Featured Project: Wires for Empathy
14 August, 2013

In order to further share and showcase our members' projects, today we start another series of interviews, focusing specifically on this subject.

The first project we are going to look at is the Wires for Empathy, a short film project by Bassam Kurdali. You might have come across this trailer, recently released on YouTube.

We have reached for Bassam, and asked him a few questions.

Bassam, what is your background and current professional field?

I've what you might call an interdisciplinary background, having studied Engineering and Animation/Film. Currently I'm an animation-director for hire and all around 2D/3D generalist. My main focus on the Wires for Empathy is in direction, storyboard and concept, as well as pipeline tools, rigging and character tools. But I've done a bit of everything else too, from modeling to animation to lighting.

What is the scale of the Wires for Empathy's production?

The production of Wires for Empathy/ Tube is, in a word, epic. For our small budget, the film has a pretty huge scope, in almost every way except for dialog (multiple sets, several hero models, crowds, background animation, vfx). The film has been in development in one form or another (storyboard, preproduction, production, fundraising) since 2008. At any given moment, you might find 5 to 10 people working on the project, some locally, some remote, most of them part time- over the course of the project, we have had perhaps around 60 contributors. More on this in the next question :)

How does the use of FOSS influence the production?

My answer to this is related to the previous question! Tube's production dynamic is largely akin to a FOSS project and less like a traditional animation - you can really think of team members as contributors, who work on an asset here or there, committing their work into our SVN repository. Our use of FOSS is both an inspiration and an enabler for this type of work: there are no barriers in terms of software licenses, platforms, etc. That could prevent an otherwise eager artist from contributing. At the same time it is gratifying that all of the production development and knowledge is feeding back into the commons, not locked up in some corporate pipeline repo.

How much of the pipeline is covered by Blender?

Well, pretty much all of the 3D is Blender, though we don't insist that modelers *have* to use it (though the vast majority of them do) since importing models is pretty much trivial. Once you get past that stage, all the animation, lighting, compositing and so far video editing is done in Blender. for 2D we don't generally use Blender, but there is a host of existing FOSS tools (Krita, Mypaint, Gimp, Inkscape) that help on this task. We're also using FOSS pipeline tools - Helga, SVN, Attract, etc. to manage the project.

What are the daily production challenges?

Differs from day to day: Every production is interspersed with a series of disasters, minor or major, that have to be dealt with. In addition to this, we are a really long running project: files that worked in our first version of blender that we used, must continue to work in newer versions, up until the final render.

That means we need to keep everything, scripts, assets, rigs, etc. working in newer versions of blender, and of course, cross platform and for the slightly differing setups our diverse team has. This has actually gotten better over time, thankfully we also tend to write tools to automate such fixes for the future. Another major challenge in a long running production is keeping morale going, people have a need for milestones so it doesn't feel like an exhausting battle. The trailer was actually a huge moment for all of us as it allows the team to see a finished 'thing' along the way.

Do you have a release plan for the film?

We have a couple actually, and will probably combine them- a mixture of 'slow and steady'- i.e. remote and part-time and local people working at their own paces surely finishing shots and assets- we have a good track record of always making progress- coupled with one or two months of intensive, studio style work with a full time team in one place. If we pull it off, expect a release early in 2014.

What is going to be the approximate cost of the production?

Well, that final push is going to cost something for sure! and it is hard to put a dollar amount on free contributions, but I think setting it somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 is not out of the question, if you factor in:

  • Cost of the facilities (the studio, workstations, renderfarm, IT support, electricity, etc.) that is furnished by Hampshire college.
  • Grant and Fundraising money that directly funded the core animation team and got us to where we are now.
  • Donated time and effort by our entire crew
  • Out of pocket expenses for e.g. travel and housing, getting people to the studio, etc.
  • Future costs to finish the final parts of the film

Please share any additional thoughts!

Not much to add except: there is often the feeling that working on computer animation is an isolating experience - you bury your head behind a computer monitor and the world goes away - and while there are long stretches of this, I feel this project has strengthened and created connections- artists, backers and FOSS developers - this feels very much like a community experience. So thanks to everyone who is making the Wires for Empathy :)

We wish Bassam the best of luck in wrapping up the project! You can follow the development of this epic open movie production at the urchn.org website, as well as on twitter.