The bleeding-edge special effects in director Peter Jackson's latest offering are delivered by artists such as Weta Digital CTO Milton Ngan. Ngan, who also counts Jackson's Lord of the Rings films among his credits, points up the contributions of open source software developers in producing the fantasy works. While open source software and development is not directly used in creating the effects for such films, Ngan said it is an integral part of delivering the movies by improving workflow.
NF: You indicated last year that open source had improved the process of making the sequences of films you've worked on. How?
Ngan: Open source projects are primarily used in the "glue" code that helps us automate our workflow. From the plethora of projects, user contributions and patches, we are able to pick and choose the appropriate solution or enhancement that saves us time in development, and ultimately time in execution. From a systems perspective, we can rapidly pull together solutions without having to go through a lengthy procurement phase in order to implement it. All of these things are useful when we are under time pressure to solve problems and keep the production running.
NF: What free and open source software was used in making scenes for Kong?
Ngan: We have not employed any open source technology directly to create visual effects. As I mentioned before, we use it primarily in the workflow. Our web applications are developed using open source technology. So the big projects we use would be the usual LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, Perl/PHP/Python). ImageMagick also gets a bit of a workout every now and then.
The reality is that no open source project is likely to be as good as the commercial software for generating visual effects. The amount of resources that are spent on the software means that the software vendors can attract the brightest minds to work on some very esoteric yet interesting problems that occur in visual effects.
NF: If you broke down the factors that helped make these films what they are in terms of special effects and cinematography, how important is open source software?
Ngan: Automation, information management and systems are the big areas where open source plays a big part. You can have all the fancy effects and cinematography you want, but unless you have a pipeline to process it efficiently and reliably, you won't have a finished product. So the time and effort put in by our developers and the rest of the open source community is important to the work done by the visual effects artists.
NF: How aware and willing is the visual effects segment of the film industry when it comes to using open source software?
Ngan: I believe that many of the other effects facilities use open source in much the same pragmatic way we do. Many of the big facilities are running a flavor of Linux, some using 64-bit Linux, others not. Some are running Red Hat Enterprise Linux or SUSE Linux Enterprise Server, and others Fedora. It is a bit of a mixed bag depending upon the size of the facility.