Computer Graphics and the Global Economy: Is Democratization A Good Thing?

The annual Jon Peddie Research SIGGRAPH Press Luncheon examined the benefits and challenges of a rapidly changing Media & Entertainment landscape.

The 40th annual SIGGRAPH conference and exhibition had a lot to offer attendees, from a keynote presentation featuring nine distinguished animation directors (watch it on YouTube, if you haven’t already) to production sessions led by elite computer graphic experts, to the Computer Animation Festival, featuring standout work from artists, animators and VFX houses around the world .

Jon Peddie Research held its annual press luncheon, now in its 11th year, to discuss trends in graphic computing, including a “relentless pace of innovation that commoditizes and democratizes every part of the production process,” according to JPR, in a market led by competing tax subsidies.

In a panel discussion -- Democratization: Is It a Good Thing? -- moderated by JPR’s Kathleen Maher, five industry and academic experts shared their insights about an increasingly volatile industry. Panelists included 3D animator and effects artist Joe Herman; Joni Jacobsen, executive producer at leading VFX house Pixomondo; Dr. Paul Navrátil, researcher and manager of the Scalable Visualization Technologies group for the Texas Advanced Computing Center at the University of Texas at Austin; Mike Romey, head of production pipeline at Zoic Studio; and DreamWorks Animation CTO Dr. Lincoln Wallen.

The lunchtime session provided an intimate backdrop to a frank and open discussion in which the panelists shared their view of the various forces and their impact on the computer graphics industry. Jon Peddie kicked off the exchange with a nod to the event’s sponsors (Autodesk, Dell, HP, Lenovo, Lightworks and NVIDIA) and statistics that showed five percent annual growth within the computer graphics industry, yet an overall decline in attendance and exhibitor participation at SIGGRAPH, widely considered the most prestigious forum for the publication of computer graphics research.

Attendance at SIGGRAPH vs. CG Market graph. Click the image for a high-res version. Image courtesy of Jon Peddie Research.

Attendance at SIGGRAPH vs. CG Market graph. Click the image for a high-res version. Image courtesy of Jon Peddie Research.

Wallen, emphasizing DreamWorks’ unique position in the industry as a Hollywood studio—not a VFX house—that typically brings only two to three films to market each year, said artistic talent was the primary concern, adding that DreamWorks does not consider its Bangkok studio an example of outsourcing, which implies the use of contractors, but rather insourcing, where the remote location is just one more office taking advantage of the company’s scale. He also pointed to DreamWorks’ presence in China, noting that the company is not trying to outsource work there, but rather to create content meant specifically for the Chinese market.

Jacobson also noted that having offices outside the US—as opposed to hiring temporary contractors—gives important insights into cultural differences that can often disrupt production. “Email is a difficult medium to communicate cross-culturally,” she said.

Navrátil, whose mission it is to bring cinema-quality ray-traced graphics to scientific storytelling, described the common elements the panelists held. “We are all in the business of storytelling and the best way to do that is through beautiful, compelling imagery.”

From left: Dr. Lincoln Wallen, Joni Jacobsen, Joe Herman, Mike Romey and Dr. Paul Navrátil. (Image: Omid Rahmat, JPR)

Herman is a fan of commoditization in computer graphics. “When I started at Curious Pictures, work was a place you went to,” he laughed. “We went from needing $100,000 worth of software to using [Adobe] Creative Cloud. Today, I can appear to be a huge company,” he said, noting, “Now it’s all about creative problem solving.”

Jacobsen described cultural differences that also affect production, such as artist vacations and schedules, which are often adhered to in many other parts of the world regardless of the status of a given project. She also noted that criticism can be taken in detrimental ways across various cultures, but that video conferencing tools such as Skype are helpful because they foster communication.

Romey discussed data forecasting, noting that the episodic nature of many projects at Zoic allowed for forecasting based on the number of render nodes used, a technique that allows the VFX house to easily scale as projects demand. He also pointed to the improvements in computing hardware that allow artists to iterate more quickly and easily. “We are creating workflows that allow everyone to see CG as soon as possible,” he said. “Being episodic allows us to look at past processes and plan accordingly.”

Wallen noted that enterprise-level computing is a huge part of the globalization of the creative industry, and Herman pointed to the Internet and platforms such as Vimeo that have allowed creators to reach a mass audience.

Panelists were next asked how media is changing. “Distribution is the sea change,” said Jacobsen, speaking of the democratization of tools for filmmakers. Wallen noted how fully digital distribution blurs the nature of content from creation to distribution. “Distribution transforms or informs the content that is created for those networks,” he said, noting that consumption patterns have also changed and consumers now want to see the development of content.

Romey described the challenges of on-demand rendering for games and mobile, noting that the ability to store games in the cloud has provided a huge level of democratization. Romey said Zoic Studios is taking the lessons gained in film and games and applying them to the fast and relatively cheap world of broadcast. “We are looking for ways to integrate virtual production into the shows we work on.”

Zoic is building a new iPad app, a storyboarding tool specifically for episodic TV production and commercials that will frame shots and work with digital assets created for shots.  

How will mobile change M&E? The panel agreed it affects every existing market but the changes will ripple through the industry in unexpected ways. “Media is no longer restrained by device,” noted Wallen. “Now it is only restrained by architecture.”