CyberEdge Journal

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Another look at SIGGRAPH

By Jeffrey R. Aboauf © 2004. Used with permission.

When I arrived at SIGGRAPH 2004 at the L.A. Convention Center August 8, the staffers boasted 42,000 registered. Maybe. Since my first in SIGGRAPH ’93, LA’s conference always drew the biggest crowd. This year, either the center grew or the show was smaller. [Editor’s note: Official attendance was 27,825 with 229 exhibitors, according to ACM SIGGRAPH.] But even in LA, size doesn’t always matter. I found presentations on social implementations more compelling than the many evolving technologies and techniques.

R.T. Taylor’s talk on the history and future of VF/x (visual special effects) at Discreet’s Masters Class series should have been the keynote before thousands, not a lounge act for 15 or so. Dazzled in youth by Willis O’Brian’s King Kong, a ‘60’s guerilla-psychedelic film-video artist, a long-time player in film effects (analog and digital), founding member of the Visual Effects Society and instructor at the Gnomon School, Taylor presented his personal take on the history of effects from before 1800 to the present. The traditional magician is our star, Taylor told us, fittingly the first F/x artist. This entertaining chronicle of technologies and ideas, one inspiring the other, always returns to the star who creates the magic. We relate to and want to be this person, and his/her historical milestones are left to guide us. Taylor’s final slide showed two same-size, old-style electronic switch-boxes, one on top of the other (I don’t think the position was relevant). The top one, labeled “Man”, had one on-off switch; the bottom one, “Woman” had all kinds of buttons, dials and switches. After the chuckles died down, Taylor suggested these represent two diverging F/x development paths: one set increasingly intelligent, capable, automatic and ubiquitous for use by everyone to communicate in all media; the other ever-more capable, complex, specialized, flexible, and cryptic for wizards on the edge. Earthshaking? Of course not. But I couldn’t communicate Hamlet’s meaning by saying “he dies at the end”. After this 90-minute presentation (I wished it had continued hours longer), this observation is the only possible result. We left reminded that, as artists and developers, our strategies lie along one of these paths, rarely along both.

Talks like this remind us how relative the VF/x industry is – i.e. that 19th century audiences were no less astonished by a still photo projected by a flickering flame than we are by summer movie extravaganzas. Audiences watching 40’s and ‘50’s WWII movies weren’t troubled by how miniature destroyers and subs failed to produce realistic water effects, so long as they saw it for the first time, and only once. It’s not about powerful images, only their power in context. The industry, however, has an impact other than offering transitory, disposable imagery – the expanding quantity and fidelity of imagery. About the former, Ray Harryhausen suggested that when special (VF/x) images are everywhere, none are special, or noticed. The cheap, available, and ubiquitous digital faux-realism as implemented by commercial and political interests, is increasingly disturbing. I’m not arguing that Grand Theft Auto produces Columbine-like events. I’m suggesting that Jonathan Demme’s remake of The Manchurian Candidate speaks to how this industry serves up a digital Hell, where the lessons of past scandals serve only as primers for more successful efforts to perpetrate fraud, deceit, and schemes for political advantage.

Ironically, however empowering digital technology becomes, it seems to disempower artists in inverse proportion to the gains. I heard Michael Waddington present this argument at the 1995 3D Design Conference. He noted that in 1980 artists served at the pleasure and direction of the “suits”; that computer technology spawned a generation of techno-wizards who held new creative and economic power; and that we should expect the technology to produce more artists and cheaper delivery, which will restore the prior power structure. Only this time the artist will have to know more to hold a job. I wonder if he expected his prophesy to come true in less than a decade. The dot-com bust gave us the flip side of Supply-Side economics, i.e. taking away the supply of employers puts artists out of work. The competition for project work in movies and games is as fierce as a generation ago for artists in entertainment, and quite the opposite of what it was in the early ‘90’s.

You don’t have to be political to recognize that working in this industry, like any, has consequences, to artists and to the culture. The VF/x product is disposable and transitory; the effect is cumulative from collective authorship. There’s not much we can do to effect the momentum, which feeds my cynicism.

There’s another trend – one which made me optimistic. Christian Bauer spoke about the World Summit Award™, an initiative of the European Academy of Digital Media and the International Center for New Media, to recognize, showcase and exhibit “the best in e-Content and Creativity” from contributors around the world. ( Their mission is to reach populations otherwise invisible and technologically disenfranchised:

A truly Global Information Society is one where all persons, without distinction, are empowered freely to create, receive, share and utilize information and knowledge for their economic, social, cultural and political development.

