Uses This

A collection of nerdy interviews asking people from all walks of life what they use to get the job done.

A picture of Matt Lee

Matt Lee

Filmmaker, free software hacker

Posted in developer, film, linux

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm Matt Lee, aka mattl. I'm a filmmaker and free software hacker from the UK, but I have spent most of the last ten years in and around Boston, MA. I moved to the US in 2008 after making a short film about GNU and free software with Stephen Fry. For the last fifteen years or so, I've been working on the GNU operating system in various guises, and in the last eight of those years I started and worked on the GNU FM and (co-founded) GNU social projects. GNU FM is a bit like, and the flagship site is and GNU social is a bit like Twitter I suppose. GNU social uses the OStatus protocol, which is also used by Mastodon to build a federated social network.

Previously I was the technical lead at Creative Commons for a number of years, and before that I worked at the Free Software Foundation for about five years. But I recently retired from the GNU Project to concentrate on my current passion project, which is film. My first feature film, Orang-U: An Ape Goes To College came out on July 8th, and is the first in a series of movies I'm making. Uniquely, my films are made with entirely free/open software, have proper paid actors in them and when we release them we give you all of the source materials too, so you can really remix and do something creative with the end product. It has taken a while to get here, but we're finally ready to show this to the world. And along the way, I wound up writing a novelization of the movie, so we're releasing that as well. It's all Creative Commons ShareAlike licensed, so even commercial use is okay. But no DRM, so we won't be appearing on Netflix anytime soon, which suits me.

And when I say we, it's basically myself and my co-writer Ryan Dougherty, plus some friends from the free software world.

What hardware do you use?

My main laptop these days is a Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition, kindly donated to me by GitLab. It has a 4K touch screen display, 16Gb of RAM and a half terabyte of SSD storage, as well as an awkwardly placed webcam. It's okay to type on, but I mostly have it connected to a Dell 4k monitor and a WASD mechanical keyboard in the office. I'm also lucky to have one of Dell's Project Sputnik developers as a friend of mine for support, if I ever need it. I also have a ThinkPad T440S, also with 16GB of RAM but a full terabyte of SSD.

The movies are filmed using a Canon XA10 camera, which I picked because it has XLR inputs. Sound is recorded using a Rode shotgun microphone or a Xoom H4N recorder. I have a shoebox full of USB hard disks, brand new SSDs and SD cards in various sizes from 32mb to 128gb too, just in case.

The box also contains all the Raspberry Pis and Firefox OS phones I'll never get around to doing anything with. I have a Google Pixel phone, which seems to lock up about once every two days, and a couple of Apple products that don't get used much at all, but it can be interesting to know what they're up to. I also have the final model of PowerBook G3 running Mac OS 9, so it's a bit of a screamer. I picked that up to attend the Web 1.0 Conference at MIT last year, and its still on the floor of my apartment. Oh, and there's a random $30 tower PC I picked up on eBay to run OPENSTEP too. I suppose I'm a bit of an operating system nut.

And what software?

Pretty much everything I've ever written down on a computer since the early 1990s has been in GNU Emacs. When writing scripts for the movies, I use a format called Fountain, which is essentially just Markdown. I usually don't even have the Fountain mode turned on in Emacs, but it can be useful to check things sometimes. I use a script called Textplay to turn the Fountain markup into HTML. I also use a tool called Pandoc for doing things like producing PDFs of books from Markdown. Everything is stored in both git and Dropbox -- git for myself, Dropbox for non-hackers. I make a lot of notes on my phone, emailing them to myself and then turning those into folders for later projects.

Video editing is done entirely in Blender, which is by far the most stable video editing tool I've used on GNU/Linux. Titles and credits and things like that are made using GIMP and Inkscape, and then animated using Blender's more famous animation capabilities. I'd like to find an alternative to Audacity that doesn't lock up the sound on my computer too.

To support all these tools I run GNU/Linux on all my day to day computers -- Ubuntu on the Dell for the better support for HiDPI displays in Unity, and Debian on the ThinkPad. Once GNOME has better support for HiDPI displays I will put Debian on the Dell, so I don't have to think too much about what I'm doing. My desktop needs are pretty basic -- a browser, several terminals, GIMP/Inkscape or just Blender for when I'm editing.

What would be your dream setup?

My dream setup would be a super fast laptop with excellent build quality and a touchscreen. The Dell XPS comes pretty close. Maybe Apple will produce a decent MacBook Pro that can run GNU/Linux well, but I doubt it. I'll probably wind up building a new PC soon for rendering. I'm a little bewildered by the parts in my local Microcenter -- I know I want a screamer, but I need to be careful to not buy a video card that requires proprietary drivers. I'd like to see better support for HiDPI displays in free software, and I'd like to see more people using Blender to edit video, so that Blender itself becomes better and gets more features for video editing and video editors. I'm very happy editing my own work right now, but if that ever changes, I can see it taking a little while to get someone else up to speed using Blender.

I think one way to make free software tools better for artists is to get more artists to use the tools we have currently, and then see what can be done to improve them later. But I am just very happy to have made a feature length movie using free tools. It gives me something to do between watching Law and Order SVU episodes and tweeting the CEO of T-Mobile