My travel schedule fell in place pretty well this year to allow me to stop by in Amsterdam and attend the Blender Conference 2012. I used to live in Amsterdam and I still visit at least once a year. I’ve been a Blender user for 2 years and a fan of the open-source software and community for nearly ten years. And this week was Blender’s 10th year anniversary! I’ve known Ton for over 5 years so it was good to have the opportunity to spend 4 days in Amsterdam to see old friends, meet new ones and mingle with the Blender community.
There was about 200 people I think. The theater at De Balie was standing room only when a big event was scheduled there. Most of the time the talks were split between two rooms and it was pretty busy. I was in charge of speaker assistance which meant that I was the time police: it’s hard to have to ask people to stop when they are presenting interesting subjects! A necessary evil I’m afraid because if everything would be loose the schedule would get out of whack and we don’t want that, do we?
There was technical talks and workshops and there was more general ones (talks here). I attended only half of the talks since I could only sit in one room at any one time. When something interesting is happening in different rooms it’s torture to make decisions. So many choices, so little time! I did miss Andrew Price’s workshop on photo realism and luckily he posted a link afterwards on Blender Guru. I thought there was a good balance of tool content and general production topics. In animation, Beorn Leonard presented an all-purpose character rig that can shapeshift (the transitions from say small boy to old man can be animated). The rig is going to be available under a Creative Commons license at cgcookie.com run by the awesome Jonathan Williamson. Hjalti Hjalmarsson gave a good example of what it’s like to animate a commercial with a small crew (Iceland Express ads).
Matthieu Dupont de Dinechin made a compelling presentation of his work using Blender as a design tool for architecture, especially in the field of sustainable construction. It was also fun to chat with him and learn about what it is like to be an architect in France. I also enjoyed the demo by Miroslav Horváth showing his work using Blender as a terrain tool for large open worlds (in gaming and military simulations).
Bart Veldhuizen (BlenderNation, BlenderNetwork) introduced Shapeways, a 3D printing service where he’s also a partner. Shapeways is closely connected to Blender not only because of the founders but also because all online renders and turnarounds are performed using Blender. Last summer I printed some objects from my Shellforms series and I was very happy with the execution and delivery. It looks Iike an awesome way to make jewelry too or just about anything. Artist Dolf Veenvliet showed his work with printed creatures called Entoforms and some cool programs he designed (one of them creates spaceships based on someone’s name). He was printing stuff right there on a Makerbot 3d printer. Although it makes stuff out of plastic Dolf said there’s a material that is biodegradable. There is a revolution happening in the area of personal 3D printing. Today a Makerbot printer costs around $2000 and will print about anything out of Lego-style plastic. Of course the finish isn’t as polished as work done by Shapeways but it’s great for fast prototyping and even printing spare parts (Dolf showed how he printed parts for his Russian car!)
Alban Denoyel and Cédric Pinson introduced sketchfab.com, an online 3D content publishing platform that is particularly impressive. Using Blender technology they can display models and scenes very fast in any browser which makes it particularly suitable for browsing 3D assets libraries in a very interactive fashion. One even wonders why companies such as TurboSquid or Blendswap haven’t implemented Sketchfab yet. And after this conference I wouldn’t be surprised if Shapeways would vamp up their online display and shops by integrating Sketchfab into their site.
Among other innovative uses of Blender Mike Pan and Rise Riyo explained how they used Blender at the Harvard Medical School to create a Molecular Flip book. Also in the science visualization field, Helmut Satzger from the Leibniz Rechenzentrum in Germany gave us an overview of the supercomputer they just got built there and how it’s used for scientific visualization. The computing center produced a stereo film using Blender to showcase the different uses of the facility. Helmut also showed me some of his work using Blender to visualize proteins and it was fascinating and inspiring. Also here is a link to a course showing how to create such visualizations (Link will let you download an iso file).
Some presentations were out of my level of comprehension/understanding/interest and most of the time jet lag got the best out of me in the early afternoon…. There was plenty of coverage and making of Tears of Steel of course. This film is an achievement in the sense that it took Blender to the next level as a VFX tool (tracking, compositing). Other interesting presentations included James Neale’s presentation of how trolls can slow down production. It was filled with humor and I think attendees will now benefit from being able to put a name on a certain type of difficulty that can cripple or slow down production. We now need a troll-o-meter, or a troll radar…
Also of interest were presentations by Mickael Bougeoisat and François Gastaldo from Octopod Studio in France. Mickael gave an interesting (too short!) presentation of physical FX and how to deal with the load on low-end computers. He presented in particular some effects shots done on a show they are developing. The files are available on their website. Mickael also wrote an awesome account of the conference in French. François gave a talk on physically accurate shaders in Cycles as well as a good overview of what physically accurate really is. Very cool stuff. Merci les Français!
Many speakers presented film projects they had been working on in the past year, providing a lot of making-of information. Quentin Geluykens and Christopher Taylor explained how they learned everything from scratch to make their awesome student film, Haunted, (which was also nominated in the Best Design category at the Suzanne Awards). They also outlined what it was like to use Blender in an educational setting, pointing at the prejudices that exist in the education world against Blender – I encounter the same bias where I teach).
Beyond the presentations the most fun at the conference was meeting new people and seeing again those I knew already. There was plenty of opportunities in De Balie’s foyer to hang out and chat. Ton also put out a nice dinner and party on Saturday night at De Krakeling with the traditional Thai Blender food (catered by a Thai restaurant near the Blender Institute where Blender crews are regulars). You won’t see the CEO of Autodesk serve dinner to his users!
The animation festival showcased some really nice work. All films can be seen online at suzanne.myblender.org (For those unfamiliar with Blender, Suzanne is the name of the monkey that is available as a primitive in Blender, sort of Blender’s teapot). The three Suzanne awards were announced after the Tears of Steel crew completed a VFX shot in 90mn in front of the audience. Although I haven’t used it yet, the new camera tracking tool seems awesome (great demo and making of by Sebastian Koenig). Best Animation: Park by Danaiel Martinez Lara, Best Design: Reversion by Giancarlo NG, Best short film: Our New World by Niklas Holmberg.
To conclude, this was a great experience for me. Since 2008 I had been wanting to go to the conference but it never coincided with my trips to Amsterdam (I missed it by a week last year when I came to run the Amsterdam Marathon). While I don’t really attend Siggraph anymore simply because I don’t find it very interesting anymore this is the kind of social, creative and learning experience we should focus on creating in the industry. With BConf, the fact that it remains anchored in a non-profit philosophy makes a huge difference. It retains a human scale and this promotes community and collaboration. Thanks Ton for building such an awesome community and thanks to the whole community for making things happen. Tot het volgende keer!
The video archives of the conference can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/user/BlenderFoundation
PS: in the foyer there was a pretty nice Blender shop, well stocked with DVDs, books and t-shirts. You can also buy Blender products here.