"When does CG replace live actors?"
-John Peddie Luncheon, SIGGRAPH 2011
Wednesday, August 10th
I've learned over the several years of attending the SIGGRAPH conference that keeping the Wednesday and Thursday schedules light allowed for time to rest and to follow-up on important events or meetings that may have occurred earlier in the week. This particular Wednesday would be much different from previous years, however, as two events, the John Peddie Luncheon and the NVIDIA booth tour would prove to be the high points of my SIGGRAPH 2011 experience.
Dr. John Peddie, a "pioneer of the graphics industry" and author of several books on graphics technology, formed John Peddie Research (JPR) to provide market research and analysis for the high tech and computer graphics industries. His press luncheons at SIGGRAPH are always interesting as Dr. Peddie is a no-nonsense kind of guy who asks compelling and provocative questions of the panel of experts he invites to discuss forward-looking topics like GPU/CPU integration, Cloud computing, and in the case of this year's topic "Virtual Moviemaking," something I've been interested in via machinima for many years.
In addition to good food and a convivial atmosphere, Dr. Peddie selected a strong panel for this year's topic: Steve Cooper, Poser Product Manager at SmithMicro Software; Darin Grant, Head of Production Technology, DreamWorks Animation; Brian Pohl of Autodesk, a veteran of George Lucas' JAK Films' previsualization team and ILM; Ping Fu, Chairman and CEO of Geomagic; and Rob Powers, Vice President of 3D Development at Newtek.
Dr. Peddie, as usual, had very pointed questions for the panel: "On what do you visualize the virtual movie?," "Where is the rendering load going to be handled?," and "When does CG replace live actors?" As you can imagine, this last question produced the widest range of opinions/predictions. The problem of the "uncanny valley" effect for virtual actors was seen as a barrier. I enjoyed the comments of Ping Fu who noted that "we can't reproduce emotion in virtual actors." Avatar, of course, set a whole new standard for the collaboration between live actors and virtual ones. Rob Powers, who worked on Avatar, felt that the virtual process would place the user in a new "era of collaboration" and "would introduce the human element back into virtual production." I spoke briefly myself about how the machinima community has been producing virtual films inside of video games for the last 10 years. I think many of these machinima directors will bring their virtual movie making skills to new technology and methods of digital filmmaking in the future.
One area of panel discussion I found fascinating was the problem of massive digital archives being forgotten in storage. Many CG assets end up going into deep storage without any serious archiving records. There was speculation (and hope) that perhaps the future could bring a kind of "Smithsonian of virtual movie content" so that "virtual sets could be like old Hollywood backlots."
In every sense of the word, the John Peddie Luncheon at SIGGRAPH 2011 was a compelling event from beginning to end. Devoid of industry spin, the discussions were frank, open and intelligent. I even won a prize this year: a full year subscription to the John Peddie TechWatch, which I will put to good use. My thanks to Dr. Peddie and his staff for producing such an inspiring event.
The second major event of the day was the full tour of the NVIDIA booth on the exhibition floor. Not only did NVIDIA have a beautifully designed booth with many fascinating technologies from NVIDIA and their partners on display, but they also ran a series of Tech Talks and "demonstrations and real-life case studies that cover the latest in workstation professional graphics technologies" at the booth on a large screen that dominated the exhibit hall. There were over 45 presentations this year, all of which were standing room only.
I was well briefed at the booth (despite the noise) by Justin Boitano, Director of Marketing at NVIDIA. Before we toured the various stations at the booth, Justin remarked that the company wanted to "show technology that was in the NVIDIA labs" at SIGGRAPH. He spoke of how NVIDIA wanted to "create the best possible performance & optical experience for multi and single GPUs." After touring this remarkable booth, I believe NVIDIA and their partners are well on the way to accomplishing that goal. Smartly, NVIDIA decided to live-stream practically every presentation and demo at the booth via their Facebook page. You can also access downloadable videos at their SIGGRAPH 2011 site. Way to go, NVIDIA.
NVIDIA premiered two major technologies this year. One is their Project Maximus where they "harness the power of the GPU" using 2 graphics cards on all of their workstations at the booth: a Tesla graphics card to handle the computations and a Quadro graphics card to handle the graphics. The other is NVIDIA's Virtual Graphics Platform using servers to "provide high quality graphics over a local network for professional applications." I was given a demo of this server-based graphics technology in Project Monterey, where a local server with high end Quadro graphics cards power the graphics in an iPad so professionals don't have to confine their efforts to just a workstation.
