Q&A: Tom Musgrove Discusses Blender Development

Programmer explains the market for 3-D modeling tools and work on the Blender UI

Blender is a popular open-source software package used for modeling and rendering 3-D images. Computerworld recently spoke via e-mail with Tom Musgrove, one of the 35 active core developers on the Blender project. Besides explaining how the tool is used by 3-D artists, Musgrove also addressed complaints about the Blender user interface and discussed directions for future development.

In addition to the interview, there is an image gallery of Blender artwork and screenshots of the Blender interface.

What sort of niche does Blender fill in the market for 3-D modeling/rendering tools? Blender is a jack of all trades. Currently it is used primarily by freelance artists, students, hobbyists and those who have philosophical dedication to open source. More recently, it has started to see adoption in studios for modeling, UV unwrapping, and for its fluid dynamics. Some newer studios [use it], such as Manos Digitales Animation Studio, makers of the feature animation Plumiferos, which will be distributed by Sony Pictures and should premiere in late 2007/early 2008. [It] has adopted it for all aspects of their pipeline, including modeling, UV unwrapping, rigging, skinning, animating, lighting, rendering and effects, as well as nonlinear video editing and compositing.

Only since the Project Orange movie Elephants Dream has the Blender tool set become strong enough that it can be a reasonable choice for most aspects of the pipeline.

What types of work is it generally used for? Architectural rendering, print advertisements and game content are probably the most common usages. It is also used for music videos, television advertisements, short films and rarely for full-length feature animations. It is also used as an "add on" to address a weakness in the aspect of the artists' current pipeline, such as an animation tool for Silo, Modo and ZBrush users, or as a UV unwrapping tool for most 3-D package users.

Do you see it as superior to commercial alternatives for certain industries or applications? Blender has a few stand-out tools such as its UV unwrapping, for which it is superior. It also has multiresolution sculpting and an integrated nonlinear video editor and compositing, which typically must be purchased as separate tools for most all-in-one 3-D packages.

Also, if you need the source code or value the philosophical freedoms, then for that set of users, it is also superior.

For most current users of other major 3-D application suites, it doesn't make sense to replace their current 3-D suite with Blender. Instead, they should look to where it complements their existing tool set and whether Blender might be used to provide functionality which they are currently doing without.

There are large companies that have written a great deal of custom animation tools. For those companies, it may make sense to see what parts of their custom code could be replaced with Blender. This would likely reduce their own maintenance overhead and gain them a regular influx of feature improvements and bug fixing.

How big is the user base? I can give you an educated guess, but there aren't any definitive numbers. There are 16,695 registered members of BlenderArtists.org, the largest Blender community Web site. There were about 1.8 million downloads during 2006-2007. That only includes downloads directly from Blender.org and official Blender mirrors, so there are quite a few more downloads than that. However, downloads don't translate directly to users -- some users download it multiple times, others install to a large number of computers from a single download, et cetera. I'd put the actual number of active users probably under 100,000 and over 50,000.

Besides Windows, Mac OS X and Linux, Blender is also available for several platforms that one doesn't always see supported in open-source software products: Solaris, FreeBSD and Irix. The Irix support seems natural, considering the SGI connection, but why is it important to maintain Solaris and FreeBSD versions? Artists should be able to work on the platform of their choice, not have it dictated by their tools. Also, being platform-agnostic is a highly held free/open-source virtue. If a core developer is willing to build and maintain a port and run the regression suite to ensure that it works properly, then the Blender Foundation is willing to have it as an officially supported build.

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