fmx/08: Expanding the Global Animation & VFX Connection
By Johannes Walters
Buzzing clouds of animators, visual effects people and creative artists of videogames showed up last week in Stuttgart, Germany, at the Haus der Wirtschaft (House of Trade), where fmx/08 was held: the annual and international conference on animation, effects, realtime and content. Once again, this four-day event, the brainchild of Thomas Haegele, head of the Ludwigsburg-based Animationsinstitut, the animation school department of the Filmakademie Baden Wüerttemberg, seemed to become the international center of all creative people working in the visual fields.
If you attend fmx and are addicted to this world of creative and artistic visual development, you encounter a nightmare of decisions. At least eight wonderful panels, talks or lectures are given simultaneously. So you have to decide which programs you positively can't miss. And the one you choose, of course, will turn out to be the wrong one, as DreamWorks Animation's Shelley Page commented with her customary dry British wit.
More than 6,000 people attended fmx/08 again this year. And more than 400 speakers from 30-plus countries were invited. So this event is still growing strong both by numbers and by complexity. But this certain feeling of a big, friendly family meeting is still there, the chance to meet and speak to everyone you want to.
Of course, all the major players in the field of animation and visual effects hosted recruitment-sessions, including Pixar, Disney (they are additionally seeking 2D artists for their shorts and the upcoming The Princess and the Frog), DreamWorks Animation, Aardman, Sony and many, many other companies from Germany and the rest of the world. The high quality of education in the various German film schools certainly attracts the attention of the big studios. But you will find also many highly skilled students from France, Great Britain, Switzerland, of all various states of the EU and other parts of the world at fmx.
As a single individual going to the fmx, again, you have the choice of nearly 400 presentations, talks, keynotes and sessions. If you are on a diet, drink a lot of coffee and be able to postpone pure exhaustion for a couple of days: you can attend nearly 50 panels and presentations if you try hard enough, especially if your editor gives you a non-stop timetable!
So here are some of my experiences at fmx/08:
To begin with, the keynote was given by one of the pioneers of computer-generated images.
Academy Award winner Glenn Entis, SVP and chief visual and technical officer of Electronic Arts, shocked us all with the announcement of his retirement from EA. His motto: "Every 14 years you should change your life a little bit. A career should be dynamic. And you shouldn't get too comfortable in one place!" It was just a small quantum of solace that Entis was giving a wonderful and touching keynote about his 30 years in the business. As the Co-Founder of Pacific Data Images in 1982 , Entis moved from the world of movies to games when he entered DreamWorks Interactive, where he worked on more than a dozen games, including Medal of Honor, Clive Barker's Undying, The Neverhood and Trespasser. After his company was acquired by Electronic Arts, Entis joined EA, moving to the company's headquarter in Vancouver. In his keynote, he emphasized the enormous inventions made by mankind in the fields of communication and computer science. Using a handy old telephone along with some current high-tech toys, Entis showed us the development of memory space and all the staggering amount of change in a single lifetime. But he also confessed, that he would never have entered the Pacific Data Enterprise, if he had known the amount of work that had to be achieved. "We worked all day and I remember having massive feelings of guilt, when I showed up on Sunday in the office around 10:00 in the morning, having slept in, while the others had already started working around 8:00! Impossible to keep a family at this time!" But after all the fundamental coding for the software, PDI moved on, creating the CG logos for the big broadcast companies. His personal moment of triumph came, when he was standing in New York next to all the big TV stations. Around news time on every television set in the huge windows appeared the logos of the various stations, every single one done by PDI.
After reminiscing about the past, Entis gave a few predictions about the next 30 years. Having been massively influenced by Ray Kurzweil's book The Singularity is Near, Entis anticipated huge changes in everyone's daily life. Processing speed, memory, display quality and communication bandwidth will explode. Buzzwords will be portability, interactivity, artificial intelligence and costs. Speaking of his future, Entis also gave a glimpse of his future plans: His original idea is to take two years off before deciding anything; two years of reading, doing his own writing, photography, going to conferences like fmx, putting his antenna at full extension and sensitivity, talking to people, thinking about things, writing about things... but life never works that way. "I am going to be a general partner in a new venture capital fund that is starting up in Vancouver, that will have at least [allow me] to focus on digital media and games. It is way too early to announce details of that. But that will also leave me time to do some other things. I am going to be the new chairman for a local chapter at SIGGRAPH in Vancouver, of which I am very excited about. My first SIGGRAPH was in 1979, but I have never had any kind of officer role in anything SIGGRAPH-related. I love the fact that it is my local chapter, because I love Vancouver and I love the computer graphics community there. It gives me a chance to actually be a very active part of that community, to help it grow and bring in some interesting input..."
