One man band vfx heavy short film

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I’ve been pretty quiet this summer – staying offline a lot and working on my house. Going to SIGGRAPH a couple of weeks ago helped bring me back to my work life. This year I got to stay through most of the conference so I got to see and experience a lot. Here are some of my take-aways:

  • Quick note – my registration was “Conference Select” so I was not able to see talks, papers, panels, or courses. Most of those tend to be on the computer science side of graphics or something very specific so it’s not so bad. Luckily, I didn’t feel like I missed out on anything that interests me by not being able to go to those things.
  • Spent the week with one of my former students. He was an undergrad and grad with me and we made some awesome motion capture art/dance performances together. He graduated, got a job at a major 3D software company, moved around a little within the company, left to work for a leading game developer in their motion capture program. He is truly entrenched in the business and production side of software and content development. We talked a lot about the industry from both sides and he generally confirmed what I thought and had read over the years.
  • Pixar’s The Blue Umbrella – the director walked me and 1200 or so people through his storytelling process from initial inspirations, to his pitch to John Lasseter, to production, to completion. Rather than talking tech, he talked story development and how through each pass (script, storyboards, layout, animation, etc.) the story continued to get better – not bigger, not different, just better. Stronger goals, better motivations, better relationships between the characters – everything got better during the process as the filmmakers were able to asses and question their work. Amazing overall and very inspiring – great start to the conference.
  • Birds of a Feather (BoF) – BoFs are sessions open to the public where like-minded folks meet and discuss something. Most are led by one or more presenter, but tend to be informal
    • Blender Community Meeting – Ton Roosendaal leads the meeting by first going around the room and having everyone introduce themselves (at least 100+ of us – took a while). There were people from all over the place (industry and geographically). Users from entertainment, visualization, science, aerospace, product designers, and a few from major studios (notably Sony Pictures Imageworks). Very cool to see how Blender and graphics in general are being used.
    • Blender BoF – Several people from the Community meeting briefly presented their work. Again, very cool to see how Blender is used all over the place (even secretly in big studios).
    • Educators-oriented sessions: Went to several and each could have been better. It reminds me why the Educators program was deleted from SIGGRAPH a few years ago. There are thousands of academics there, but the non-scientist lost their place because they lacked rigor in the presentations and papers. I think it is sad, but I don’t see anyone trying to change that. On the upside, there is some great stuff happening out there with interaction design and cross-discipline work, but it gets buried in mediocrity and an inability to organize cohesive discussions and presentations. Maybe the names of the sessions are too good and they just don’t live up to the expectation…
    • Open Source in Education – a specific one that could have been better. Towards the end someone from the crowd asked “are you using open-source because it is free as in “beer” or free as in “freedom of speech.” The presenters mentioned these aspects of FOSS in the beginning, but never came back to it. Instead, the same comments got circled around for an hour (what does the industry use, does it matter, when does it matter, should it matter, blah, blah, blah).
  • Production Sessions – sessions led by people in the visual effects and animation industry. These are usually my favorite sessions at the conference.
    • The Open Source Swimming Hole – moderated by Mike Seymour from fxguide/fxphd. This was really cool. Sony Imageworks, Disney, Pixar, Blender, and Dreamworks were represented. Each has released open source software and they talked about why they opened it. My biggest takeaway was the discussion on licensing. The guy from Dreamworks said they simply won’t use GPL software. GPL software can essentially only be free and any work you do on it should be released back to the community. It is the “free speech” aspect of FOSS. The companies have open sourced their software using less strict licenses, which can be used in closed sourced application, such as Maya. Another aspect of the license issue is that there is a certain amount of liability with the tools a company uses. These large companies contract with Autodesk, The Foundry, and others to use their software and take on no liability as far as who really owns the code. An example given was a scenario where an open source project uses some code that is actually the intellectual property of a particular developer or company. That entity may sue Pixar for using their code without permission even though Pixar had no idea and is not responsible for the software. Rather than dealing with anything like that they just say hands off of very large FOSS like Blender. A smaller company would probably not see such issues. Another issue of the open sourced tools released by these companies is that they are not programs that can be used by an end-user, but rather, technologies that can be integrated into larger programs. As such, Blender has or plans to implement all of the ones discussed in the session, but Ton also mentioned that the studios could use Blender as a test-case for implementation and I thought that was a pretty cool idea. We will see. I have seen an example of that where a developer from a particular mid-sized studio did some development for Blender, so there is a precedence for it.
    • Oz, Superman, Star Trek, Iron Man – all very cool presentations on the films. Some a little more in-depth than others, but still these sessions are considered the highlights of the conference. Surprisingly, I thought the Oz the Great and Powerful presentations were the best.
  • The Studio and Gallery – the gallery was pretty good this year. My favorite piece was a small robot that hangs over a large paper on a wall and draws a picture. The Studio had lots of work from research centers, companies, and installation artists. Lots of cool stuff. Lots of 3D printing! Check out the video previews to get a sense of what was there.
  • Exhibition – software and hardware vendors show their wares. This year Autodesk bowed out, which shocked a lot of people including me. They are the largest computer graphics software vendor in the world and they usually have the biggest booth. They claim that their software releases don’t coincide with the conferences anymore. Oh well. The other booths were cool as usual. The motion capture vendors seem to have the most fun. One had a small skateboard ramp and showed realtime capture of a character in a skatepark. Canon was there showing some AR gear they are working on. Overall very cool, but I tend to leave thinking there went a bunch of stuff I’ll never use either because it is not within my interests, or it’s insanely expensive.
  • Dailies – I was able to participate in this program and it was the coolest thing I have ever done at a conference. 45 people presented in a 2-hour time block to a 1200+ audience. It was quite a rush. The 44 other presentations were great and I learned more in that program than any of the production sessions. The Dailies were a mix of studio artists (Pixar and Dreamworks especially this year), educators, scientists, and freelancers.
Me presenting

Me presenting at the Dailies program

Final Thoughts

It was terrific coming back to SIGGRAPH and being able to stay for the week. My last was 2009 and I only stayed a day and a half. Previous to that was 2003… It was also great to be around so many people that talk the same language I do. It is nice to talk about shading, lighting, modeling, animation, procedural animation and simulation, scripting, rigging, motion capture, etc. every once in a while.

Unfortunately, the visual effects world is going through tough times right now and I was surprised in the production sessions that nothing was said about it. There was a roundtable meeting about the state of the vfx industry on Thursday, but I was on the plane already. In some production sessions it was noted how hard the artists worked, how they slept under their desks, and how much time and effort went into some of the shots. I get the effort part, but I don’t get the insane working conditions. My friend told me the gaming industry is approaching the same problems as visual effects. Work like crazy, get laid off, go somewhere else and do the same thing. Not all companies are that way, but there are too many like that.

After the first night of talking with my friend – catching up and talking about the software company and industry – I decided to re-think why I am going to SIGGRAPH. In the past it was all about the production sessions and seeing what was going on at the big studios. That was also when I taught in a program focused on industry preparation rather than nurturing budding artists. It was also a time when I was not sure where I wanted to be (big studio, small studio, freelance, educator, something else), so I focused on the latest tools and who was using them. This time around I went to a lot more BoF sessions, spent much more time in The Studio and emerging technologies exhibit compared to the vendor exhibition, and thought about what I want to do with graphics, interaction design, animation, visual effects, and who I am as an educator and professional artist. SIGGRAPH is a great place to be thinking about those things – you just have to get past the glamour of the big studios and latest versions of over-priced software.