Open Source movie night

We've already dealt with literature and music. So how about movies? I was about to write that the first Open Source film is yet to be made. But actually, one does already exist. The first and, for now, apparently the only feature film available under the Creative Commons licence is Brian Flemming's Nothing So Strange.1

This is a so-called indie (independent) film, produced on a small budget without support from any of the big Hollywood studios. Made in a fictional documentary style Nothing So Strange is about the investigation of the assassination of the world's richest man, Bill Gates. According to the press release, the plot resembles Oliver Stone's JFK, which similarly investigated the assassination of President Kennedy, the disappearance of evidence, the silence of authorities, and other twists of plot.

What a coincidence that the first Open Source movie is about the murder of Bill Gates, founder of the Microsoft monopoly and sworn enemy of Open Source software. And actually it is a coincidence, because the film wasn't originally planned to be Open Source. In fact, it was produced according to the traditional closed methods of filmmaking. At the time, Brian Flemming may not even have heard of Open Source.

In the end, the film distributors were not interested in the film and simply refused to take it on. Apparently a film that kills off a real and hugely influential person wasn't a plot they wanted to promote - or perhaps the film was just plain bad. I can't judge that, because I've not seen it.

In order to keep the film alive, Brian Flemming released as Open Source the raw material used for the film. Considering the plot, you'd think that some Linux fans would have been interested in buying either a DVD of the actual film or, in a best-case scenario, actually have chosen to edit the film material into versions of their own, creating new endings and new twists to the plot.

Although this did give Brian Flemming's film some publicity, no Open Source movement ever really emerged around the movie. Nobody has made any alternative versions of the film and apparently nobody even ordered a copy of the DVD containing the raw material.

So, even though one Open Source movie does exist, I think I'm justified in saying that the first Open Source movie is yet to be produced. Without in any way diminishing Brian Flemming's valuable contribution to works licensed under Creative Commons, it's obvious that the great strength of the Open Source ideology is not in the publication of the final product, but in the open approach taken throughout the entire production process. Flemming has expressed interest in making a movie as Open Source from beginning to end. So, the cliffhanger now is, who will make history by being first to complete a genuinely Open Source movie?

Meanwhile, it's interesting to wonder what sort of film the first Open Source movie would be. What would distinguish it from the bulk of Hollywood productions that we can watch on television any night of the week?

If we start with the basics, naturally the film's screenplay should in itself be Open Source. It could be based on one of the classics available through Project Gutenberg, but it's more likely to be a story expressly created for the film. Lots of people would be involved in the scriptwriting process, cooperating over the Internet. Perhaps wiki technology could be employed in creating the screenplay?

Arranging the actual shoots, could be problematic for an Open Source film production, but would also provide interesting opportunities. Common to the Open Source method is that anyone, anywhere can get involved in creating or changing any given part of the product. In a film, this could pose a problem with the actors, at least those in the leading roles, who are usually the same people from beginning to end. It would be rather confusing if halfway through the movie the role of a character played by Richard Gere was suddenly taken over by Danny DeVito, only to have DeVito supplanted by the Finnish veteran actor Vesa-Matti Loiri!

To use programmer talk, the actor's person is not modular. You can't share a role among several participants. But in the future, perhaps this too will be overcome. The latter parts of The Matrix trilogy already had long fight sequences entirely done with computer-generated imagery (CGI). As computers evolve, it will be possible to take an accurate, three-dimensional, full-body scan of the actors, after which the film can be made entirely on computers while the actors themselves lie in the hot tub. As this technology becomes widespread, it will be possible for the movement and conversation of the characters to be shot anywhere, and anyone with the right skills will be able to do the animation, just as Open Source programming is done. Even today, that is already possible, if one is satisfied by making an animation feature such as Toy Story, Antz or the Hulk. In fact, such films could be made using Blender, the program I wrote about in the Third Part of this book.