The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), held in Geneva in December 2003 and in Tunis in 2005, offers a historical opportunity to realize this vision.

The World Summit Award, a global project, held in the framework of the WSIS, seeks to demonstrate the benefits of the Information Society in terms of the new qualities in content and applications, by selecting, presenting and promoting the best products from all over the world with a special emphasis on bridging the digital divide.

In their first year, the WSA was given an audience before the United Nations, which along with other efforts, resulted in 136 signing nations, each making a commitment to drawing content from their populations. (Compare this with SIGGRAPH’s current 124 nation involvement, after its many years.) I don’t expect signing heads of state in poorer countries to draw from all segments of their society. But then they aren’t entirely responsible for soliciting participation. For example, there’s a fine piece submitted by a group of Ugandan women – not mainstream, but special and unique. Surprisingly (or not) the U.S. is not yet a signatory.

Bauer, (WSA project manager and member of the SIGGRAPH International Committee ’96-’04), is working to publicize WSA efforts in this country by organizing a road show for the 2003 competition in U.S. exhibition spaces. I hope the many colleges and multimedia schools present this year that have the facilities are joined by others in our industry who step up to serve their students and communities by hosting this exhibit. The WSA was a small presence in the conference international center this year. I hope their egalitarian vision gains a bigger voice in our community.

Other items of interest

To be sure there were noteworthy product announcements, which I know will be discussed in many other publications. A few items caught my current mood and interest:

  • Discreet previewed 3DS Max 7, set for Fall release. They wowed the faithful with demos of new Normal Mapping and Pixel-based Camera Map Tools, Edit Poly Modifier and enhancements to Editable Poly, Paint Selections and Paint Deform, Skin Morph and Skin Wrap Deformer, and a Parameter Controller. There’s a lot more:

  • Naturalmotion’s endorphin 1.6, an update to their high-end dynamic motion synthesis tool, is characterized by sophisticated AI applied to bipedal characters. This enables physically accurate character simulations with controllable, believable secondary motion, without use of motion capture or key framing. Huh? Well, when a rag doll falls down a flight of stairs, it goes limp. A character modified by endorphin will curl up, protect its head, and fall other than just by the effects of collision and gravity. In another demo, a scene imported from Max (without dynamics data), a character leaps to grab a helicopter, resulting not only in the character’s physics driving his movements, but his impact on the helicopter effecting its trajectory, which in turn drives the character movement. Right now endorphin is priced around $13,000. But look to see this driving development. Great demos here:

  • Luxology’s new 3D modeling product, modo, was on the floor for the first time this year. This may be the easiest and most advanced polygonal and subdivision surface modeler out there, and a joy to use in generating/updating morph targets. These veteran Lightwave developers have come up with a little jewel – fast, easy, elegant, full-featured modeling and UVW mapping set. In its first release includes built-in export support of the .MA format (Maya’s ASCII file), the .lwo format, and the OBJ format, as well as for material tags, blend shape data, UV safety. In addition, because modo uses Perl for its scripting language, users are able to further expand its connectivity. More info:

  • Eyeon software previewed Fusion 5, noteworthy for taking the 3D compositing environment one step further – not just composite planes transformable in 3D space, but allowing 2D objects to move along spline paths in XYZ space. i.e. to have text deform on a circular path around a character’s head, (so it looks bent and is always part obscured by the head) you simply draw a circular spline oriented in 3D space and attach a text object to it. More at:

I regret not having time to attend many panels, papers and courses – they’ve usually told me the research going on and what to expect in the next six months. My take? The digital revolution in entertainment and communication is replaced by an evolutionary march toward broader, faster, cheaper, better. SIGGRAPH ’93 showcased Jurassic Park made on SGI machines with Alias, Softimage and proprietary software. Pixar made shorts and commercials. AutoDesk sold 3D Studio DOS 4, new with IK features. The internet kiosk provided dedicated text-based terminals. Now almost every product is Wintel-based, digital technology dominates every phase of movie, broadcast, game, VizSim, and online activity, and I could connect to the net anywhere in the convention center with WiFi. Schools for targeted DCC training with veteran instructors are everywhere, and the discussion has moved to graduate degrees in VF/x.

A clear presentation of where we come from (for perspective), together with a notion that this is being delivered to more than the middle class and the techno-rich (a promise of more equal participation) offer some hope that the jewels of our industry might not just drive scientific advancement and commercial activity, but serve cultural appreciation and exchange. Taking stock of this industry, its history and effects lets us go forward with eyes open on how the product is used, as well as what voices can be heard.


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