October 2009

"Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will."

George Bernard Shaw

Given the number of free/libre and open source (F/LOSS) licensed tools, and the number of "no cost" applications at the fingertips of the artist/animator/film developer today, the ability to "create what you will" is now an option for everyone. The advent of affordable media development tools has opened up the world of media production to those who were previously locked out of the Hollywood studio system. Proprietary software including Adobe Creative Suite, Autodesk's Maya, Nuke, After Effects, Final Draft, and a litany of other necessary tools creates a financial wall so high that "will" cannot overcome it alone.

In this article, we examine a standard pipeline from a birds-eye-view for anyone with a will to create an Indie film. Without breaking the bank, the entire film development pipeline is achievable using F/LOSS, no cost tools, and content that is available under a creative commons license. This allows high quality media development for all. In many cases, these same tools are being used by the Hollywood elite.

Getting Started

Let's start from the ground up by examining available operating systems. As most personal computer users receive a copy of Microsoft's Windows when they purchase a computer, it is prevalent and widely used. When using an open source pipeline, consider an open source desktop operating system such as Ubuntu or PC-BSD. If fear of the unknown is a significant issue, consider Vixta which contains all the base applications needed to get started while providing the look and feel of Windows Vista. The core F/LOSS and no cost tools include:

  • Firefox web browser instead of Internet Explorer

  • VLC multimedia player instead of Microsoft Media Player

  • Skype and aMSN instead of MSN Instant Messenger

You don't have to be a Linux user to make use of this software as all of these tools are also available for Windows.

It's Called a Pipeline for a Reason

In development parlance, the process is known as a pipeline because a linear set of steps is executed to get from the starting point of an idea to the end point of a finished film. There is no single tool available to complete the entire task of film creation. You often need to develop a chain of outputs from one tool which are used as inputs to another tool in order to create the final product. This series of steps is the pipeline. By using a top-down design approach, you can easily define each of the smaller tasks and find the appropriate tool for accomplishing each. For example, a three dimensional animation production can be broken down into the following steps:

  • art and story

  • layout

  • modeling and environment

  • rigging

  • animation

  • lighting

  • composition

  • editing

  • mastering

  • distribution

The process is actually much larger and it takes a significantly more detailed pipeline to complete the production, but the idea is that a pipeline defines a work flow and tool requirements. The final pipeline will vary from project to project, depending upon what the final product requires, but this is the nature of media development. Once you have defined all the tasks that you need to accomplish, you may then use a combination of tools in sequence. All productions, whether they be blockbuster high budget films or Indie projects, have to define their workflow and pipeline.

Story Is Everything

A common saying in Hollywood and in the halls of successful media development studios is that "story is everything". Consider your story and how it will unfold. Before beginning your research, download CELTX. Started as a simple script writing application, CELTX has become a popular pre-production tool containing a system to collect thoughts to be used for later reference in writing and planning. Another option for research notes is a desktop wiki notepad like ZuluPad.

As the plot progresses, the action rises due to increased pressure on the character. This creates tension and suspense for the viewer. This pressure builds to a point where the protagonist confronts the central conflict in the story and resolves it. This sequence of events plays an important role in the structure of a plot. If the sequence does not give an impression of rising action and increasing suspense or danger, the plot will appear to be disjointed and illogical. In early production when the plot is still being defined, mind mapping or outlining software such as FreeMind or Cmap can be used to help organize thoughts. Good screenplay and production management templates are available from Dependent Films. Just remember the adage from Alfred Hitchcock: "The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder". Once the script is complete, it is time to consider the production management requirements.

Production Management

Unless the film is written as a one-man show, it needs the assistance of others with tasks such as acting, voice recording, and production. This usually means managing investors, partners, employees, actors, and artists. Like any project that needs managing, communication and collaboration are the key contributors to success. It is important to keep the information about the production current and available to all the key stakeholders in a central location. A LAMP server running a groupware solution like dotProject provides a useful project management and communications solution. While not designed specifically for arts and media production, this solution offers plenty of tools for project management, including:

  • messaging

  • calendar

  • to-do lists

  • contact lists

Other F/LOSS groupware solutions are available and OpensourceCMS provides descriptions and comparisons. If a LAMP server is outside of your technical comfort zone, a service like Zooce offers online film budgeting production management services. Gantt Project or Planner provide alternatives to Microsoft Project management software.