I was also very impressed with Michael Kaplan's demo of iray 2 incorporating ActiveShade within the upcoming updated release of 3DS Max 2012 for subscribers. Bob Pette of Perceptive Pixel demoed the world's largest projective capacity (Pro-Cap) 82" LCD display, along with that company's remarkable storyboard and touchcast technology. To see Bob move media, maps, info and folders around with a flick of a finger was an almost surreal experience. It's the science-fiction I read as a young man come to life in front of me. You can watch a video of this incredible technology at NVIDIA's YouTube channel.
I did want to mention one other meeting I scheduled for the day and that was with Side Effects Software, creators of the procedural 3D application Houdini. I've long been interested in Houdini, as the software came up in conversation many times while at SIGGRAPH and prowling forums. Thankfully, they agreed to a meeting, and after researching the company for a few weeks, I sat down in a quiet area away from the show floor to chat with a Houdini rep who took me through the history of the company (cofounded in 1987 by Kim Davidson and Greg Hermanovic) and it's philosophy (driven by a "passion for production and innovation"), along with updates on the current version 11.1 and a sneak-peak at version 12 (no release date set).
Houdini has found it's niche in the VFX industry because of it's ability to create incredible particle animations. You've seen the results of Houdini artists' work in many major motion pictures. I'm intrigued by Houdini's non-linear approach to 3D and very much want to visit their office in Santa Monica, CA (their main office is in Toronto, Canada). Their website is beautifully designed and informative. They offer a free learners edition (watermark, limited size export) and a $99 HD version of Houdini (no watermark, HD export) which is thankfully NOT crippleware, but a full-featured version of the program. I'm also very excited about their learning support and outreach to students and educators. In fact, the theme of their SIGGRAPH 2011 booth was "Houdini in Education." I'm sorry I wasn't able to attend their mixer. I certainly will next year.
I decided to head back to my room early and stayed out on the balcony listening to the seagulls as I typed up my notes, answered emails and thought about all of the interesting things I'd seen during the day. After checking my Thursday schedule (the last day of SIGGRAPH), I went to bed early and slept for 12 hours straight.
Thursday, August 11th
Thursday is usually a very slow day at SIGGRAPH, almost a post-party atmosphere, but this SIGGRAPH wasn't like that at all. In fact, when I rolled in for my first appointment at 10AM, the exhibit floor was still full of energy, which is exactly how I felt after a long rest.
My first meeting was with Imagineer Systems, where I spoke with Mary Poplin who shared an excellent demo of their planar tracking application mocha Pro. I was surprised to learn that I already had a copy of mocha AE in my Adobe After Effects 5.5. Although this version is not the industrial level mocha Pro, it still has very good functionality and includes "the mocha Shape plug-in and the ability to paste to the AE mask channel."
Unlike other tracking software that uses "points" to track an object, the mocha series of applications uses planar tracking which "tracks an object's translation, rotation and scaling data based on the movement of the user defined plane." Mary gave me an amazingly fast demo of the "object removal" function in mocha Pro, which also features "lens distortion correction," "clean plate generation," and a lot more. Catch the nice video of Mary's demo and check the Imagineer Systems website for more info.
On to the Autodesk enclave in the middle of the show floor to speak with Rob Hoffman, Senior Product Marketing Manager, about what's going on with this powerhouse CG company. I had attended the Autodesk breakfast the day before and found it interesting for their announcement of XGen (the in-house tool Disney used to create the hair effects in Tangled), and how Autodesk is incorporating it into their software line-up. If you've seen Tangled, you know this is a remarkable achievement by Disney and Autodesk, as many companies do not like to share their home-grown tools. Still, the breakfast was too short, although I did manage to chat with Chuck Tappan, Disney "look developer" and researcher, who explained "Ptex" textures to me perfectly. Thank you, Chuck.
At the booth, or rather inside the booth in blissful quiet, Rob spoke with me about Autodesk's changing subscription service and the adoption of the Alembic format for better better sharing of content between apps. I liked his comment "the toolset should be a barrier between the artist and the art" and complimented Autodesk on releasing so many free tools through their Autodesk Labs project. 123D is a free, introductory software for beginners and Project Photofly, which makes 3D models out of a series of photographs taken of objects or places. Autodesk is a huge company that has swallowed up much of it's competition over the years. I'm glad to see they are making an effort to share their research and provide some of their technology for free.
