November 7, 2006

Can open source methodology make a movie?

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

We all know that open source is being used to help make movies. Linux and open source software have been used in rendering farms for major pictures like Shrek, Lord of the Rings, and many others. Earlier this year the Blender project released Elephants Dream, the first movie made entirely with open source graphics software. But can the open source methodology be used to create a movie? The folks behind The Digital Tipping Point (DTP) are betting it can.

The project is an attempt to make movies about the impact that open source is having on the world, using the open source method. The first film will be largely from the vantage point of Christian Einfeldt, the producer for the project. Einfeldt says it will follow his experience from being a technophobe to embracing and advocating open source.

PostgreSQL core member Josh Berkus, who was interviewed for the film and has provided Einfeldt with some technical assistance, describes Einfeldt as "a very tireless OSS evangelist" who's helped provide low-cost Linux PCs to schools and churches in San Francisco, as well as helping to pitch to the city of San Francisco.

Berkus has also provided some technical assistance for the project. "For DTP, I've mostly connected him [Einfeldt] with the OSS technology he needed to produce it by using the OSS grapevine ('OSS digital film editors? Anyone?')."

The film so far

Much has been done toward completing the film, and much more remains to be done. About 350 hours of film have been shot and more than 120 people in the open source community from all around the world have been interviewed, including Danese Cooper, Brian Behlendorf, Bdale Garbee, Don Becker, Ian Murdock, Jon 'maddog' Hall, Miguel de Icaza, and Ted T'so.

However, only about 220 minutes of film have been posted online. The film segments are being made available on the Internet Archive under the Creative Commons Attribute-ShareAlike license. The project also has a four-minute proof of concept video on the Internet Archive and YouTube, but it's far from a completed film.

At this point, the project is soliciting help from the open source community in doing post-production work on the film -- including transcription of scenes in the archive, edits of the footage, translations, and providing plot suggestions for the film.

Not everyone shares Einfeldt's view that open source can produce a movie. Paul Donahue, who directed In the Land of Milk and Honey, a documentary about the Ku Klux Klan, was originally attached to the film as the director and is responsible for most of the camera work and editing so far. However, Donahue disagrees with the open source approach to the film and has left the project. He declined comment on the project.

The search for funding

The project is also looking for funding. Einfeldt says that the project is looking for sponsors for the film, and that they plan to hold fundraisers as well.

Einfeldt says that the project also plans to sell copies of the film, or at least one of the versions of the film. Taking a cue from the Debian project, Einfeldt says that there will be several versions, starting with the edit codenamed "Buzz." He says that there will be another version codenamed "Rex" that will be sold on DVD and through other avenues like that cater to self-distribution.

Since the video is available under a Creative Commons license, it is possible that an interested party could take the clips and "fork" the movie by making their own production. Einfeldt says he's not particularly worried about this possibility. "If we veer off too much in the direction of one company or institution, we face the threat of a fork. We like to be subject to that accountability, because the flip side of being accountable means that we are credible. If no one has forked us, it must be that we are doing the right thing."

Open source tools

Anyone who's tried to do video production on Linux knows that, comparatively speaking, many of the available open source tools are primitive compared to their proprietary counterparts. However, Einfeldt says that the available tools have been "good enough," and that he was better off spending his money on lower-end equipment and using open source tools.

"It's probably true that Apple has products ... that are 'better' when you use the metrics of people whom [Harvard Business School professor] Clayton Christensen calls 'upper tier customers'; i.e., people who are willing and able to pay a premium for a 'higher' level of functionality. But ... a beginning filmmaker like me didn't have the money to sink into tools. I needed to get a story, first. If I had to choose between dropping thousands of dollars on one hand to buy a Mac, Final Cut Pro, and all the other software I would have needed; and spending those thousands of dollars to fly me and director Paul Donahue to Brazil to meet Brazilian Culture Minister Gilberto Gil and to Munich to meet Mayor Christian Ude, guess which I would have chosen?"

The impact?

If Einfeldt and company are successful in producing the final cut of the movie, what's the likely impact? Einfeldt says that he wants to "redefine the star-making machine."

"We have already seen that YouTube, which runs on Linux, has made an end-run around the Hollywood star-making machine. It has propelled actress Jessica Rose (lonelygirl15) into a position of international prominence. Again, Hollywood's contributions are important (and coincidentally, Hollywood's domination by GNU/Linux is more pervasive than Microsoft's domination of the general PC market), but it's all about democratic control of the media. Slashdot, Digg, and YouTube are redefining how celebrities are made, and we would like to make our small contribution to changing this process as well."

If nothing else, the project is poised to prove the open source community with a wealth of raw material that may be of interest down the road. According to Berkus, "In the long run, I think this film has a more important role. I believe that open source will become the dominant mechanism of development for all intangible products within 25 years. Once that happens, we'll want this film in order that people can see where we came from. It will be an important piece of history."

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