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SIGGRAPH 2010 Day 1 –Tron Looks Awesome, SIGGRAPH Dailies Jammed, Morris’ Keynote Hits Home

My SIGGRAPH Day 1 was actually the 3rd day of the entire event, the first day of the main exhibits. Either I’m getting old (which I am) or it’s just getting harder and harder to focus and keep track of people I’ve met, sessions I’ve attended, screenings I’ve sat through. Despite 20 pages of notes and a handful of photos, I’m still trying to make proper account of my day before starting all over again today. Here goes nothing…

Thousands jam the exhibition floor.

by AWN Publisher Dan Sarto

My SIGGRAPH Day 1 was actually the 3rd day of the entire event, the first day of the main exhibits.  Either I’m getting old (which I am) or it’s just getting harder and harder to focus and keep track of people I’ve met, sessions I’ve attended, screenings I’ve sat through.  Despite 20 pages of notes and a handful of photos, I’m still trying to make proper account of my day before starting all over again today.  Here goes nothing…

Some of my highlights from yesterday:

Pixar’s Jim Morris’ keynote showed why we love this business!

Jim Morris’ keynote was an excellent blend of contemporary insight and nostalgic reminiscence about some of the seminal feature film animation and visual effects work from the last 25 years, work that changed the face of entertainment and filmmaking forever.  Smitten with the “bug” after watching Jason and the Argonauts and Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Jim’s work as a local TV cameraman and then TV commercial producer eventually brought him to ILM, tasked with setting up their commercial production house.  A quick detour over to features lead Jim to a 17 year stay at ILM before he moved over to Pixar, where he currently serves as General Manager/Executive Vice President Production.

The constant flow of clips was highlighted by the “infamous” glowing condom scene from Blake Edward’s Skin Deep.  We’ll leave it to your imagination, but suffice to say, two men, one woman, two different colored glowing condoms, pitch black room.  The “excitement” was truly evident. Jim noted that “No one sets out to make a bad film.  Sometimes it just happens.”

Jim walked through innovations in motion control camera systems, the morphing and water-pseudopod creature sequence from The Abyss, the move from stop-motion to CG for the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, the invisible effects such as Legless Dan of Forrest Gump, the release of Toy Story, which he referred to as “perhaps the Casablanca of Animation,” complete CG characters such as Jar Jar Binks (eliciting some catcalls from the audience) and Davey Jones from the Pirates of the Caribbean series.

His finished with thoughts on the opportunities for expanding the horizons of filmmaking.  People like silent films but the advent of sound opened up a whole new world, as did the arrival of color expanded the film viewing experience over black and white.  He contends that there are no more bad movies being made today than there were in the past. We just remember the good ones and bemoan the state of filmmaking today versus the way things used to be done.  Digital tools don’t make a great film, but they provide audiences entirely brand new experiences that are amazing.

Tron Legacy Looks Pretty Cool

I’m one of the fortunate geezers that remembers seeing the original Tron when it was released in 1982.  Still in college at the time, my tender young self-medicated mind was easily amused back then.  I probably spent half of each waking day playing “Tron Deadly Disks” on my Intellivision game unit.  The other half was spent playing “B17 Bomber” on my Intellivision game unit.  I can still hear the voice synthesizer screaming “Watch out for Flaaackkk!” in my sleep. 

Tron was a great film in every way shape and form and it still holds up today.  The Tron Legacy panel therefore was a must see for me.  Bringing together the film’s director, Joseph Kosinski, producer Jeffrey Silver, VFX Supervisor Eric Barba and animation supervisor Steve Preeg (both from Digital Domain) the panel touched on many of the things you might imagine such a panel would cover.  It’s tough for filmmakers to discuss a film that is yet to be released, especially such a huge film with as much fan enthusiasm and pent-up anticipation as Tron Legacy.  With the film’s release scheduled for December, the dynamics of discussion were a bit strained – the participants often paused to make sure they weren’t giving away too many plot points or saying anything that would get them in trouble with the studio. 

8 minutes of the film were shown in 3-D and I must say they were visually stunning.  They felt every bit the continuation of the original film’s “feel” with a fresh, futuristic look, sleek, uncluttered, dark and exiting.  The director’s background in architecture and mechanical engineering certainly influenced the designs and look of the film.  When Jeff Bridges’s Kevin Flynn character came on screen looking spry at age 35, you knew 500 digital artists had been very, very busy in a cave somewhere.  It was very, very cool.

My event favorite - the all new SIGGRAPH Dailies!

Three cheers for the new SIGGRAPH Dailies   

The premise sounds so simple – give artists, animators and computer graphics professionals an opportunity to showcase their own work, usually part of a larger project. They have 1 minute.

Well, after sitting through 39 such mini-presentations, I can tell you that whoever came up with this idea should be given a raise, a monthly car allowance and a bottle of Auchentoshan, a triple-distilled lowland single malt that is my new personal favorite.

One after another, rapid fire, the presenters showed their clips while briefly describing the scope of their work.  Some were unintelligible, some were hilarious.  But they all resonated with one thing – they shone a light, ever so briefly, on the mostly anonymous and unappreciated work done by any one of the thousands of names that scroll by at warp speed at the end of feature film.  Or the work done by grad students locked in the basement of some dark and distant research lab.

It’s like gazing up at Mount Rushmore and hearing someone behind you say “see the lower section of Lincoln’s left nostril…I sanded that smooth...using a toothbrush and steel wool…took me  78 straight days on a scaffolding made of balsa wood.  And I never got paid.”

I felt like I was at camp, or an elementary school dance recital.  There was a tremendous vibe in the air.  A single file line of geeks snaked along the side of the room, all waiting for their moment to extol the virtues of their geekiness and give us a glimpse of what they devoted a large portion of their life to creating.  They showed how they fought with computers, wrestled with algorithms and slew countless digital dragons to get the job done.  I found it captivating and truly inspiring.  At a time when I spend so much of my day muttering about how no one in this world gives a shit about anything anymore and how everything is going to hell, I got to spend an hour and a half with a room full of people who very much care about something.  Very, very cool indeed.

I also must say that I was especially drawn to the presentations on non-feature film projects, such as the visualization of flight data to create animations used to illustrate several plane crashes.  I see so much digital work done on explosions and mayhem that experiencing on a big screen the visualization of the real Flight 1549, which miraculously crash landed in the Hudson, or the NTSB’s recreation of Flight 3407, which crashed in February of 2009 with the loss of 50 lives, was both haunting and fascinating in a way that is hard to describe.  A real treat indeed.

So, that’s my story and I’m sticking with it.  Now I have to run to get dressed to get over to the Convention Center for Day 2.