Already some of those big changes in computer graphics Entis spoke of were present at fmx/08:
For instance, Patrick Davenport from Image Metrics presented its revolutionary performance-driven facial animation software. This software arguably marks a turning point in capturing the very essence of a performance of an actor very accurately and very, very fast. Many visual effects houses have already implemented this amazing tool in the production pipelines and rumors have it that there will be some fantastic output in the next months. It was also utilized on the blockbuster Grand Theft Auto IV videogame. As Davenport stated: "What we have, is a very unique way of capturing an actor's performance, his facial performance. We don't use any markers. We don't use special lighting, special cameras or even make-up. We can take any 2D image, whether it was shot on film or video. What we deliver to the clients, unlike motion capture, where the data is supplied and is baked in, we actually supply the studio with animation files. Whether it is in Maya, 3ds Max, LightWave, even Houdini now. What we give to the animators is the facial performance and it can be 100% of the final facial animation in the scene, but it actually might just be 80%, but it gets them to where they need to be much faster and much more accurately. And then the animators can integrate that into the scene and they can actually keyframe on top of it."
That opens up a wide array of new possibilities. Anything acted out in history and accessible in film can be analyzed by Image Metrics software and converted into animation files. "Typically, if you can see a person's facial performance in the film or video then we are ready to analyze that. This is usually the rule of thumb: if you can see it with your own eyes, we will be able to analyze that using the software. So, we could go back and take a performance of somebody that was filmed in the 1940s and apply that performance to a photorealistic full color CG-model nowadays And so you can bring back this performance in glorious Technicolor." But there are more things you can do with Image Metrics. Because of the extraordinary ability to analyze the most subtle things in the facial performance, you can play heavily with different mentalities. If a film is dubbed for a certain country, you could use the facial performance of the actors, who are doing the dubbing, to create mentally correct performances for this particular country. And there is another interesting point for human actors: "When you are a 28-year old actor, you can get yourself scanned now and you would be able to take that scan in 15 years time, using all the current technologies, you then can do a performance as when they are aged 35 but they apply that to a 20- year old model of themselves. So you are extending the longevity of an actor's career. You know, which is one thing. And, as an insurance policy for some of the actors, which are perhaps a little older now. And like many of the British actors that have enjoyed the beverage in their lives. And there might be some that will not make it through the whole movie. You know now, you can scan that actor and have them do their read through, their performance of their part just before they start shooting. And that's your insurance policy. Because than you can recreate them digitally if something is happening to them!"
Torsten Reil of NaturalMotion did an impressive presentation about euphoria, a new software also heavily used in Grand Theft Auto IV. As Reil stated, the fundamental new idea behind euphoria is that it runs parallel to the game's animation engine and is called by the game's AI whenever synthesized motion is required instead of canned animation. "With euphoria, animations are not canned but are generated on-the-fly by the CPU as the game is played." That means in terms of Grand Theft Auto IV, instead of dumb innocent bystanders behaving like mere rag dolls, you get characters behaving on their artificial intelligence behavior modules, who are acting autonomously on their own and always in different ways, never repeating themselves. This brings on remarkable effects. Those new artificial intelligence modules create interactive animation in realtime and will bring also a new career opportunity to the field of videogames: next to animators so-called behavior engineers will be needed very much in the future. "They have to be good at mathematics, must have a 'good eye' and be experts in C++."
Here are several impressions I got during some of the other sessions:
"The amount of time needed to render each final pixel of animation hasn't really changed in over 25 years."
"So, welcome to the Tera Era!"
"Audiences are becoming more sophisticated and are requiring more and more. Even my kids can spot bad CG integration. My eight-year-old son told me: 'Oh, the compositing is awful!'"
"The director's appetite is too big! Data complexity is out of hand. But the movie must get made. The solution must be found."
Andrew Duffy presented the beautiful work of his new House of Curves studio, in which a real duck learned to surf on a "real" surfboard, creating havoc on YouTube. He also showed interesting behind-the-scenes details from the Chemical Brothers' music video Salmon Dance. Already responsible for two James Bond title sequences, Duffy will continue to amaze the public with his innovative visual ideas.
