There are lots of options for creating 3D characters for animation, and they are often made from scratch by mesh-modeling artists. But it's obviously a very often-needed task, using a lot of common elements, so you'd think someone would come up with a tool to make it easier. And you'd be right. The free-software tool of choice for this task is MakeHuman. I had looked into a much earlier version of the software before, but today it is rapidly approaching the first real release, version 1.0 (currently it's at 1.0-Alpha 5, with plans to go through several more alphas still). The progress is remarkable, and this is going to be a really important tool for 3D modeling in the future.
Last night, I spent about 3 hours finally gaining "root" for my Motorola Backflip (starting from midnight...). As far as I am concerned, last night my Backflip wasn't actually mine. Now, it is. I can finally run programs that require root access, and -- more importantly -- do tethering.
When 37Signals created Basecamp, they filled a huge void in the project management market: the world was full of people who needed to actually manage projects and communicate, rather than learning the black magic of project management and its complex terminology. Free alternatives to Basecamp took a long time to develop: ActiveCollab was released around 2006, a good 2 years after Basecamp. Right now, the most established free alternatives are Project Pier and FengOffice. There are tons of non-free alternatives to Basecamp out there. They are all page-reload applications that mimic Basecamp's interface quite closely. Amongst the non-free ones, there is one I'd like to see as free software: Apollo. More about Apollo later.
Counting your blessings is good for the soul -- not to mention for convincing yourself and any investors that your project will succeed. Free culture is highly conservative, because it's possible to simply reuse ideas (and sometimes actual artifacts) with little to no cost. Here's seven things I'm really glad I don't have to worry about in designing the production model for our free culture animated series Lunatics.
Sometime back I gave a pretty strong pan review of a couple of "toys" that were not compatible with GNU/Linux -- with open standards really, since the community ensures that free software is compliant -- and were therefore nothing more than a disappointment to my kids. Recently, I fully expected to repeat this depressing experience when my brother-in-law gave my son a "Flip" digital video camera, but I was pleasantly surprised: it works exactly as it should. That seemed worth a column in itself.
Ryan Cartwright has written an article on how to backup Gmail with Getmail. It is an excellent piece, but Getmail is a command line program, and while most readers of FSM will doubtless be at home there and in configuring XML files, we also like to behave like electric currents and take the course of least resistance to get from A to B. Besides, using the Thunderbird (or Evolution) e-mail clients to backup Gmail has other advantages too. Let me explain.
People have been talking about "micropayments" since the early days of the world-wide-web, so I'm always skeptical of micropayment systems. Flattr is an interesting variation on the idea though. It's a voluntary system, without the overhead or chilling effects associated with "pay walls" and it puts donors in control of how much they spend, allowing them to split their donations among beneficiaries based on a monthly "pie" model. The greatest asset of Flattr is its simplicity of use -- similar in many ways to the various social networking services that abound on the web today. Flattr may well succeed, and it may fill a niche of financing small projects from free software to online videos.
Often, when modelling in 3D, it's necessary to create a "backdrop" panoramic image. Typically this shows sky and distant land which should appear behind the foreground action. One place we'll need this for the pilot to Lunatics is for the sky in Baikonur, Kazakhstan on launch day at the beginning of the story. I had some very particular ideas about how this should look, and I want to create just the right look. Here's how I constructed it.
One of the great advantages of using a free license for a work is that you can re-use a growing body of free-licensed source material to help you do it. But it can seem a little daunting to find the material that you both want and can legally use. Here's a little bit of my strategy, a few tips, and some sources, including Jamendo, which I found to be the most useful for finding music. I also touch upon some useful free software tools for listening and sorting tracks.
An animatic is a kind of a rough sketch for a film. It's not really meant to be an artform in itself (although some reach that point), but it is rather intended to be enough information for the filmmaker to make intelligent production decisions. It also must be cheap and easy, since effort that goes into the animatic will not appear in the final film. I have not yet fully decided what tool is right for doing the animatics for Lunatics, so I'm doing some experiments with different tools in order to decide. In this column, I'll create an animatic for a short sequence from the pilot.
