For me, the symbiotic relationship between research and production is still the mainstay of SIGGRAPH after all these years. And this year Terrence Masson  and his colleagues did a terrific job in achieving a nice middle-ground, because, let's face it: the recession is still taking its painful toll and there's a lot of scrambling to figure out how to make the work better, cheaper and faster.
In fact, the Tron Legacy panel was the perfect blend of both, with director Joseph Kosinski, producer Jeffrey Silver and Digital Domain's  Eric Barba (visual effects supervisor) and Steve Preeg (animation supervisor) discussing the cutting edge nature of this sequel to the influential computer graphics trailblazer from Disney (opening Dec. 17).
Besides being wowed with the same eight minutes of 3-D footage screened at Comic-Con, the attendees were treated to a preview of how they captured Jeff Bridges on set as his younger Clu 2.0 (he wore a helmet with four cameras), as well as the challenges of shooting in stereoscopic 3-D (the new Sony F35 with Master Prime lenses, which open up to 1.3 for less light but shallower depth of field).
Preeg explained that the performance capture process was the reverse of the Oscar-winning Benjamin Button's: "… we had to utilize these mounted cameras and figure out what to do with that data, which meant writing a lot of software internally, and I think one of the big things that has helped us on this show is that our animation team is actually quite small. One of the [other] things that we wanted to do was put this volume process in the hands of the animator so they could run the iterations of the solver and choose parameters for the solve and put it all into a nice interface for them. I think that was a big change for us and they've been very responsive to that process."
Afterward, I got the chance to follow-up with Barba and Preeg, who discussed the bar-raising potential of Tron Legacy. "The Clu character, right off the bat, because it's a younger version of the Jeff Bridges character, is going to be the most challenging thing we've ever done and certainly having to finish it in 3-D makes it even more challenging," Barba admits. "It means we have to push everything we knew from our Button experience further to try and work as seamlessly."
Indeed, Bridges is the driving emotional force for Clu. But youthening entails fundamental procedural changes at Digital Domain (and no, Bridges did not wear his beard during the capture sessions). "Jeff wanted to act on set with the other actors so we had to come up with a different way to capture his footage," Preeg adds. "We went with the four cameras on the helmet and had to write internal software on how to convert that information of points moving in space to our rig. The rig is very similar to Button's, with a few modifications, updates and changes."
As for Kosinski, who makes his directorial feature debut with Tron Legacy, he reminds Barba of David Fincher.  "He reminds me in many ways of David where on Monday I'm explaining a new technique and on Tuesday he's telling me how to use it in a way I've never thought about. Joe will immediately absorb some new idea or technique that you've shown him and turn it around and apply it somewhere else.
"There was a feeling that we should bring in a stereographer. I think that's a knee jerk reaction about stereo being so new. It's one more thing for DPs and directors to have to learn. Whereas our approach was that we don't need a stereographer. That's the job of the DP [Claudio Miranda] and director and it's my job to figure out how we're going to do it on the visual effects side. Why would you hire someone? You wouldn't ask Claudio to have someone else compose the shots or pick his lights. Or ask Joe to do the same thing. Stereo is something we all now have to comprehend as part of our palette. And Joe jumped right in and understood it."
What else wowed me at SIGGRAPH 2010? The emphasis on GPU acceleration: NVIDIA's new Fermi  architecture ushered in the era of "Computational Visualization" with 5x the design complexity and up to 8x the simulation performance of the last generation; AMD  unlocked 3D graphics potential on the internet with the OpenGL ES 2.0 driver; and Peddie Research touted the coming of "Heterogeneous Processor Units" at his annual lunch as the logical next step in parallel computing because the industry craves superior algorithms to handle the massive data.
Then there's Autodesk, which is offering new Entertainment Creation Suites  next month as part of its own cost-conscious effort (Maya or 3ds Max along with Softimage, MotionBuilder and Mudbox).
"We are witnessing the Avatar effect with virtual movie making," suggests Autodesk's Rob Hoffmann. "We are in the process of rethinking pipelines and previs and stereo 3-D pipeline issues in an effort to be more productive and cost-conscious."
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.