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How To: Create your own ILM for (almost) nothing


In a former life I was a filmmaker. It just so happened I was still a technology geek, so the best part of the film, for me, were the effects (and the story, natch). Up until a few years ago it would cost you tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to do things that today might cost a few hundred bucks. Gotta love Moore's Law. What I want to show you is a bunch of free (or cheap) software that will give you many of the tools used by special effects houses. As usual, you will have to know how to use these tools— no griping about interfaces or workflow. Remember what Yoda said, "Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try."

And one caveat: I'm not talking hardware. Apps like Cinelerra will run on puny systems (like 1 Ghz P4's), but your mileage will vary. So be forewarned: this ain't Engadget or hack-a-day, so nevermind the bollocks, here come the apps you'll need. Go build the biggest, baddest box you can find to make your Lucas dreams come true.

Actually, if you can swing it, you might want to consider getting a few machines, so you can use the right tool for the job:

  • One dual-AMD hopped-up Linux box running Cinelerra. Add a RAID 5 array for a video editing system, and CMS, and 3d
  • One high-end Wintel box for audio, editing text, browsing (research), image editing, accounting, and 3d work
  • One Mac mini for quickie video editing (iMovie), music production (GarageBand), CMS, 3d, DVD burning (iLife comes with the Mac, remember?)

Also, it's nice to have graphics tablets, DV cameras, some homebuilt film gear.

Enough about hardware, here's the software to get you going...

Where possible I have tried to find cross-platform apps. Unfortunately, a lot of this stuff is very niche product, so I mention the OS required for each app. See, I told you to get 3 boxes!

  • Video Editing, compositing, capture, and audio editing: Cinelerra (Linux only)
  • I've blogged on this earlier. Essentially Cinelerra is an industrial-strength audio/video editor with compositing and capture built-in. Add a RAID array for true power and security.
  • For minor audio editing and fx work there's Audacity (mentioned by our own Jason Clarke earlier). Cross-platform.
  • For stop motion & pencil tests (animatics): MonkeyJam. Windows only.
  • That venerable Photoshop replacement: GIMP. Definitely cross-platform.
  • In my opinion, the best free 3d modeling/animation/renderer app is Blender3d. Their Orange Project was the inspiration for this article. We need more of stuff like that... Blender is really cross-platform, supporting some *NIX variants too. I covered a bunch of 3d apps earlier in case Blender ain't your cup of tea.
  • Screen capture (for actors using a computer on screen, especially if they are technically challenged): CamStudio. PC only.
  • Office replacement: good ol' OpenOffice, which you'll want for writing that masterpiece. And folks, the writing is the most important part, please don't forget this. To format your script properly, here's a little template to get you started. OpenOffice can be used to do scene breakdowns, manage money, etc. You know the deal... It works on all OS'es.
  • Font management: X-Fonter. PC only. I guess you could use FontBook on the Mac...
  • Task management: Task Coach. It's PC only, though I guess for this sort of thing you could use anything— paper, whiteboards, or iCal.
  • Content management: Midgard. It's also cross-platform, and I blogged about this earlier as well. A good way to centrally store stuff, and build your intranet.
  • Storyboarding: Director's Boards (there is a free version). PC and Mac.
  • And finally (though not technically just software)... For all those props and miniature sets (yes, they still do that) you'll want to poke around MIT's official site for the always-full class MAS-863, or, How to Make (Almost) Anything. The site is full of great info for making, uh, almost anything. Though you'll have to track down things like a Stratasys FDM 2000. I think my uncle has one... There's also a little piece of the class at MIT's OpenCourseware Initiative.

So there you go! Now get out there and make that masterpiece. If you're feeling generous, give me a credit as Lead Dingus.

Tags: compositing, freeware, fx, industrial+light+magic, IndustrialLightMagic, movie+studio, MovieStudio, opensource, special+effects, SpecialEffects