How do you get a flurry of images in your head into a concrete description of a film so that you can produce it? One important step is to create storyboards. For the storyboards on Lunatics, I've used a variety of approaches, from rough sketches on index cards to found photos and collages. This has allowed me to collect my ideas and get them into a concrete form -- both as cards I can manipulate directly and as images on computer that I will later be able to turn into an animatic.
I found a useful sound effect in an online video from NASA which replaces an earlier temporary sound I used in a scene soundtrack for the Lunatics pilot, "No Children in Space." I'm going to extract the sound from the video (with VLC), cut out the sound I need, clean it up, and insert it into an existing sound mix (all with Audacity). This should give you some insight into using Audacity and a VLC on a real project.
For Lunatics, we need several space vehicles. For a few of them, we have existing free-licensed computer models that we can use, but others are not so easy, or need customizations. The Soyuz launch vehicle is one of these, and it was relatively easy to model, since launch vehicles are geometrically simple (basically a bunch of extruded cylinders and cones). In Part I, I'll demonstrate the basic modelling techniques I used to create the Core Stage.
Sometimes life is very circular. Once upon a time, I was a film major. Then I was an astronomer, then I was unemployed for quite awhile, during which time I discovered free software, and as a result of my various rantings about it, I started writing for Free Software Magazine. Now it seems that I've become a film-maker again. I'm working on not one, but two animated science-fiction films using free software tools, intended for a free-licensed release on the internet under new distribution models. And, being a writer, I'm going to write about it. I think it will be both entertaining and useful.
I've been editing the Philippine Star Trek fans' section of the New Worlds Alliance site for a few months now, and the contributors have been submitting their articles embedded in the email message. I actually prefer that to an attached file, because I can read the article right away, without having to open another application. When I'm ready to edit, I ask GMail to create a Google document out of it. Trouble is, the resulting file has hard new-line characters after every line, and a double new-line between paragraphs. I could cursor to the end of each line, delete it, and type in a space, but my inner sloth told me there had to be a better way.
My son's hand-me-down motherboard recently gave up the ghost, and I decided that was a good excuse for an upgrade. Shopping around, I found that multi-core CPUs were finally in my price range, so I decided to build him a quad-core system. This build worked out extremely well, with almost no configuration problems, not even for accelerated 3D graphics or ALSA sound -- all using the latest Debian GNU/Linux (which means it'll also work with Ubuntu or other derivatives). This one has that "classic" feel -- everything just clicked into place. So I wanted to document it here. This also serves as a technology update to my earlier article on selecting hardware for a free-software-friendly system.
As I was working on a sound track project for a science-fiction film I've been working on, I remembered reading an article in Free Software Magazine, by Gianluca Pignalberi, in which he described filtering using Gimp and a command-line program then called "ARSE" (version 0.1). The program is now called "The Analysis & Resynthesis Sound Spectrograph" ("ARSS", now version 0.2.3). Combined with an image editor of your choice (I also chose Gimp), it also turns out to be a very interesting way to make original sound effects -- by painting the sound spectrum.
The Morevna Project aims to create an animated film in a modern anime-style retelling a very old Russian folktale known as "Marya Morevna". It's a free culture production project pushing the envelope in several ways -- entirely using free software tools and releasing under the free Creative Commons Attribution license. The project is purely community-based, without any foundation funding, so they can probably use your help. Joining could be a terrific learning opportunity, whether your interest is in literature, music, animation, or software development.
GNU/Linux has never been short of audio and video players, but they live in a world of multiple codecs, chief culprit amongst them being MP3, AAC, WMA and (Adobe) Flash. I say "culprits" because they are not free and open codecs. They are encumbered by patents; most websites with embedded audio/video use them and most of the people who view them are also using other patented software: Windows. GNU/Linux is a good alternative and all distros come bundled with free and open multimedia alternatives too: Ogg. You would not be surprised that these players can handle Ogg but what if I told you that Mozilla's Firefox browser could not only handle this codec but could be used also to transcode videos to that format? Interested? Read on.
In my recent article on QDVDAuthor, I skipped over the task of making a videoloop for the main DVD menu. Here I'm going to show you how I did it. The goal is a short loop of video that smoothly transitions through five different video segments and back to the beginning again. The audio is shaped and lowered to make it more or less even and not so distracting (loud menus can be obnoxious if they are left running).