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The Digital Eye: fmx Is It for You?

In this month's edition of "The Digital Eye," Peter Plantec gives a preview of fmx and lays out whether Europe's top animation and vfx conference is worth the trip.

Image courtesy of Deron Yamada. © 2004 DYA367.

Image courtesy of Deron Yamada. © 2004 DYA367.

If you've heard about fmx and wonder what the heck all the fuss is about, I'm here to tell you. If you haven't heard of fmx, it's about time you did. I've attended the last three and I'm about to head off for my fourth. Held in Stuttgart, Germany, fmx (which stands for Film and Media eXchange) is Europe's largest and most important international conference on animation, vfx and digital content. But that alone would not entice me to go. Several years ago I'm thinking, fmx? It's not my kind of thing and it's a lot of trouble to get over there; it's not all that cheap a trip. I didn't think it would be worth the expense and time to attend. I was wrong and I'll tell you why.

fmx isn't all about German film and media. It's truly a global conference presented mostly in English. When a presentation is given in another language, simultaneous translation is available. At first I didn't actually attend any foreign language presentations... that is until I discovered what I was missing. Now I regularly attend them with earphones on and learn a lot of fascinating stuff. For one thing, some of the world's most talented animators don't speak English. There are so many excellent presentations (more than 300) and you're going to have to make tough choices. In a bit, I'll introduce you to some of the people presenting May 1-4, this year. But first let's get an overview of what you can expect.

What You Can Expect

First, there is the city of Stuttgart. It's a beautiful city with fine old architecture, in the middle of a fantastic wine region. Their dry Riesling is world famous. You'll pass hillside vineyards as you come in from the airport.

My old 1969 Porsche was built here in Stuttgart. I went with a group of fmxers on a factory tour that I will never forget. Then there's the food. Stuttgart has a wide range of gourmet restaurants. This is the kind of elegantly served food they tell you about on FoodTV. As soon as I arrive I go off my low carb diet and indulge myself. Compared to my neck of the woods, prices are reasonable too. The famous Swabian cooking originated in this area. Try it. Of course the German beer is amazing... try a rattler, half beer and half lemonade; but I digress. Stuttgart is a city filled with friendly people, charming architecture and easy transportation. If you come to fmx, schedule a few days to visit the city and the region.

At fmx, attendees can expect beautiful Stuggart, an intimate atmosphere and access to some of the powerful people in the industry.

At fmx, attendees can expect beautiful Stuggart, an intimate atmosphere and access to some of the powerful people in the industry.

The Venue

The König-Karl-Halle where the larger events are held is miracle of modern presentation technology. No expense is spared to give you top-drawer presentations. The "hall" is located in the large Haus der Wirtschaft convention complex, which has many smaller, yet excellent, presentation spaces. Thus it is that many presentations are scheduled simultaneously. Otherwise the show would go on for months. Yet the complex is historical with many battles scars evident on its exterior stonewalls.

The Atmosphere

Perhaps the one thing I love most about fmx is the wonderfully intimate atmosphere that has evolved here. Important people leave their power suits at home, let their hair down, have a few drinks and embrace the spirit. True I'm a bit of a schmoozer and I do go up to people and start talking, but I must tell you, it's rare that you find a conference this big that attracts so many accessible big wigs. I've had dinner with studio heads, drinks with industry legends and indulged in cappuccino with famous directors and brilliant animators. I've even gone drinking (which I rarely do) with a cadre of well-known studio executives. And yet, I find my time with European film students just as rewarding if not more. The atmosphere here is fun, open and full of enthusiasm. You will be warmly embraced by fmx.

The People

I selected a few of this year's presenters to introduce. Some are gods of our industry; others are on their way up. They're all worth getting to know and you'll want to attend their presentations.

Christophe Héry

First is my brilliant and talented (and I mean that most sincerely) co-host of the Virtual Humans Forum, Christophe Héry. Christophe is a technical pioneer in vfx animation. He even holds a technical achievement award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (2003). You've seen the results of his work in films like Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events and Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and many other films. He was very much responsible for the look of the amazing Davy Jones character. The technical wizardry behind Davy is hard to believe. I asked him about it specifically. "I was personally involved on the rendering side of things. The main challenge here was the amount of data and the optimization of the various passes, due to the geometry resolution. Davy was sculpted in Z-brush, which is wonderful for adding details (yielding millions of polygons). But I almost had a heart stroke when I first saw the processing numbers for the ambient occlusion renders on the Dutchman crew. I took this as an opportunity, and we ended up collaborating with Pixar (Renderman) to invent novel technical approaches for computing the information. We had to develop clever approaches inspired by the videogame industry. In turn, this led me to optimizing some more my sub-surface scattering methods (for getting a realistic skin look)."

