Chris Landreth finds inspiration in all images computer-generated at SIGGRAPHs 2006 edition of the Electronic Theater.
Every year in the late summer since 1974, SIGGRAPH has been the annual highlight of all things related to computer-generated imagery. And, arguably, the highlight of SIGGRAPH is its Electronic Theater, a two-hour compilation of the most innovative, influential, exploratory, whimsical and occasionally depraved imagery created using computers over the past year. Over the years the Electronic Theater (ET) has developed into a major animation festival, but compared to other animation festivals, the ET generally has a strong geeky elementgiving as much attention to emerging research in CGI as to short CG films with great stories. In past years, the ET shocked and awed SIGGRAPH audiences with demonstrations of then-new techniques like Raytracing, Soft Body Dynamics and Particle Systems. In one SIGGRAPH Electronic Theater 14 years ago, the show-stopping film was a one-minute clip of a cloth simulation, showing nothing more than a simple curtain billowing in a simulated breeze.
This years Electronic Theater, at SIGGRAPH 2006 in Boston, was something of a departure from this geeky intellectual spirit. Although this ET showed perhaps the strongest selection of films in terms of brilliant stories and stunning visuals, the spirit of discovery, of new technology and new techniques in CGI, was largely absent. In many ways, it was an indication how much CGI has matured in the last few years. CGI technology today is omnipresent and established, and perceived (by some people) as no longer emerging. So while there were beautiful films, the geeks were missing this year.
The 2006 Electronic Theater was the most competitive ever. Computer Animation Festival chair Terrence Masson and a team of eight jurors (and two alternate jurors) sifted through a record 726 submissions from 40 countries, and from these created a relatively small program (only 34 films) compared to most ETs of the recent past. The small number of films made for a strong, focused experience, with a minimum amount of audience fatigue.
Attack of the Killer Commercials
In the 18 years Ive been attending SIGGRAPH, Ive never seen the CG art form of commercials dominate the Electronic Theater as I saw this year. The commercials in the ET were simply some of the most original and visually stunning short films in the entire program. Of these, the most brilliant was Framestore CFCs Guinness noitulovE. noitulovE, of course, is Evolution spelled backwards and the 50-second film itself runs backwards, from a shot of three guys drinking beer in a London tavern. Then on to the same three guys walking backwards away from their barstools, to the threesome walking backwards in 18th century clothing, to hapless Cro-Magnum hunter-gatherers walking backwards into an un-melting glacial ice field, to primitive porpoises swimming backwards, to Pterodactyls flying backwards, to pre-Mesozoic lizards crawling backwards, to amphibious mudskippers slithering backwards. As the three mudskippers drink from a pool of primordial ooze and recoil in disgust from it, one instantly understands their newfound desire to evolve, patiently over 275 million years, into three bipedal British slackers capable of drinking brand-name stout beer out of pint glasses.
In the same theme of selling beer to a mass television audience, there was Animal Logics Fosters Australian Big Ad. The humor device of self-parody can be a pretty powerful one to play and the epic Big Ad plays it for all its worth, with a 3,000-strong army of red- and yellow-robed people singing to Carl Orffs Carmina Burana: Its a big admy God its bigits just so freaking huge...This ad had better sell some bloody beer Most of these 3,000 extras were animated using Massive software and uncanny cloth simulation, and choreographed to run around in breathtaking aerial shots forming images, marching band style, of pints of beer and people drinking them.
From epic to intimate, the Electronic Theater included a commercial for Robin Hood Flour by Red Rover Prods. in Toronto. Nothing more than two children, sitting at a kitchen table, addressing the camera about giving away cookies for Christmas. A CG-rendered boom mike creeps awkwardly into the view at the top of the screen, and one is reminded of the warm aspects of an animated documentary like Creature Comforts. Robin Hood reminds us that CG commercials can be as effective in recreating ordinary, intimate settings with people merely sitting around and talking, as it is in creating epic, fantastic worlds with impossible action and scenarios.
