SIGGRAPH 2007: Animator Anticipation!

Interview by Dee-Marie, Contributing Columnist

Tour SIGGRAPH 2007 Computer Animation Festival, with Chair, Paul Debevec

There can be only one word to describe Paul Debevec—brilliant! After a short visit to his web site, it is hard to imagine how Paul manages his time. With degrees in both Math and Computer Engineering, as well as a Ph.D. in Computer Science, perhaps the answer to his prolific career lies in a dark corner of his research room. Rumors have circulated that Doctor Debevec has discovered the secrets to cloning, through computer animation.

For, not only is Paul a Research Associate Professor at the Computer Science Department at the University of Southern California, he also heads the Graphics Laboratory at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies. Unsubstantiated reports state, that in lieu of sleep or nutrition, Paul fortifies his thirst for knowledge by immersing himself within a world of computer graphics: including research papers, computer animations, art projects, software, and educational resources.

Although, his name may not be instantaneously recognizable, if you are an avid movie buff you have seen his work. His computer graphics and lighting techniques have enhanced such box office adventures as: Superman Returns, Spider-Man, X-Men, and Pirates of the Caribbean. Paul Debevec's name can even be found in the IMDb (Internet Movie Datebase).

Yet, even with his inexhaustible hunger for erudition, Paul has found time to chair this year's SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Festival. He has also graciously set aside time from his demanding schedule to take our readers on a behind the scenes tour of the SIGGRAPH 2007 CAF.


Paul, it is an honor to get to know you better. Your research with Light Stage devices is fascinating. I recommend serious animators read your SIGGRAPH 2007 paper, Post-production Facial Performance Relighting using Reflectance Transfer.

It's great to have new work in the papers program and that paper is notable since it gets some surprisingly convincing relighting results even though the performance is only captured under fixed lighting.

Did your research play a part in your being appointed Computer Animation Festival Chair for SIGGRAPH 2007?

I've contributed a number of animations to the Computer Animation Festival, and served on its jury a few times. Joe Marks [SIGGRAPH 2007 Conference Chair] understood that I'd be extremely committed to helping the Computer Animation Festivalbe the best show possible.

How did your lighting research techniques come to be used on such movies as Superman Returns and Spider-Man 2?

Our first paper about capturing and rendering photoreal models of human faces was published at SIGGRAPH 2000. In 2002 visual effects supervisor Scott Stokdyk, from Sony Pictures Imageworks, contacted me about doing a test for capturing the actors for Spider-Man 2.

About the same time they hired facial animation expert, Mark Sagar, to join their effects team. Mark had been a collaborator on our Light Stage 1 project, and had started a great Image-Based Rendering team at Sony. After a promising test, Sony brought over Alfred Molina [Doc Ock] and Tobey Maguire [Spider-Man] to get scanned in our second Light Stage device nearby in Marina del Rey.

The shots of the CG Doc Ock looked great. Sony pushed the technique much further for Superman Returns: there were Superman [Brandon Routh] close-ups that I didn't realize were CG until I saw John Monos' presentation at the VES festival last summer. Nic Nicholson built a rig that allowed us to scan Brandon Routh's hands as well—another Light Stage first.

Were your techniques also used on Spider-Man 3?

For Spider-Man 3, we scanned most of the principal cast, this time also in costume to help model the reflectance properties of the clothing and equipment. We got a great long-exposure photo of James Franco, as New Goblin surrounded within a sphere of light. We even captured a small pile of the official "Sandman" sand.


Spider-Man 3: Birth of Sandman
Spider-Man® 3 images courtesy of Columbia Pictures © 2007 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.
Spider-Man Character © 2007 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved
Director: Sam Raimi—Scott Stokdyk, Visual Effects Supervisor—Sony Pictures Imageworks—USA

What ground breaking projects are you currently working on at the University of Southern California Centers for Creative Technologies?

We've developed a new light stage scanning process that uses digital still cameras to capture especially high-resolution models of facial geometry and reflectance. These cameras can take 16 or so pictures in a few seconds. We also derived a new set of spherically polarized lighting conditions that let us reconstruct about 0.1mm resolution geometry, normals, and diffuse and specular intensity maps from just those photographs. We have a paper at the Eurographics Symposium on Rendering, and Alex Ma will give a SIGGRAPH 2007 Sketch about the capture system.

