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Desowitz at SIGGRAPH 2009: Day 2

The buzz so far? Aside from stereoscopic 3-D, GPU for film, with ILM's collaboration with NVIDIA for the amazing fire sim on Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince the talk of the show, thanks to the mainstream coverage in The Wall Street Journal and the tech paper and panel on the topic. But more about that later...

Half-Blood Prince's fire sim isn't the the only talk of the town at SIGGRAPH.

written by Bill Desowitz

The exhibition opened today and, as expected, the show is small but quaint -- similar to San Antonio a few years back. Nothing wrong with that: it's manageable and in keeping with the New Orleans flavor. While the number of exhibitors is smaller than usual, it's a nice mix. You can traverse the floor in about half-an-hour. And there are plenty of students flocking the job fair, which is where most of the action is -- and rightly so, considering the job market. In fact, a few of the large studios such as Lucasfilm and Sony Pictures Imageworks, opted to have a presence solely at the job fair. More... The buzz so far? Aside from stereoscopic 3-D, GPU for film, with ILM's collaboration with NVIDIA for the amazing fire sim on Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince the talk of the show, thanks to the mainstream coverage in The Wall Street Journal and the tech paper and panel on the topic. But more about that later...

Speaking of SPI, though, I had the opportunity to catch up this morning with Rob Bredow, the renowned visual effects supervisor turned CTO, along with GM Randy Lake. Bredow elaborated on the recent Open Source announcement:

"It's really exciting to be able to announce the five projects to be released in the Open Source. A couple of them are relatively small projects like SP Reticle, which is a [camera] masking [tool] for Maya. It's a few thousand lines of code but it's pretty useful. And if you look at all the studios, everybody's had to write their own, and smaller studios just may live without because they don't have the time to spend a few weeks writing one. We've got a really good one and that's something we can share. And there are a couple of really significant projects: OSL is an open shading language. The shading language is the programming language that the shader writers use to create the looks for all these movies and shader writing is always a challenging specialty that requires strong technical skills and strong artistic abilities. And we realized as we moved on to a custom renderer with Arnold, that the shading language wasn't mature in Arnold. We were used to RenderMan, which had a wonderful shading language. So we have Larry Gritz, who is one of the premier shading language writers in the world, and he developed our shading language and then we realized just how much more valuable it would be if the community had access to it -- if education could use it, other studios with custom renderers or other renderers wanted to take advantage of this. So we're really proud of what we designed. If this catches on, other studios can contribute to the shading language, other people can work with Larry to get their ideas into the shading language and other people can freely use it."

The other big project is Field3d, and we'd like it to be the open EXR of the vecter field format, the volume storage fields that store our dynamic simulations like smoke and fire. And we've developed a couple of in-house formats for this stuff, but Field3d was our attempt to do a good job from the ground up: nice and generic and clean. And we realized that this could be a really useful open standard…"

And what does Bredow think of GPU-accelerated rendering? "We're watching it very carefully. It's another one of those critical times because there are lots of directions you can go to get performance out of these things. And it's difficult to know which one to invest in. You kind of put all of your money on the wrong horse and it only lasts a year or two and you have to see what happens. So we have adopted a bit of a wait and see attitude about optimizing for a particular hardware right now. We're really trying to keep all of our optimizations as general as possible. Whatever happens, whether it's CPU-based or GPU-based or some combination, hopefully, we can leverage off both, everyone's kind of watching to see if Open CL is the answer that we've been hoping for in terms of one place to code these very highly parallel process-intensive jobs. Is that the language you can write it in and then these various pieces of hardware will be able to deal with it optimally? That would be great if it turns out to be that way. But it still seems like it's very early in its life. We have a pretty significant set of custom tools built on top of Maya that help us take advantage of the GPU. And maybe one of our most innovative process is one of our renderers, Splat, is a full GPU-accelerated renderer. And it does sprite-based rendering for smoke and fire and effects. It's not a true volumetric renderer, but a lot of times you're OK with that if it's only going to take a couple of seconds."

Meanwhile, I got the chance to follow-up with Randy Thom, the renowned sound designer from Skywalker, who gave the keynote yesterday. When asked about working with Robert Zemeckis on A Christmas Carol, he said, "Its' working very, very well. One of the advantages of coming up with a visual and sonic world [from scratch] is that it gets our brain muscles working thematically, it gives Bob and his crew something to work with and the real world sounds give emotional resonance. We want to be as authentic to the period as possible: horses and carriages echoing up and down 19th century London streets. But there are also ghosts to deal with and other flights of fancy. There are elements of magic, too. In motion capture, as in animation, you need to create a sonic world for the characters to live in."

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