Zen and the Art of VFX Reels
As SIGGRAPH and CG visual effects for films have evolved over the past two decades, so has the art of showing these effects in the Electronic Theater. In the past, studios were content to splice together VFX-heavy scenes from whatever movies they were involved with over the previous year. These would often leave SIGGRAPH audiences dazzled, but lightheaded and bewildered as to what theyd just seen. No more. Today, studios take great pains to produce, specifically for the ET, demo reels that show not only their visual effects, but also the creation and execution of those effects. The most beautiful of these was Weta Digitals In a New York Minute for the movie King Kong. Many people who have seen the movie are aware that the 1933 New York cityscape was digitally modeled and rendered, and New York Minute shows the detail to which Weta Digital went to seamlessly recreate that world. But the film also creates a setting where one sees these CG buildings rise out of nothing, as they were modeled and rendered, and subsequently swathed in volume-rendered atmospheric mist of a winters sunset. A one-minute haiku of VFX photorealism.
From haiku to epic poemthe most visually stunning VFX demonstration came in the film Flow from Munich-based Scanline, displaying its liquid fluid dynamics system, Flowline, used in the movie Poseidon (in collaboration with Moving Picture Co.) and other productions. Simulating water is perhaps the most difficult visual task to pull off photorealistically, arguably even harder than recreating a human character. Although water simulation has been around for a decade now in feature films such as Titanic and The Perfect Storm, no demonstration Ive seen has been more convincing than that in Flow. This film showed simulated water from the inside out: first displaying simple, flat-shaded animation of basic, laminar water geometry and building to complex, turbulent, spraying, aerated and perfectly rendered scenes of ocean waterscapes and flooding landscapes from various film productions. Astounding.
CG Animated Feature Films
Considering how many CG-animated films were released in the past year, there was only a light representation of these films in the 2006 Electronic Theater. As with CG technology in general, CG animation in feature films is now an established norm rather than the novelty it was when Pixars Toy Story was released 11 years ago, and audiences now look beyond mere imagery for well-developed stories instead. But the art and technology of CG feature animation continues to evolve rapidly, with production pipelines becoming faster and cheaper, and two feature films from Sony Pictures Imageworks released this year clearly showed how much this process has matured. In Sonys Monster House, we saw how motion capture (particularly facial performance animation) has become intertwined with traditional animation in Sonys production environment. Unlike Polar Express (also by Sony and also done largely with motion capture), the characters in Monster House are stylized and cartoony, and perhaps demonstrated how convincingly performance-driven animation can be used in a stylized CG-animated film. Open Season, the first CG-animated feature from Sony Pictures Animation, opening Sept. 29, is also highly stylized and cartoony. Sonys SIGGRAPH piece concentrated on how its artists recreated the look of the painter Eyvind Earle, and interspersed the clean lines of his paintings with realistic and often frenetic effects such as water simulation as the characters flail about in white-water river rapids.
The Short Films
The skeleton of any SIGGRAPH Electronic Theater is its VFX reels and technology demonstrations, but the heart is its short films. These are the films that show how CGI can meet the challenge of the art of storytelling, and how storytelling can evolve with CGI. In this years Electronic Theater, the short films showed an amazing breadth of emotional and visual treatment.
Please consider this question: when was the last time you saw a film, animated or otherwise, featuring rats as sympathetic leading characters? The 10-minute film One Rat Short, winner of the Best of Show at the SIGGRAPH 2006 Computer Animation Festival, pulled this off in a very novel way. Directed by Alex Weil at Charlex Films, One Rat Short asked the audience to identify with these rats, without anthropomorphizing them at all. No big eyes, no opposable thumbs, no hip cultural references, no emotive facial expressions. The CG-animated rats in this film sniff, waddle and dart around the way you would expect rats to do. They are not obviously intelligent in any human sense. And yet they communicate, learn, fall in love and struggle to survive, on their own rat-like terms, and we want them to succeed. And are heartbroken when they dont. This is what the art of storytelling, because of CGI and not in spite of it, is all about.
