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The Blender Conference 2019 marked a turning point in the history of the most popular open-source 3D software. The new venue, the Compagnie Theatre in Amsterdam, is essential in trying to restrain, at least metaphorically, the enthusiasm of a community with increasingly disruptive numbers. It is really hard, today, to define the boundaries of the unprecedented evolution and success this piece of 3D free software has experienced. One thing is for sure: the computer graphics industry can no longer ignore the “Blender phenomenon”.
Let’s have a look at the main factors that have allowed Blender to reach such a global consensus. We will also try to foresee the elements that will define its future development and to understand the potential that the open-source project can unleash over the next few years, in which the software started in 1995 by the Dutch Ton Roosendaal is expected to bloom.
A consistent identity, beyond the alternative to commercial software
There are basically two main types of 3D DCC (digital content creation) software: free software and commercial software.
It is not possible to determine whether commercial software is better than free software, or vice versa, regardless. It is necessary to analyse the needs of each production firm and find the most suitable solution to meet them, also depending on the available resources.
The so-called “software wars” are no more than chit-chat that get lots of attention in the jungle of social networks, where their respective fan bases side for one or the other software. Provided that there is one solution for all, the truth – and, therefore, the usefulness – must be sought elsewhere.
In the case of “open” software, the community generally has quite some power, being able to modify the source code. This is one of the reasons why Blender, a software created for freelancers and small creative companies, is increasingly getting the attention of the big names in computer graphics, including Intel, AMD, NVIDIA, Epic Games, Ubisoft. These companies have decided to officially support Blender’s development through donations that will allow the Blender Institute to hire new programmers to implement the development roadmaps more quickly and effectively.
Today, Blender is mature enough to even attract the attention of product brands, more and more involved in the production of 3D content for the development and marketing of their offer. The donation made by Adidas, the fashion giant that has always been very attentive to technological developments in the 3D field, has generated considerable media emphasis. Among other things, think of the recent implementation of a production line based on Carbon 3D printers, with which the Adidas 4D shoe collection is produced.
From the maker spirit to the making that companies need
Until recently, Blender was considered by the CG community as a 3D software “for geeks”. Things have changed. The Blender phenomenon has not changed internally, as its governing foundation has always remained truthful to the principles of free software – even too much! The reasons for this growth in credibility must be sought externally, most likely in the needs of 3D content creators.
One of the factors that have favoured the diffusion of Blender is certainly the most obvious, namely, the absence of licensing costs. This aspect is a significant advantage for a freelancer and even more for a company that has to deal with many versions installed on its machines. The “free” aspect is not the only factor that has determined Blender’s diffusion and predominance over the commercial solutions previously used.
One version after the other, Blender has become more stable and has enriched its suite with high-quality tools. Until a few years ago, Blender was lagging behind other DCC software in terms of functionality. Today, especially with the new version 2.80, it boasts exclusive features. Among the most popular DCC software, Blender is today the one that features the best performing real-time rendering engine. This is made possible thanks to Eevee, which the less experienced 3D users might mistake for a Pokémon, A very powerful tool, supported by a solid solution such as the off-line ray-tracer Cycles, which makes Blender an extremely performing rendering software. In addition, Blender’s suite is equipped with painting, post-production, compositing tools and much more, to allow artists to use it as the only software they might need.
However, to fully understand Blender’s success in the enterprise sector, it is not enough to consider factors such as gratuity, technical solidity and maturity – yet, essential to its popularity. The flexibility of free software would have been wasted without the extraordinary creativity of its community, always inspired by that “maker” spirit which has substantially contributed to its development. In fact, over the past few years, the needs of companies have changed significantly.
The process of digital transformation is often pushing companies to revolutionise development processes and pipelines which are the operational foundation of their business models, increasingly focused on the ability to customise products, services and solutions. In this context, traditional products are becoming “experiences”; the maker culture that until recent times was regarded by the industry with some diffidence is becoming a fundamental resource for starting truly innovative processes. The technological variety and hybridisation that constitute the basis of industry 4.0 confirm this trend.
The trust that companies are reposing in Blender is not only based on the good reputation gained by the software but also on the large community that uses it and is able to find solutions to their needs.
Blender: a software grown together with its artists
Blender has increasingly grown over the years also thanks to the artists who started using it, for example, during their university studies. With time, these users have become established professionals in the 3D computer graphics industry. Their growing influence has greatly facilitated the penetration of this software in a notoriously conservative environment such as the industrial one. Another element helped Blender spread in the industry. In some specific contexts, such as that of visual effects (VFX), productions are less and less dependent on the use of a single software since the pipelines are incredibly diversified and flexible within the same development department. In fact, it is very common to give artists the freedom to produce with the software they prefer, as long as they respect the tasks and deadlines they are assigned by the project supervisors.
Today, Blender has reached almost one million downloads per month, thanks to a community that uses it in all areas of digital production. With such a large user base, it is naturally easier to find artists and operators who know how to use Blender. In employment terms, the companies that decide to implement Blender within their pipelines are no longer forced to venture out in hasty searches, as it used to happen even in the recent past.
How does Blender development work, and who finances it?
Blender is developed by the Blender Foundation, an organisation founded in 2002, based in Amsterdam. The foundation directed by Ton Roosendaal owns the rights to the Blender brand and is responsible for coordinating the development of the official version of Blender, in addition to all the side projects, which target each several specific sub-projects. The operational branch, however, consists of the Blender Institute, created in 2007, where developers and artists work on the official Blender projects.
