Report From SIGGRAPH 2012, Part One

Ricky Grove [gToon] - Staff Columnist

"[SIGGRAPH will showcase] 3D technology breakthroughs offering new tools that are easy to interact with and work on various platforms (film editing and effects, construction, medical, etc.). This is further evidence that SIGGRAPH is much more than just a computer graphics show. We are seeing an increase in simulation and interactive experiences. Gesture recognition and mobile-enabled software is also hot."
-Mike Weil, SIGGRAPH 2012 exhibits manager

SIGGRAPH 2012, the 39th international conference on computer graphics and interactive techniques, is the largest conference of its type in the world. This year it was held at the convention center in downtown Los Angeles and I had the privilege of attending all 5 days of this huge and fascinating event as a journalist for renderosity.com.

The exhibition hall, where companies spread their wares, had an increase of exhibitors by 21% over last year's SIGGRAPH. This means that the economy for computer graphics is getting better. Attendance figures for this year haven't been announced, but I expect it to be around 24,000 since the previous LA SIGGRAPH (2010) only attracted 22,500 people. It certainly felt like there were more people, with several classes and workshops I attended being filled beyond capacity.

Every SIGGRAPH conference is a unique experience because the people and teams that organize and run the festival are new each year. The choices of what to attend are so vast that it can be frustrating at times because you miss out on so many interesting events. My goals, after 5 years of attending SIGGRAPH conferences, were clear: I wanted to meet with interesting software/hardware companies and take in a little bit of everything the conference had to offer. That included the animation festival, the classes, the presentations, the studio, art gallery and emerging tech gallery; and I still wanted to have time to follow leads and meet new people.

I had a very enjoyable and successful SIGGRAPH conference this year. I was able to achieve all of my goals without burning myself out (pace is important over 5 days) and most importantly, I made a lot of new friends and was treated to some eye-opening demonstrations of new computer graphics technology.

Let me share with you some of my most interesting meetings and events from SIGGRAPH 2012.

Sunday, August 5

The first day of SIGGRAPH is usually easy going and slower paced. Traditionally, the crowds start coming when the exhibit hall opens on Tuesday. However, this year the Sunday attendance was higher than normal. The Art Gallery and Studio were jammed with people, and the hallways were quite full. There was a palpable sense of excitement in the air.

The highlight of the day was the annual Blender community meeting. Ton Roosendaal, the founder and head of the Blender Institute, gave an excellent overview of where Blender came from, what the currently developments were and what is being planned for Blender in the next year or so. If you haven't heard of Blender, it's a free, open source, professional 3D creation suite with a huge and active community spread out all over the world.

The main developments for Blender are the Blender network for professionals, and the current "Tears of Steel" open movie project which is being filmed in Amsterdam. This film project is meant to improve and validate the Blender VFX pipeline and is funded entirely by donations. The film and all of its content will be released in October. Ton showed us clips from the film, which looks very impressive.

I had a chance to interview Ton on the last day of the SIGGRAPH conference. He's a fascinating person. It's easy to see why so many Blender users are inspired by Ton's dedication and commitment.

Ton Roosendaal audio Interview

Monday, August 6

Met with Southpaw Tech early on Monday. The founders, Gary Mandell and Remko Noteboon, told me how they developed an asset management tool called TACTIC, which came directly out of their experience in the CG industry. TACTIC efficiently manages thousands of assets and is designed so that it can adjust to whatever asset structure it's applied to. In fact, Gary and Remko discovered that "the benefits of the software extended...to advertising agencies and marketing departments in consumer products companies, aerospace companies, and other organizations creating large amounts of 2D or 3D digital files."

The big news from their company was that they were making the main TACTIC program free and open source. I was literally astounded at the news, since so few pro-level companies choose to give their software away for free, and I asked them both the reasons behind such a big decision for their company. They told me that they wanted to open up the program to a larger user base. And by providing an Enterprise version of TACTIC for the pro level market, they could focus on their service in that area.

I really liked talking to Gary and Remko. I've downloaded TACTIC and plan on using it to manage assets in an upcoming film production.


Thibaut Weise from FaceShift, facial motion capture software

FaceShift marker-less facial motion capture is still in beta and free to download. I met up with the creator of this nifty program, Thibaut Weise, in the press office. Using a small Asus Xtion Pro motion capture device attached to his laptop, Thibaut proceeded to calibrate his face to the software, made some quick facial expressions, then transferred the information directly to Maya, where he used the info to power the captured facial motions to a rigged character. He did all of this in about 10 minutes.

Very impressive demo for this software (which also works with the Microsoft Kinect). It's free in the beta form, so download it and give it a try. I plan on reviewing FaceShift once it's officially released sometime in September, 2012.


Jane McGonigal giving the Keynote address. Photo courtesty of SIGGRAPH

Jane McGonigal's keynote address was a real show-stopper. Most young people will have spent around 10,000 hours of their time playing games by the age of 21. Given the huge amount of time spent playing games, Jane wanted to look at the process of how humans use gaming time and figure out exactly what it's doing to us. Her presentation was smart, and often humorous, which is the best way to present complex ideas.

