Ricky's SIGGRAPH 2008 Wrap-Up

August 31, 2008 4:18 pm

Tags: Ed Catmull, robotics, SIGGRAPH, SIGGRAPH 2008

Now that I've had a chance to catch up on my sleep and reflect on the SIGGRAPH 2008 conference, the main thought that keeps coming back to me is that “I have so much to learn”. But then again, I think this is one of the reactions that the founders of SIGGRAPH, way back in 1973, would have wanted. Because this convention is so huge and so complex that it becomes a kind of mirror to the person who attends it. In fact, the SIGGRAPH 2008 website offers a kind of “program” of events to consider depending upon your background (artist, teacher, student, architect, etc). So, depending upon what interests you, the SIGGRAPH conference will be truly different for each person. And once I wrapped my head around that idea, I realized that the conference is really a kind of mini-society that lasts for a week and then starts thinking of next year.



I discovered SIGGRAPH through The Pixar Touch book I read several months ago (and reviewed here at renderosity.com). Certainly, I'd heard of the conference before, but after reading the book, I had a much better sense of what SIGGRAPH was about and how it functioned. So when my editor, Nick, asked if I wanted to cover the conference, I jumped at the opportunity. Living in Los Angeles, I thought, would make it much easier (it didn't).

After a complex registration process for the media, I began to comb through the SIGGRAPH website for what panels, classes and special events I wanted to attend. After talking it over with Nick and Sergio (so glad to finally meet him), I scheduled myself from early in the morning (8:30AM) to the evening (sometimes 8:00PM). My choices were based on my interest in animation via machinima and on what interested me as a reporter for renderosity.



Even before the conference began, both Sergio and I signed up for the Maxon Cinema 4D luncheon on Tuesday. I've long been interested in learning more about this program, especially so since mdotStrange, one of my favorite indie filmmakers, used C4D to create his film “We are the Strange” (reviewed here at renderosity.com). I had also scheduled Paulo de Almada's “Twisted Murder” presentation at the Vicon Motion capture booth in the main exhibit hall sometime on Wednesday or Thursday. I was also going to meet up and interview John Martin from Reallusion on their release of Iclone 3 the week before SIGGRAPH opened. And then I just started choosing interesting classes and panels to attend until I had a full schedule for the whole week.



Once I was approved as a journalist, I received a flood of email solicitations, sometimes 10 or 15 a day right up to (and through) the start of SIGGRAPH. Most of them were for events and interviews I either wasn't interested in or didn't feel qualified in doing. But there were a few that I responded to, so I set up a couple appointments with software companies and their reps. NewTek, makers of Lightwave and SpeedEdit, was one of the companies I was interested in. I knew that I wouldn't have enough energy or stamina to attend any of the parties or big evening events like the reception at Dodger Stadium on Thursday night. Mainly because I had decided to write a daily blog and that would take an hour or so to make sure the info was correct and to write reasonably well.



And so, armed with my schedule, my digital camera, my portable digital audio recorder and a borrowed video camera all stuffed into my pack with pencils, notebooks and the big thick SIGGRAPH guidebook, I hit the Los Angeles subway system on a Monday with David Lynch's “Lost Highway” soundtrack blasting in my ears as I ran through my schedule for the day.

The media room was deserted at 8:00AM, so I had a cup of coffee (Sergio said they would have muffins, but they never appeared...damn!) and got set to experience SIGGRAPH.



By Friday, I was not only exhausted from having walked and traveled and concentrated intently for 5 days straight, but I had my video camera stolen and had basically realized that my carefully researched schedule was completely inadequate for my actual experience of the SIGGRAPH convention. I had basically abandoned my schedule and simply chose events that were either recommended to me or simply fit what I had been learning about in other events. I made plenty of time for just simply wandering around and exploring, which was the best thing I could have done. Because even though there were some excellent panels and events, the real interest and excitement was in the people you met who were attending the conference. I made it a point to meet (and briefly interview) a new person every day as a kind of cross-section of who was attending.



It's hard to say exactly what was the most important or interesting event at SIGGRAPH 2008. I suppose the keynote address by Ed Catmull, of Pixar, was the high note for me. As I mentioned in my blog, his comments on how important people were as opposed to ideas, was a real grounding moment for me as I've been collaborating on animation projects for the last two years and often wondered why some groups did excellent works and others did not.

