By Peter Plantec
Considering the lousy state of the dollar and air travel, I'd think twice about attending any European conference. It comes down to a personal cost-benefit analysis and you must weigh a lot of personal factors. There is one Euro-conference I am going to -- fmx/08, and for good reason.
fmx is by far the most important, forward looking and entertaining media conference in Europe. Heavily funded by the regional government of Baden Wittenberg, Germany, as well as significant industry sponsorships, it represents one of the best values I've seen for people who want to network, be seen, and learn cutting-edge techniques and technology. That said; fmx is also possibly the most fun I have all year.
Why would you want to travel all the way to Stuttgart, Germany for what is officially billed as "The 13th International Conference on Animation, Effects, Games and Digital Media?" For me it represents an unprecedented opportunity to meet with, and even have coffee with, some of the most active and important people in the business from Hollywood to Bollywood. fmx is not just about Germany, it's about the world of digital entertainment.
Most presentations are in English and if they're not, you simply put on headphones for simultaneous translation. Besides that you'll find film and game people you know or would like to know. Hollywood definitely takes fmx very seriously and sends many of their best people.
I've made good friends at fmx every year and we stay in touch. From a business standpoint it certainly has compounded my journalism opportunities. In this article I'm going to give you taste of what you can expect at fmx/08 this May 5th through the 8th in Stuttgart, Germany.
Getting There First you should know that if you go to their website, and click on "service" and then on "Airline Partnerships" you'll find you can get up to a 20% discount on Star Alliance flights. They also have nice hotel deals. So go to fmx and then stay a bit longer to tour Europe.
When you get there, you'll be overwhelmed by the possibilities and you'll have to make some choices. Many events take place simultaneously in various venues within the Haus der Wirtschaft, Stuttgart's huge state-of-the-art conference center.
It will be easier if you understand that presentations are divided into three main branches:
fmx/conference This includes lectures on up-to-date topics ranging from cinema and television to games and mobile entertainment. International speakers will discuss and share artistic, aesthetic and technical visions, opening their digital tool kits, analyzing new developments and debating the future of 3D.
fmx/forum Here studios and technology companies present their latest achievements and introduce new products. Researchers, hard- and software vendors, as well as users discuss new technologies and practical applications. You'll find hands-on demonstrations and a wide variety of intensive master classes. This is also where hopefuls can meet with recruiters looking for new talent.
For example, if you're a Wallace and Gromit, or Shawn the Sheep fan, reliable sources tell me that Aardman, in the U.K. with its new Sony distribution deal, will be recruiting heavily, both clay and digital animators.
fmx/events …are some of the best parts of fmx. It's always worth the entire cost of admission. You'll find a variety of encounters in collaboration with fmx sponsors. It's hard to describe, with digital entertainment awards, special focus presentations, screenings, and more that help define the uniqueness of fmx. Here you'll also find two of the biggest, wildest, madcap, let-your-hair-down parties you may ever experience, all included in your admission pass.
Rules of the Game Because so many top executives, producers, vfx gods and more are so accessible at fmx, they'd appreciate if you follow a few simple rules when approaching them. If you don't already know the person, here are some suggestions:
- Don't interrupt if they're in conversation with someone else… a very common error. Wait until they are free. If they're rushing off to a meeting, you can tell. Let them go unmolested. Be pleasant when you do connect.
- Know what you want to say beforehand. It will keep you from getting tongue-tied in the presence of greatness.
- Don't hand them a big envelope with your résumé, demo disk and color brochure in it. Send it through channels. They're not going to lug all that stuff back anyway.
- Don't monopolize their time. For the most part these important people will engage you pleasantly, but remember that even here at fmx, they're busy people.
- Get their business card so you can follow up later.
- If the person in question suggests lunch or coffee or a beer, by all means go for it. It probably means they find you interesting. Who knows where it could lead?
People and Talks To give you a taste of what you'll see and hear, keep reading and I'll introduce you to a select few presentations.
Glenn EntisKeynote Speaker Academy Award winner Entis is an engaging speaker. More than that, Glenn brings his valuable insight from being a major pioneer in both film and games. He started out as a programmer at companies like Ampex and HP way back in the '70s. I think he was looking for something a little more exciting. Then things changed when he and Richard Chuang kicked off Pacific Data Images with Carl Rosendahl, way back in 1982. At that time the technology was very primitive and seat of the pants, so these guys set out to change all that.
