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Inside SIGGRAPH 2006
On Sunday, August 30th, the annual Siggraph Conference kicked off this year in Boston, Massachusetts to unusually hot weather and a bustling crowd of academics, students, and digital artists buzzing about networking opportunities and the latest digital toys that would be on display. For any attendee it can be a dizzying four days of running through the often confusing passages of the new Boston Convention Center to papers, sessions, and panels covering all aspects of computer art.
There is such a diverse offering that you can spend the morning at a course on techniques of "Illustrative Visualization for Medicine and Science" and then spend the afternoon at a sketch entitled "King Kong" – The Building of 1933 New York City. Both use digital techniques and art as a means for very different ends.
The following is a short sampling of what I took away from this year’s show. It is by no means comprehensive but will hopefully give designers who have not attended a Siggraph conference another perspective on what the conference has to offer.
There are over 30 courses presented at Siggraph in formats that range from tutorials to full or half-day sessions. They are presented by experts from academia and industry who demonstrate the latest techniques in their respective fields. The first course I attended was a deconstruction of Sony Pictures Imageworks’ new animated feature "Open Season." Max Bruce, CG supervisor on the film, spent a couple of hours breaking down the elements and techniques of the production, in particular the architecture and amount of detail needed to achieve the film’s look. One interesting aspect of the production was the creation of a mood board. This was done by the artists saving out a frame from each scene in the film and compiling them onto a board in order to track the the colors of the movie and determine how the use of color throughout the film effectively reinforced story points and overall feel.
Another course that grabbed my attention and took place in the huge expanse of Hall A was entitled, "The Chronicles of Narnia – The Lion, The Crowds, and Rhythm & Hues." The team from Rhythm and Hues delved into the creation of the mythical characters of the film, namely the Gryphon and Centaurs. One of the production issues was determining a solution that would incorporate a human from the waist up onto a horse’s body from the shoulder down. The crew from R&H elevated the Centaur actors on ramps and widened their waists in post to combine them believably with the horse’s body. This course underlined the fact that even the smallest detail in a composite can make the difference between a great shot and a bad shot. Details that you would never notice while watching the film can take quite a bit of work and is often the mark of a successful composite. This can also be related to motion design work. The transitions and composites that the viewer doesn’t notice is maybe your best work — it’s all about the art of illusion.
The art papers are smaller sessions that showcase student and professional research in various computer art and interactive subjects. One session explored "Flashimation," which has come into being primarily through the emergence of Macromedia’s Flash animation software. They espoused the use of Flash not only as a web animation tool but as a legitimate broadcast animation tool and cited its maturation as a universal media design tool with some recent broadcast work that uses Flash: Esurance spots and some Cartoon Network shows like Foster’s Home of Imaginary Friends. It does seems like Flash would provide an economically efficient way to create animation that’s evocative of traditional cell animation but which is not economically viable, at least in the United States, due to the production time involved.
The keynote is a highlight of SIGGRAPH. In the past, SIGGRAPH has attracted many prestigious members of the computer arts industry to deliver the keynote address. Previous speakers have included: science fiction author and technologist Bruce Sterling and the Jedi Knight himself, George Lucas. This year, the keynote was given by Joe Rohde, Executive Designer and Vice President at Walt Disney Imagineering. Rohde is currently in charge of the design and development for Disney’s Animal Kingdom at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. He has led conceptualization, design, and production for Disney’s Animal Kingdom since its inception in 1990.
Mr. Rohde began his address by stressing the importance of storytelling in any design and establishing a theme for your story/design, which all aspects of the story/design must relate back or stand up to. There can be sub-themes under this main theme, said Rohde, but it’s imperative that all the details relate back to the main theme in some way. In the case of the Animal Kingdom, Mr. Rhode led the development and production of Expedition Everest, the new roller coaster thrill ride. The overall theme for Animal Kingdom is the "intrinsic value of nature." Once it was determined that the new thrill ride would be based in a Himalayan location, they needed to figure out how it could be believable that a roller coaster would exist in this environment. After some historical research, it was discovered that trains had transported tea from Nepal to the areas of greater China, which then provided an authentic reason for the roller coaster existing in the Himalayas.
