fmx/06: Cross-Pollination and a Growing U.S. Presence

Rick DeMott reviews the second version of the previsualization software FrameForge 3D, and reports that Innoventive Software is giving users what they want.

Cross-pollination was in the air at Haus der Wirtschaft, which housed this years fmx. With cutting edge presentations and multimedia halls, fmx is no SIGGRAPH, but has its own identity. Unless noted otherwise, all images courtesy of fmx.

Cross-pollination was in the air at Haus der Wirtschaft, which housed this years fmx. With cutting edge presentations and multimedia halls, fmx is no SIGGRAPH, but has its own identity. Unless noted otherwise, all images courtesy of fmx.

The air in Stuttgart was charged with yellow-green dust as southern Europe experienced one of the heaviest pollen seasons in decades. Nobody seemed to be bothered by it not even me. It was prophetic. Cross-pollination was in the air and fmx/06 was at the core.

Haus der Wirtschaft Stuttgarts largest building is rooted firmly in the center of this ancient city. With more than 5,500 square meters (more than 17,000 square feet) of exhibition space, this magnificent, battle-scarred 19th century venue has been updated with taste and affection. Today, it is one of the most cutting edge and comfortable multimedia exhibition halls in Europe. Sure, the Haus may be small by Las Vegas standards, but what it lacks in square footage, it makes up for in charm and class. It is the traditional home of fmx and was the site of fmx/06, the 11th International Conference on Animation, Effects, Realtime and Content, held May 3-6. Make no mistake, fmx has no aspirations to be like SIGGRAPH, it has charted its own separate destiny and you really ought to know about it.

fmx/06 was, by any measure, a huge success. This is a complex business, so there is no way I can give you a complete description of it here. It might help you to go to its website and look around a bit. They have a complete schedule of what went on there, but Ill give you my take on it. As Ive stressed over and over, fmx retains a measure of intimacy and accessibility that SIGGRAPH used to have years ago. Its a grand show and it pulls in the right people from everywhere. Oh, and it is nearly entirely in English now the international standard language in media entertainment. If you happen to crave one of the few presentations given in another language (and I did, several times), theres simultaneous translation via wireless earphones.

Here are just a few statistics about fmx to get you up to speed. This year saw more than 5,000 visitors, an increase of 40% from last year, with many of the new visitors coming from the U.S. The schedule was peppered with talks, screenings, workshops and demonstrations that ranged from technically interesting to artistically fascinating 350 speakers in all. They came from all over the world and presented a first-class line up of more than 300 talks, demos, workshops and screenings about creation, production and distribution in all forms of digital content. Im sure there were a few clunkers among the talks, but I didnt see one.

The important thing is: all these brilliant minds in one place lead to a lot of cross communication. Youve got games people talking with key feature film people, content producers talking with content buyers, the press talking with everybody and perhaps, most important of all, students talking with potential employers strutting their stuff. I came home with a pile of DVDs to review and give feedback on. The few Ive seen so far are way above average; at least one is stunning.

AWNs Dan Sarto dug into a treasure trove of animated films to present some truly strange and brilliant pieces. Courtesy of Peter Plantec.

AWNs Dan Sarto dug into a treasure trove of animated films to present some truly strange and brilliant pieces. Courtesy of Peter Plantec.

I attended as many presentations as I could and found myself impressed. Since I often teach a course on how to create a great demo reel, I naturally gravitated to screenings of impressive short animation like Shelly Pages Eye Candy, and our own Dan Sartos Choice animations. Shelly is always a treat and Dan dug deep into his archive of new favorites and came up with some truly strange and brilliant pieces.

The quality of speakers is always very high at fmx and this year pushed that standard even higher. Meanwhile, I presented a seminar on how to get the job you want in digital animation, anywhere in the world, as part of the recruitment effort at fmx. This program gives young people and established artists and technicians the opportunity to get the inside poop on whats expected and to sit down with studio people that count. In most cases they actually got to sit down with the ceo or producer or key HR people and present their case and ask questions. I also hosted several panels where studios from both eastern and western Europe talked about what it would be like working for them, where their pay scale sits and what their expectations are.

