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Highlights from the SIGGRAPH 2010 Electronic Theatre

At the end of the two hour presentation my viewing partner kept muttering to me about “sensory overload” as we shuffled out the door. It’s one of the dangers of today’s world. The big Hollywood movie was well represented by The Last Airbender, Iron Man 2, Alice in Wonderland, 2012 and Avatar. The digital work on these films is, of course, excellent but overwrought compared to the smaller films and shorts. Simple stories told using the computer took the day.

By Rick Kerrigan

The very first computer generated movie that I ever saw was presented by Nicholas Negroponte of MIT at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo where he was lecturing and touting the computer as “The Architecture Machine” This was in 1975 and the film that he presented had been printed by a computer entirely frame-by-frame on white computer print-out paper that was later hole-punched and then shot with an animation camera. Keep in mind that the computer he had employed was a mainframe that had to ingest thousands of IBM punch cards to absorb its information. The imagery consisted of a simple line drawing that shows the progress of a camera as it descends a set of stairs into a space where a motionless individual is playing pool. There is no motion within the film – only the cameras POV as it circles the player and re-climbs the stairs. There were no hidden lines in this piece so you could see not only the front of things but clear through to the back simultaneously. It is a digital Lascaux for those who now work as digital artists today.

Last night I attended the SIGGRAPH 2010 Computer Animation Festival’s Electronic Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. The modest beginnings of CGI have now given way to a sensory overload of image and sound.  Worlds are exchanged in a few minutes for other worlds equally fantastic and personal. At the end of the two hour presentation my viewing partner kept muttering to me about “sensory overload” as we shuffled out the door. It’s one of the dangers of today’s world.

The big Hollywood movie was well represented by clips from The Last Airbender, Iron Man 2, Alice in Wonderland, 2012 and Avatar. The digital work on these films is, of course, excellent but overwrought compared to the smaller films and shorts. Simple stories told using the computer took the day.

I was particularly struck by the pure artistic vision of many of the entries. In particular Tomoya Kimpara’s Suiren that seemed to revel in the joy of pure design: contrasting hard high-tech hardware with soft bursts of fluids. It’s a very engaging marriage.

Hanabeam directed by Fantasista Utamaro and Shane Lester demonstrated a breath-taking array of character design and color. Overall it’s a very inventive piece and well paced. What’s generally amazing is how quickly these short films pull you into their worlds of design and plot.

Upgrade by Anya Belkins is a brief but funny comment on the progression of tools that comes with each new iteration of software packages.

The winner of the Best in Show Award is Loom which tells the story of the fate of an unlucky moth and his captor, a spider. The Jury Award this year went to Poppy a ten minute, fifty second piece set on a desolate World War I battlefield. It’s a simply told story dealing with themes of humanity and hope. It has the added kick of having been based on a true story.

Overall the show demonstrates continuing progress in not only the techniques of digital movie-making but also in the sense of freedom exhibited by the various artists and teams of artists. These images also indicate how much further into the realm of the production designer these films are moving. Character design has become quirkier and consistent. Backgrounds are anything you want them to be. All of this without a single punch card.