Points of view on Blender: Angela Plohman

This article is part of a series celebrating the 20 years of Blender as a free and open-source software, edited by Blender producer Fiona Cohen and first published alongside the Blender Foundation Annual Report 2022.

About the author

Fiona Cohen is an animation producer and project supervisor from France. During her 7 years of working with producers and studios to make animated short films, series and feature films, she discovered Blender at Autour de Minuit in 2018. Then started a journey of curiosity and learning, diving more and more into the Blender technology and its community. She visited Amsterdam in October 2022 for the Blender Conference and got to experience the full power and thrill of the project.

In February 2023, she joined Blender Studio as a producer, managing movies, editing the Studio website and taking care of Blender-global tasks like the writing and editing of The Blender Foundation Report 2022.

What have we achieved in twenty years? What impact did Blender really have on people, the animation industry or the software world?

Keeping in mind that honest feedback will always make us grow stronger, Ton wanted to interview people outside the organization, all with different perspectives and relationships with Blender. People who played a role in Blender’s past, for some, and who also have an independent business so they can share their outsider’s point of view as well. 

We reached out to them explaining that those conversations were not meant to be a promotion piece, we encouraged honesty and distinct viewpoints or recommendations.

For those who worked with Blender and Ton, I poked their memory to better grasp what the project had been, at the beginning. How was it perceived then? And since, what do they think of our track record? Can they point out strategy errors? Is Blender still relevant in their eyes?

And above all: what about the next twenty years?

Through all four different points of view, a clear consensus emerged: for people who have followed the project or known Ton for a long time, Blender is above all a great tool linked to great memories. Times at the BCON, meeting passionate people, the amazing community, or times working on a project, be it a crappy experiment or an award-winning feature, with all the possibilities the software can offer. The fun. The joy. The freedom.

Thus, I wish to present those four conversations as a way to recognize past accomplishments and stories that have shaped Blender into what it is today. And next to this, take the opportunity to look into what lies ahead. 

To the next chapters!

The interviewees’ words have been edited for clarity.

Angela Plohman, former insider

When Ton mentioned his idea of interviewing different people from the industry, the name of Angela Plohman came out right on top. “She is so sharp and knowledgeable.” Currently Executive VP of Strategy, Finance and Operations at the Mozilla Foundation, involved in high-level topics about the future of technology, Angela Plohman worked at Blender in the early days of the Foundation, around 2004-2007. As a freelancer, she helped Ton on many structural aspects: she organized multiple BCONs, managed a large European subsidy, took care of artists working on the first open movie and was, overall, a great support and facilitator.

Angela and Ton during a Blender Conference.

Angela was involved during a key moment of Blender, when Elephants Dream was in production and the first structural pillars were set. Since then, a deep respect and mutual admiration has remained between her and Ton – for those reasons, this conversation was less about the technology and more about the human side of Blender.

What does the nonprofit executive remember from her time at Blender, more than 15 years ago?I really, truly do not remember how Ton found me… He was looking for help on more operational matters, plus he had just got a EU grant. Quite complex, a lot of paperwork. You know, there was no Institute at the time, it was mostly Ton doing everything by himself. And a lot of volunteers, which was kind of incredible. […] It was definitely the wild west there for a little bit. Ton doesn’t like rules, or things that feel like they stop him from doing something and you know, european funding is 90% rules and 10% money. It was an interesting challenge but also taught me a lot about being creative with how you can work within the system to get something that you want. Which is something very characteristic about Ton, he will find a way to get to the place that he wants. Which can be challenging for some people, but is also mostly a learning experience for everybody.

This is what came out the most during our conversation, Ton’s tenacity: “Ton is a very inspiring person. […] He is very unafraid […] and doesn’t compromise what his vision is. Which was so inspiring for me too. He has such a strong perspective and confident vision. He knows so clearly what opportunities [are in reach] and is great at not being distracted.

Obviously, with such a strong key figure at its core, we can’t help but wonder what will become of the project once Ton steps back. “He is an iconic figure. [But] Blender without Ton: it has to be possible. [This question] is common with strong founders who’ve remained involved over a long period of time.” Angela then explained how she sees the parallel with Mozilla and Mitchell Baker, current CEO for the Corporation, Chairwoman for the Foundation, who has been playing a key role there since the very first days of Mozilla. People look up to her, and to Ton, as the embodiment of their respective creation – but people are not eternal, and even founders deserve a break.

So how do you set up the future? All in all, it is about “how to empower others to create their own vision […] Ton is good at attracting people and making them work together. […] If the open-source world wants to thrive, it has to have faith in the community aspect, and not in that ‘genius leader – godlike figure’ […] Looking at the photos on the annual report, there are people who have been there for a really long time as well. Artists that have been committed to working with Blender, kind of champions out in the world, whether at the Institute or in their own places of work. I think those people, playing that role of champion, knowing what the values are that underpin Blender, being able to separate them from Ton’s values – the project itself is so strongly set up.” Later in our discussion, she adds “I’m very curious about what discussions are being had around [that subject] because you do need leadership. That can take so many different forms, it doesn’t have to be in a single human […] When you write the story of Blender over 20 years, making a choice around not making it the story of Ton but the story of Blender is gonna be a really key piece for setting up the future.