Straight out of the realm of traditional mainstream comedy was One Man Band, directed by Andrew Jimenez and Mark Andrews at Pixar (now part of Walt Disney Feature Animation). In this five-minute film, two One-Man-Bands out-band one another in the middle of an Italian piazza, otherwise deserted except for a small girl who happens upon them with one gold coin. Two protagonists, one reward. Conflict and one-upmanship ensue. The inevitable comic downfall of both protagonists ends the film. One Man Band is a pleasant trifle, but free of the depth and poignancy that I want so much to see from Pixar, the stuff it can generate when it really tries. That depth is out there guys. Please reach for it. You have everything else you need for great filmmaking at Pixar. That extra depth you find will be gold for all of us.
In Your Face Darkly
From the mind and keyboard of Andrew Huang came a bleak comment on narcissism and mass media in his 4-minute film Doll Face. Using clever compositing of a live-action face onto a less-than-cuddly CG apparition of springs, gears, linkages and metallic pincers all contained in a Jack-in-the-box assemblage, Huang created a creature who has one desire; to resemble the highly-made-up face peering at her from a television set placed in front of her. Her pincers do a noble job of applying makeup to her grey continence, but the televised face proves to be elusive and ultimately unattainable. The assemblage of gears and springs try to reach that perfect televised face, but it, and she, break from the effort. Yes, its allegory, but really beautiful and well-thought-out allegory.
The Filmakademie in Baden-Wurttemberg is one of the most prolific schools in producing incredible student CG work, much of which has shown in SIGGRAPH ETs in past years. The most stunning of these this year was awarded the SIGGRAPH 2006 Special Jury Honors, the 5-minute short 458nm by Jan Bitzer, Ilija Brunck and Tom Weber. This was one of the darkest films, both literally and figuratively, that Ive ever seen in any ET. The action is performed by two snails, authentically organic in their behavior but mechanical in their appearance: they are constructed out of gears, belts, shafts and turbines. They encounter each other and engage in the most passionate lovemaking that one can imagine snails doing, before experiencing an ending as jarring as that in the movie Das Boot. But its the look of 458nm that is the most stunning: the film is mostly a swath of black, punctuated with the glowing metallic facets of the two snails, the glistening black earth and the antagonistic creature that ends the film.
Many of the other student-created short films in the ET this year were so strong and original that it is difficult to describe them briefly. The Building, by students at the Gobelins School in Paris, was a hilarious Rube Goldberg comedy of errors, in which an off-key shower singer precipitates a chain of events leading to the destruction of an apartment building. Discord: Metal and Meat, a film by Stephan Larson at Northern Michigan University, was one of the very few abstract short films in the ET, showing the DNA-esque construction of a sinewy and conscious organism, both synthetic and organic. As for the film Racing Beats by Alexander Kiesl and Stephan Hacker from Filmakademie, featuring drift-racing jumbo jets: if you ever were concerned about commercial airline pilots with too much testosterone, this film will not put your mind at ease.
I left the Electronic Theater in Bostons brand-new Convention Center feeling that CG animation has become more democratized with each year Ive seen it. At least half of the short films I saw were auteur pieces by individuals with incredibly personal, nuanced visions of the art of CG filmmaking. Even five years ago, that was not the case. Its another indication of how mature CG technology has become: that it can be manipulated in so many ways, by so many individuals, to serve so many disparate artistic ends. However, Im not one of those people who believe that CGI is no longer emerging. Another facet of SIGGRAPH, its Emerging Technologies exhibit, is clear proof of that. I look forward to Electronic Theaters in the future that show this raw, mysterious geek presence, back on the screen. I look forward to seeing more of those proverbial billowing curtains.
Chris Landreth received his MS degree in Theoretical and Applied Mechanics from the University of Illinois in 1986. For three years, he worked in experimental research in fluid mechanics at the University of Illinois, until he made the transition into the netherworlds of computer animation.
In 1994, Chris joined Alias Inc., where it was his job to define, test and abuse animation software, in-house before it was released to the public. In addition to well-mannered software (namely the animation software Maya), this resulted in the production of animated short films, including Bingo and the end (which was nominated for an Academy Award in 1996 for Best Animated Short Film).
Chriss latest film, Ryan, looks at the life and career of Canadian animator Ryan Larkin, which received the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film and more than 60 other international awards, including three prizes at the Cannes Film Festival, Special Jury Prize at SIGGRAPH 2004 and Grand Prize at the 2004 Ottawa International Animation Festival.