Last year 3D World went behind the scenes at the Blender Institute to find out how Sintel, its most ambitious open movie to date, was able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat
Sintel was made without commercial 3D software, by a team that lacked commercial experience, and by a director who freely admits that he was a risky choice for the job.
Its production was beset by doubts, logistical difficulties, and a dangerous desire to overreach its own means of production.
And yet, it is a fully realised and highly cinematic work, with a budget that makes it the second most expensive animated film in Dutch history. It is also, at times, quite lovely.
Welcome to the strange and wonderful world of Sintel, the Blender Institute’s latest open movie.
Sintel is not the first film the Blender Institute has produced using only open-source tools and distributed under a copyleft license, making the source files available to anyone who wants them.
It was preceded in 2006 by the surreal, semi-abstract short Elephants Dream, and in 2008 by the more conventional cartoon Big Buck Bunny.
It is, however, as close as the Institute has yet come to making a Hollywood movie, in both look and format.
“Big Buck Bunny got some real acclaim,” says Ton Roosendaal, Blender’s lead developer, and producer of all three open movies. “But we really wanted to do something better this time, especially with the script
The three main goals for Sintel
There were three main goals for Sintel: to make it more visually realistic; to adhere more closely to the narrative conventions of exposition, conflict and resolution; and, above all, to make it better than its predecessors.
At the time, they seemed like reasonable ambitions – yet each was to create unexpected, and at times potentially project-ending, difficulties for the production.
At the project’s outset under the code name Durian, Roosendaal approached three people to work on the movie: Dutch comics legend Martin Lodewijk, creator of the long-running series Agent 327; concept artist David Revoy; and the young director Colin Levy, then a student at Savannah College of Art and Design.
Levy had met Roosendaal three years earlier when he worked on the open-source pavilion at SIGGRAPH while still at high school, but admits that he was surprised to receive the call:
“It felt completely out of the blue. I hadn’t even been using Blender a huge amount [in my recent work]: I’d been going more in the direction of live action. In a lot of ways, I’m lucky, but it could have been a foolish decision to hire me.”
The remaining crew were found by putting out a call for applications to the Blender community. Over 150 demo reels were submitted, of which 30 were good enough to be evaluated seriously.
But the problem was not finding artists with technical talent, but ones with production experience.
“We had a couple of people who had worked previously, but most of them weren’t even [formally] educated as artists,” Roosendaal recalls.
“The community was looking at the Institute’s previous projects, so this one had to be better. But the dilemma was that, while the film had got exponentially more complicated, the team was still drawn from the same pool of people: [they were] great artists, but not trained filmmakers.”