies to magazine production.

John Bintz and Mentalguy showed how they use the GIMP and Inkscape to create their comics Last Bus and A Moment of Clarity. They described their workflow, starting with paper and pencil and eventually generating press-ready digital files, and offered tips on using the open source tools easily and efficiently. It was interesting to learn how their techniques aligned with typical comic production, both digitally and using more traditional methods.

Bassam Kurdali, the director of "Elephants Dream," a short animated movie done mostly in Blender, spoke on the process of making the movie, and the tools that they used. One of the most dramatic things about the production of "Elephants Dream" is that all of the Blender source files are available, so anyone can reuse them in their own works. Imagine doing that with Jar Jar Binks! While "Elephants Dream," like every project, had its share of problems, the project was able to achieve its goal of creating a short animated film and improving many features in Blender on the way. Bassam hinted that there may be another Blender Foundation project coming soon. He mentioned that Manos Digitales is producing a full-length animated movie using entirely open source tools in Argentina. Open source software, he says, frees them from the lock-in attached to the standard Hollywood tools, to the point that their technical director now has CVS commit rights in Blender.

One topic that came up frequently throughout the conference was the issue of licensing content. This is of intrinsic interest for graphics applications, as they tend to use and create large amounts of content, some of it very valuable. Licenses like the Open Font License and Creative Commons try to balance the creative process against more pragmatic considerations, but gray areas still exist for users and people wishing to distribute new and different types of content. The discussions presented the issues to some people who hadn't thought about them before.

The attendees of LGM were treated to the first public presentation of InGIMP, an instrumented version of the GIMP designed to collect usability data from users as they work with the tool "in the wild." With a refreshing insistence on both privacy and openness, the data is placed on a public Web server where it can be viewed by anyone. The research group at the University of Waterloo that is collecting the data plans to use if for long-term usability studies calibrated by sit-down user sessions with directed tasks. The potential benefit here is dramatic, but the data mining problem is significant and so far unproven. Another unique technique that the project is using to solicit contributions is by building avatars based on the usability data that you submit. If you mostly edit photos, your avatar has a camera. If you typically build mashups, your floor is littered with leftover clipart. This and other individual analysis tools will allow users to look at their own usage, and compare it in general to all the other data submitted. The researchers hope that a community will accrete around the avatars, and the data analysis will help members improve their usage of the GIMP.

LGM had the most female attendees of any open source conference that I have attended, but I didn't see a single female presenter. While I don't believe that there is anything inherently sexist about open source, one has to admit that there is a shockingly low participation by women. I think the increased female attendance at LGM is a good sign, but the community needs to foster participation at more levels. I would love to see brainstorming around this issue; perhaps a speaking track with only female presenters?

One of the key things that happens at a conference like LGM is that developers can talk with each other. No one has the time to read all the mailing lists, but still no one wants to solve a problem that is already well understood. In open source we don't have time to relearn everything, but we do have the time for a beer with friends every once in a while.

Special thanks go to Louis Desjardins and the rest of the organizing committee for planning and executing the conference wonderfully, and to the many sponsors who helped make it happen.

Ted Gould is a cofounder of the Inkscape project. He made a presentation on SVG at LGM.

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