For the future? We have to empower others to create their own vision.

Angela Plohman

Looking back at her own connection with the open-source community, Angela recalls: “the [Blender] conference was very meaningful to me. It’s interesting because you could compare it a bit to the Mozilla Festival – this gathering place where the people who care passionately about the issues and Blender really come together in this beautiful way, people are so generous, kind, and open, and sharing, creative. It felt like a big family of people who wanted that to succeed. […] I made so many significant connections.” As a person who has strived to link arts and technology, she loved “facilitating great ideas” “seeing developers from up close, understanding their language and building trust. I think I’m a very good translator between developers and organizers or artists; speaking those languages without having to be an expert is a skill to truly facilitate, and it’s always been exciting for me to connect in that way.” “doing the Blender conferences was always a trust building exercise, to show up for the community and help people.” Blender is certainly a place where different points of view not just collide, but embrace each other. Surrounded by artists, developers, makers, people with ideas but also the will and skills to bring them to life: connections are made. “Ton has always been about demonstrating through making. It inspired me in other ways, around how you can fuse the creative act of making with the tools-side of things, and that both can reinforce one another.

To Angela Plohman, there aren’t any specific milestones that stand out, but rather “points that propelled the project into a different level of maturity.” Of course, she still thinks of the first open movie as “a pivotal moment” in setting up the future at that time, working more permanently with artists, but her vision is mostly “a nostalgic memory [of it all]” and not as much a bird’s eye view on development, be it technical or company-wide. When asked about a possible collaboration between Mozilla and Blender, for example on some meta-world work, she admits to not being around those conversations. However, she quickly adds that “When I started at Mozilla, everyone knew Blender.”, thus laying Ton’s concerns to rest – Blender is indeed visible in that part of the open-source world. We may even have mentioned some connection between the work Angela did at Blender and her start at Mozilla, although we would neither deny nor confirm that statement – “we wouldn’t hear the end of it with Ton!”, we joked.

When I left [Blender], the Institute was becoming more formalized. I am a little bit amazed by how much it’s grown, how much output there has been.” Amazed, “but not surprised!” she quickly adds. “Ton probably has been more ambitious than I expected” which is saying a lot when we see Plohman’s track record in the tech, culture and art world. She is definitely a person who seeks to push boundaries.

It felt like a big family of people who wanted [the project] to succeed.

Angela Plohman

What about the next steps? As a key member of her organization, Angela can’t help but see the parallel: “Mozilla just turned 25, too, and we’ve had our own highs and lows of relevance. Our whole campaign around this is not looking back but really looking at what the next 25 years will hold.” On open source at large, Angela wishes “to show that we can develop a successful product or projects with values, ethics and the greater good in mind.  With a healthy and diverse community that represents a true global perspective. Because not all open-source projects are the same, some have a toxic culture. […] Open source is a concept that’s very specific, and it’s the motivations behind it that I find interesting. Around alternatives to centralized technology superpowers. [I want] to keep pushing for the good of society. For instance, with the Mozilla Foundation we’ve started researching 4 years ago about trustworthy AI; now it’s exploded everywhere in the mainstream and there’s no ethical framework.” Thus the goal for an organization like Blender should be “to inject your values into the way things are done. Whatever the technical path, it should be an opportunity to show up as a leader and illustrate how to commit for the public good.” She notes that the way Blender is structured with a nonprofit Foundation at its core, similarly to Mozilla, is already a visible commitment to ethical values: we should be talking about those values, and make sure the contributors can be true champions, not just of the project, but also of those values, at their day job. There is leverage in that community, and Blender should continue to support it strongly.

Where Blender has been very successful: it’s not only about the technology, but it’s how do you build and foster a community that can work well too support the bigger picture – it’s really hard work and not everyone wants to do that work with the same amount of care for human beings and their volunteer contributions in a lot of the time.

All in all, Blender should focus on “Prioritizing the health and value of the work while also having a business-minded approach – so, not losing its soul”, even though Ton can be seen, in many ways, as the soul of the project. According to Angela, we have to “protect the desire to contribute, communicate, while it is also important to keep a business mindset to move forward and keep the ambition alive.” As a trailblazer in the community-driven world, Blender should be a role model for other organizations and people: we can do tech, we can innovate, we can give more power to the people, and as a mission-driven organization, we must do it with clear goals and strong moral values.

For Angela, it seemed that our discussion brought a lot of good memories from her time in Amsterdam. Some I can even relate to, now that I have joined the team at the HQ in a very similar position. Apart from all the business and ethical topics, I could see an idea taking shape: from the start, Blender and Ton were ambitious, very ambitious. Though, Ton was no fool and tried to surround himself with smart, motivated people, as passionate about their area of expertise as he’s always been about his own project.

This is something that does transpire from the last 20 years: Blender is driven by its diverse community, through and through, from the earliest volunteers to the highly-skilled developers, while also including the people who supported the project in many other ways. The people at its core, adding their own vision and ambitions to Ton’s. It seems like quite a solid basis for the next 20 years.