It all started with a simple tag line: furry and funny.
In 2007, tasked with making an animated movie that encompassed both descriptions, a small team of creatives began working on a short film that ended up becoming one of the most popular open-source film projects of all time. “Big Buck Bunny,” the story of a gentle, giant rabbit who loves flowers and butterflies as much as he hates bullies, has been viewed more than 70 million times on YouTube alone.
But beyond animation-loving audiences, “Big Buck Bunny” has also had an outsized effect on the online video industry: It’s been used for everything from video codec development to testing Netflix’s streaming service. Along the way, the film has also become a blueprint on how to create open movies, and how open-source development and art can benefit from each other.
From Project Orange to Project Peach
Back in 2005, the people working on the open-source animation toolset Blender decided to switch things up. Blender was first released in 1994, and had become an essential tool for anyone looking to produce animated films without access to expensive commercial animation software. But instead of developing Blender as a standalone project, the team behind it worked with artists who could stress-test features along the way.
“The strong belief [was] that software, free software especially, cannot happen in a vacuum,” said Blender COO Francesco Siddi during a recent conversation with Protocol. “It has to happen through the collaboration of different skills. It's a cross-disciplinary process.”
The first movie that was meant to push the boundaries of Blender was “Elephants Dream,” an animated short with a dark plot full of dangerous machine parts that threaten the lives of its two protagonists. Originally code-named Project Orange, “Elephants Dream” quickly made waves among animation enthusiasts and the open-source crowd when it was released under a permissive Creative Commons license in 2006. “It definitely was groundbreaking,” Siddi said.
A still from “Elephants Dream.”Image: Blender Foundation | www.blender.org
At the same time, “Elephants Dream” was a bit too dark and weird to be a success beyond this insider audience. So when the Blender Foundation decided to follow Project Orange with another film, code-named Project Peach, it settled on a lighter, funny and furry theme. This was meant to both draw a bigger crowd and help with an important technical challenge for animation software. “It was a way to explore the topic of hair and fur, which is one of the holy grails of computer graphics,” Siddi said.
And while “Elephants Dream” had been very much a test pilot, the Blender makers decided to build a more sustainable infrastructure for “Big Buck Bunny” that would allow them to release additional movies in the future. They founded the Blender Institute as a legal entity that could help them shepherd these projects. “It was an organization that would exist next to the [Blender] Foundation to actually take on the execution of these projects in a more formal way,” Siddi said. “Hire people, do payroll, fundraising, working with third-party companies for film grading, all that kind of stuff.”
Around the world, and in outer space
The work on Project Peach began in October 2007 with a small team that included first-time director Sacha Goedegebure and sound designer Jan Morgenstern who went on to contribute music to “The Handmaiden.” The film premiered at an event in Amsterdam in April 2008, followed by an internet release around a month later. “‘Big Buck Bunny’ came together very quickly,” Siddi said. “In a handful of months, they were able to pull off something that is now internet legacy.”
The team working on Project Peach, aka “Big Buck Bunny.” Photo: Blender Foundation | www.blender.org
Calling it a legacy is not an overstatement. In addition to amassing tens of millions of views on YouTube and other streaming sites, “Big Buck Bunny” quickly took on a life of its own online. As one of just a few professionally produced animated movies released under a Creative Commons license, the film became the demo reel of choice for consumer hardware companies looking to show off their then-nascent streaming hardware. And whenever file-sharing software makers wanted to advertise the capabilities of their apps without being too much on the nose about all those pirated movies, they’d feature “Big Buck Bunny” in their screenshots.
“Big Buck Bunny” has shown up in some fairly unexpected locations over the years, too. Someone built a slot machine based on the film, which has been spotted on casino floors. The character made an inexplicable appearance on a university cafeteria's vending machine. And when the team behind the popular open-source video player VLC decided to send a time capsule to the moon to celebrate VLC’s 20th anniversary, it included a copy of the film among the digital payload as well.
“It has been remixed. It has been republished. It's one of the most popular available animated [films],” Siddi said.
