Interview with Synfig’s Robert Quattlebaum

A powerful 2D animation product, Synfig, was open sourced recently under the GPL after the company behind it failed in the market place. The application is still actively maintained by its original author, Robert B. Quattlebaum, which we interview today about.1. What are Synfig’s main advantages over other similar software?

Robert Quattlebaum: The primary selling point of Synfig has always been the automation of the tweening process. In traditional animation, the senior animators use the storyboards to create the keyframes for each shot. The junior animators then use these keyframes as guides for making all of the frames in between–which is called tweening. Tweening is a time-consuming and labor-intensive (and thus expensive) process. However, it is also rather mechanical.

So that was the original idea from day one—the elimination of the tweening process. But it is certainly not the only feature of Synfig that makes it unique. In addition to eliminating the tweening process, I also wanted Synfig to be used for pretty much every part of production except story-boarding and editing. Synfig has a powerful high-dynamic-range compositing system which allows you to add all sorts of special effects and shading directly in the software while maintaining spacial and temporal resolution independence.

Synfig’s compositing model is so flexible that I often find myself using Synfig for creating still image compositions.

2. How does it compare to Lost Marble’s Moho, technically-speaking?

Robert Quattlebaum: Moho also provides mechanisms for the elimination of the tweening process, but it goes about solving the problem in a different manner. Simply put, Moho uses bones for animation, whereas Synfig does not. Early on in Synfig’s development we considered the use of bones for 2D animation, but decided against it because it inhibits an animators ability to give characters the subtle tweaks that make them feel alive–muscle texture and cloth movements for example. Our goal was to write a tool that could be used for the production of feature-film quality 2D animation, so we decided to not implement bones immediately. (Bones may be implemented later)

The compositing model that Moho uses also differs from Synfig. In Synfig layers are primitives, whereas in Moho they are more complex objects. Synfig also uses high-dynamic-range color, which makes creation of realistic lighting effects more simple. Colors are also mixed in a physically linear way, which also improves visual quality. (This is why our anti-aliasing looks so good)

Moho is a more well-rounded and complete package than Synfig is at this point. While Synfig has been used in production, the animators using it had the benefit of having the primary developer sitting behind them. That counts for a lot. In other words, Synfig still has a long way to go before v1.0.

3. How did you decide to open source Synfig?

Robert Quattlebaum: I decided to open source Synfig because I had reached a point where I relieved that there was no realistic chance of being able to successfully put Synfig on the market. Ultimately I’d rather everyone be able to use Synfig than no one, so I decided to go ahead and release it to the world. It was actually always my intention to open source Synfig if my business failed.

4. Have you received any patches or code from third party hackers so far?

Robert Quattlebaum: Yes, I have received a few patches. So far they have been mostly build related.

5. What are your future plans on Synfig?

Robert Quattlebaum: I’m not really sure at this point. I’d like to get a community of developers and users built up around the project so that I do not have to be the nucleus for it to move forward. I have a huge list of features and enhancements that I want to implement, but the trick is finding the time. No one is paying me anything to work on this, and after loosing so much money on Voria Studios I really need to start making some. Unfortunately that means I must work on other projects full-time.

6. Why did you choose GTKmm over other toolkits?

Robert Quattlebaum: I had toyed around with GTK+ 2 a bit before really starting development on Synfig Studio, but I found it to be a bit cumbersome–much due to the fact that it is an object-oriented system in a language which doesn’t provide any help for implementing object-oriented constructs. I found GTKmm to be much more natural to work with than straight GTK+. The guys who put GTKmm together should really be proud of themselves, without it I would certainly have more gray hairs than I have today. I highly recommend it.

In hindsight however, I now wish that I had at least given GNUstep a closer look.

7. What are your personal wishes for a better Linux desktop?

Robert Quattlebaum: It’s been a while since I last used a linux box as my primary desktop computer. These days I find myself using my Powerbook for just about everything, and I love it. There is something beautiful about the fact that the same operating system that satisfies all of my needs and desires as a developer is also the same operating system that my mother uses. Making something easy to use doesn’t mean it has to be dumbed down. I understand that that is something that Gnome has been wrestling with for a while.


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