In filmmaking, the Open Source approach would be particularly helpful in creating the special effects and animating the actors, because both these jobs demand an incredible amount of computing power. DreamWorks and the other Hollywood studios actually have so-called animation farms to do this work with thousands of super-fast computers all linked to one network. Their only job is to render the animated scenes, i.e. compute the finished image on the basis of the movements and other instructions given by the animator. Despite the enormous power harnessed to do the job, rendering is nonetheless slow work. It can easily take a whole night to render one scene, although with the simplest scenes one might get time for a longish coffee break.

Computer animation is ideal for the Open Source method of working. It would be perfectly possible to get thousands of volunteer Internet users to give processing capacity on their computers for the making of the next hit movie. There is already a lot of distributed computing being done. Popular topics for which distributed computing is used include the search for electronic messages in the omnipresent cosmic background radiation - in other words, extraterrestrial life.2 In its search for suitable proteins to help find a cure, cancer research makes use of distributed computing.3 And over 700 personal computers are being used in the search for mathematical prime numbers.4 The idea of distributed computing is to make use of the idle processing potential when our computers are switched on but doing nothing. Whenever a computer user is having a coffee, is out to lunch, speaking on the phone, or even reading a web page or writing an e-mail, most of the processing potential of their computer is not being utilised. The websites of the above projects allow willing computer users to install a program that will make use of that idle processing power on their behalf and send the results back to the server, which will then collate the results from all participating computers into a common database.

In 1999, an interesting result was generated by distributed computing when took part in a competition arranged by RSA Security to break an encryption based on the DES algorithm.5 participated with a network of nearly 100,000 computers and broke the encryption in less than 24 hours. Curiously, the computing power of the volunteers of was more than double that of the $250,000 super computer that Electronic Frontier Foundation had built expressly for the purpose.6 The DES Challenge clearly showed how strong the Internet fraternity is, even when it comes to raw computer processing power.7

If somebody wanted to use distributed computing to produce the special effects for a movie - no matter whether it was Open Source or a traditional Hollywood production - I'm quite sure millions would volunteer their computer power. Who wouldn't want to walk tall in a T-shirt saying, for instance: "My computer powered special effects for The Matrix.'

But for the actor problem there is also another solution. What if the film had no main characters? Today, few films have many leading roles and often not many supporting roles either. Obviously, this is because actors are expensive, but an Open Source movie wouldn't have that problem. Volunteers around the world would be keen to get involved in making a film. So why not make a movie with tens or even hundreds of smaller leading roles? The number of extras could run into the thousands - as many as one could get to show up. It's been decades since Hollywood has produced a spectacle with thousands of actors, because it's too expensive. Today, all huge crowd scenes in films are computer generated by cloning a group of perhaps twenty or so into a sea of people thousands strong. But our Open Source movie would have no problems of expense. The more people involved the merrier! Just like with Linux.

So, what we want is a script that no Hollywood studio would agree to shoot. It could have dozens of characters and thousands of extras. The events would be set around the world, in the most exotic places imaginable, and there would be so many of them that no single film studio's travel budget would be able to realize it.

Once the film has been shot, using hundreds of actors and camera crews, it would need editing and post-production work. The available raw material would be shared over the Internet and, if necessary, participating "filmmakers' would send each other material on tapes or DVDs by mail. The filmed material would be edited into vastly different segments in different parts of the world, and slowly evolve into the final film. The music for the film would naturally be distributed under the Creative Commons licence, and for sound effects there's the Opsound archives.

The resulting movie would be a true masterpiece. It would be a monument to the collaboration of hundreds of writers, composers, musicians, cameramen, actors, directors, wardrobe artists, builders, animators, and countless others.

But what would the film be about? What sort of plot would work for such a film, with hundreds of roles and locations? Ironically, one good idea for the storyline is the evolution of Linux and Free Software. After all, Free Software is created by very dissimilar people working in various parts of the world during all hours of the day and night. So what could be better than making a film about these people and their work using the Open Source method? Brian Flemming, if you're reading this, get in touch!

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