As for Christophe's interest in fmx, "I organized last year's Virtual Human's forum and it was a big success -- for the most part thanks to the amazing roster of speakers we managed to attract. So it seems only natural to setup a new edition of it for this year. The Forum has been well received and will likely become a reoccurring event. Also, on a personal level, this panel is an amazing source of inspiration for me: being able to interact, exchange ideas, even criticism, with the leaders in the digital actors field is truly a unique opportunity, which I hope the audience gets to feel too."

Terrence Masson

Terrence Masson is another vfx pioneer. Since founding his consulting company Digital Fauxtography Inc. in 1994, he has worked with studios and vfx houses to build and led vfx and animation teams ranging in size from six to 60. His studio collaborations have included founding positions all the way back to The Trumbull Co. (1992), then onwards to Digital Domain (1993) and Warner Bros. (1994). He's consulted with Sony Pictures Imageworks (1995) and DreamWorks (2003) and two tours at ILM (1991 and 1996-2000). Terrence also was responsible for the original CG animation and rendering techniques used to launch South Park, the television series in 1996. He's also a lot of fun at a party. Having lived through much of it, Terrance has become quite an expert on the history of animation and vfx. The new 2007 2nd Edition of his book CG 101: A Computer Graphics Industry Reference offers a unique historical perspective on our industry. I asked Terrence about his talk: "It's a fun look at the history of our industry. When I designed the pre-show for the 2006 Computer Animation Festival -- The World's Largest Digital Etch-A-Sketch -- I divided the audience in two to operate the left and right controls of this giant Etch-A-Sketch. The competitions we set up were a huge hit with the 3,000 person audience. As fascinating and important as the history of our industry is, I thought that a similar format would be a great idea to add even more fun and interest to this presentation, but without the giant interactive component. You'll just have to come and see for yourself what I've come up with."

I'll be a busy guy at fmx, but I hope I can catch Terrence's talk. It's bound to be both interesting and fun.

Chris Watts, vfx supervisor on 300, and Stephan Trojansky (Scanline) will give a behind the scenes look at this stylized film, with special emphasis on the remarkable water battle sequences. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures. 

Chris Watts, vfx supervisor on 300, and Stephan Trojansky (Scanline) will give a behind the scenes look at this stylized film, with special emphasis on the remarkable water battle sequences. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures. 

Chris Watts

The hottest movie as I type is 300. Chris Watts was the vfx supervisor on that intensely stylized, vfx heavy film. It had to be a draining experience as he honchoed 17 staff and more than 500 vfx artists working in 10 different vfx houses in four countries on two continents. I caught up with Chris at the hospital just after his wife had delivered his new son. I think he needed a distraction at that moment, so we went ahead with my interview. I asked about 300: "The film was shot mostly in bluescreen in Montreal because of lower costs and a tight budget. Canadian vfx house Hybride ended up getting lion's share (about 550) of vfx shots. I kept battle sequences within houses whenever possible. That way each house could keep a consistent, but slightly unique look." I asked why he didn't strive to have all the battle scenes look the same. Taking on the voice of Don LaFontaine he said, "In a world where everything is bluescreen, absolutely nothing happens by mistake... and that can be taken way too far." Then after a pause, he continued "I was thinking, 'Wouldn't it be cool if each battle had a slightly unique look yet tied seamlessly into the move... so much cooler than if everything looked exactly the same." He then told me that even some of the really good earlier bluescreen movies he'd studied left one with the feeling that something is missing. He explained, "That something is the little flaws and inconsistencies that one finds in real-life."

Chris will be co-presenting with Stephan Trojansky of Munich-based vfx house Scanline Prod., creator of the extraordinary computational fluid dynamics tool, Flowline. Trojansky and crew created those marvelous water battle sequences that bring alive the original illustrations in the novel. Chris was impressed. "Scanline was amazing. The film absolutely had to have that ocean battle, but there was no budget for it and there were no massive tanks or ancient ship builders in Canada that could have handled the job even if we did have the budget. The studio wanted to cut the scene, but I heard about Scanline through friends and the great fluids work they did on Poseidon with MPC; so I contacted Stephan. He said they could do it within our budget, and the result was stunning. If you look closely you can see amazing detail in the ships with people falling from the rigging. Stephan really 'got it' he knew exactly what I was looking for and delivered it." Watts and Trojansky will be giving a behind the scenes look at 300 and how Flowline was used to create the stylized water battle shots.

I asked Watts why a busy guy like him would take the time to fly all the way to germ marvelous for an unpaid hour presentation. He explained, "Actually I just haven't been out of the country for a while and my last trip to Berlin was a good time, so when Stephan asked me to come I jumped on it. "

I've seen Trojansky's presentations at fmx before and even one he delivered in German was absolutely fascinating via my simultaneous translation earpiece on. So this is another one I don't want to miss. This one will, of course, be in English.

