Made for Everyone
3D World charts the unconventional 26-year journey of Blender, from attic to industry outsider, all the way to legitimate 3D contender
We take a look back at Blender’s 26-year history and discover how it became the community-driven open resource that it is today
Imagine that you’ve invested many thousands of euros and decades of your life developing software that creates worlds. Modelling, rigging, 3D animation, 2D animation, simulation, rendering, compositing, motion tracking, and video editing. In short, everything an artist needs. How much would you charge for this software? Think about it. Maybe you’d like a villa in Palo Alto? Or an office by Norman Foster? Or even a Mclaren F1? Maybe you want to drive your Mclaren F1 from your villa in Palo Alto to your office by Norman Foster? No judgement: billions of people want some variation of this life. Besides, you’ve made sacrifices. You help creative people make beautiful things. You deserve it.
But, practically, villas aren’t cheap. You’ll need money and lots of it. How about charging people for a monthly or annual subscription? Or a one-off licence? Or payment for commercial usage? How about nothing? How about the software is free to download and free to use for anyone anywhere for whatever purpose, forever and ever?
How about you’re happy if somebody makes a whole feature film with your program and you get zilch in return? In which case, the obvious question is, ‘why?’
At well over six feet, Ton Roosendaal is an unlikely David to the CG industry’s Goliaths. Ton doesn’t have a Stanford MBA, nor is he an Artcenter alumnus. In fact, Roosendaal originally wanted to be an architect. “That changed when I met a guy in a bar,” he says. “He told me about Industrial Design. I liked that it was both technical and creative.” But after two years, Roosendaal dropped out. “The college’s approach to education didn’t add anything to the quality of a student’s work,” he explains, “its top students were talented and hard-working from the start.”
The 29-year-old Roosendaal started a 3D animation studio in Eindhoven, a manufacturing town in the south of Holland.
It’s the birthplace of Philips, the conglomerate responsible for TVS, lightbulbs, shavers, and the other kind of blender. Eindhoven is the opposite of Palo Alto. Roosendaal’s first studio was called Neogeo (the games console of the same name appeared a year later). In a spin on the Silicon Valley garage of lore, Neogeo spent its first year in Roosendaal’s attic before moving to the city centre, rapidly becoming the biggest studio of its kind in the Netherlands, with clients across advertising and industry.
Though successful, Roosendaal encountered the designer’s perennial frustration: “Clients are always problematic. You’re constantly having to redo everything,” he grins, “but that’s understandable. They can’t give you feedback until they’ve seen what you’ve done.” This practical consideration sparked an idea. “What if you had a software that was highly configurable? So even if you had a nightmare client, the software could help you make all their changes painlessly.” This thought began the project that would become Blender, eventually.
A LONG WAY FROM THERE TO HERE
Roosendaal had seen programmers at work and thought it looked like fun. As early as 1985, he’d decided to teach himself coding. What simply started as curiosity then became a passion. “With coding, you can focus on a problem for weeks,” he adds, “and in the end, you get something that works. It’s very satisfying.”
The first source files named ‘Blender’ are timestamped 2 January 1994. Consider: Kurt Cobain is still alive, Bill Clinton is president, many of 3D World’s readers are in elementary school, and so is the CG industry. While computer graphics have been around since the 1960s, the form is still far from mainstream and Toy
Story won’t be released until 1995. In other words, developing 3D software in the early 1990s meant exploring a frontier. The primordial Blender was a hybrid creature. Intended purely as an in-house application for Neogeo, Blender grew from an amalgam of preexisting programs, including a ray tracer that Roosendaal had written in the 1980s. “But the real work started in 1991,” he explains, “when we bought a Silicon Graphics workstation.”
The workstation cost the equivalent of 30,000 US dollars. “All the money we had,”
Roosendaal says, “and we didn’t even get software. If you wanted to run a CAD program like Alias, it cost another 30,000 dollars.” But the results justified the ransom. “You could render wireframes in real time. Incredible. Our Amiga only did one wireframe at a time.”
Blender 1.0 launched in January 1995. Its design diverged from the norms of the day. “Most 3D software opened a new window with every feature,” Roosendaal explains. “A window for modelling, another for rendering. Pretty
“NO OVERLAPS. NO POPUPS. IT’S A BASIC CONCEPT, NOW WIDESPREAD IN 3D TOOLS, BUT THEN OUR APPROACH WAS FRESH” Ton Roosendaal, Chairman of the Blender Foundation
soon you didn’t know where to look: your screen was full of 20 overlapping windows.” As with most good design, the solution seems straightforward – at least with hindsight.
“Blender had a flat interface: only one window,” says Roosendaal. “You could subdivide that window any way you liked, but the workspace remained one. No overlaps. No popups. It’s a basic concept, now widespread in 3D tools, but then our approach was fresh.” Under the hood, Blender 1.0 reflected one of Roosendaal’s favourite hobbies. “I wanted to optimise everything.”
