What‘s next in Blender?

At FMX 2O18 we caught up with Ton Roosendaal – head of the Blender Foundation and the guy who turned the package into an open-source tool. And when you are already in Stuttgart, why not ask a few questions?
Blender 2.8 Viewport design mockup by Paweł Łyczkowski, suggesting fresnel wires over a Cycles preview
Blender 2.8 Viewport design mockup by Paweł Łyczkowski, suggesting fresnel wires over a Cycles preview

Ton Roosendaal, who has had a background in Industrial Design before founding the animation studio NeoGeo, was involved in the software Development of Traces, an in-house tool which eventually became Blender as we know it. In 2002, with the help of a large and enthusiastic user community, the non-profit Blender Foundation was founded – and to this day Ton is its head and the development of Blender goes on. Ton served as Producer for the open-source movies from “Big Buck Bunny” onwards – and currently, the major release 2.8 of Blender is in its final stages.
You can follow his feed on Twitter (@tonroosendaal) with discussions on Blen­der, updates on the newest development stages and the best open-source projects from around the community.

DP: With Blender Cloud active for a little time: What will happen next in the Blender environment?
Ton Roosendaal: The Blender Cloud is going strong – about 4.000 subscribers who support the Blender Institute, so we can hire developers and artists, and produce the independent open-source movies. The development of the cloud is going for more features – shared assets, asset management in general, a solid versioning system, and access to render services. All of that usable in Blender, and of course open-source software. The cloud is meant to grow – we opened new offices in Amsterdam – 850 square meters, which is quite nice. So now we have the space for developers and for training, because we see a need in the industry for education and training. Many studios are interested to find out more about Blender and how they can integrate it into their pipeline. We can’t kick out all the Maya and Max licenses, but for different tasks like rendering or texturing Blender is very useful, and we want to make those kinds of trainings available from Amsterdam.

Ton Roosendaal and this year‘s FMX mascot (left)
Ton Roosendaal and this year‘s FMX mascot (left)

DP: The Blender Cloud already has a big area of shared assets from around the world – thousands by now, and still growing rapidly. Are the assets from the open-source movies also in there?
Ton Roosendaal: The possibility to make your own assets available in a user-friendly way is in progress – we share the files in the usual manner, obviously, but an integration into the Blender Cloud is not quite ready. We have a local version where the assets – like for example all characters from “Big Buck Bunny” – will be available in a meaningful way, with animation, rigs, textures, and models connected in a usable fashion. But quite soon entire repositories of the films will be available there as well, we just have to prepare the servers for the amount of data. We don‘t want them to go down (laughs).

The new Workspaces will allow a more efficient personal workflow without subtracting any features.
The new Workspaces will allow a more efficient personal workflow without subtracting any features.

DP: So what is on the top of your priority list right now?
Ton Roosendaal: Currently we are working with a higher priority on a versioning system, where people can commit and check out assets, and set up projects to work together. I am so surprised every time I see it: Many small and medium-sized studios – from 5 to 50 artists – do not have a decent versioning system, they simply use file001, file002, file003final, file003finalnowforreal … and from a software development background, I am very used to fast versioning – you fork and copy your projects, you make new versions, you commit them to logs, you rewind back – this is normal in software development. But in CGI? You shouldn‘t have to worry about the correct naming of yesterday’s version – that is something a software can do. Obviously, bigger studios use software like Shotgun or fTrack, but that is a lot of work to get going and maintain, and there are about 100 studios in the whole world who have the capacities and the need for a system as big as this. But there are hundreds of thousands of people working in smaller teams for whom a setup like that would be a big help, and with the Blender cloud and its shared projects, we can help the artists. So that is our main target for 2018 – rolling out versioning and projects.

DP: And how will that tie into the recent development versions of Blender with Workspaces?
Ton Roosendaal: We will need a bit of history with that … Blender became open-source when in version 2.15, and until now – Blender 2.79 – we have had about 60 releases since 2002. Sometimes we skipped numbers, sometimes we had an „a“ and a „b“ release. And with 2.5 we had a complete overhaul of the interface – for many people that was the point to take Blender more seriously. Before that, it was a bit of an antique system from the 90s. With 2.5 we started to modernize everything – a modern UI, more stable code and so on. And because of that overhaul, we have a lot of leftover tasks, that can be grouped as workflow enhancements. This spawned the Workspaces feature. For most people workflow is a personal thing – or sometimes a corporate thing. There is the Texturing Department that only does textures. And there are Level Designers who make levels. So with Workspaces, people can turn Blender into a tool for Texturing Artists and a different tool for Level Designers. Both of these toolsets – which are obviously just examples – are a subset of tasks available in Blender. For example: As a Level Designer, you don‘t need python tools or simulation control. And the Animator in the seat next to the Level Designer doesn‘t need texturing and lighting functionalities. Both can configure their individual workspaces with only their tools. Every Blender Component can be customized for the specific work – including shortcuts and available tools. So, this will be a very efficient way of working through a production.

New tools, new interface: First drafts and ideas as the Blender team is discussing and developing the next big release.
New tools, new interface: First drafts and ideas as the Blender team is discussing and developing the next big release.

