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Designing on Ubuntu


on 18 October 2010

The recent Ubuntu Free Culture Showcase competition produced some good work. Lots of great photos and plenty of interesting music tracks were submitted.

But only four videos

This made me think. Why only four? Was it because we didn’t talk about it enough? Or maybe there’s just not that many Ubuntu users interested in video and animation? Or… maybe it’s simply too hard to create a nice video piece on Ubuntu?

To answer this, I set myself a challenge:

Create a short animation to promote the competition, using only free software on Ubuntu.

To be more specific: only a GUI software, no scripting or programming allowed.

Artistically, I’ve set myself some interesting constraints, too:

  • only two colours can be used: Ubuntu orange and white,
  • all visuals must be built using only one element – a circle.

You can’t get more Ubuntu than that, I thought.

Being familiar with many proprietary animation packages, from Flash to AfterEffects and 3dsmax, and having some experience with GIMP and Inkscape on Ubuntu, I estimated five days of work for a 50-second animation with music.

And here’s the result:

Ubuntu Free Culture Showcase – animated intro from Mat Tomaszewski on Vimeo.

Also, check a hi-res OGV.

The Making Of

After some initial sketching using the ancient tools of Pen and Paper, I knew what I wanted to achieve. The animation would consist of three parts, introducing Music, Video and Photo part of the competition. The background music would be (of course) the winning track from the 10.10 edition.

Since the whole animation was to be made of dots (circles), the package had to support timeline-based animation of multiple objects, I thought. That rules out tools like Processing, as they require coding.

Something like, say, Flash or AfterEffects, just Free and Open Source and running on Ubuntu.

This was the first hurdle. Neither PiTiVi, nor kdenlive or any other package I tried could do that.

Fortunately, there was Blender.

Blender’s great. Not perfect, but getting there really fast. It’s very powerful and the UI is logical and consistent, even if initially some things (like right-click to select) may seem counterintuitive. One introductory video tutorial (loads of them on YouTube) was enough to get me through the initial learning curve.

To create the effects you see in the video, I mostly used the array modifier, which can be animated using controller objects, like a path (which lenght controls the count) or an Empty (to create rotation or scale effects). Again, many great examples and video tutorials are available online.

Once the three parts of the animation were ready (each one in a separate Scene) I used the Sequence Editor to put them together.

I then used Audacity to trim and fade the soundtrack (no problems there), Inkscape to create the credits and finally rendered to MP4, using the Blender’s native renderer. To convert to OGV, I used kdenlive, which again was very smooth.

Problems? There were a few. By far the biggest of them was lack of sound in Blender. I ended up googling for solutions, but the command-line magic I applied didn’t help. I’m still not sure what was wrong, and it slowed me down quite a bit, as I had to preview using the rendered movies, rather than instant preview within the app. If there was anything that would stop me from using Blender professionally, it would be that.

Otherwise, I had some really great time. 🙂

Oh, and if you want to start blending right away, here’s the source file for the animation. Enjoy designing on Ubuntu!

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