So Neogeo had its own bleeding-edge creation suite, optimised to deal with the breakneck speeds of a top-ofthe-line 8MB workstation. And then… nothing. Tastes shifted: suddenly nobody cared about 3D visualisation. “Everyone wanted games or internet,” Roosendaal says. The market imploded.
BLENDER BEGINS… AGAIN
By the time Neogeo closed in 1998, Blender had been tested, modified, and tested again in a studio environment. Roosendaal concluded that it might help a wider audience. “3D is magic,” Roosendaal says. Sure, you can employ 3D to market a product. But 3D can also be a kind of telepathy, like fiction, painting, or music. A way of sharing all the glorious oddness we keep squished down beneath our adult selves. As we’ll see later, this occasionally involves swearing sheep and planets inside washing machines. So in other words, why wouldn’t Roosendaal bet on magic?
Back in 1998, Roosendaal started another company. Called NAN (Not a Number), its sole purpose was to develop Blender. He set up a website and offered Blender as Silicon Graphics’ freeware. Linux and Windows versions appeared shortly thereafter. While this iteration of Blender was free, it wasn’t open source. Roosendaal elaborates: “Downloading the software cost nothing, but some features were locked. We sold the keys.”
This freemium pricing strategy generated enough income to
fund a booth at SIGGRAPH in LA, the legendary computer graphics conference. Blender attracted buzz, and with it, silly money. The dot-com bubble was nearing peak delusion. “We were two people in a little Dutch office,” Roosendaal recalls, “being told we were worth ten million.” In a matter of months, NAN received two rounds of investment totalling five and a half million, with the promise of more. “We hired 50 people,” says Roosendaal, snapping his fingers, “like that.” Roosendaal was told he’d be a billionaire.
SILICON VALLEY, IRL
Roosendaal describes this period as a real-life version of HBO’S
Silicon Valley. “Business class flights to Japan. Meetings in the
Bay Area. We were at the Game Developer’s Conference. We threw parties in nightclubs. We were everywhere. We burned money.” Between bonfires, NAN advanced Blender according to its investors’ expectations. The plan amounted to an elaborate version of Nan’s original business model. “The basic version of Blender remained free,” explains Roosendaal, “and on top of that we developed professionallevel tools.”
One such extension still impresses. “We had a web plugin that could load a .blend file and display the contents,” says Roosendaal. “If that .blend file was a game, you could even play it. We were way ahead of the curve.” Once again, Blender had reached a peak. And, once again, the markets fell off a cliff. The dotcom implosion took five trillion dollars and buried a generation of overextended companies.
Blender’s angel investors became less angelic. The first group demanded an exit in nine months. The second party wanted out in a
“WE WERE TWO PEOPLE IN A LITTLE DUTCH OFFICE BEING TOLD WE WERE WORTH TEN MILLION” Ton Roosendaal, Chairman of the Blender Foundation
slightly more leisurely 12 months. “They told me that Blender had cost enough. They said it was their software now, and it was going in a drawer. I was told to go do something else.”
Roosendaal had gone from future billionaire back to broke. “I couldn’t afford to buy the rights to Blender,” he says. “NAN was done.” It’s summer 2002. The global economy starts and stops but mostly stops. Nobody is investing. Nobody cares about tech. They care about the World Cup and a war on terror. This is not the moment to launch the first crowdfunding campaign. So Roosendaal launched the first crowdfunding campaign.
“We raised 110K. That was enough to get Blender back from the investors,” he recalls. “Luckily, they now thought Blender was shit, the code covered with these unintelligible comments in Dutch.” While the investors were unimpressed, Blender had grown a fervent community of some 250,000 users. Roosendaal laughs. “It took only seven weeks to raise the money.” The campaign was called Free Blender. It promised to release Blender under the
GNU Public License, the strictest possible open-source contract. “Not only would Blender be free,” says Roosendaal, “but its source code would be free too, forever.” The campaign kept its promise.
YOU NEED A MONTAGE
Free Blender marks a turning point, the moment Blender’s current identity is formed. After escaping the Rolex touting sharks, Blender picked up speed. Bit by bit, the parts that comprise a fully rounded 3D creation suite appeared, from fundamentals like revertible edits and UV unwrapping to robust subdivs. Cue montage: various intense-looking devs hammer at keyboards and knock back heartstopping quantities of caffeine.
Days and nights and months and years whiz by in time-lapse.
2006: A node system for complex materials and compositing? Okay. 2007: Sculpt mode? Done. 2011: Cycles, a production-grade renderer? Of course. 2013: Rigid body simulations? Deployed. 2017: Stroll around your creation in VR? Sure. 2019: A second renderer, this one real-time? Hello, Eevee. 2020: Add spray direction to your ocean simulator? Of course. Every megalomaniac needs a fully functional personal ocean. End montage on a group of devs highfiving. In the background, a dev is carried out on a stretcher, her blood now 93 per cent Red Bull.