With a background in game design, Jane is perfectly situated to address the widespread cliches about gaming and culture. "How are games changing the possible futures for us all?" is one of the main questions she attempts to answer. Using diagrams, humorous images and fun audience interaction (3,000 people raising both arms is quite a sight), Jane achieved her promise of giving everyone in the audience 7.5 more minutes of life, and at the same time, showing how games have a positive impact on our lives.

I left the keynote address inspired and rushed right up to the bookstore to buy her book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. I'm not usually up for this kind of positive-thinking writing, but Jane makes her case in such an entertaining and intelligent manner, I have a feeling the book will be even better than her speech.


Beca Romeo and Shawn Kelly from Animation Mentor

Late in the afternoon, I checked in with Animation Mentor to find out what they were up to. The virtual online animation school was participating in Autodesk's student event. I spoke with Shawn Kelly, one of the founders of the company, who said they were adding an Advanced Placement program and had just started a brand new Introduction to Animation in Maya, which uses the school system, but is outside of the main 18-month course.

Animation Mentor seems to just get better and better. When I asked Shawn about the school's progress, he said, "We have a community like nothing I've ever seen. Unlike some schools who graduate their students and say, 'Goodbye,' Animation Mentor maintains strong ties with our graduates."


Having coffee with the Caustics & Imagination Technologies crew

I met with David Harold and Alex Kelley from Imagination Technologies, a company specializing in "multimedia and communication technologies." One of their goals is to bring "ray tracing" to the mobile market (the "holy grail," they called it). They told me about Imagination's beta release of "Caustic Visualizer," a "new visualization software and true full-frame interactive view-port hardware acceleration technology showcasing at SIGGRAPH 2012." It's designed for Maya at present and is a free beta download at the Imagination website. I'm excited about trying the Caustic Visualizer in the new Maya 2013.


The Dell Precision Mobile Workstation Team. The M6700 is front and center

Hustling over to the nearby Marriot hotel, I met up with Dell reps Karl Paetzel and Scott C. Hamilton to discuss their recent line of high-end Dell Precision ("don't call 'em laptops") mobile workstations, and specifically the M6700, which looked like the computer equivalent of a small Jaguar. Beautifully designed with a candy-apple trim, the inside of the M6700 is equally impressive: NVIDIA quadro card, i7 Intel CPU, SSD hard drive, too many ports to count…it was amazing. I was told of the rigorous testing procedures that went into creating the M6700, and the whole line of Dell Precision workstations, and got a chance to look it over closely. I was impressed, to put it mildly. Full details can be found at the Dell Precision webpage.

This meeting with Dell gave me all kinds of ideas for the rest of the week. I'm hoping to work with Dell on a series of articles showing how the Dell Precision mobile workstation can be the centerpiece for high quality motion capture, VFX compositing and 3D content creation.


Still from animated film "For the Remainder," by Omer Ben David

My favorite part of the day was the SIGGRAPH 2012 Animation Festival, which ran from 6pm to 8pm Monday night. Chaired by Joshua Grow (who also ran last year's festival), the selection of films was inspiring. It would be impossible to cover all of the great films, commercials and VFX reels shown at the festival, but there were several works that I must share with you.

The jaw-dropper film for me was "For the Remainder," by Omer Ben David. The simple story of a house cat who decides to leave his home and go exploring is rendered into watercolor-style imagery that animates with such grace and delicacy you can see that cat's thought process as it moves across the house and out the window. Omer studies at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Israel.

Another remarkable film was a science visualization created by Nucleus Medical Media titled "Fertilization." The entire process of female fertilization is presented using 3D animation. Beautifully designed and effectively narrated, I soon forgot I was watching a film and came away realizing just how miraculous fertilization actually is. This kind of science film is light years away from what I saw in high school. Brilliant work.

"Jack and Chuck" rounded out the evening for me. Created by Alexandre Chaudret, Thomas Crepin and Maureen Kressman, this Supinfocom Valenciennes production was deliciously strange and dark. Hard to believe that this film was a student project. Then again, Supinfocom consistently trains some of the world's most amazing CG artists. "Jack and Chuck" is a perfectly crafted film that avoids the cliches of the horror genre, and yet remains very accessible. Big round of applause to the directors.

After taking the subway back to North Hollywood, I was able to archive my pictures/video and go over my schedule for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. I had to be up at 5:30am because it was going to be a very long day with lots of meetings. I couldn't wait!

Quick links:

Stay tuned for Ricky's Report from SIGGRAPH 2012 Part Two, coming soon...


Ricky Grove [gToon], Staff Columnist with the Renderosity Front Page News. Ricky Grove is a bookstore clerk at the best bookstore in Los Angeles, the Iliad Bookshop. He's also an actor and machinima filmmaker. He lives with author, Lisa Morton, and three very individual cats. Ricky is into Hong Kong films, FPS shooters, experimental anything and reading, reading, reading. You can catch his blog here.


August 18, 2012

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