Interview with Conference Chair: Ronen Barzel

July 18, 2009 11:50 pm

Tags: CAF, Computer Animation Festival, Fjorg!, Game Jam, games, real-time rendering, Renderosity, Ronen Brazel, SIGGRAPH, stereoscopic 3D, Toy Story

file_434931.jpgThis year’s 2009 SIGGRAPH Conference will be chaired by the hardworking, brilliant, and witty (or that should be brilliantly witty), Ronen Barzel.

Not only does he hold degrees from several universities, he also has worked alongside some of the giants in the computer graphic industry. He even has a page devoted to his work featured on the IMDb (Internet Movie Data Base) site.

Ronen’s resume includes a long relationship with Pixar: “As an Animation Scientist with Pixar Animation Studios from 1993 through 2005, Ronen worked on production of the first Toy Story movie, as well as a variety of software research and development projects in the areas of modeling, animation, and infrastructure tools.”

With over a quarter of a century experience in the computer graphics industry (and academia), Ronen Barzel is the perfect person to officiate over this year’s SIGGRAPH event. To top it off, Ronen is a truly nice guy, lacking in ego and exuding enthusiasm for the upcoming SIGGRAPH Conference.

Dee Marie: Welcome to Renderosity Ronen. Congratulations on being appointed this year’s SIGGRAPH Conference Chair.

Ronen Barzel: Thanks!

D.M.: Every SIGGRAPH Conference Chair has a back story to their appointment … what is yours?

R.B.: Well, I don't know that my back story is super interesting, but it's certainly long. I attended my first SIGGRAPH conference in 1984, and have only missed one since then, so this summer will be my, um, 25th conference.

Over the years starting in the late 80's, I presented in a few Courses, co-authored a few Papers, and was a reviewer for Papers and other programs. In the late 90's I was invited to serve on the Papers program committee, and for several years went back and forth between that and the Sketches & Applications (later just Sketches, now Talks) jury. In 2004 I was accepted as Sketches Chair. That year I also created and co-chaired the Posters program.

All that was well and good, but I had no ambitions for being conference chair! In fact when someone from the organization approached me and suggested that I apply to be conference chair, I laughed at the idea. First, who'd ever want to volunteer for that? Besides, with no background in management, I felt unqualified.

D.M.: So what made you change your mind?

R.B.: I realized that one of the great things about SIGGRAPH is the incredible support structure that would give me the opportunity to learn on the job. Moreover, I realized that I did think I might be able to have a positive impact on the conference, and so in a way, on the entire field as a whole—so I applied. And was accepted—and here I am now! [laughter]

D.M.: The SIGGRAPH 2009 website has a fresh design this year…what fresh/new/exciting programs and events can attendees expect to experience in New Orleans this August?

R.B.: There's a bunch of new stuff. But first, let me point out that the "old" programs and events are pretty exciting too. That's why we keep having them!

D.M.: I agree with you totally. So, let me rephrase that question…what’s new and exciting within the programs and events that SIGGRAPH attendees have grown to love over the years, as well as the new additions to the conference?

R.B.: The Technical Papers has some truly amazing research results. Emerging Technologies has cool new devices to interact with. We have a broad range of Courses. The spectrum of Talks, as always, spans all areas of computer graphics, including presentations on technical details behind major motion pictures. And we have the Exhibition, the Studio, and the Job Fair.

Generative Fabrication
Ground Substance: Ceramic-Textile Sculpture by Jenny E. Sabin ©2009 Sabin+Jones LabStudio

This year's Design Gallery theme is "Generative Fabrication," and it features some stunning examples of the use of algorithm in design. The Art Gallery, themed BioLogic art, consists entirely of interactive installations that have to be experienced to be believed. This year, we also have an unprecedented number of Panels—each chosen to have experts in the field discussing controversial ideas in an interactive format.

BioLogic Art
MSOrgm (Motivational Sensitive Organism) by Scottie Chih-Chieh Huang © 2009

The Computer Animation Festival continues with the nightly Evening Theater, and during the days has more screenings as well as sessions on a variety of topics including stereoscopic 3D. Especially exciting this year is the introduction of Real-Time Rendering to the Animation Festival, which showcases the latest and greatest accomplishments in games and simulation.