What else? This year’s Nishita, realistic sky texturing without the need to fiddle with HDRIS (though if HDRI is your kink, go ahead. Blender does that too). Nishita allows you granular control. Literally: a slider controls the amount of dust you can add to a scene’s atmosphere.
There’s also real-time motion blur, which works on particles, even hair. Plus cloth sculpting brushes, viewport denoising, and a bucket load of innovations thanks to Blender’s landmark 2.8 release, continuing through 2.9. And for fans of performance graphs, Blender’s stupefying abundance of features won’t melt your machine, either. Rendering times are down, scene complexity is up. Forget worlds. Today’s Blender can create universes.
The force behind all this transformation is not Ton Roosendaal. It’s the Blender community, working alongside Blender’s Amsterdam headquarters. The community provided far, far more than a one-off bailout. They’ve become Blender, turning a once proprietary product into an ever-evolving creative experiment authored by thousands of devs, scientists and
“WE RAISED 110K. THAT WAS ENOUGH TO GET BLENDER BACK FROM THE INVESTORS. IT TOOK ONLY SEVEN WEEKS TO RAISE THE MONEY” Ton Roosendaal, Chairman of the Blender Foundation
artists. Blender is CG’S nonzero sum game, a planet-wide collaboration that accepts human nature. “Blender is powered by shared self-interest,” Roosendaal says. “We work for ourselves, and we work with a community who also work for themselves.”
Remember Roosendaal’s revolutionary 3D-on-the-web plugin? “Nobody cared,” he laughs. “The community fixed the modeller instead. And they were right. Of course the modeller is more important. Nobody’s interested in a vision of the internet in ten years. Not in open source. It’s about what people need right now.”
When tech talks about ‘community’, it frequently means ‘consumers’. This doesn’t apply to Blender, it can’t. Blender is non-profit, surviving on obsession and donations. At most, the Blender Foundation sees itself as a ‘benevolent dictator’, a strategy that’s less provocative than it sounds. “We nudge the community in a more artist-driven direction,” Roosendaal says. “Open-source makers can get very technical. Beautiful code, but not always useful. We wanted to steer open source toward the needs of artists.” And so a challenge was extended, a white-hot crucible of change. Blender versus the sheep.
VIRTUAL LIGHTS, VIRTUAL CAMERA, ACTION
Blender runs Open Movie projects every couple of years. These projects invite filmmakers from diverse backgrounds to create movies that stretch conventions, from open-source artists like David Revoy to VFX expert Ian Hubert to former Pixar story supervisor Matthew Luhn. This stretching of conventions applies to both storytelling and technology. Blender’s Open Movies push the software’s capabilities through direct collaboration with artists. Roosendaal shares an example: “Back in 2007, our artists said they wanted a hairy beast thing. Which seemed strange, but okay, if that’s what they want… so we rewrote Blender’s particle system.” The result was luxuriant fur for the film Big Buck Bunny.
Open Movie projects mix the practical with the romantic.
While the filmmaking process stress tests Blender, the stories themselves investigate fresh territory. Sometimes, this refers to territory in the physical sense, as with Pablo Vazquez’s shorts about an unfortunate llama, inspired by Chuck Jones and Vazquez’s own childhood in Patagonia. And sometimes it means dealing with more existential themes. That sheep we keep mentioning is the star of Cosmos Laundromat, a film from director Mathieu Auvray and writer Esther Wouda. Called Franck, he’s clinically depressed, at least until an uncanny salesman shows him infinite alternate lives (accessed through the laundromat of the title).
As Blender has developed to meet the challenges of filmmakers and artists, it’s been adopted by more mainstream productions. The Man In The High Castle. Captain America: The Winter
Soldier. Netflix’s first animated feature, Nex Gen, made by Tangent Animation. Plus, Blender’s received financial and/or technical support from Ubisoft, Pixar’s Renderman, Nvidia, Unity, Epic Games… essentially every big name in tech. Roosendaal still isn’t a billionaire.
So why charge nothing? Perhaps because you tried the alternative and found it lacking. Roosendaal’s Silicon Valley moment wasn’t as glamorous as it sounds. “It was --” he pauses, searching for an appropriate word “--fine.” He shrugs. “Money isn’t interesting. Except as a means of making things. I’m a maker, whether that means making software or films or organisations.” He pauses. “Besides, Blender is for everyone. It’s not elitist. I don’t want Blender in Hollywood, I want Hollywood in Blender. We want to empower someone in Brazil or Belgium, South Africa or Canada, or wherever. Now that’s exciting: some kid somewhere downloads Blender and starts their own oneperson studio.”
A quality product at a fair price: free. And if you do use Blender to make a ton of money and buy a villa in Palo Alto, that’s fine too. Though maybe reconsider the Mclaren and get a bicycle.
“BLENDER IS FOR EVERYONE. IT’S NOT ELITIST. I DON’T WANT BLENDER IN HOLLYWOOD, I WANT HOLLYWOOD IN BLENDER” Ton Roosendaal, Chairman of the Blender Foundation