Our other major project is a new 3D display we've developed that uses high-speed video projection at over 5,000 frames per second, and a rapidly spinning mirror to show interactive graphics in 3D to any number of people standing around the display—no glasses required! We have a SIGGRAPH paper about that as well and there's an online video.

Not only are you the SIGGRAPH 2007 Computer Animation Festival Chair—you have also been a vital contributor to past SIGGRAPH conferences. How many years have you been a part of the SIGGRAPH experience, and what were the circumstances surrounding your first SIGGRAPH conference?

My first SIGGRAPH was 1994 in Orlando. I was a summer intern at Interval Research Corporation in Palo Alto, and they graciously sent me there. I was amazed with the size and breadth of the conference—a 20-ring circus of amazing stuff for an entire week. The Electronic Theater was great that year, and I remember being thrilled by the mix pieces spanning from art to commercial to scientific. ILM's piece on re-animating JFK for “Forrest Gump” is particularly etched in my mind.

I returned to grad school at UC Berkeley with the hopes of contributing to SIGGRAPH some day. My first paper was at SIGGRAPH 96, and I also worked with Golan Levin from Interval on an Art Gallery piece that year. I had my first film, The Campanile Movie, based on my Ph.D. work, in the Electronic Theater the following year. I haven't missed a SIGGRAPH since.

Thanks for filling our readers in on your background. Now, onto this year's Computer Animation Festival, which is consistently one of the biggest draws to each SIGGRAPH conference. What's new to the festival this year?


Ark
[Best of Show]

Ark 2007 © Grzegorz Jonkajtys, Marcin Kobylecki
Director: Grzegorz Jonkajtys— Producers: Marcin Kobylecki, Grzegorz Jonkajtys—Poland

We have very strong material this year—with a record-breaking 905 submissions, the jury had an enormous amount of great work to choose from. I think it will be a great Electronic Theater, however the Animation Theaters are especially strong as well. Recognizing that, this is the first year that we will be screening the Animation Theaters in full high-definition—in fact, there will be a complete reel of 4K resolution material shown on Sony's SXRD projectors in the Animation Theaters.


En Tus Brazos 
[Award of Excellence]

© Supinfocom/Premium films
Director: François-Xavier Goby, Edouard Jouret, Matthieu Landour—Supinfocom Valenciennes—France

This is only the second year that the jury selected three award-winning pieces and the first year that two of them (Dreammaker and En Tus Brazos) are student work. Ark, the jury's choice for Best of Show, has the most breathtaking detail and tonal range I've seen in an independent work. I can't wait to see how it will look on the 50-foot screen of San Diego's Civic Theater, played from HDCAM/SR with the projectors from Christie Digital.


Dreammaker 
[Jury Honors]

© leszek plichta 2007
Director: Leszek Plichta— Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg—Germany

How did this year's entries to the Computer Animation Festival vary from past SIGGRAPH conferences?

I believe this year's show succeeds in being as representative as any show we've had in recent years—representative of the whole field of computer graphics: Animated Shorts, Art, Broadcast, Cinematic, Real Time, Research, Visual Effects, and Visualization. It's a great year for studio-produced shorts, with Pixar's Lifted, Blue Sky's No Time for Nuts, and Blur Studio's A Gentlemen's Duel, anchoring the Electronic Theater show.


Lifted 
© circle C 2006 Disney/Pixar
Director: Gary Rydstrom—Pixar Animation Studios—USA

Wow, I'm impressed. Are you seeing any specific trends in this year's festival?

Then there are a ton of fun and surprising shorts from students and smaller studios around the world. We have several research pieces including an awesome preview of the SIGGRAPH 2007 papers program narrated by Jim Blinn, and some gorgeous scientific visualizations. It's also a breakout year for real-time content—we have a record amount of material from the video game industry, where the quality of the graphics has surpassed what pre-rendered computer graphics could deliver just a few years ago.