David Sproxton is the managing force behind Aardman and he'll share some of his secrets to success with fmx attendees.

David Sproxton is the managing force behind Aardman and he'll share some of his secrets to success with fmx attendees."

The Aardman Guys

Aardman is my favorite animation studio in the world with Pixar being a close second. Their work has always had signature animation style, wonderful characters, clever humor and outrageous detail. The original Creature Comforts completely blew me away and I always used it as an example in my classes at Silicon Studio. I count myself lucky to know some of the guys at Aardman personally. And I must tell you that once you get to know them, you'll understand why their animation is so successful. They are all naturally witty fellows to the core.

Aardman will have a very solid presence at fmx. David Sproxton, Seamus Malone, Alan Short and Andrew Proctor will all be presenting, while Imke Fehrmann and Helen Brunsdon will be there to scout talent. Imke will be talking with people on Thursday, while Helen will be there early-on scouting. Keep your eye sharp as they'll be wearing their Aardman logo pins. Oh, and I heard a rumor that Aardman will be inviting the most promising talent they've scouted at fmx, to a private, invitation only, get-together in Annecy, France on Friday. Good luck.

Aardman has grown to world-class status while keeping their unique style of animation intact. Having expanded into a broad range of animation projects, Aardman sees CG as a powerful production tool rather than a substitute for hand animation. Each project requires the technique that best suits its nature. Some projects are and will be stop frame, while others are CG. They'd all like you to know that CG is but one animation technique to tell their stories, and not a replacement for stop frame. And thank god for that!

I asked each Aardman speaker to tell me about their talks:

Seamus Malone will talk about Flushed Away and how it was done in CG.

Seamus Malone will talk about Flushed Away and how it was done in CG.

David Sproxton and Seamus Malone

David is the Big Kahuna at Aardman. He runs the house with style, efficiency and above all a sense of humor. I asked him what he'll be talking about. "I'll be looking at how you plan, capture, hold and exploit the assets you need for secondary/ancillary rights. If my material gets sorted out in time I'll be looking at a stop frame project and a CGI project as examples."

I always try to catch David's talks as they are filled with useful information and good humor. Now onto Seamus Malone. His title... well, I saw him credited as an animation producer somewhere, but I decided to check. At Aardman titles can be like big red juggling balls. His response demonstrates: "Animation producer isn't really quite correct for me. I was credited as an animator on Flushed Away, because I just concentrated on the animation performance when I went to DreamWorks. My official title for the Wallace and Gromit feature is key animator, which means I am involved in a lot of development work for new characters at the beginning and then animating complete scenes in the movie and looking after some of the newer animators as well, on the same scenes. Later this year I'll be directing some Shaun The Sheep episodes and probably squeeze in some development work for future features in between." So, let's think of Seamus as an important animation guy at Aardman.

I don't want to miss Seamus' talk because the subject is close to my heart: "I'll be talking about what it's like to go from being a stop-motion animator to a CG animator and still retain the Aardman style of animation performance. I'll probably talk a little about Aardman's existing style, Wallace and Gromit, etc. and then go into how Flushed Away was conceived as a stop-motion film first and early designs of it, and then the decision to make it in CG instead to cover the larger scope of the rat world and all the water involved. I'll also talk about going over to DreamWorks in Glendale California, to work on the film and I'll show some examples of how it turned out."

fmx presenters Andrew Proctor (above) and Alan Short are taking Aardman's signature stop motion animation into the digital realm.

fmx presenters Andrew Proctor (above) and Alan Short are taking Aardman's signature stop motion animation into the digital realm."

Andrew Proctor and Alan Short

Switching from clay animation to CG and maintaining style and feel has to be difficult. After seeing Flushed Away, clearly some things remain the same and some things... evolve. To get things straight, I asked Alan about his title. "I wear the hats of senior animator and commercials director, and since January an extra hat, that of becoming the head of the CG of department. Too many hats -- shame I only have just the one head.

"I'll be at fmx with Andrew Proctor, who wears our CG department 'senior lighter' and 'senior modeler' hats. I think I'm right in saying that Andrew also has just the one head, but I'll have to double check that before you go to print." The final say is in -- Proctor has but one head. Now that we've got that straight, I asked them what they'll be talking about:

Alan Short: Andrew and I will be talking about CG, and mainly our commercials work.

Andrew Proctor: We'll be specifically talking about a couple of the more unusual and challenging projects that come our way. We might also show some of the CG series work, which is produced at other studios, but is driven creatively by Aardman talent, including people from our CG department.

So there you have it. Aardman will have a strong presence at fmx and you'll get an opportunity to join them if you're so inclined and have the talent, motivation and charm required. They will be recruiting so bring your reel.

Volker Helzle and his team have developed an extraordinary tool set for face animation that are available for free download.

