Friday, August 15, 2008


My report on SIGGRAPH 08 will be relatively short because even though I enjoyed going, there wasn't a lot to talk about. I gave a talk, with Max Planck (no, not the famous dead physicist), about our system for shading the background robots on WALL-E. Though I've been co-author on a presentation previously, when I was at Bell Labs, I have never spoken at SIGGRAPH before so that was interesting. It was a much different experience than the free-for-all arguments that break out at the Transhumanist and Real AI events I've primarily spoken at. At SIGGRAPH, everyone listens politely, and follow-up questions are either nonexistant (in our case) or very nonconfrontational (a colleague's talk) -- at least, that's the case if you happen to be there representing Pixar. Perhaps more relaxing, but also a bit less amusing.

The Computer Animation Festival this year was shown in a very unsuccessful format. Instead having a few showings of the exact same juried Electronic Theater, and the other clips running in 4-6 category-based sessions that repeat multiple times, they merged the film show and animation screening room concepts into a series of different "competition screenings," so everyone saw a slightly different program -- but not different enough to warrant seeing all of them.

The seven "competition screenings" were subject to an audience prize vote. I saw two, one of which inexplicably ran after voting was closed. There was plenty of overlap between the two sessions, even though I chose the two that appeared to intersect the least. Under this arrangement it was entirely possible that you could miss seeing the winning entry unless you sat through other clips at least twice, if not more. Even worse, the Demo Scene, Japan Media Arts Festival, and similar screenings were only shown once -- and each was 15-30 minutes. If you were late, or a session you had to be in (say, if you were a speaker) was on at that time, you had no other chance to see this material. This hasn't been the case in the past, and I have previously always managed to see all of the clips. It was frustrating to miss some work I heard was very good. The theater, however, was amazingly excellent. Fortunately, I still managed to see a lot of good stuff anyway, such as Oktapodi, Mauvais RĂ´le, Rua das Tulipas, Appleseed: Ex Machina, and a few others.

Two interesting panels were presented by people from start-up studios Lightstream and MeniThings. Both are doing independently funded feature animation, and had a lot of interesting perspectives about starting a studio from scratch. Lightstream is doing a feature called "The 4th Magi," and MeniThings one called "Terra." The latter is much more technically primitive, but I think will be accomplished for a very low budget. It has the possibility, from what I saw, to be decent at the level of an average Don Bluth film. If that is the case, and my estimates of how cheap it is are correct, "Terra" could show that feature CG animation is within reach of independents, rather than being solely the domain of very wealthy studios (and individuals, like Laika's Phil Knight).

The technical and production talks I went to were all good, but nothing mindblowing. I did enjoye the four "Kung-Fu Panda" presentations I saw. They did good work on that film, and their presentations made me want to go see it (I haven't yet, but will soon). The "Horton" crew did some very nice hair work with hairs growing from hairs and tons of LOD management to make a very hairy show managable, and I hear some folks at work are doing something similar in our hair system, which I'm excited about. Their work was very nice, but it didn't make me want to see yet another Dr. Seuss story savaged by insipid hipsterism and faddish, crass humor.

I also saw the Clone Wars film. It was better than I expected -- but I expected my eyeballs to burst into flames within a few minutes, and for me to run screaming from the theater just in time to narrowly avoid my head exploding. We were softened-up by an enjoyable Q&A in which John Knoll asked Director Dave Filoni a bunch of snarky insider questions which essentially only John Knoll could get away with asking. It was done on a TV show budget, with a TV show crew. Go into the film expecting to vomit copiously, and keep in the back of your mind that the film was dirt cheap (by Lucas standards), and that nobody involved ever wanted it to be seen anywhere other than on TV (except Lucas), and you might make it through only throwing-up a little bit (such as whenever the phrase "sky guy" is uttered, for example). Taking the spirit of Filoni and Knoll's Q&A to heart as we watched it, we were able to even somewhat enjoy the moment. However, since you probably won't get to see it under such ideal conditions -- don't.

I actually like being down in LA, and we also got to see lots of friends, so all in all it was a good trip, even if SIGGRAPH itself was merely "pretty good" rather than awesome.