Ten Free or Cheap Utilities For a Small Studio

November.18.2010 · Posted By - Rex

As many of you know, or are overwhelmed with, starting a studio up is still very expensive, with hardware and software costs impacting in the tens of thousands of dollars – or more.  I just wanted to share with you some of the software tools we’ve used for the last 5 years at PerspectX – hoping to get any suggestions you might have and hopefully inform you of some you may not know about.

I’m not really even going to get in to the artist tools – these are ‘build it yourself’ utilities and tools that aid in collaboration, file exchanges, planning, and the like.  These are just in order of how frequently used.


10. Project Management:

dotProject This web based planning tool has not been updated for some time, but it’s free, compatible with Microsoft Project (to some degree), and allows task assignments, time management, trouble tickets, and can follow up with emails, produce Gantt charts and schedules.  On complex projects we use it to our advantage as each team member can see what tasks need to be completed and by when.  And when kept up to date it is a valuable thing to hand off a Gantt preview of the timeline so they can see how everything is progressing.  Web Based, can be installed by many web service providers or yourself.

9. Screen Video Capture:

If set up right, CamStudio for Windows easily captures and compresses screen content (and audio mix or microphone) allowing you to produce high definition, high quality screen capture videos for uses such as tutorials or team training.  Often when we have a complex procedure that needs to be performed over and over, we will capture the instructions and the team can view them at a later time when they need to perform the task or have a brush up.   Test your video compression options first before doing any significant work.  That may include a YouTube upload test.  Windows Only, open source.

8. Video Sharing:

Okay beyond your own tool or a client preview system, YouTube can be used to easily provide video links or sharing via email, and it even works on mobile devices.  You can make videos unpublished or private as well.  Vimeo is another option, with better quality support but less mobile support. Web Based.

7. Custom Web Server

You can spend thousands or more on a web server structure, or you can install Apache and other products like MySQL, Perl, Python, etc. on a Linux based system, or if you want all at once you can install a product like XAMPP on Windows.  Have a security expert review your system from firewall on down to the server and PHP settings, but there is no reason to be overly scared about hosting your own site or specialty web based software package on your intranet.  Windows / Mac / Linux

6. Public File Transfer

FileZilla FTP Server can be installed behind your firewall to allow you to quickly give your clients, artists, and others access to easy, high speed access to files and folders.  With the ability to customize each account you can control permissions, privileges, even bandwidth.  Any FTP client, and there are usually FTP clients included with every operating system, can access the site.  Encryption and compression are also options available.  FileZilla FTP Client is also free, runs on Mac/Windows, and contains all the features that pay FTP clients do. Windows / Mac / Linux

5. Source Control / Revision Control

Although not suitable for huge files or large image sequences, we use SubVersion for our source control needs.  It enables us to work on big projects simultaneously, detects problems such as multiple users changing files, and allows us to version stamp files so we can get back to any older version that we need to.  The system is newer than CVS if you are familiar with that system, and is fully cross platform.  It is server based, difficulty is medium to set the system up and clients.  I like Tortoise SVN for the Windows end user.  Basic client tools are free but GUI tools are typically low priced.  Windows / Mac / Linux

4. Remote Computer Control

Although there are free options for WIndows and Mac, I rely on RealVNC for remote access to my desktops.  It performs very well on slower speed connections, has secure encryption options, and is compatible with other VNC implementations.  I use it to remotely log in to computers at the office to package files, monitor progress, and perform almost any function on the system.  Cost is fairly low at around $30 to $40 per workstation depending on volume.  Windows / Mac / Linux

3. File Compression

Why buy licenses to ZIP or WinRAR or other compression packages, when the free 7Zip package can handle all of them, and compress to much smaller sizes to boot?  It’s true sometimes clients are put off when we offer the files with .7Z extension (7Zip’s best compression option), but when they see the size/bandwidth savings you never hear about it again.  Windows / Mac / Linux

2. Phone or Web Audio Conferencing

Without getting in to Virtual PBX or phone / teleconferencing systems here, don’t underestimate Skype.  It has grown up a lot in the last few years, works very well, allows 1:1 desktop sharing, calls to and from land lines (for a very low price), and now is pretty much on every mobile device as a wifi app at least.  We use it to communicate with our Philippines team a few times per week, sometimes with clients and customers.  There are a slew of add-ons like YuuGuu

1. Email Client

Okay we don’t run our own email server, we just run off of GoDaddy which is fairly cheap.  But our full service email client, with scheduling, contact management goodies, and the like is Mozilla Thunderbird.  With a few plug-ins you can connect to almost any groupware, handle multiple email accounts, custom email templates and signatures, the works.  And it is not nearly as buggy as Microsoft Outlook in my experience, particularly when you have many tens of thousands or more emails to archive and organize.  Windows / Mac / Linux

Obvious Omissions

Okay, I am going to piss a few people off for not pointing out some of the other free packages useful to a small studio.  Well I am omitting them only because we are not using them.

3. 3D Modeling and Animation

I’m not going to argue this is amazing for a free product.  Yes a bit quirky and buggy but constantly evolving.  And I submit there is no better way for a hobbyist to learn 3D animation and modeling than Blender.  And you can get on board some great open development projects to boot.  We use Autodesk Maya and Luxology Modo due to our customer pipelines and effects capability.  Among other licensed tools.  Windows / Mac / Linux

2. Image Manipulation

For basic Photoshop like functionality, for free you can’t beat GIMP.  It’s largely compatible with Photoshop and cross platform.  A little quirky UI but hey so is Photoshop right?  We use Photoshop because it is bundled with our Adobe production packages.  Windows / Mac / Linux

1. Operating System

Okay, Linux is free maybe very cheap for some distributions.  Very powerful if you are a tinkerer, but for Joe Bloe, it’s hard to set up and get everything working on most systems, and depending on what you are doing, some of your software applications that you enjoy probably do not run on Linux.  Over the years we have built several Linux machines for use as file sharing servers and the like.  But we primarily use Windows and Mac systems.

Please please respond with some of your own invaluable free or cheap tools, we would love to know about them as well as our other readers.

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