Mr.Catmull wanted to impress on us all (500+ people who attended) that real collaboration comes from honesty, consideration and trust. This was not particularly original, but it was in the context he placed these ideas in that made you sit up and listen. Pixar Studios is widely considered to be the premiere animation company in the world, but they didn't get there without problems, and many of those problems caused all kinds of stress and grief. Listening to this somewhat frail man (he'd had a hip replaced 6 months before this keynote address) become increasingly impassioned as his talk progressed made me wonder if I would have the same level of passion as I grew older.



Speaking of passion, that pretty much was the word that that got repeated over and over at the conference. Whether it was in a “Games” panel or on the exhibition floor, I heard people say that the real key to success in computer graphics was to have a deep passion for the subject. And then, you'd meet a dozen people who all had a passion for what they were doing!

Ankit Gupta, a young doctoral student who sat beside me at the Catmull speech, told me that he wanted to study 3d programming in order to help people, which just floored me as it was the last thing I expected him to say. His passionate comments and friendly manner was the first of many such encounters during the week with people who were passionately engaged with computer graphics in some form or another. Andrew Glassner, the instructor in the “Intro to Computer Graphics” impressed me a lot with his great sense of fun in communicating the essentials of 3d modeling/animation. I saw him again later in the week heading up the “Speedlab” final presentations and he was still going 100 miles an hour.



There was also a strange syncronicity going on for me at SIGGRAPH. Day after day, I would hear something in a panel or in a conversation and, without fail, I'd come across the same idea later in the day, but only in a different form or context. Robotics struck me as a sub-theme of the conference (damn, didn't get to the keynote address on robotics though), and on Tuesday I began the day with a difficult class in movement programming for robots and virtual worlds, only to come across a robotics inventor at the end of the day who explained how he solved the theoretical problems that were floating around in my brain from the morning. Got me to thinking about robotics all the rest of the week.

And, of course, I spent time interviewing people and looking for interesting stories all week. I wanted to collect a number of audio interviews for later articles. Ralph, at the NewTek booth gave me a delightful story/pitch on SpeedEdit, their DV editing program. In the media room, I spoke with Joe Kennedy, a media person with SIGGRAPH, who gave me some insight into SIGGRAPH and how it has evolved. I grabbed audio recordings from several booths (XSI, LucasFilm, Vicon, PhaseSpace) and took many pictures. Some very intelligent (and sympathetic person) placed the Art Exhibit in the middle of the very loud Exhibit Hall, and I would often retreat to the quiet benches there to regroup and think.

There was also a marvelous series of projects in the “Studio”, which was part of the Exhibition Hall. These were individual computer stations working on particular projects, like printing 3d images or working on a PC game mod program for Crytek (Far Cry2). I wished I could have had more conversations with these artists and technicians. Since it was placed next to the Art Exhibit, I found myself spending a lot of time there.



By Friday, the conference had thinned out considerably. Joe Kennedy told me that this was the first year the SIGGRAPH committee had scheduled the Exhibit Hall to run only in the middle of the week. Always before it had run on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. This was not a good idea, because the mainstream software and entertainment companies all put on a big show with lots of hoopla, and the attendance during this time was very high. So, when Friday rolled around with no Exhibition Hall, there were far fewer people to close out the conference.

Joe told me that there was quite a bit of concern in some of the SIGGRAPH membership that show business was taking over the conference. I see their point, but, frankly, I don't think they have anything to worry about as the people I met were definitely not entertainment types, but serious students of computer graphics. The comments and questions at panels were always interesting and to the point. There may be a larger amount of young people coming into computer graphics because of the games industry, but the learning curve is high as are the skill levels. Only those fully committed, who have imaginations and know how to collaborate with others, will be successful.



I did discover one very important thing while attending my first SIGGRAPH: I want to become an animation artist. It hit in the subway on Monday and again, later, after I had met a young man, Flavio, who was a student in the Animation Mentor program. I want to breathe life into animated characters. I've been doing it in machinima, but after experiencing SIGGRAPH and talking to so many people who are doing what I want to do, I'm ready to make a new career for myself.

Finally, I truly enjoyed the opportunity to meet many of the people at renderosity.com I only knew by name and their avatar pictures online. Having a fantastic Chinese dinner at the Empress Pavilion with Sergio and Jenifer on Wednesday was the real high point of the week. Meeting the people that man the Renderosity booth (not an easy job) was a real pleasure.

I'd like to thank renderosity.com and my editor, Nick, for giving me the opportunity to have such a great learning experience by attending SIGGRAPH 2008.

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.
September 1, 2008

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