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The Best of Imagina 2004

VFXWorld Editor Bill Desowitz takes a sneak peek at one of next summers most eagerly awaited films, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a stunning leap in bluescreen and compositing work.

Grimaldi Forum in Monaco served as the glamorous headquarters for Imagina. © 2001-2003 Monaco Mediax. 98000 Monaco. All rights reserved.

Grimaldi Forum in Monaco served as the glamorous headquarters for Imagina. © 2001-2003 Monaco Mediax. 98000 Monaco. All rights reserved.

Monaco, February 2-5

Traveling from the frozen North of England to the sunnier (if not much warmer) setting of Monte Carlo for this years Imagina event, I was stuck yet again by the vast difference in style between the various important animation/visual effects events.

I had just attended Animex, the annual student animation festival/conference held at the unglamorous University of Middlesborough (in a blizzard), and the sunshine and glitz of Monaco seemed very appealing! Animex is run on a comparative shoestring, but still manages to attract some of the best speakers from the major studios every year mainly because of the wonderful atmosphere and the appreciation of the students and fellow speakers in the audience.

I have always enjoyed Imagina, not least because I have made so many good friends here over the past eight years, but this year I was initially stuck by a certain soullessness that inevitably accompanies the glamour.

The perennial challenge of combining a trade show with a festival AND a conference always leaves some of the participants less than entirely satisfied, and this year, surprisingly, I found the normally polished Imagina Awards the least successful aspect.

The Johnnie Walker Fish commercial won in two categories, Best Direction and Best Commercial. Courtesy of Spectre and Imagina.

The Johnnie Walker Fish commercial won in two categories, Best Direction and Best Commercial. Courtesy of Spectre and Imagina.

Awards and Category Confusion

The Imagina Awards are highly regarded and the capacity audience eagerly anticipated the Awards ceremony itself as the highlight of the event. The sparkling and glitzy presentation kept things moving along nicely and the audience responded enthusiastically for the most part.

The problem, for the second consecutive year, seemed to be the rather flexible awards categories which led the jury to select the same films in many different categories. While I was happy to applaud the multiple-award winner Annie and Boo by Johannes Weiland (Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg) as a worthy choice, it seemed unfair that one film should claim so many prizes and leave others with nothing. A similar case was the brilliant Johnnie Walker Fish commercial, directed by Daniel Kleinman and post - produced by Framestore-CFC. It deservedly won in two categories (Best Direction and Best Commercial), but was also nominated in several others edging out other worthy candidates.

page06_Annie_Boo-03.jpgAnnie and Boo by Johannes Weiland took home the Grand Prix, among other awards. © Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg/Schaefer Filmproduktion.

page10_ManWithoutAHead.jpgThe Man Without a Head claimed the Special Jury Prize. Courtesy of Onyx Films, Iguana films, La Maison and Imagina.

The various award categories this year included Best Animation (Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers), Best Rendering (Audi Drink Like a Fish directed by Frank Budgen and post-produced by Framestore-CFC), Art Direction (Annie and Boo) and Best Script (Cortex Academy by Frederic Meyer and Cedric Jeanne). Best Feature Film (Matrix Revolutions) and Best Student Film (Annie and Boo again) were the only really clearly defined categories even if the win for Matrix Revolutions over Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers caused an audible intake of breath in the audience!

The Grand Prix Imagina went to Annie and Boo and the Special Jury Prize to The Man Without a Head by Juan Solanas a very French art film about a headless man preparing for a longed-for date.

Plenty to Talk About

Still, controversial awards categories always lead to lively discussions afterwards and there were plenty of those at the post-awards disco until the early hours.

The awards themselves were the familiar Imagina teapots in hand-blown glass this year and pretty hefty if you are carrying three of them around a disco floor.

Yet again, the prize teapots baffled the gendarmes at Nice airport, where Framestores Andy Daffy was required to delve down into his suitcase to prove his three had no explosive properties and, in fact, cant even hold tea!

Hopefully next year we will see a return to more specific categories such as Music Video, Short Film, Art Film, etc. to allow the awards audience to see a wider selection of the nominees; however, one of the great advantages of Imagina over other similar events is the daily consecutive screenings of all the nominees in each category so the really diligent can see the entire range of nominated films for themselves.