300—Liquid Battlefield 
© Image courtesy of Warner Brothers
Director: Stephan Trojansky— Kirsty Millar, Visual Effects Supervisor —SCANLINE VFX— Australia

The Electronic Theater is also a watershed year for fluid simulation in feature films: Scanline's 300's Liquid Battlefield, Sony Pictures Animation's Surf's Up, and Digital Domain and Industrial Light and Magic's Pirates of the Caribbean, all feature beautifully compelling, but completely unique, digital oceans.


Surf's Up: A Practical Guide to Making Waves 
© 2006 Sony Pictures Animation Inc. All right reserved
Director: Rob Bredow—Sony Pictures Imageworks—USA

The competitive edge is evident in each year's entrees to the Computer Graphic Animation Festival. Do you feel there is a balance between the rising number of outstanding animators, and the high demand for animation in the film and gaming industries?

With movies, television, commercials, mobile devices, and the web all using animation with increasing frequency, it seems like the demand should be strong. But the positions will always be competitive—good animation requires a great level of talent and skill, and jobs that feature the opportunity to show one's work to the world will always have a lot of people attracted to those positions.

What is your stand in regards to talent versus education? Do you feel a formal education is essential for an artist to make a living as a computer graphic animator?

Formal education isn't an absolute requirement, but there are many excellent schools across the world right now that have very much to offer—look through the program of this year's show to find out where the best student pieces are coming from. Talent plus experience is the key. So, if you're not in school it's important to keep making animations and get as much critical feedback as possible. One of the best experiences in going to school is the opportunity to learn with, and to learn from, your fellow students.


A Gentlemen's Duel 
© Blur Studio, Inc.
Directors: Francisco Ruiz and Sean McNally—USA

PC, Mac-Bryce, Vue, Maya, Carrara, Poser-what specific types of software and hardware are "indispensable" for the aspiring animator?

Those are all great tools. I'm personally a fan of animations that use advanced lighting techniques—global illumination, physically-based materials, and image-based techniques. Throughout history, many of the greatest artists have been innovators technically as well as artistically. Whether that means formulating your own paints and brushes, or writing your own shaders and C++ code.

Outstanding advice!

Every artist I know who has gained expertise in programming, physically—based rendering, or advanced shading has used those skills to dramatically increase their ability to realize their visions.

How many animations were chosen this year, and what specifically were the judges looking for when casting their votes for this year's nominees?

We have 39 films in the Electronic Theater, and 93 in the Animation Theaters—representing 1 in 25, and 1 in 10 of the total submissions, respectively. The direction I gave the selection jury was to look for the most innovative and excellent pieces across the full spectrum of computer graphics. I chose the jury for being internationally-recognized innovators themselves—demonstrating a time-tested ability to identify and represent innovation and excellence in at least two of the submission categories; such as Real-Time and Visual Effects, or Art and Scientific Visualization.


No Time For Nuts 
TM and © 2007 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.
Directors: Chris Renaud and Michael Thurmeier—Blue Sky Studios—USA

Thank you so much Paul, for taking time out of your busy schedule. One last question—looking ahead to SIGGRAPH 2008, what advice can you give artists who have hopes of being among the privileged animators showcased in next year's conference?

Find a unique message, look, and story for your film—something that is both universally understandable and uniquely meaningful to you, and your connection to the work will come through in your film. Assume the jury has seen every animation ever made, and realize a vision that no one has ever seen before.

Know your strengths (whether they are story, animation, camera, character design, lighting, editing, sound), and make a film that plays to your strengths and doesn't tax your weaknesses. Better yet, find collaborators who compliment your skills and create an even stronger film by working together. Finish your project early so there's time to tweak and refine in the weeks before the deadline. Upload early and often, and in widescreen HD if you can!

We invite you to visit the following sites:

  • SIGGRAPH 2007
  • Animation Theater Schedule
  • Electronic Theater Schedule
  • Paul Debevec Personal Web Site
    supporting images are copyright and have been used by permission from SIGGRAPH 2007
    Images cannot be copied, printed, or reproduced in any manner without written permission from the artist.

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  • July 9, 2007


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