Nostalgia was heavily played during the "Music in Games" forum. Andreas Fuchs from the department of sound design of Filmakademie Baden- Wüerttemberg gave a wonderful sound journey from early Pong (1972) to the sophisticated score of BioShock (2007) by Gary Shyman. Afterward, Pierre Langer, Dynamedion Sounddesign, composer David Christiansen and Andreas Lichtenhahn, lawyer of Medienrechtskanzlei Sasse & Partner, discussed various problems of producing game music. While the producers of videogames nowadays stoically demand music like Gladiator meets The Lord of the Rings, the composers find themselves struggling more with complex legal contracts than with the black and white keys of their pianos. Please note: If you are going to be a music-composer for games, first thing you need is a very good lawyer! The musical taste of game producers tends often to a certain "Dolph Lundgren" attitude: Play it loud and with a heavy beat! As the music industry suffers from a big loss over the past two years and the game industry is growing more and more, many new games are now very attractive for the music industry to launch new songs and artists. On the other hand, professional musicians can also become very creative artists in visual graphics in their spare time. Andy Ypsilon, a member of the famous German band Fantastic Four, created his own sophisticated version of a lichtorgel on a Mac using quartz composer software. He connected his own private animation bits with the quartz applications, simply to let some graphs react to some sound. This was used during the tour of the band in 2007, where the Fantastic Four played in big music halls in front of 15,000 to 20,000 fans. The realtime-generated effects were screened onto seven big screens. Problems of sound latency matched with the acoustic problems of each and every music hall, so in general the fans were very fond of the graphic images shown during each concert.
French animator Michel Ocelot, director of Azur and Asmar and the very successful Kirikou movies, gave an autobiographical sketch of his long career, starting with delicate silhouettes films, working successfully in traditional 2D before making the transition to CG without losing his own artistic approach to the medium of animation. In his opinion, every technique has wonderful opportunities. His future task will be to combine all of them to a greater result.
German producer Michael Coldewey explained his difficulties of producing feature animation in Europe. He described meticulously the horrors of national support, tax incentives, different languages and mentalities, small European budgets and artistic integrity. His company Trixter successfully co-produced the acclaimed French-German-Luxemburgian CG feature film Dragon Hunters. At the moment, Coldewey is producing the highly anticipated live action/CG feature film Hexe Lili for the German audience.
The game producers of the German region of Baden Wüerttemberg met with the representatives of the regional state to discuss the non-existing state funding for game developing. Many hard feelings were exchanged during this panel because of the high level bureaucracy in German funding systems. "If the Germany state had given enough financial support for the development of the national games industry, the German game producers would be number one in the world instead of Korea," said John Lee, representative of the Korea Game Industry Agency after having heard about all the financial problems.
Jeff Barnes, co-founder of The ComputerCafe Group and newly elected chairman of the Visual Effects Society, which had its first alliance with fmx, prepared a magical tour beyond Hollywood. He presented the global effect on producing visual effects and animation with the help of German magician Ralf Gagel. Barnes gave an excellent overview about various tax incentives from countries like Singapore or New Zealand. Also low labor costs make countries like India, China, Russia or Mexico more attractive to Hollywood producers as countries with a great exchange rate toward the American dollar. And most of all the community has to face certain facts: "A whole lot of us can do it now!" insisted Barnes, who did some extended research for this presentation. He said that 1,682 vfx companies exist around the globe, and only 464 of them are in the U.S. The industry has to handle shrinking margins, reduced timeframes by higher expectations of the client. He asked several studio executives about their opinion working with studios outside the U.S. There were of course some interesting pros and cons. In summary: everyone accepts that animation and vfx are now a global business. A presence, a front end of the studio in L.A. is very convenient, you need to have trust in the studio, there has to be experience, because it is all about talent! As the big houses handle all of their various effects, small studios have to specialize. For example, Germany's Scanline concentrates on particle water effects. And you have to work out how to handle different time zones. Each project has special demands, you need the right tool for the right job. Like the casting of the right actor, you have to try to cast the right studio. Again, for example, Sony bought an existing facility in Chennai India now called Imageworks India and experienced quite a lot of trouble. Rhythm & Hues built up a facility in India from scratch. This worked out very well.
By the way, for the second time, fmx allowed a special look at India.
Prashant Babu Buyyala, managing director of Rhythm & Hues India, reported about their stunning work on The Golden Compass and Alvin and the Chipmunks. He stated that R&H India is not treated like a minor appendix to the studio in L.A. but is actually part of the same studio, being fully integrated with the L.A. team. So the studio at India is held to the same quality standards and expectations. While working on The Golden Compass, 50% of the staff were students coming right out of the apprentice program of the studio. The staff also had tremendous benefits from a well-established production pipeline. But there are still some negative perceptions and myths about stealing jobs in the U.S. Prashant stated, that the contrary is true. With the establishing of Rhythm & Hues India, more jobs were created in the U.S. than in India. The studio is currently working on many projects, including Cirque de Freaks, Land of the Lost, The Fast and the Furious 4 and They Came from Upstairs. Work on The Incredible Hulk and on The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor has already completed.