DP: What would that mean besides structuring the departments in the studio?
Ton Roosendaal: Beside the day-to-day artist work, there are two things I am very excited about: One is something we currently call „Blender 101“, which is the simplest version of Blender you can think of – something that you can give to kids. It could be – for example – a row of monkeys, a row of materials, and a viewport. You drag a monkey into the viewport, then you drag a material on top of the monkey, and you can rotate and move it. And that‘s it, you cannot do anything more. This would be suitable for small children to teach them how to navigate in a 3D space. One by one, you can enable more features like manipulating the axis or moving things around, color work on the materials or whatever – depending on the preferred curriculum. Everything Blender offers will be configurable, and you can turn it on and off, and with that – in the most radical way – you can turn off everything, and bring it back one by one.
The second thing I think will be very interesting is an application template system where you can enable and disable all areas of the UI and their functions. For example, you could do a training for animation and just enable the corresponding tools to make it easy for the attendees of the training to focus on the necessary tools and not be distracted or confused with all the other stuff going on. As a working artist, you can, for example, have your sculpting tools ready, but not the particles stuff. And as any software developer knows: There are never enough buttons! We build more and more features, and there aren‘t enough buttons to show them all. But most artists don’t need that many and sometimes would prefer to actually have fewer buttons, only the ones that are relevant to them. But with this feature, everybody can choose the set of buttons they actually need for their work. In the next step I hope people will share them – it is just a little file and maybe someone thinks: „Oh, I can get the workspace from this awesome sculpting artist who optimized their UI for sculpting!“

DP: While we are talking about a new UI: Will there finally be icons in Blender?
Ton Roosendaal: Well, people coming from Modo, Maya or Cinema are very used to that – having a shelf with the tool icons. And with the rise of touch screens, it is easier to navigate with one finger. There is a working philosophy with toolbars: You select the tool you want – let‘s say “Move”. So a click there. Then you select the asset / object you want to move. Then you take another tool – let‘s say “Scaling” – and select the asset / object. So the dominant thought is tools, the secondary is selection. But Blender is different – you don‘t think “I have to use this tool, and then apply it to that”, but you select first and then choose the operator. This is called a non-modal or non-blocking workflow, which is super fast if you are used to it. You always have all the tools at your disposal, because selecting is the dominant part, and by doing that it is much faster. When you select, you have all the tools and apply them one by one. You can mix them in whatever way you need. You do not have to step out of your selection to switch tools and select again. The former version of “Operate”. Selecting is more common, because it is easier to visualize and comprehend – but also slower and in my opinion less comfortable and efficient. That being said, the interface will get icons and visual elements – users are developing and discussing versions and features and layouts as we speak. Funnily enough: When we first researched the direction, we made normal icons. Those looked nice, but where not scaling properly on high-DPI screens. And we thought they should be 3D objects which can be scaled and rendered according to the interface. Then someone had a bright idea: We do have a rendering engine and a 3D workspace, because we are working in Blender! So the icons for the new interface will very likely be perfect on any screen size and pixel density – one of the pleasures to work with 3D software.

DP: Since you mentioned rendering: What is going to happen with the Cycles render engine?
Ton Roosendaal: Cycles is by now a production rendering engine which has been used quite a lot for feature films as well as all different types of projects. Since Blender is – unlike for example Maya – an all-in-one tool, you can have a final rendered view at any point in your workflow without leaving the program. So one of the advantages is that you can bring everything together without roundtripping – all layouts and compositing and cameras and light and scenes and whatever you want. It isn‘t separate from the other departments and rendering is always available in final quality. For the next releases, the team is working on developing exciting features – Cycles is already extremely advanced, and currently the team is working on advanced hair models and volumetrics, and the main thing, of course: speed. We do have a photo-realistic environment now, which is another part of version 2.8. The viewport is almost film quality in real-time – why wait for shots from the renderfarm for hours or days when you can have it in real-time.

DP: All of this in OpenCL?
Ton Roosendaal: Yes – we have cooperation with many manufacturers and companies. For example with OpenCL – AMD helped us out and gave us two developers – one internal who worked on all things OpenCL and one we hired through the Blender Foundation to implement the framework. So last year we could have a version which is not only compatible with the other manufacturer but also platform-independent and performing very nicely on all systems. Well, on all systems that are in touch with the creative community, at least.

DP: While we are at the FMX – when looking around – what are software-packages you find interesting besides Blender?
Ton Roosendaal: Oh, that is an evil question (laughs). Well, to be honest, the texturing workflow by Algorithmic is such a workflow-lifesaver. One can work ten times faster when texturing and preparing the models, so there is a reason why people love those tools – it is a fantastic procedural software.

DP: The final question: What will be featured in Blender 4.0?
Ton Roosendaal: That is difficult to answer – 3.0 will probably be coming out in 2030. But on our roadmap for the next few years, we are working with studios on animation tools – we call it „Animation 2020“. This is a result of animators being disappointed with the death of Softimage. We are setting up projects to get as good as possible character animation tools. But that is short-term – in the next couple of years. In parallel, we are building an open-source pipeline for a feature film we are developing – a couple of studios and partners will participate and we want to share and develop a complete pipeline for all the necessary parts. Currently, we are raising funds. That is what takes up most of my time these days – I want to make things, especially movies. It is the most fun thing to do. “Agent 327” – the comic – will be the basis for that. We have obtained the rights for the comics and it will be an amazing movie playing in the 70ies in Amsterdam, with international spies and adventures. And for the far future? I think, as artists we will work always in completely photo-realistic renderings – be it VR, AR or a normal screen. If you think about it, there is no reason to see a wireframe, except for technical analysis. So, I hope that in 10 years, we can all work with photo-realistic images in some sort of space and across the whole world.

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