The computer graphics world converged on the Los Angeles Convention Center last week for SIGGRAPH 2005, the annual visual effects and animation conference that showcases the latest in CG animation, visual effects, cutting edge technology, and all things computer graphics.
Although traditionally a visual effects showcase that has been dominated by film, game creation plays an increasingly large part in the goings-on at SIGGRAPH, since art generation for CG films and games often use similar toolsets. As such, the bustling show-floor was filled with both game-related tool companies such as Alias and Autodesk and game companies such as Electronic Arts and Valve looking for new employees. The separate job fair area showed an even higher turn-out of video game development houses looking for new blood, reinforcing the high demand for experienced 3D animators and modelers as game studios staff up for next-generation development.
Over the entire SIGGRAPH show, general conference highlights included a keynote by Star Wars creator George Lucas; production sessions with Disney, Dreamworks, and Sony Pictures; cutting-edge space imagery from the NASA and CalTech; and the surreal High-Tech Fashion Show. The show also featured the annual Computer Animation Festival, an Emerging Technologies exhibit, a digital Art Gallery, and a bustling exposition floor.
But SIGGRAPH isn't all fun and games - some of the best minds in computer graphics spoke here this week, touching on the latest innovations and breakthroughs in every aspect of the field. For a summary of the many half-day courses, technical papers, poster sessions, and sketches that occurred at this week's SIGGRAPH, look for Morgan McGuire's technical wrap-up to appear on Gamasutra soon.
Here's a summary of the show's general highlights:
SIGGRAPH '05: A full-sized replica of the twin Mars Rovers delighted space enthusiasts in the West Hall.
Keynote: George Lucas
At this year's keynote event, George Lucas, creator of the Star Wars saga and father of digital filmmaking, spoke about the evolution of the digital medium, the future of visual effects, and new directions in pre-visualization and sound mixing technologies, as well as touching notably on the road ahead for video games. He also commented extensively on his own future as a filmmaker.
The theme of Lucas' talk was that the technological innovations peppering his career - such as compositing and non-linear editing - were always driven by a deep desire to tell better stories. He indicated that Revenge of the Sith marks the pinnacle of this effort, in that the film featured the best of every technique that ILM has developed over the last three decades, from CG sets to digital characters and so on.
On the topic of the game industry, Lucas discussed his vision for the convergence of films and games, expressing his hope that advancements in AI would lead to more sophisticated ways of playing games, such as two-way voice interaction. Lucas hopes that advanced AI will not only make games more challenging but improve the storytelling as well. "I think that will change games from first-person shooter narratives to intelligent and challenging first-person shooter-type dramas," he said. He added his hopes for the convergence of high-quality CG and real-time rendering, indicating that he plans for ILM and LucasArts to lead the way in this regard.
Looking ahead, Lucas spoke about "Clone Wars," the upcoming animated Star Wars TV show, and other possible small-screen adaptations of the franchise, expressing his desire for the shows to be a forum in which he can explore new methods for digital storytelling. He also hinted at some "esoteric" feature film projects that would bring him back to his earlier days as a filmmaker. Other topics included ILM's efforts to develop a simple pre-visualization system; his plans for an integrated sound editing tool; and his hope that the new, technologically integrated Letterman Digital Arts center in San Francisco would become a driving force in pushing digital filmmaking into a more integrated era.
Star Wars: A Retrospective
At the highly-anticipated Star Wars retrospective, three of the most esteemed members of the ILM universe - Senior Visual FX Supervisor Dennis Muren, Visual FX supervisor John Knoll, and Animation Director Rob Coleman - discussed the evolution of space battles, fantastic creatures, and other-worldly environments over the 30-year history of the six-part Star Wars saga, although they dealt almost entirely with the movie world of Star Wars, rather than any of the games based on it.
In particular, the speakers highlighted the remarkable shift between practical and digital effects that occurred between the two trilogies. The audience sat rapt as the presenters showed slides and told stories recounting the long and impressive history of the Star Wars saga.
Muren, who worked as Visual FX Supervisor on the original trilogy, led with a presentation on space battles in those earlier movies, for which ILM developed numerous innovations in motion controlled cameras, detailed miniatures, linearly edited animatics, and optical compositing. In contrast, John Knoll, Visual FX Supervisor on the more recent trilogy, presented his mostly digital pipeline, in which CG models had replaced physical miniatures, digital compositing had replaced the optical variety, and computer-based effects had replaced practical ones.
The discussions on Creatures and Environments told parallel stories. In Muren's earlier Star Wars universe, the creature shop created painstakingly detailed costumes, worked with animatronics, and made hundreds of gorgeous models and maquettes, while sets were mostly full-scale and composted over elaborate hand-painted backgrounds. In the digital era, CG creatures such as Watto and wireless Yoda had become a reality, and CG sets had come to replace their physical counterparts.
It was impressive to see the transformation that occurred over the years, from the full-scale space docks and elaborately costumed aliens of the earlier trilogy, to the almost entirely digital Star Wars seen in the later films, a transition that seems to have made asset sharing between the film and game world much easier than could ever have been previously envisioned.
SIGGRAPH '05: A Star Wars X-Wing adorned the entryway of the South Hall.
The Legacy Of Disney Animation
Disney Animation, a company in the midst of a shift from hand-drawn animation to a CG pipeline, hosted a special session at this year's conference, highlighting the challenges and rewards of bringing the legendary magic of Disney animation into the 3D realm. Speakers discussed the process of translating Disney's time-tested animation, art direction, and design techniques into 3D, showing scenes from Chicken Little as they discussed the company's effort to retain the Disney quality while moving into the new mode of production. In particular, speakers noted the studio's effort to integrate the established drawing skills of its animators with more common procedural techniques.
