Points of view on Blender: Jono Bacon

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.

Jono Bacon, a view from the open-source world

Jono Bacon is a well known face in the open-source community. As stated on his website, Jono is a leading community and collaboration speaker, author, and podcaster. He is the founder of Jono Bacon Consulting which provides community strategy/execution, workflow, and other services. He previously served as director of community at GitHub, Canonical, XPRIZE, and OpenAdvantag, he consulted and advised a range of organizations, including Blender. In 2020, when Ton was reconsidering his position at Blender in the light of his illness, he reached out to Jono to get insight on what the future of Blender could be.

This wasn’t the first time Jono and Ton met, of course. Ton can recall getting the Best use of CG with Linux Open Source Award from Jono’s hands in 2006, for the first open movie Elephants Dream. This was one key moment of recognition by the open-source community. To go over the last twenty years and discuss Blender’s legacy, we had to give a voice to an open-source persona.

Jono Bacon discovered Blender around 1999, when he had “this wild aspiration to create a 3D movie”. His personal interest in both CG and open source naturally pushed him towards Blender. Plus “it was a killer app on Linux!” He can recall following the Free the Sources campaign with enthusiasm: it turned Blender into one of the first open-source softwares that wasn’t an OS.

Since then, Jono hasn’t stayed close to the project but still has an interest and thus an opinion about it. “I don’t have anything negative to share”, although Jono remembers “the bad reputation” that Blender had in the early days, for being “difficult to use”. However, he quickly notes that “lots of work went into the usability, making it easier to use, much more intuitive”. Today, “Blender can be compared to Linux, Kubernetes, Docker, npm, Angular, React […] It is miles ahead of other open-source creative tools.

When discussing Blender’s development and what it did well, Jono has a few examples in mind: “There’s so much to be proud of! […] The sheer technological progress is amazing […] and what I truly admire, [in an artistic-centric project] is finding developers to build really, technically, mathematically challenging software and doing that without being paid for it: it’s a huge accomplishment.” It is admirable that “Blender made the community attractive not only to artists but also to engineers. Thanks to Ton, first, for being an open and transparent man, about the technology, where the weaknesses are.” It allowed Blender to build a diverse community.

And it is that community which is Blender’s most striking singularity.I think there’s a real personality around the Blender community […] I remember going to my first Blender event in Amsterdam, in that miniature castle. I didn’t really know anybody, I had only talked to Ton over email. There was a real sense of fun and excitement, a real togetherness. And that’s special.” As an Englishman himself, Jono also notes that, although that could be construed as a stereotype,  “It is very European too, uniquely Dutch: generous, fun, no bullshit.” A particularity that Jono also sees in European open-source gatherings, compared to the ones held in America: “There’s a less formal [vibe], it’s looser.” But what is our community, if not one that produces high quality content? “There’s a very high level of accomplishments, in software, documentation… A significant amount of output, when a lot of other open-source communities don’t have output. A lot of other open-source projects tend to be in the engineering, enterprise space […] thus it’s easier to fund development, whereas Blender does not have such a direct line of revenue. Plus this output is diverse: Reddit, Blender Today, Blender Nation, Blender Chat… the Blender community is both productive and pragmatic.

The diverse output from the Blender project are also reflected in “a real focus on education and learning; there are so many resources out there” and, of course, all the open movies: they are “a profound achievement, a genius move” as it is “rare to see an open-source project invest outside of the software.” All those elements come together to build a true ecosystem that attracts different people for different reasons, but with the same end goal: create a better tool, year after year, together, to be always more free to create.

When it comes to recognition in the open source movement, Jono has a different perspective from Ton: “Ton is one of the most important members in the history of open source [for a couple of reasons] And the fact that he’s done it with such grace and empathy, he [truly is recognized as] a nice guy.” Blender is visible, and “if you know what Blender is, even just on the surface, it is widely regarded and much loved.” Jono then goes on to take a personal example: a few kids at his ten-year-old son Jack’s school are learning how to use Blender, for fun. The fact that it is a software used in the professional world is very attractive to them, and the fact that it is free and open puts it in their reach.

Maybe what Ton means [with this question] is that not a lot of people know about Blender. And it is true, compared to other projects that have less accomplishments and get more communication. It is a more niche tool. Because a lot more people are focused on infrastructure or enterprise projects in the open-source world. Blender isn’t alone though, the same pattern applies to other ‘non tech facing tools’: InkScape, VLC, Linux Desktop, Libre Office.

What about Blender’s future? How does Jono, someone who’s followed the project since before it was even open source, imagine the next years? And what about Ton’s legacy?

There is so much cultural and institutional knowledge wrapped up in him. [….] Obviously, it will be the end of an era. The act of stepping down means you create systems and workflows to be viable without, to be healthy. […] A transition needs to happen.

Regarding the direction that Blender should focus on, Jono had a few ideas. For the next ten years, “My gut feeling is, and take that with a pinch of salt of course, Blender should incorporate AI into it, to make it really easy to formulate rich environments. Imagine giving [a prompt] to the AI about creating a planet like Mars. […] It could get it super close and could be used as a base to then tweak. Generative AI. […] This would allow Blender and its users to become even more efficient: getting 80% of the work done and spending most of the time on tweaking and refining would be a game changer.”

Another path would be “weaving Blender into game development and AR, Augmented Reality. Because, as much of an enthusiast as I am, I strongly believe VR is going to struggle […] I am not a technology Nostradamus – Apple is always a good sign of where the industry goes, because they’re never first but they always create an industry changing product. It is rumored that their AR glasses will replace the iPhone. It is going to take years, and Blender should be in a position to be ready for that. It would be very powerful to use Blender there to create assets, worlds… to create the environments,  experiences and apps.

As the Blender project has been good at gathering people, it should “really invest in the outreach, get Blender into the mindset of anyone who has any kind of creative interest or ambition. [For example by going to] colleges and universities, where people are learning art and design, running competitions for people to create great art, working with platforms like IndieGogo or Kickstarter to encourage people to create [projects there], and also building relationships with movie studios or artistic colleges.” And because the work on documentation has already been strong, putting Blender into everybody’s hands should be a priority.

We ended our conversation exchanging about the future, the next fancy technological piece, and the new generation.

Looking back; how much technology has changed in 20 years, how it has shaped the world we live in, and how much this could all be turned upside down again in the next couple of decades.

At some point it came to my mind that, maybe, we haven’t been public enough about the efforts already put into preparing that transition. Since 2020, Ton has been implementing changes, new ways of organizing, to little by little take a step back and let another team run the project. Francesco Siddi has been at the forefront of this effort, taking on more responsibilities, officially, as he had already been Ton’s right hand for years. Although Ton isn’t ready to step down just yet, he is thinking about the future of Blender, its legacy, and doesn’t intend on leaving it to chance.

All in all, Jono Bacon has a very positive view of Blender, its development and future. As a CG enthusiast, first and foremost, I could sense that he is fond of the project, despite not following it closely anymore. Blender has played a meaningful part in Jono’s growth into an open-source connoisseur, with a free and endearing spirit he still recognizes to this day.