One of the primary pre-production tasks is budgeting. OpenOffice's calc program provides a spreadsheet application that is useful for preliminary budgeting and targeting tasks. Budgeting templates are available from Dependent Films. Google Docs provides a no cost, web-based spreadsheet application.

Any production will have expenses, and virtually every film location has tax credit systems to encourage media development in their jurisdiction. Although a spreadsheet makes sense for budget estimation and analysis, a financial accounting system is also necessary for bookkeeping. F/LOSS packages include TurboCASH and GNUCash. These programs provide an inventory management solution, distribution network management software and a customer database. A comprehensive list of calculators can be found here.

Any film production will need a number of management forms, documents, agreements and structured documents. Paul Zadie and Dependent Films offer many different kinds of documents such as Cast Information Sheets, Continuity Notes, Daily Production Reports, Equipment Checklists, Likeness and Usage Agreements, Location Agreements, Script Agreements, and Shot Breakdowns.

Another important pre-production task is pre-viz, or the pre-visualizing of the film and story boarding. CELTX doubles as a storyboarding tool. OpenOffice's Impress could also be used to create a storyboard presentation. A recent trend is the use of animatics as a primary pre-visualization tool. The 3D modeling and animation software Blender 3D is an option. First and foremost an animation tool, Blender 3D was used with some success in the planning of Spiderman 2 and in the creation of the open source shorts Elephants Dream and Big Buck Bunny.


Minimally, publicity means a website and production blog. This can be as simple as a no cost account on Facebook, Myspace, or Google's Blogger. A well crafted themed website that is cohesive with the film's plot can be created using a WYSIWYG webpage editor such as Nvu, the open source equivalent to Adobe's Dreamweaver application. Imagery can be easily added using the vector graphics program Inkspace and the image manipulation program GIMP. A content management system (CMS) such as Joomla or Drupal provides a modular design, making it easy to add virtually any feature imaginable to the website.

Post Production

Post production is probably the most software intensive portion of the whole process. This is where you edit film, insert visual effects, post-produce audio, mix, composite, colour correction and lighting correction. Blender 3D will likely be the main pillar of the post-production F/LOSS tool shed, but it is not Non Linear Editing (NLE) software. There are a number of NLE options in the open source world with the most popular being Jahshaka, the open source equivalent to Adobe's After Effects. A simple cross-platform option is Avidemux for assembling footage. A system such as Wax or ZS4 can be used to perform compositing, visual effects and the NLE function in one application similar to Adobe After Effects.

Blender 3D was initially the open source version of Autodesk's 3D Studio Max, or Maya. Designed as a modeling and 3D animation application, it can be utilized for everything from titles, to visual effects, green screening and matte production, compositing and editing. Combined with matchmoving software such as Voodoo, you have the tools required for sophisticated visual effects like inserting virtual objects into live footage.

Audio post production is another unavoidable task and the most popular solution is Audacity for recording and mixing of audio. Ardour provides more than 200 plug-ins providing different filters, processors and effects. Audio effects and foleys are available from freesound.org under a Creative Commons License to polish the sound of your project.


In the end, the world needs to see your creation. It may be easy to forget that file formats such as AVI and Quicktime are proprietary formats, and in the bigger picture, this is not really an issue. Your choice of export formats matters little because of the prevalence of free players. The open source format OGG Theora by Xiph provides compression ratios and quality comparable to MPEG-4.

If your distribution plan includes DVDs, you can use Avidemux to encode your video in MPEG-2 format. DVDStyler can be used to create a navigational menu system and a DVD image can be burned using ImgBurn. The disc image can be tested with the VideoLAN player.

A popular no cost distribution channel includes YouTube or a peer-to-peer file sharing system such as BitTorrent.


We have examined the film production pipeline in all phases to show that excellent open source and no cost alternatives exist to the standard proprietary software pipeline. This article is by no means comprehensive and omits the specific examination of open source rendering software, such as Pixie which was used in the Lord of the Rings movies and provides a viable alternative to Pixar's Renderman. To further emphasize the legitimacy of open source software and tools, Hollywood productions are regularly looking to open source solutions in their productions.

Recommended Resources

30 Must-Have Video Apps

Mohawke's Best of the Best Free and Open Source Software Collection

Toolshed @ filmmaker.net

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