3D World

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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


 ??  ?? A still from Agent 327: Op­er­a­tion Bar­ber­shop, an Open Movie co-di­rected by Hjalti Hjal­mars­son and Colin Levy
A still from Agent 327: Op­er­a­tion Bar­ber­shop, an Open Movie co-di­rected by Hjalti Hjal­mars­son and Colin Levy
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 ??  ?? Above: Ghi­bli-style cloud by Light­ning Boy Stu­dio, from their pop­u­lar tu­to­ri­als. Source files are free on Gum­road
Above: Ghi­bli-style cloud by Light­ning Boy Stu­dio, from their pop­u­lar tu­to­ri­als. Source files are free on Gum­road
 ??  ?? Below: Jel­ly­fish Store by long-time Blender col­lab­o­ra­tor, Ian Hu­bert
Below: Jel­ly­fish Store by long-time Blender col­lab­o­ra­tor, Ian Hu­bert
 ??  ?? Left: A still from Spring, an Open Movie writ­ten and di­rected by Andy Go­ral­czyk
Left: A still from Spring, an Open Movie writ­ten and di­rected by Andy Go­ral­czyk
 ??  ?? Red Au­tumn For­est by Robin Tran, con­cept artist at Ubisoft Mas­sive
Red Au­tumn For­est by Robin Tran, con­cept artist at Ubisoft Mas­sive
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 ??  ?? Above: Still from Shar­ing A Dream, a short film by Daniel Byst­edt, se­nior char­ac­ter artist at Em­bark Stu­dios
Above: Still from Shar­ing A Dream, a short film by Daniel Byst­edt, se­nior char­ac­ter artist at Em­bark Stu­dios
 ??  ?? Right: Sunny Mar­ket En­trance by Jas­min Habeza­ifekri, 3D en­vi­ron­ment & prop artist
Right: Sunny Mar­ket En­trance by Jas­min Habeza­ifekri, 3D en­vi­ron­ment & prop artist
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 ??  ?? Ton Roosendaal, plus su­per-ex­pen­sive su­per-com­puter: a Sil­i­con Graph­ics work­sta­tion
Ton Roosendaal, plus su­per-ex­pen­sive su­per-com­puter: a Sil­i­con Graph­ics work­sta­tion

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