The highlight of the session was a talk by Glen Keane, a well-known Disney animator who is now leading the charge in bridging the old Disney with the new. An animator with a decidedly 2D background, Keane discussed the ways in which computers have forced him to expand and improve his drawing skills, and how combining the classic Disney aesthetic with 3D techniques is creating an entirely new visual style in his upcoming fairy tale, Rapunzel.
From the Earth to Infinity: Images from NASA and Cal Tech
In another sessions that was a particular highlight, scientists from CalTech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory spoke at this session about recent advances in digital space exploration, dazzling the audience with an array of imagery from Earth, Mars, our own outer solar system, and the wild universe beyond.
On the home front, JPL scientists showed high-res satellite imagery of the earth's physical and geo-energetic structure, discussing ways in which these images inform our knowledge of tectonic plate movements and long-term climate change. The speakers also discussed our ongoing exploration of Mars, using high-res photos and CG visualizations of the dual Mars rovers, Spirit and Freedom, to accent their talks. One of the most interesting parts of NASA's overall efforts in this area is Maestro, an almost game-like simulation program which allows users to download data releases giving correct terrain readings for Mars and then control the rovers traversing it - perhaps some enterprising company will create a game based on just this concept?
Bringing the talk increasingly further from Earth, the speakers next showed off satellite images of Jupiter, Saturn, and the asteroid belt. They also discussed the Cassini probe's recent mission to Saturn and Titan, and plans to launch a mission to Pluto within the next twelve months.
Lastly, the session moved into the deepest reaches of space, with scientists showing off awe-inspiring images from the new Spitzer Space Telescope, including majestic phenomena in our own galaxy and shots of our spiraling galactic neighbors.
Other Special Sessions
A number of other special sessions took place throughout the week.
Highly relevant to the game industry was "Jump! Shout! Dance! Sing!", which featured creative leads from top game companies discussing dance pads, driving wheels, and other alternative game controllers, as well as the more general future of gaming. Gamasutra will have an in-depth write-up on this session later in the week.
The folks at Sony Pictures put together a number of interesting sessions, including a half-day course on the making of the Polar Express, and a talk on the adaptation of that movie into the 3D IMAX format. Dreamworks' hit film Madagascar, recently adapted into a commercially successful video game by Activision, was also highly featured in courses and presentations this year, with their Art, Layout, Animation, and Effects departments all making notable appearances.
Lastly, "Extreme Fashion" provided a glimpse into the bizarre collision of high fashion and high technology, from wearable micro-displays to MP3 sunglasses to wi-fi enabled vests. The clothing was all put into action during a late-evening High-Tech Fashion Show, in which dozens of male and female models took to the catwalk to show off the latest in high-tech fashion.
In the world of ongoing exhibits and events:
Computer Animation Festival. The Computer Animation Festival, a showcase of the last year's best in computer animation, played regularly throughout the week, usually to a packed house. The festival featured CG shorts of every imaginable variety, from cute animated pieces to a notable amount of harrowing video game cut scenes, to TV commercials and music videos, to CAD demonstrations and medical visualizations.
Electronic Theater. The festival also included regular showings of the Electronic Theater, a big-screen extravaganza featuring the very best of the festival's submissions, including shorts by up-and-coming CG houses, technical reels from established companies like ILM and Digital Domain, and notable student works, as well some interesting live performance animation - much to see for those in both the game and film worlds.
Full-Dome Theater. There was also a full-dome animation theater running all week, under which tired conference-goers could relax on bean-bags and enjoy the mesmerizing 360 degree art of full-dome animation.
Emerging Technologies. Emerging Technologies was perhaps the most interesting exhibit at the conference, providing a glimpse into the inspired, surprising, and sometimes disturbing future of human technology, much of which could theoretically be integrated into interactive gaming of some kind. Featuring cutting-edge innovations in graphics, displays, and user interfaces conference-goers were encouraged to touch and interact with gizmos throughout the exhibit. Highlights included a virtual canoe with an algorithm-driven fluid resistance oar; a Minority Report-style display "grabbing" interface; a futuristic musical device that operates via an interactive light grid; and a device allowing for remote control of a person's sense of balance via low-voltage electric currents to the inner ear, which the exhibitors were particularly interested in seeing used in gaming (although the feelings of sickness from users may preclude a wide roll-out!).
Art Gallery. For those seeking a more refined technological experience, the digital art gallery featured computer-enhanced 2D and 3D artwork from over fifty artists around the globe, in styles that ranged from the abstract to the figurative to the cerebral to the purely visceral. Some of the art was interactive, some of it inspiring, and some simply mind-boggling - see the photos accompanying this article for more info.
Expo Floor. And of course there was the bustling exhibition floor, on which could be found a melee of all things computer graphics, from software vendors demonstrating their latest products to effects houses recruiting new talent, as well as book publishers, technology makers, recruiting services, and a handful of much-appreciated hot dog vendors.
Between these exhibits, the conference sessions, and the hundreds of technical presentations occurring throughout the week, a whopping amount of information was shared at this year's SIGGRAPH. We've only able to present a fraction of it here, so for the full low-down, check out the printed conference proceedings or the 7-disc SIGGRAPH Video Review, both of which are available through the ACM SIGGRAPH website. In the meantime, we've included a specially photographed gallery of our favorite SIGGRAPH moments on the next page.