Volker Helzle and his team have developed an extraordinary tool set for face animation that are available for free download.

Of Special Interest

Here are two speakers that I think have something very special to offer. Each has a unique perspective on animation, Volker Helzle, has an enormously valuable gift for you to play with.

Volker Helzle

Volker is an intense and brilliant young animator who directs research projects at the Institute of Animation, Visual Effects and Digital Post-production, Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg. His talk this year is entitled "Re-creation of a Passed-Away Actor." I've seen a preview of what Volker has been up to and you won't want to miss it -- for several reasons. Volker and his team will demonstrate the digital re-birth of a famous actor who has long-since passed away -- as he would appear today at 81 years of age. The results are dramatically realistic. The really excellent part of all this is the remarkable face animation system used to create Volker's sequences is available to you free of charge. This is no ordinary freebie... I asked him about how he can give their software away. "Research and development at the Filmakademie is founded by the state of Baden-Württemberg. The funding regulations require us to work non-profit. Since the release of our Facial Animation Toolset, which was announced at the Virtual Humans forum last year, we received a lot of positive feedback. As of today we have more than 3,300 registered downloads from all over the world. If anyone is interested, they can request a copy of the Toolset at:

I asked Volker what it is about fmx that draws him: "Meeting with industry professionals from all over the world in an informal way to talk one-on-one about possible ideas and approaches has certainly helped me in many ways. During the years as a contributor and helping to organize fmx it has been possible to establish close relations to great mentors that shaped our work." Although Volker is the driving force, he always points out that his projects are team efforts.

World renown acting coach Ed Hooks who specializes in teaching animators how to have their characters act effectively, will talk about mocap and how it can be done more effectively from an acting point of view.

World renown acting coach Ed Hooks who specializes in teaching animators how to have their characters act effectively, will talk about mocap and how it can be done more effectively from an acting point of view.

Ed Hooks

Ed Hooks is a world-renown acting coach with a twist. Although Ed has been coaching real actors for many years, his specialty is teaching animators how to have their characters act effectively. Taking his unique point of view, Ed will be talking at fmx about mocap and how it can be done more effectively from an acting point of view. Ed's book, Acting for Animators, has become the bible of the industry. You won't want to miss this one if you have anything to do with mocap or character animation in general.

Ed has been coming to fmx for many years teaching workshops both here and at the Filmakademie. I asked him what the draw is for him: "When I first started coming to fmx, there were more people on the stage than in the audience. Somewhere along the way, the event became a stellar animation attraction in the world and I stood in awe as tens of thousands of industry professionals would show up. Today, participation in fmx is probably my favorite time of year. I inevitably meet some of the most exciting and creative people in the industry and learn a lot. I am a lucky guy to be a part of it all."

And so much more...

I'm running out of space, but here are a few more of the speakers I recommend not missing include: Paul Debevec (industry legend), Debbie Denise (Imageworks), Ken Perlin (NYU Media Research Lab), Roland Emmerich (director), George Borshukov (CG supervisor) and Henry LaBounta (intelligent characters) from Electronic Arts, Thomas Kanga (Face Robot), Softimage, Steven Stahlberg (beautiful women) and don't miss Prof. Katja Hofmann, Stuttgart Media University's Digital Cinema Day. That's just the tip of the iceberg with more than 300 panels, presentations and workshops.

And then there are the parties

fmx is very much a social event where you don't really have to know anyone to fit in. The Germans have this thing called gemutlichkeit, which is an infectious warm, cozy friendliness that pervades fmx activities, especially after hours. The first big party is the opening reception sponsored by NVIDIA the evening of May 1, hosted by Laura Dohrmann, worldwide marketing manager for NVIDIA's digital film group. I know from experience that Laura knows how to throw a great party. Perhaps I'll see you there.

But that's only the start of it. On May 3, is the much anticipated the Echtzeit Party (it translates to real-time blast) where fmx/07 invites all their visitors, students, recruiters and speakers to a big evening of music, visuals, networking, dancing and fun. And finally is the wrap party right after Roland Emmerich's talk on Friday evening. Sponsored by the good people at Electronic Arts, it's bound to be a great time. There will be lounge music and Swabian buffet, with great German beer. On top of that there will be a light show and funky music -- everything needed for an amazing EA closing party.

My friend Matt Jeffery from EA will be there. He's very busy right now so he probably won't read this article. So, as a private joke, walk up to him with a knowing grin on your face and say, "Matt, I've heard about your evil little secret." And then just walk away. We'll make him a little crazy until he figures it out. Then I'll tell him he needs to read my column at more often.

Well that's a wrap, good readers. I truly do look forward to meeting you at fmx in a few weeks.

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. Peter's latest book, Virtual Humans, is a five star selection at Amazon after many reviews.