After further research by Mr. Rohde, they learned of the myth of the Yeti, a great beast that protects the foothills of the Himalayan mountains against the encroachment of civilization. The Yeti would provide the conflict of the ride. The train must traverse the foothills to deliver its tea and the Yeti protects these foothills. The ride is thus consistent with the theme—the intrinsic value of nature. Mr. Rohde attributes the great success of the ride to the effort to keep all elements of the design consistent with the strong theme of the park.
Computer Animation Festival
Another highlight of the events at SIGGRAPH is the Electronic and Animation Theaters where the best shorts in animation, VFX, and design from all over the world (6 continents and 37 countries) are screened. The works are judged by their exemplary use of computer-generated imagery and animation and compelling storytelling. Alex Weil’s One Rat Short took the Best of Show award. It tells the story of a New York City rat going from his gritty, urban world to the interior of a futuristic laboratory. Along the way, the main character discovers love, danger, and his own fate. While just about every piece inspired some level of awe, the highlights were the works that combined great storytelling with great art. Some other crowd favorites were:
The Exhibits Floor
Hopping from the moment it opened on Tuesday morning, the exhibits floor was abuzz with all sorts of new goodies and gadgets displayed by a bevy of booth babes. Here’s a smattering of tidbits I gleaned.
Newtek trumpeted its new release of its 3D application Lightwave 9. Again, the demos looked very good as they usually do. One interesting feature was the ability to match real world cameras from a list of presets, including still cameras such as a Canon SLR as well as film cameras like Panaflex. This feature will not yet be included in the 9.0 version but will be in the 9.1 update which is not available yet.
I was very surprised not to see any Apple booth. Then I started to hear grumblings about the future of their Shake pro composting application. One high level employee at ILM posited that because of recent developments with the application, he thought there was a chance that that ILM may start looking at other compositing solutions for their pipeline. He wouldn’t elaborate exactly on the reasons why but one can surmise it’s the drastic price drop for Apple users to $499, while keeping the Linux pricing holding steady at $4999. This coupled with the rumor that scale-backs to the Shake development team are planned putting the future of the application in jeopardy. A representative at Blue Sky Studios, makers of the "Ice Age" films told me that Apple was offering select vendors the source code for Shake, effectively throwing another wrinkle into these rumors.
Although there was no booth on the exhibit floor, Apple did have representation at the Job Fair and the Boston FCPUG meeting that I attended. I asked them about the concerns regarding Shake. They were, not surprisingly, tight-lipped and said the customers they’ve spoken to were pleased with the new pricing structure and they had not heard of any complaints directly. Ces la vie. But there still remains a looming question, especially for students currently learning or planning to learn the software: Considering the investment needed in both time and money to learn a piece of software, if the future of Shake is seemingly this murky how, will it affect the future user base?
Maxon’s Cinema 4D 3D animation tool continues to make strides deeper into the collective tool set of motion designers, design studios and, maybe more surprisingly, bigger feature animation studios. Sony Pictures Animation showed how it used C4D for creating background matte paintings in its upcoming September release of their first full length feature, "Open Season." Sony worked with the development team at Maxon to create a plugin module called Projectionman, which they used in the film to create multi-plane effects with the matte painting backgrounds in a large portion of the film. The plugin essentially simplifies and makes more efficient the camera mapping feature that already exists in the C4D application. Maxon did not have a release date for when the plugin would be available to the public.
The Red Sox
I capped my SIGGRAPH 2006 experience by taking in a Red Sox game at Historical Fenway Park on Wednesday night. The game ebbed and flowed, with the lead changing a couple times. The Sox won it in dramatic fashion in the 9th with a walk off double. As we all headed for the exits I tried to come up with a significant take-away from this year’s conference. It would probably be to keep abreast of technological developments in your field. Know your software really well—it will enable you to bring your client’s vision to life. As one panelist declared, "In this business, it’s not about your pedigree, it’s all about your skill set."
See you in San Diego in 2007.