Also very impressive was the presentation of Saraswathi Balgam, president and founder of ASIFA India. It took her seven years to bring ASIFA India to life. The renowned animator works as the founding director of Rhythm & Hues India. Besides that, she also is president of the Women in Animation chapter in India. With several projects, such as the International Animation Day Celebration or various special events, ASIFA India tries to raise the awareness of the community and of the people towards animation and visual effects.
On a smaller level, fmx focused on Hungary and presented the progress in the development of modern state-of-the-art studios in the country. Studios like the very experienced Cinamon have modernized their 2D facilities and can offer now a complete paperless digital animation department, including 30 workstations of ToonBoom Storyboard Pro and ToonBoom Harmony. Low labor costs and highly creative artists, trained by the renowned animation program at MOME, the Maholy-Nagy University of Art and Design lead by Jószef Fülop, make Hungary attractive for producing animation for television, games or feature films. Andras Erkel, who has a distinguished background in animation, founded his Studio Baestarts in 2004. He emphasized also the new tax incentive law by the Hungarian state. Baestarts is producing animated films, visual effects for live action, commercials and music videos. Together with Zentropa Film from Denmark, Erkel is already producing an animated feature film.
For all the friends of Flash animation, check out the Hungarian Flash Filter Lab, which will soon be renamed Sourcebinder. This open source software allows the ardent student to experiment with a variety of modules in a very easy way. The new AS3-powered version of Flash Filter Lab will be released soon; you can already sign up for the new platform.
Tibor Gubsco presented the Gyár Post Production, a facility specialized in complex vfx works and 3D character animation. The fledgling studio has just begun its journey.
At the end of the first day, Page from DreamWorks Animation sweetened the pain of too much information with her own special "eye candy" films from all over the world she has collected in her bag to bring to the studio. On Tuesday, AWN/VFXWorld Co-Founders and Publishers Dan Sarto and Ron Diamond showed the current Animation Show of Shows in excellent HD quality. Both shows screened the wonderful Camera Obscura (2007) by Matthieu Buchalski, Jean Michel Drechsler and Thierry Onillon, all three students at the Supinfocom school at Valenciennes, France.
Peter Plantec again did a wonderful job presenting a stunning cast of speakers at his Virtual Human Forum. Jeff Kleiser presented a nostalgic presentation of the history of Synthespians from the very beginnings in films like Tron to the sophisticated attempts of our times.
Character animator superstar Carlos Baena from Pixar gave a highly informative lecture about the differences between realistic and stylized human animation. Having worked in both fields, he showed many examples of his work on Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Men in Black II and compared them with his work on Pixar's Ratatouille, for which he animated the character Skinner, who was actually based on French actor/comedian Luis de Funes. More recently, Baena animated the character WALL•E from Pixar's upcoming movie.
David Hanson presented his research on robots as intelligent character media. One of his results will probably change generations of children to come, as he invented the robot Zeno as a toy for them. Zeno is equipped with artificial intelligence modules. He memorizes the voice and the face of human counterparts. Made out of "Frubber" skin material, another invention by Hanson robotics, which allows interactive, humanlike facial features, the robot is also able to talk back to the kids using the latest AI software. It will be heavily launched in 2009, the toy will be available for $300, a much more sophisticated version can be purchased from AI studies for $2,000. The panel discussion "The Blurring Line Between VFX & Animation" hosted by Eric Roth, exec director of the VES, offered a creative talk between leading authorities in this field. Jenny Fulle (Sony Pictures Imageworks), Sarto and Michael Coldewey (CEO, Trixter Prods.) talked about the difficulties in defining animation as a part of the visual effects or as a medium of its own. Films like Monster House, The Polar Express, the Spider-Man franchise or especially last year's Beowulf don't fit into any categories we have been accustomed to throughout the years. The panel, however, didn't offer any concrete solution for the problem.
Meanwhile, next year's fmx/09 will be held from May 4-7 again at the House of Trade at Stuttgart, Germany.
Johannes Wolters studied German history and literature at the University of Cologne. He is now working as a freelance journalist for daily newspapers, film magazines and radio concentrating on animation and visual effects. In 1995, he created the International Nights and Days of Animation Cologne (INDAC), a small animation festival. He is currently transforming the festival into a network for German animation and visual effects artists and rebuilding the German ASIFA.