Entis co-wrote the powerful proprietary 3D software that landed their first big client, and helped the company to grow. A brilliant innovator and game design guru, Glenn is currently senior vice-president and chief visual and technical officer of Electronic Arts. He's one of those people who are good at just about everything from writing software, to animation to effectively managing large companies.
I asked Glenn what he's going to talk about: "In my fmx presentation I will reflect on my 30+ years in the computer graphics industry, and in the process review the history and lessons of our business -- kind of a professional autobiography. But I'm always excited about the future, so in my talk I hope to stimulate thinking and conversation about where our industry and art forms are going for over next 30 years"
Alex McDowell Alex is clearly one of the hottest production designers in Hollywood. With his signature floppy hat, he takes on the most difficult challenges and always produces exceptional results. Alex seems to know everyone in Hollywood and he has made himself into an agent for change. More on that in a minute. Alex has been busy of late. When you look at his body of work you can't help but notice the awesome variety. His designs are always done with style from Fight Club and The Crow through Minority Report, to Cat in the Hat, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In the last year and a half he's designed Bee Movie, Watchmen, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox. I asked him how he can do it: "I always like a challenge. If it were the same sort of thing each time my job would get boring." With Mr. Fox just filming now, McDowell is already hard at work with helping DreamWorks launch a secret new project that you know will be a winner. The only thing he would tell me is that they're working with some remarkable characters and that we should expect wonderful things to come of it.
I asked him about the much-anticipated Watchman. He said: "Watchman is of course based on the graphic novel and it's been shooting in Vancouver. But we'd all like to make a distinction between it and 300. Unlike 300 with its highly stylized look, Watchman has been shot in a more traditional way with a large number of elaborate sets and extensions. The film covers the span of time between 1929 and 1985 -- the actual span of the graphic novel. We did a tremendous amount of architectural design and set construction to achieve just the right environment for the story. We all studied the graphic novel in detail and the resulting sets reflect reality with a special look that keeps the feel of Dave Gibbon's artwork."
Alex Laurant Laurant is an art director and concept artist who worked in film visual effects and now does so for games. I know his personal concept art, and love it. As part of the vfx team at ILM he was nominated for the VES Best Visual Effects Art Direction Award, for his work on Minority Report. Alex's deep understanding of architecture, art and technology make him uniquely prepared to be a new media designer.
Like so many top film people, Alex jumped ship to game design when an opening came at Electronic Arts in the U.K. After two years he returned to the Lucas family as an art director, helping to develop new IP at LucasArts. It wasn't so very far a jump however, because they're housed on the same campus in San Francisco as ILM.
At fmx/08 he'll be talking about the current and future evolution of games into more immersive experiences with an interactive movie-like feel. He'll discuss in depth what it is like for someone making this crossover, comparing and contrasting visual design issues between games and film with plenty of visual examples. I asked Alex about his switch from movies to games:
"The second year I was in EA after Harry Potter was done, I'd learned a lot, and the client was happy, but I then became more interested in new IP -- developing unique new ideas -- the blue sky process.
After being so focused on the final polishing stages of production I found myself immersed in giving birth to an idea and pitching it within a given studio's culture, and learned trial-by-fire how that works.
"Returning to the Lucas companies was great, and while I was now working for the game side, familiar faces from ILM were everywhere, and I felt that each of the companies, once separate, were now part of one bigger creative and technical endeavor. I joined a new, still-small game development team within LucasArts and have been lucky to be able to collaborate, experiment and help develop new ways to generate and develop story and game ideas.
"One of my goals has been to increase the art team's participation and creative role through early concept development and into pre-production. We've successfully pushed some old boundaries about the role of visual design in the story invention process, being a driving force at the very start. Our art team has worked closely with our writers and game designers, providing them with a deep set of world and character options from which they can build the story and game."
Laurant is clearly a serious player in the game of what's-happenin'-next that is being engaged in throughout the world of narrative entertainment. I intend to hear what he has to say and meet him personally at fmx/08. Lucas Arts is poised to be one of the key players in the emerging world of immersive narrative entertainment and Alex Laurant is going to be a force in exciting directions. You can also catch him on a panel with Alex McDowell.