Like catnip for video engineers
The movie also filled a void for streaming-software developers hungry to test their codecs, apps and services in the wild without having to deal with licensing restrictions. Netflix, for instance, doesn’t officially list “Big Buck Bunny” in its catalog, but is streaming the film in several versions as part of a broader set of assets the company uses to test various aspects of its service.
“‘Big Buck Bunny’ was bright and crisp and full of fast motion, all of which are like catnip to video engineers,” said JW Player SVP of Technology John Luther, who played a key role in the development of open video codecs like VP8 and VP9 while working for On2 and Google. “Its animation quality and story were decent, too, but best of all it had a very permissive license. You could download the uncompressed HD source frames and audio for ‘Big Buck Bunny’ and do pretty much whatever you wanted with them.”
From “Big Buck Bunny’s” storyboard. Photo: Blender Foundation | www.blender.org
“Big Buck Bunny” has also been used in the development of WebRTC, DASH video streaming, cloud video rendering, neural network-powered video compression and light field video. Basically, almost every effort to improve online video has at one point or another been tested with “Big Buck Bunny” footage. To this day, it is being used by universities around the world to teach video engineering, computer vision and more.
The video industry’s whole-hearted embrace of “Big Buck Bunny” has at times created problems of its own, though. The film is included in all video benchmarking tools, which has tempted some codec developers to take shortcuts. “Sometimes, to cheat benchmarks, developers create optimizations [for] encoding algorithms to perform better with ‘Big Buck Bunny’ than they would with other media just to get an edge,” Siddi said.
Others agree. “Encoders can be highly tuned to encode ‘Big Buck Bunny,'” Netflix’s director of Encoding Technologies, Anne Aaron, told Variety a few years ago.
Sometimes, that’s not even done on purpose, and is simply a result of not having enough test material that could help train algorithms on more diverse data sets — which is why Netflix began producing its own test content in 2016. “Even in this day and age, it's still hard to come across content that is freely available,” Siddi said. “You cannot get good CG content that is released with a permissive license. Everything is locked up.”
While some companies, including Netflix, have made some of their test footage available for others to use, the animation space is still almost exclusively relying on Blender films — something that Siddi attributed to the culture and DNA of the major studio system. “These legal departments, they don't allow anything,” he said.
Like the MCU, but for Blender characters
The Blender Institute has been busy filling that gap by producing additional open movies. Project Orange and Project Peach were followed by Apricot, Durian, Mango and Gooseberry, until the team ultimately decided to give up on those fruity code names. Every couple of years, Blender releases a new short film under a Creative Commons license. The films include live-action, Miyazaki-style animation and Pixar-like 3D content, all meant to improve specific aspects of the Blender software.
In addition to the films, the Blender Institute also offers how-tos and source files to help budding animators perfect their craft. “There is a lot of value in sharing how you did something,” Siddi said. Some of that material is offered through Blender’s membership program, with over 8,000 people paying around $11 per month for access to the Blender Studio website.
In 2022, the Blender team wants to step up the pace on new projects and also venture into virtual productions — currently a hot topic in Hollywood, where studios are increasingly looking to turn visual effects from something added after the fact to something rendered in real time while scenes are being filmed.
All the while, the Blender folks also want to keep making movies that appeal to broader audiences. In fact, at times, it’s the regular people who make projects like “Big Buck Bunny” worth all the effort. Siddi said that he is always happy when Blender films get picked up by third-party YouTube channels where viewers actually comment on the story and characters, and don't nitpick over technical details.
As for the gentle giant who stars in “Big Buck Bunny,” we probably won’t see him in a sequel anytime soon. Introducing new characters and environments is key to using these films to push Blender development forward. That being said, there has been some early talk about bringing back some of Blender’s biggest stars.
“Think of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but for Blender characters,” Siddi said, while also emphasizing that this was still in the idea stage.
Without a sequel, there’s always the original to rediscover, even for video industry insiders. “I've encoded ‘Big Buck Bunny’ probably a thousand times, but I don't recall ever watching it all the way from beginning to end,” Luther said. “I imagine most of us haven't, but we probably should, because it's played a critical role in the evolution and success of online video and is worthy of our respect.”