New Talent

Imagina is always a good place to catch up with the latest student work from around Europe and meet representatives from great schools such as Supinfocom (France), LENSAD (France), the Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg (Germany) and the U.K.s Bournemouth University, among others. The student village section of the expo floor was larger than ever this year and attracted a constant flow of visitors between conference sessions.

I enjoyed sponsor Nvidias opening day student event Bridging Expectations hosted by the company to encourage networking between the schools, recent graduates and professionals. It is often difficult for aspiring graduates to make contact with the professional speakers at the big events and this informal gathering was intended to break down the barriers a little. The free pizza was also a big draw.

page11_Pfffirate.jpgPfffirate was nominated for Best Student Film. Courtesy of Supinfocom Valenciennes and Imagina.

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Imagina traditionally presents great panels and conferences that attract a crowd, like this one on The Matrix Revolutions. © 2001-2003 Monaco Mediax. 98000 Monaco. All rights reserved.

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Pixars Victor Navone (seen here with his creation from Alien Song) talked about the animation technique in Finding Nemo. Photo credit: Sofia Saile.

As usual, the work from the European schools was really fantastic in both quality and ambition. Johannes Weilands Annie and Boo is quite extraordinary for a student film; 12 minutes long with many impressive dialogue scenes, sophisticated camerawork, effects and soundtrack. It is an unusual love story between a teenage girl and a fantastic creature, and I predict it will win prizes wherever it is shown this year.

Supinfocom can always be counted on to produce stunning graduation films and my favorite this year was Pfffirate a comedy about an inflatable pirate, which was also nominated in the student film category.

Panels and Presentations The Grimaldi Forum, current home of Imagina, is a stunning light-filled structure with views over the Mediterranean from the upper levels and comfortable, well-equipped screening rooms. Walking along the seafront to the venue each morning was a great start to the day.

The greatest strength of Imagina has always been the high quality of the packed program, which this year included conferences on 3D animation and visual effects, games, on-line content, general interest sessions on virtual characters and AI and several special events.

As usual, I found myself torn between interesting-sounding presentations on several occasions.

I was very impressed by Paul Debevecs keynote presentation on Image-Based Lighting and Rendering, which he previously gave at SIGGRAPH last year. As a longtime fan of his beautiful experimental short film Fiat Lux, I finally was able to fully appreciate the science behind the wonderful images. As a non-technical artist type, my critical appreciation of his elegant presentation was mainly of the Wow thats amazing! variety, but the more scientifically inclined folks around me were also visibly impressed.

George Borshukov, vfx technology supervisor at ESC Ent., was a keynote speaker on Universal Capture and Facial Reconstruction in Matrix Reloaded /Revolutions, and his examples of realistic facial rendering and performance capture especially of Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith were memorable. The degree of detail achieved was remarkable and really bizarre in places. To see a texture map of the actors head with the features not static but animating was very disturbing!

In addition to the main program, two special events dominated the opening day: a packed evening session presenting more behind the scenes work from The Matrix Revolutions, with vfx John DesJardin from EON and Craig Hayes from Tippet Studio, which was followed by a world premiere screening of the much-anticipated Blueberry, complete with the stars of the film in attendance and the presence of H.S.H. Crown Prince Albert of Monaco, the president of Imagina.

Earlier in the day the speakers were quite likely to find themselves standing next to the Prince at the buffet lunch another of the unique aspects of Imagina!

Other notable presentations included a panel on virtual characters with a witty presentation on artificial intelligence development by Imagina favorite Ken Perlin (NYU), which was followed by an extraordinary presentation on the huge avatar industry in Korea from professor Sookjin Kim of SeJong University in Seoul.

Apparently on-line clothing and accessories sales for personal avatars is a bigger industry among young adults in Korea than the actual clothing industry!

Post-production studios from France and the U.K. are always well represented at Imagina, and there was some great work on show from Framestore-CFC, Glassworks, La Maison, The Mill, Sparx, MacGuffLigne and The Moving Picture Co.

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