Debbie Denise and Jenny Fulle Debbie Denise is executive VP of production infrastructure and executive producer at Sony Pictures Imageworks. I'd hate to have to put all that on my business card. She will be presenting with with Jenny Fulle, EVP and executive producer at Imageworks as well -- two very powerful women in the vfx business. I asked Debbie about her talk:
"At this year's fmx, Jenny Fulle and I will be discussing how Sony Pictures Imageworks has integrated our production pipeline into our new satellite offices in Chennai, India and Novato, California and coming this summer, we will be up and running in Albuquerque, New Mexico as well." I asked her why all this outsourcing… but it turns out this isn't actually outsourcing. These are extensions of the Culver City facility, fully integrated and run by Imageworks management team. Debbie explains: "Although our base is in Culver City, California, Imageworks has implemented a global strategy which enables us to tap into some of the most talented artists in the world and helps us to push the limits of what can be achieved through visual effects and animation by filmmakers".
I intend to ask her more about this when I see her at fmx/08.
Jenny Fulle came to fmx last year and I'll be happy to see her again this year. I was curious why she was willing to fly all that way. Clearly fmx represents an important event to Imageworks. There will be a very large India contingent this year. The heads of R&H's India facility will be there and I asked Jenny about Imagework's progress in India:
"I'm excited to be attending fmx again this year to have the opportunity to discuss how our satellite strategy is currently working. We recently celebrated Imageworks India's first year anniversary, and we're proud to say that we have successfully established a production pipeline that mirrors the one found in Imageworks' main facility in Culver City, CA."
Apparently they've worked out most of the time and distance problems for production. Jenny explains:
"With this system in place we're looking forward to having our artists work seamlessly together in all of our facilities on all of our upcoming films." I certainly want to know more about how they've worked the kinks out of that 13½-hour time difference and broadband infrastructure difficulties. The nice thing about it is that I'll be able to talk with Jenny and Debbie directly about it at fmx/08.
Joseph Olin Joseph Olin is president of the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences, the videogame industry's visible advocate for the talented men and women who develop the games we all like to play. The AIAS presents an annual Interactive Achievement Awards which recognize the game industry's best titles and technological accomplishments as judged by the men and women who create games.
Olin is one of the most influential people in the huge and ever-growing games world. He's also a very capable executive who has made the academy the most important organizing force across the games industry. If you get a chance to meet him, you'll find Joe a very interesting guy. I asked him about his talk:
"I'm going to give an overview on the state of the game business. I'll be looking at factors that drive the global game economy. In addition I'll be giving a retrospective on classic games. For example, Zork drove a lot of people into game development. In film and recorded music we go back and study the oldies to look ahead. I think the current challenge to young professionals is to find a mentor or an inspiration, go find an old game at a garage sale… play defender for a while."
Sharon Callahan I'll always be indebted to Sharon for helping make my first book a best seller. She co-wrote the chapter on lighting with me. Now she's director of photography at Pixar and she'll be giving a colorful presentation on how she managed to create such luscious colors in the Disney/Pixar release Ratatouille.
I ran into Sharon last November in Turin, Italy. She told me she was really looking forward to her first fmx experience. She said, "Several Pixar people have gone to fmx in the past and they speak highly of the experience." In the meantime, Sharon has been in charge of remastering Pixar's entire catalog for Blu-ray HD. I watched Ratatouille in Blu-ray and it was breathtaking. If you have a strong interest in lighting, introduce yourself to Sharon and have a few words. She's a person you can't help but like.
And, Finally, the Parties fmx attendees are usually invited to at least one dinner and several parties. These are in my opinion some of the most valuable time you will spend there. Speakers and attendees coalesce into a seething mass of surging, dancing, networking humanity. The music is loud, the beer is cold and the company can't be beat. You'll find people dancing and schmoozing on the main floor and then going into adjoining spaces to network between sets.
It is considered perfectly acceptable for you to go around reading name tags and introducing yourself to people you think can help your future. The catalog has photos of most speakers and many of them show up at the dinner and parties. You'll certainly find me there. If you make a list of who you want to meet, make a kind and civilized effort to find them, and introduce yourself, you'll come home with a feeling of acceptance, accomplishment and a handful of business cards.
The Wrap If you know anyone who's attended fmx, ask them what they thought of it. Everyone I've asked loved the experience and would do it again in a flash. So if you're a studio exec, a student, or someone who wants to expand their network, go for it! If not this year, than next. I'll see you there.
Peter Plantec is a best-selling author, animator and virtual human designer. He wrote The Caligari trueSpace2 Bible, the first 3D animation book specifically written for artists. He lives in the high country near Aspen, Colorado. In addition to his work in vfx and journalism, Peter is also a clinical psychologist with more than a decade of clinical experience. He has spent several years researching the illusion of personality in animated characters. Peter's latest book, Virtual Humans, is a five star selection at Amazon after many reviews.