Given the premises, one could expect a very large organisation. Nevertheless, at the time of writing, the staff of the Blender Institute counts around 20 units. Not even close to the size of the main software houses of the computer graphics industry. This is the reason why Roosendaal himself, in the Blender Conference 2019 keynote, envisages a progressive expansion of the team, also thanks to the introduction of new key figures in the coordination roles.
Blender’s financing plan is particularly heterogeneous and is mainly based on user donations and company sponsorships. The other main sources of funding are internal projects and subscriptions to the Blender Cloud platform, which grants access to exclusive content deriving from official projects.
The open-source nature of the project is, naturally, one of the distinctive features of Blender Funding. It would not be possible to invest in Blender by acquiring shares in the Foundation. This is not a ground for venture capitalists and for all those economic entities that would expect a return on the investment made on the growth of a company. Those who support Blender through donations and sponsorships aim at supporting the development of functional software for their business. This necessarily involves technical commitment, which makes the link between the donation and the interest in developing the functionality of the software intrinsic, for the benefit of the whole community that uses it. Any exclusive feature will then be developed in-house by each company.
Stories of Blender pioneers: the strange case of Valerio
The current art director of Protocube Reply Valerio Fissolo is among those who have believed in Blender since the very beginning. After learning to use it in his university studies, Valerio immediately proposed the introduction of Blender into the pipeline of the company that had just hired him. It was 2009 when Protocube was already one of the leading companies the field of 3D printing: “It was actually my naivety that made me put forward such a proposal. Back then, Blender was not what we know it today but a very early, unstable and feature-poor software compared to the best-known commercial alternatives. Rationally, proposing Blender in a production environment was probably not the best choice. However, we were working a lot on 3D modelling and, as the team was still small, we never had problems managing our projects. On the contrary, its flexibility often allowed us to do things that would have been more cumbersome to manage with other software”.
Blender’s particular interface might be perceived a bit hard to use especially for those coming from other 3D software: “True, but also in this case – explains Valerio – I was favoured by the fact that it was the first 3D software that I had ever used, so I had no conditionings whatsoever. I must say that all the staff who has worked at Protocube over the past ten years has never had a problem learning how to use it. Of course, it takes a bit of studying, but the fundamentals of 3D graphics are always the same and, once you get over the initial difficulties, very few people I know have gone back to using other 3D software, especially for modelling”.
Now it’s easy to talk about Blender when Cycles and Eevee deliver first-class results. For many years, though, Blender was limited by its rendering engine which simply could not keep up with the others on the market: “Indeed. It was the hardest thing to deal with, not only for the rendering itself but also for the tasks that required the use of advanced shaders. With the arrival of Cycles, things have started to get better but until a few years ago, we have always had to resort to external rendering solutions, often in standalone versions, to make up for the absence of a valid internal engine. Fortunately, now most of these limits have been overcome. Actually, in version 2.80, Eevee allows you to work in real-time with an incredible quality”.
Protocube Reply uses a wide range of software and programming languages, to meet all the different needs in the various sectors of 3D production. It also uses commercial products such as Maya and Rhino. In such a heterogeneous context, Blender has become a point software for its potentialities that go well beyond the creation of 3D content: “Our goal – explains Valerio – is to use Blender as the basis upon which we develop the pipeline of solutions we offer to our customers so that they can create the content for their business needs. The open-source nature of Blender allows us to interface it in many ways. This is a fundamental feature since we deal with tailor-made projects, always different from one other”.
Curiosity – Blender: when success comes from failure
Today, Blender is a software used by millions of artists who totally ignore its origins, probably because of its relatively young history. Perhaps, not everyone knows that Blender was born of an epic failure. In 2002, after a promising start, things at Not a Number (Nan) took a very bad turn due to some unfortunate productions, forcing its founder, Ton Roosendaal, to close down for good.
At the time, NaN used Blender as the main software for its creations; during the bankruptcy process, it was one of the key assets that could help him pay off his liabilities. Despite the critical situation, Roosendaal obtained from creditors the authorisation to make Blender public and open-source, against a one-time payment of about 100 thousand euro, raised through the Free Blender campaign.
Rescuing Blender as an open-source project was the first success of the Blender Foundation, established by Roosendaal himself to open the way to what would become the dream of his life: a life entirely dedicated to Blender. A courageous act, which has borne fruit more than 15 years after those hard days, providing the whole CG community with a fundamental resource for creating 3D content. We know the rest of the story: the future of Blender is so promising that it makes us smile when we think of its troubled origins. This is one of the best examples of failures that truly deserve a second chance.
Learn more – Blender Wiki
Blender is a free content creation suite, which supports the entire 3D production pipeline (modelling, rigging, animation, simulations/effects, rendering, compositing, motion tracking, video editing, etc.). Its open-source nature allows developers to customise the application and generate scripts and plugins to meet any production need, also thanks to tools such as Blender’s Python API.
In keeping with the spirit of communities based on open source projects, the contributions to the code are shared and are often implemented permanently in subsequent versions of the software.
Blender is a cross-platform application which runs with equivalent performance on Linux, Windows and Mac. Its interface is based on the OpenGL graphic environment.
Blender is a community-driven project subject to GNU General Public License (GPL), which allows anyone to make any change to the source code. Such freedom allows developers to implement new features, continuously fix bugs and improve the overall software experience. These are the reasons that inspired Blender’s claim: “made by you”. You can contribute to Blender’s development in many ways: from testing its functions, to programming new features, and even writing the support documentation needed by the community.
For more information on Blender – blender.org
For more information on the Blender Conference 2019, check out our article
This post is also available in: Italiano