The Morevna Project: Anime with Synfig and Blender

The Morevna Project aims to create an animated film in a modern anime-style retelling a very old Russian folktale known as "Marya Morevna". It's a free culture production project pushing the envelope in several ways -- entirely using free software tools and releasing under the free Creative Commons Attribution license. The project is purely community-based, without any foundation funding, so they can probably use your help. Joining could be a terrific learning opportunity, whether your interest is in literature, music, animation, or software development.

Marya Morevna: The Fairy Tale

It's probably essential to give an idea of what the original story is about, though it may seem a bit bizarre (this was certainly my first encounter with the story).

The protagonist, a prince named Ivan, has three sisters to whom, on his parents dying wish, he grants permission to marry three men who are apparently some sort of bird spirits in reality. He himself runs off with the powerful queen Marya Morevna (it's notable that she's a "queen", not a "princess" in the story).

Needless to say, the project’s founder, Konstantin Dmitriev is an anime buff as well as a Synfig user

Unfortunately, the queen has a closet she doesn't want him to open (where have we heard this before?), and of course, prince Ivan cannot stand but to open it. As a result, though, he releases this guy named "Koschei the Deathless", which was apparently not such a good idea, as he immediately steals away Marya.

Figure 1: The protagonist, Ivan Tsarevich

Subsequently the prince tries to get her back, through various horrific incidents including getting chopped to bits and magically reassembled. Then, getting really desperate, he enters into the service of the wicked witch Baba Yaga to get a much better horse so he can escape with Marya on his next attempt. Despite much foul play, he succeeds, rescues Marya, and Koschei gets killed by Ivan's new horse.

It's just weird enough to be cool. A complete English telling of the story can be found here.

Marya Morevna: The Anime

The anime version will bring everything into a modern sci-fi anime style. The horses become motorcycles; Ivan's sisters are respectively: a mechanic, a doctor, and a priestess; and there are other changes. I have not yet made a thorough reading of the translated script (though I will now, since I've joined the project and all but promised to edit it for English stylistics), but it's clear that these changes have been made both to make the story more accessible and to suit the anime genre better.

Figure 2: The leading lady and title character, Marya Morevna herself

Needless to say, the project's founder, Konstantin Dmitriev is an anime buff as well as a Synfig user, and he has managed to assemble a team of people with many of the appropriate skills: Konstantin Sofronov -- 3D modelling, Ivan Ushakov -- 3D animation, Carlos López González -- 2D animation and development, Nikolay Mamashev -- 2D animation and artwork, and Natalya Neverova -- artwork and character design.

It's an ambitious project, though. There's almost certainly room for a lot more help. The project site is in English (although I do find it helps my comprehension to read it aloud in a cheesy Russian accent). One thing they do need, since they plan to release an English version as well, is more people with more fluent English. This is also useful for cleaning up in-project documentation.


Synfig Studio was originally developed by a small animation studio, then subsequently released under a free license. It was intended to be an alternative to other animation tools, and to provide an excellent platform for automatic "in-betweening". This is the interpolation technique used to turn jerky "key-frame" animation into smooth motion.

Figure 3: A snapshot from Synfig Studio

In many ways, Synfig is comparable to proprietary animation tools like Flash, but it is designed to work much more smoothly with other free software tools, and its file formats are of course much better documented.

In many ways, Synfig is comparable to proprietary animation tools like Flash

There remain many difficult areas, both in terms of interface and editing issues and in interoperability (I understand that converting back and forth between the program's native SIF and the standard SVG format remains difficult).


Blender is a 3D animation tool, but with appropriate rendering tools it can generate images that closely resemble 2D animation techniques. Look at the motorcycle renderings in figure 4 to see what I'm talking about. This is generally called "toon rendering," and it's very useful for creating special dimensional effects in animation, even when a 2D style is desired.

Figure 4: Ivan's "steed" -- a motorcycle, modelled in Blender and "toon rendered"

This kind of rendering was a very important part of the look of high-tech animation like that in Studio IG's "Ghost in the Shell, Stand Alone Complex" anime series, for exmaple (it also appears in "FLCL" and a number of other popular anime from the 2000s). Of course, they were probably not using Blender -- but they could have, and Morevna project will be using it.

Blender is a 3D animation tool, but with appropriate rendering tools it can generate images that closely resemble 2D animation techniques

The Progress So Far

The film has a complete screenplay in Russian. A rough draft of an English translation exists already. There are complete character designs for the two main characters, and some sketches available for others. There are 3D models of a number of props including Morevna's motorcycle and an impressive array of weapons (yes, it's definitely shonen anime).

Figure 5: 3D models of weapons

A demo animatic has been worked through and is available as a video on the site. Part of it could work as a preview or a title sequence:

Why You Should Help

Unlike the Blender Open Movies, Morevna Project does not have foundation funding. The artists are contributing valuable free time to this project -- and one gift deserves others. That's probably the best reason to help.

From a more selfish perspective: this is a great opportunity to learn more about animation. The workflow this group has already created is already making huge bounds in defining paths for free-software-based animation production. Not only is this approach free as in freedom, it's also free as in beer: anyone who's worked with proprietary animation tools should realize this is worth a lot in itself.

From an advocacy perspective: engaging, fun, high profile free culture projects are amazingly good marketing, not just for free culture (the film will be released under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license), but also for free software (everything used to make it is free software: Synfig, Blender, Inkscape, Gimp, Pencil, and so on).

This project is doing a lot of things right, including using a project wiki for coordinating contributions and a well-written contributor's guide. There was a brief hiatus in 2009, but the project is back to work now in 2010 -- it's a perfect time to give the project some extra momentum by contributing your own talents!


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