Completely new this year is our Information Aesthetics Showcase, focusing attention on this important new field that combines graphic design with data visualization. Not tired of listening to me yet?

D.M.: Are you kidding? That’s the beauty of the Internet…no time constraints. Please continue.

R.B.: We also have a focus on Music and Visual Music; we're introducing Art Papers and Game Papers, and we have a Sandbox area featuring a gallery of independent game design. There are a few more things in store, but I'll leave those as a surprise for attendees.

D.M.: Surprises are good, especially at the SIGGRAPH conference. Speaking of surprises, the conference is usually held on the West or East coast, why did the committee pick New Orleans as their 2009 location?

R.B.: SIGGRAPH has been to New Orleans twice before, in 1996 and 2000, and both times were fantastic experiences. There's something about the setting and culture of this city—with its aesthetic appeal and stimulation—that really enhances the SIGGRAPH experience, so we've been eager to come back for a while. Plus, we chose the 2009 location just after Katrina.

Because of our successful history in New Orleans, we wanted to help support it in its recovery. In fact we were the first large conference to sign up to return after Katrina. Of course, just bringing in a major conference like SIGGRAPH is in itself a great stimulus to the city, but beyond that we are also doing several outreach efforts to directly benefit the local community, especially local students. This includes opportunities for attendees to help—you can find out more about these efforts on the New Orleans Outreach page of our website.

D.M.: Wow, another excellent reason to visit this year’s conference…attendees can gain valuable knowledge, and at the same time give back to the community. Where will the 2010 SIGGRAPH conference be held?

R.B.: Next year we'll be back in Los Angeles, in the heart of the computer graphics and entertainment industry.

D.M.: Each year, the conference is driven by a theme. How is the 2009 conference theme, “Network Your Senses,” prevalent to this year's SIGGRAPH event?

R.B.: As computer graphics and interactive techniques mature and become part of our everyday life, they are experienced less in isolation and more in conjunction with other aspects of the human experience. So a natural growth for our field is to look at synergies with other sensory modes. This has of course been going on for years with haptics, immersive virtual reality, and so forth. This year we're trying to emphasize that a little more.

D.M.: How will music play a significant role this year?

R.B.: One special focus is Music and Audio. Sound and vision are most often presented and perceived together, as they are in movies and games, and so it makes sense for us to examine them together. Also, working with music and audio poses ongoing challenges and opportunities for interaction design.

file_434932.jpgPlus, of course, being in New Orleans gives us an extra injection of musical spirit. The conference will be featuring Visual Music (the art of integrated animation and sound) in screenings and talks as part of the animation festival; as well as Panels, Talks, and Courses on the use of music and sound in graphics, games and film. Plus we will have daily performances of music having interactive and graphical components.

A special highlight is keynote speaker Randy Thom, the multi-Academy Award winning sound designer for a ton of blockbuster films, who will talk about integrating sound with visuals as a core part of storytelling.

D.M.: Besides films, you’ve indicated that the development of Games will be a widespread feature this year, what will the 2009 event have in store for attendees interested in this field?

R.B.: One of the areas that really pushes the interactive human experience of graphics is Games. This year we also have a new focus on games. In particular, as of this year SIGGRAPH has merged with the Sandbox Symposium, and now includes Game Papers and the Sandbox space, as well as Courses, Panels, and Talks—in addition to the Real-time Rendering component of the Computer Animation Festival that I mentioned earlier. And here too we have a special highlight: keynote speaker Will Wright, creator of The Sims and Spore, will talk about "Playing with Perception".

Computer Animation Festival
La Main des Maitres by Adrien CaYuS Toupet ©Adrien CaYuS Toupet - Clement Delatre - Looky

D.M.: What other exciting experiences will there be to stimulate the senses?

R.B.: The Information Aesthetics showcase is thematically about bringing together the abstract senses of beauty, information, and clarity—and the individual pieces in the showcase span a variety of sensory modalities for interaction. Plus, our third Keynote Speaker is Steve Duenes, the graphics director of the New York Times, who is responsible for their incredible interactive news visualizations. He will talk about combining the elements of aesthetics and communication to bring about "A Visual Response to the News."

