There are plenty of examples of open source and the graphics community getting along grandly: Gimp and CinePaint (aka FilmGimp), ILM's OpenEXR, and projects like Open Scene Graph. Linux, in particular, has made spectacular inroads: nearly everybody uses it for rendering, and many (most?) use it as their desktop OS of choice. In the RenderMan user's group (I'll get into RenderMan more in a minute), for example, somebody asked how many people used Linux as their main OS. Plenty of hands, and some approving chuckles all around. Mac OS X? A few hands, and woots. Windows? No hands at all -- and moreover, an handful of boos, followed by everybody cracking up as they realized the whole community was abandoning Microsoft wholesale.
But then there's the other side. All the major visual effects and animation studios -- ILM, Pixar, Dreamworks, Digital Domain, Blue Sky, Disney, and so on -- have a team of programmers in-house. Five, ten, two dozen, or more. They're the ones that'll write the software that does special rendering algorithms for Shrek 2, or an animation control system for Mr. Incredible, or produce massive crowd simulators for Lord of the Rings. Things that commercial software doesn't quite do -- or that nobody else has tried to do, or even thought of. Things they need to do just so. Things they need to do now.
Everybody has a ton of custom software written -- often good software, with flexible frameworks and clever hacks. Moreover, they don't want to rely any more than necessary on commercial software, because if ILM finds a bug in Maya that holds them up or slows them down, they best they can do is pay Alias to fix it fast (i.e. weeks) and then have hundreds of animators waste thousands of hours time working around it for weeks. And worse, if Digital Domain buys Alias and decides they'll keep new versions of Maya to themselves, ILM is simply screwed, in a big way. If they want to get a particular feature in Maya, and a plugin won't cut it? Well, that's even harder -- and involves more money and more time.
So ILM writes their own stuff whenever they have to, and whenever they can. And Digital Domain writes their own stuff. And Dreamworks writes their own stuff. And Disney writes their own stuff.
And most of it is all the same stuff. Fluid dynamics? Hair? Subsurface scattering? Muscle-and-skin systems? Crowd control? Dozens of topics -- and every studio pretty much has pretty similar, rather redundant code to do 'em all.
These studios aren't in the business of writing software, they're in the business of making movies. So why are they spending their time and money writing software? Because they have to; it's a Necessary Evil.
So, what if they all worked on Open Source stuff instead? Look at what I just wrote. Every word is a reason to go Open Source. No drawbacks, all upside: no lock-in, you can fix stuff, you can add stuff, you don't have to wait on anybody else, and plus, you can do all this while also using what others have written.
The knee-jerk reaction that may be some executives' first objection: our code is a strategic advantage, giving it away would be throwing away money. If we can do hair and our competitors can't, we'll make better films then they can (and, if it's a visual effects studio, we'll win contracts based on that unique ability).
Bull honkus. If your competitors need hair, they'll write hair software, no problem. Another quote from the Pixar RenderMan user's group, this one by a RenderMan developer (paraphrased): "this is based on the subsurface scattering papers from a couple years ago. Everybody does this, based on those papers." Nope, I don't see strategic advantage there: I see waste.
It is, as they say, a win-win scenario; the studios contribute their code to Open Source projects, and everybody helps make that code better. ILM started it in a small way, with OpenEXR, and it worked: OpenEXR is *the* format for high-dynamic-range images, no questions asked. Did it benefit ILM? You betcha: major packages everywhere (Photoshop, RenderMan, etc) either import/export OpenEXR now, or will soon. Pixar even contributed new compression code.
So, a great scenario, and proof that it works. Why hasn't it happened in a bigger way yet? Fear of the unknown. But listen close, and you'll hear a flood coming that could change the landscape -- and it's hard to divert a flood.
That leaves only one question: how will it start? Well, it could begin with open source projects becoming valuable to studios, as started happening with Gimp (though here I'm talking more about advanced 3D animation, simulation, and rendering; Blender's great for what it does, but medium-to-large studios aren't its intended audience; it's not going to displace Maya any time soon, because it doesn't offer anything that Maya lacks as far as the studios are concerned). Or it could start with a studio making a bunch of their custom in-house software Open Source (like ILM did with OpenEXR). Either way, it's up to us as a community -- either to write the software or to sell the concept.
I'd suggest that a great place for all this to start would be with Pixar's PRMan (PhotoRealistic RenderMan, these days often called just RenderMan). And note I say this as a shareholder. Selling RenderMan and related software accounts for less than 5% of Pixar's revenue; the real reason -- the *only* business reason -- they still develop it is for the other 95% of the company to use. If open-sourcing it would bring in collaboration and improvements that would make them just 5% more efficient in generating movie revenue, doesn't that justify the decision right there? And of course that's not counting those who would still pay for service contracts, or the reduction in development costs that could come from the rest of the community helping with their R&D (the budget for which, BTW, surpasses their software revenue). RenderMan has always been a product ahead of its time, and that's why -- despite Pixar's belligerent and hostile use of patents and close-held IP -- it's still the golden standard in this industry. The RenderMan protocol and API was intended fifteen years ago to be a renderer-independent standard, the PostScript of the 3D world. That dream died because of Pixar's unwillingness to release IP: it became difficult or impossible for others to implement that standard officially, or at all, because Pixar grasped the it so tightly (case in point, ExLuna: their lawyers summarily killed what was the best chance in years of having a RenderMan-compliant renderer with new and different functionality, complementary to PRMan). But the renderer -- PRMan -- doesn't have to die through the same mistake, even in the face of an ever-shrinking market share and competitors with the advanced global illumination algorithms PRMan lacks.
But that's not to say Pixar is the only -- or even the best or most likely -- option here. They most certainly don't hold all the cards. So, don't sit back and wait for Pixar or another studio to start the ball rolling: we need to give it a push.