Free Culture Pioneering: Lunatics

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Here’s how one free culture project is trying to use free software and crowdfunding to realize its goals.

Terry Hancock and Rosalyn Hunter’s online series Lunatics is a reminder of what free software and culture are about. Contrary to what those of us involved in these fields often start to believe, they’re not just about applications and licenses – they’re about what we can do with the applications and licenses. Currently in pre-production and struggling to raise money, the series is one of many current experiments in just how far free software and crowd funding can go to lower the barriers to creativity.

Lunatics is an animated series set three decades in the future. People work in Earth orbit and on the moon, but only live there during their tours of duty. The story begins as a young girl named Georgiana comes to join her parents and five others – a Russian space entrepreneur, a conceptual artist, a teen hacker, a space agriculturalist, and a geophysicist – in the first permanent colony on the moon. Hancock and Hunter describe the series as “a show about everyday life that has an exotic setting,” with characters based on “our experience of space advocates.”

Inspired by the hard science fiction tradition – everything from Heinlein and Asimov in print to Alien and Star Trek in film – the series will attempt to show a near future that is a logical extension of the present. For example, in the opening sequence, Georgiana is taken to the colony in a Soyuz capsule that is a modification of existing ones. Other designs for equipment are not necessarily optimal so much as those that might believably develop from present technologies.

Another important aspect of the storytelling is that it will reflect the attitudes that space colonists might actually have – as Hunter summarizes, “rationalism, optimism, determination, stick-to-itness. The point is, I’m really tired of the clichés that are perpetuated, not just in science fiction, but in other fiction, that the world can’t be known, that you might as well give up and take your helmet off, because you’re going to lose, and those kinds of things.”

The scripts, which will average about 40 minutes in length, will include humor and absurdity that derive from character and situation, but Hancock is firm that “at no point are we going to have a story that pokes fun at space colonization.”

Scripts for the first few episodes are nearly completed, and the rest of the first season has been outlined in some detail, including a cliffhanger finale. The course of another two seasons is roughly sketched, including the series’ last scene. Hancock and Hunter plan on doing most of the writing for the first episodes themselves but may invite other writers to script later episodes. Voice actors have already been decided, and Hancock and Hunter are proud that all of the actors actually speak the languages of their characters.

Free Software and Video Creation

Hancock and Hunter’s first attempt to become free culture contributors was an attempt a decade ago to create a game based on the children’s classic The Light Princess by George MacDonald. Lunatics itself was first conceived in 2005. However, as Hunter explains, “The reason we didn’t do it then is because it wasn’t possible then.”

Since then, three things have happened to make such projects possible. First, free software has evolved to the point where filmmakers and animators no longer have to rely on expensive proprietary tools.

In fact, according to Hancock, “There’s probably nothing that we absolutely could not use free software for if we had to. [But] there have been a few situations, like video conferencing, where using free software was too hard for the project. There are free software packages for video conferencing, and I’m pretty sure that I could get them installed, but the question is whether I could get the actors to install them. Some of them are on very different platforms, some are computer literate, and some not at all. In general, I have not taken the attitude that if you contract with us, you must work in free software.”

Fortunately, open formats go a long way to making exchanges between free and proprietary software possible. For example, one of the project’s animators works in Adobe Illustrator and submits .svg files, which Hancock can further manipulate in Inkscape while making only a few adjustments for the vagaries of file import.

Using free software also means introducing it to some of the animators. In particular, Hancock and Hunter had to teach some contractors how to use Subversion for version control. “I actually expected that more of them would be familiar with it, but that’s something that they haven’t learned,” Hancock says, sounding surprised. As a result, at least one deadline was not met because of the need to familiarize some contributors with the software.

Hancock and Hunter themselves are using Blender for editing individual scenes and then assembling them and adding the sound track in KdenLive.

“As far as I can tell, they’re up to the task,” Hancock says.

However, Hunter quickly adds, “But we would like to see more advances in editors. I’m not saying that commercial editors aren’t buggy, but we still need to get further. The things that are out there have some problems with them that mean that they’re difficult to use, and that it takes that much more work to produce the films we are producing.”

“The main issue,” Hancock says, “is getting things to play back in the editor the way that they’re going to look. KdenLive in particular has had a lot of bugs involved with seizing the wrong part of a clip and displaying it – not so much when it’s rendered, although it does do that some of the time, but when you’re playing back in the editing interface.”

Choosing a License

The second change is the rise of licenses and business models that potentially make filmmaking affordable to the average user. According to Hancock, Lunatics is using the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license “for everything we can control.” Under this license, others can use Lunatics or its components in any way they like, so long as its production company, Anansi Spaceworks, is given credit and any derivative works are released under the same licenses.

For Hancock, the ShareAlike component of the license is the important part. “We’re able to use a lot of material, because we’re using ShareAlike. There’s a lot of good material, music and 3D models and stuff, that are released under ShareAlike. It’s free, and you have to keep it free, so if you make an improvement over what we’ve done, we get to use it. The ShareAlike gets rid of monopoly. It establishes parity, a relationship between equals.”

Unlike some creators, Hancock and Hunter are unconcerned about preserving the integrity of their work, and have chosen not to use a Creative Commons license with a no-derivatives (NoDerivs) component, which allows others to re-distribute the work but without making any changes to the original.

“If somebody takes our work and makes it into some sort of political hit piece, that’s their doing, not ours,” Hancock says. “It’s not our fault if someone is using our work in their process. That doesn’t mean we have to agree. Sometimes, especially in the political arena, there’s a good reason for people to change what has already been done. Sometimes, the irony of that is part of the message.”

Crowdfunding in Theory and in Practice

The third change that enables a project like Lunatics is the rise of crowdfunding – the raising of money through donations from the potential audience before or during production.

Hunter describes this business model as being “like building a house. If you want someone to come in and build your house, you say, ‘This is how many rooms it will have’ and ‘This is what I want it to look like.’ Once I’ve built the house and you’ve paid me, I don’t care how many people are living there; I’ve already paid for it. And when other people see the house, it’s good for me, because they can go out and ask me to build them more houses. And this is the model we’re using: We’re saying we want to make this film, you want to pay us, and, if people like it, we’ll make more.”

Lunatics already concluded a successful fund-raiser on Kickstarter in December 2011. These funds were used largely to pay a commission to Daniel Fu, the animator doing character design.

The series is currently attempting another fund-raiser for US$ 100,000 to create the pilot episode. This amount, Hunter says, will allow the animators and actors to receive a fair wage.

Unfortunately, with less than two weeks to go, the current fund-raiser has attracted only 31 backers, and less than US$ 2,000 has been pledged. Consequently, Hancock and Hunter are facing the likelihood that it will fail.

Needless to say, such a failure would be a major problem for the project. “Every time we have a setback,” Hunter says, “there’s the possibility that the people we’ve gathered – the animators and the actors – will have moved on to other projects, because, economically, they just can’t wait. They have to go out and take jobs where they can make money.”

This situation is one drawback to the Lunatics’ business model, but Hancock and Hunter plan to continue their efforts, no matter what happens. “We don’t plan on dropping the project if the Kickstarter campaign doesn’t work, but it will be a hard road and a lot longer coming out,” Hunter says. Such setbacks, she seems to imply, are only to be expected when you’re colonizing a new space.

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