Information Aesthetics Showcase
Synchronous Objects for One Flat Thing, reproduced by Maria Palazzi © 2009

On top of all that, being in New Orleans provides an extra multi-sensory element to the SIGGRAPH experience, with its exquisite architecture and music—and food! [more laughter]

D.M.: We had better change course, you are making me hungry for some Cajun cuisine. One of my personal favorite events, and a real crowd-favorite in SIGGRAPH 2007 and 2008, was the FJORG! competition. Will there be a FJORG! 2009?

R.B.: Yes, the FJORG! animation competition is continuing for its third year, in its same grueling 32-hour format. But now it will be followed immediately by, and thematically linked to, the next marathon competition: Game Jam—an overnight competitive/collaborative effort to produce a video game in 24 hours.

D.M. That is great news. I am sure that Game Jam will draw a huge following as well. On the subject of crowds…do you expect a big turnout this year (in both contributors and attendees) considering the state of our economy?

R.B.: The current state of the economy of course makes things challenging for everyone. But when the economic news hit, the SIGGRAPH organization decided that it was more important than ever to have a vibrant conference, to continue to provide the community with the place where all can come together to meet up, learn, and exchange ideas and inspirations. Giving everyone a chance to keep the creative energies charged up and help motivate the field as we move through the current situation.

So we haven't pulled back. Instead we've tried our hardest to deliver more bang for the buck, and deliver the kind of experience that you can only get in person: so that attending SIGGRAPH 2009 will be sure to be a worthwhile investment for attendees.

Of course, some companies and people have been particularly hard hit by the economy, and we have seen layoffs in our field. Again, we feel that in unfortunate situations like that it's more important than ever to be able to attend SIGGRAPH. So, we're offering discount registration rates (the lowest rates we can, same as we offer to students) to member of our community who are currently unemployed.

Plus, in addition to the latest developments and works and research results, we have several classes and sessions geared toward professional development, to help all attendees further their careers, whether seeking new jobs or being more productive and valuable in their current jobs.

D.M.: That is very impressive. You keep coming up with unique reasons to attend this year’s conference. One more question: if you could only list five “must see” events or programs, which would they be?

R.B.: Can I say that SIGGRAPH isn't about specific events?

[Ronen flashes a sly grin, but his eyes reveal the serious nature of his statement.]

It's about the whole experience of being there, immersing oneself in all aspects of the latest in computer graphics and interactive techniques—perhaps most importantly connecting up with SIGGRAPH's greatest feature: the incredibly diverse, creative, and innovative community of people who come together each year.

Plus, everybody comes to SIGGRAPH with their own perspective, and so everybody has different "must see" events.

[There’s a short pause before he smiles again and continues…]

Emerging Technologies
PhotoelasticTouch: Transparent Rubbery Interface Using an LCD and Photoelasticity by Toshiki Sato © 2009

OK, all that said: I think all three Keynote talks will be terrific, with the potential to be real paradigm-shifters for many people. Walking the Exhibit floor is a great way to see the latest technology that's out there, and Emerging Technologies gives a hint as to what may lie ahead.

The Art and Design Galleries will have some beautiful and surprising works. I'll certainly want to check out the Information Aesthetics showcase and a few music performances. And of course, the Computer Animation Festival's Evening Theater—this year including a live real-time component, as well as competition and invited films—is always a must-see event.

Computer Animation Festival
French Roast by Fabrice O. Joubert © 2009

D.M.: Thank you so much, Ronen, for taking time out of your busy schedule to give us an insight insight as to this year's SIGGRAPH event. Your enthusiasm is contagious.

R.B.: Thank you.

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Author of "Sons of Avalon: Merlin's Prophecy"

July 20, 2009

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Article Comments

nemirc ( posted at 12:33AM Tue, 21 July 2009

What I love about SIGGRAPH is that every event is UNIQUE, so it doesn't matter if this is your first time attending SIGGRAPH or if you've never missed one, there's always something new. I totally agree with the paradigm-shifters thing, and once you walk down the show floor you never see this industry with the same eyes. If someone ever tells you that SIGGRAPH is just one event like others, that person has no idea. It's such a shame I'm missing this year's event T_T