Autodesk has also done an outstanding job of making their master classes, demos, interviews and special features available on-demand at their The Area: SIGGRAPH 2011 site. Amazing amount of presentations, all first rate. Be sure to catch the director Damian Nenow's discussion of his SIGGRAPH jury winning film "Paths of Hate," shot entirely in 3D Studio Max.
Next was a quick stop at the Wiley publications booth, where I spoke with Jay Lesandrini about Wiley's current and upcoming computer graphics related books. He kindly offered me copies of two very interesting books: 3D for Graphic Designers by Ellery Connell and App Inventor for Android by Jason Tyler. I was very pleased that the Connell book used Modo as the main application for learning 3D Graphic Design. Sweet.
Jay told me about Wiley's new "Essentials" series on 3D animation, 3DS Max and AutoCad (more at the Wiley website) which look quite good. I'm also very interested in their upcoming Tony Mullen book Prototyping Augmented Reality, which looks fascinating. Their computer graphics books are beautifully designed and well edited. I've got more than a dozen of them on my bookshelves. My thanks to Jay for the review copies and the update on Wiley publications.
I spent an hour at the Blender booth, caging an interview from Ton Roosendaal. You can catch it here. Ton summarized his talk at the Blender Community Meeting back on Sunday (was it only 4 days ago?). Well worth downloading the pdf of his presentation. In subsequent tweets, Ton mentioned that the Blender booth was mobbed most of the time and that he had gotten a lot of interest from Autodesk and others about working with the Blender Foundation. It looks like Blender is really starting to have an impact. It's about time.
Right after my visit with Ton, I had my head scanned for a 3D model at the 3D3 solutions booth. They were offering free scanning throughout the conference. It was an easy process, but my beard didn't help matters. Oh, well, they are going to send me the model via email and I'll load it into 3DS Max and see what I can do. Thanks, 3D3 Solutions!
The very last meeting of the day was with Black Sky Computing, a company specializing in hardware for high-end rendering and computing tasks. I spoke with Michael R. Colonno and Scott Alexander in a fun and surprising conversation about the trend towards cloud computing, misunderstandings about the cloud and what Black Sky was up to as far as reassuring their clients and providing rock-solid security for their content. It was a pleasure to talk to two smart, congenial people at a booth who didn't care if it was the end of the show. You could tell they loved their work. You can find out more info on Black Sky at their website.
Final Thoughts on SIGGRAPH 2011
Jenifer, Tim and I managed to get together later in the afternoon on Thursday for a Chinese dinner at Hon's Chinese Restaurant, which was outstanding. Took us a while to find it in Vancouver's Chinatown, but with the help of some colorful characters we sat down and ate a ton. We were all tired, but it was fun to chat with both of them about Renderosity and our SIGGRAPH experience. The walk back through a park was a nice close to the day. I left them at their hotel and walked back to pack and decompress.
SIGGRAPH 2011 was easily the best I've attended. Much of it is due to the Vancouver location, which I think really enchanted and excited many of those who attended. Some trends I saw at this year's conference include a marked move towards "Cloud Computing," increasing emphasis on the GPU taking up rendering responsibilities, more interest in virtual filmmaking and a greater sense of cooperation between the giants of computer graphics, which is surprising, but most welcome.
My congratulations to the organizers of SIGGRAPH 2011. They got it nearly perfect this year and made my time at the conference inspiring and exciting. It was a calculated risk to have a SIGGRAPH conference outside of the United States, but it was a risk worth taking as it acknowledged the huge progress Canada has made in computer graphics, both in the industry and in education. It also provided a different mix of people both attending and participating in the Exhibit Hall. Frankly, I think this year's conference is a signal event in its history that will mark a move towards fuller and more profound international involvement in all areas of the remarkable week that is SIGGRAPH.
Scary Note: I lost my passport on Thursday night (don't ask) and spent a sleepless night of worry. Thank God for the US Consulate in Vancouver who got me an emergency passport in a little over an hour. If you are ever in this situation, don't trust guide-books or internet searches, but call your local US Consulate and they will take care of you. Really.
My thanks to the staff of the American Citizen Services department of the Vancouver US Consuls office for the excellent service provided to a rattled American. And thanks to Air Canada for understanding my situation and for taking care of an alternate flight at no extra cost.
And finally, thanks to the management at Renderosity.com for the privilege of attending SIGGRAPH 2011 and for supporting me as a writer and journalist.
Catch Ricky's previous SIGGRAPH 2011 articles here:
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