This week I presented at an event organised by MEP Amelia Andersotter at the European Parliament. This was a screening of three short films produced by the Blender Foundation and released under a Creative Commons licence.
I was already familiar with some of Blender’s work, the excellent Elephants Dream (the missing apostrophe is intentional) is usually named as the first totally open animated film, released with a CC licence and created using Blender’s open source software. The screening showed the popular animated short Big Buck Bunny. It was a pleasure to watch BBB with an audience, who seemed to truly enjoy the film, laughing at all the appropriate places. The other films did not get as good reception, probably because they are more genre affairs, Sintel is an animated fantasy adventure with a rather sad ending, and Tears of Steel is a live action science fiction short set in a dystopian robotic future (Matrix meets Terminator with some holodeck technology thrown in).
The most interesting aspect of the event for me was to listen to the Blender’s Foundation funding model. The videos we saw were funded by a combination of crowdfunding, private donations and public grants from the Netherlands Film Fund. There was no indication of percentages, but it seems like donations are an important part of the funding, members of the public can make contributions to have their names in the final credits, which seems to be an important incentive. Besides this, people can buy the DVD which contains, amongst other things, all software and studio data to recreate the film from scratch.
Whichever way you want to look at it, Blender’s achievements are impressive. Big Buck Bunny is a top quality piece of work that has nothing to envy other animation output out there, and if you don’t believe these biased words of praise I would encourage it to watch the short and judge for yourself. I was less enthusiastic about the other two features, but this does not detract one bit from their impressive technical accomplishments. It seems like BBB and Elephants Dream are truly original pieces of work, and this is where Blender shines. Sintel and Tears of Steel were less successful perhaps because they are trying to be more commercial, you cannot out-Hollywood the competition.
To me, the most important question from the event is whether Blender’s model can be replicated by other open creators out there. In many ways Blender is a one-off, a project that arose from an established software company that released its code under the General Public License, and now generates code, gives lessons and training, and produces original films like the ones we were presented with. It would be difficult for a similar outfit to completely reproduce this model. Other CC content creators out there use different funding models, particularly Nina Paley and Strange Company. So, how can you fund open content?
While listening to the explanation of how Blender funds its films, my inner devil’s advocate went into overdrive. Opponents of open content will say that nobody actually wants to watch these films, so why should tax payer’s money be used to finance them? The answer to such question is that this is not a debate unique to the openness movement, it is at the heart of arguments about government funding for the arts. It is impossible to convince fiscal conservatives and small government libertarians that arts funding is a worthwhile exercise for various reasons. Commercial success should not be the only measure with which creative works should be judged; if it was, then the Transformers movies would be some of the greatest pieces of entertainment the world has ever seen. If you don’t buy that argument, then it is understood that governments and public entities can encourage cultural plurality by funding artists and creators. The alternative to that model is a Hollywood monoculture, as bad a dystopian future as any robotic uprising.
But governments cannot fund everything. Crowdfunding is the next obvious step, and with the rising success of crowdfunded projects out there, this is a viable avenue to pursue. If we want to continue seeing a plurality of voices, if we are tired of the monoculture, then we the openness movement should start putting our money where our mouth is. Use the Donate button. Buy stuff. Vote with your wallet. The only way we will be taken seriously is if we continue to produce quality products released under CC licences. Open access and open source have shown valid business models, it is time to continue exploring the viability of openness in the creative industries.
Off to write this intellectual property cyberpunk story I have in my mind… maybe I can get it crowdfunded.