Another interesting happening in cross-pollination came from the large number of studios from not only Europe, but also China and India. These areas are also big media buyers and sure enough, buyers were talked about what theyre looking for. I got to chat with many of them to gain insight into distant emerging media markets.

But maybe the biggest draw at fmx was the chance to see how it was all done. The super multimedia presentation halls were packed to overflowing with visitors anxious to experience the content creation wisdom of our times. Here is just a taste:

The first presentation I saw was on advanced concept pitching. Pascal Rodon and Pierre Marie Fenech of Action Synthèse in Marseille gave a fascinating presentation on how they are pitching the idea of a new Wizard of Oz movie using the original sound track with Judy Garland, but lip-synching animated characters. They demonstrated how they created a few minutes of finished footage to invoke the charm of the final movie. It was very impressive. With typically exquisite French art direction and lovely character design, that short clip would certainly sell me on the film. If Hollywood doesnt grab a piece of it, theyre crazy.

Oscar winner Chris Landreth was there, but sudden illness prevented him from getting in on all the action. Id looked forward to seeing him again.

Doug Cooper from DreamWorks Animation presented What Filmmakers Should Know about Games. He clearly outlined how the two genres can form effective, symbiotic cross-production strategies.

Doug Cooper from DreamWorks Animation presented What Filmmakers Should Know about Games. He clearly outlined how the two genres can form effective, symbiotic cross-production strategies.

The remarkably articulate Doug Cooper from DreamWorks Animation gave an awesome talk: What Filmmakers Should Know about Games. Talk about cross-pollination! I went because I like Doug, but wasnt deeply invested in the talk. I walked out of that talk with new understanding and interest. This synergistic trend will become ever more key to developing significant new revenue streams and Doug clearly outlined how the two genres can form effective, symbiotic cross-production strategies.

I was pleased to spend some time chatting with old friend Jeff Kleiser, who gave two interesting talks. One presentation was on the Kleiser-Walczak style of character animation and the other was a fascinating one on stereoscopic animation. This is possibly an emerging trend and Kleiser-Walczak is right on top of it.

Patrick James from Pixar gave two edifying presentations on the wonderful short film One Man Band, talking about both the artistic and the pipeline considerations. This is one of Pixars in-house financed productions they use to hone young wizards. Clearly, its a worthy investment.

One Man Band was well represented by Patrick James two talks on the short film. © Pixar.  

One Man Band was well represented by Patrick James two talks on the short film. © Pixar.  

SIGGRAPHs Terrence Masson gave a pair of very interesting talks in which he dispensed sound advice and divulged inside information.

SIGGRAPHs Terrence Masson gave a pair of very interesting talks in which he dispensed sound advice and divulged inside information.

Terrence Masson, jury chair, Electronic Theater SIGGRAPH 2006, gave a pair of very interesting talks. The first: Computer Animation Festival Success: How to Get Your Film Rejected was directed at anyone who ever unsuccessfully submitted a short animation project and how to overcome their mistakes by figuring out common elements of success excellent all round advice here. His second talk was simply an insightful look at What Makes Great Animated Films. You cant buy this kind artful inside information.

David Sproxton, co-founder of Aardman Animation, is a man of keen vision and finely honed business acumen. He is also one of my favorites. He always takes a moment to talk with students and others, yet to build cachet, encouraging them on their way. A few words from this animation power broker can do wonders for a young discouraged spirit. David gave a terrific presentation on Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

Jenny Fulle, evp of Sony Pictures Imageworks, gave an informative overview of the companys four areas of expertise: character animation and vfx in live-action features (epitomized by the Spider-Man franchise and the upcoming Superman Returns), 3D-animated features (launching with Open Season this fall), performance capture CG features (this summers Monster House) and the 3-D stereoscopic pipeline (The Polar Express and Open Season in IMAX 3-D and Monster House in Real D).

In addition, Troy Saliba, animation supervisor for Monster House, discussed the animation challenges on that film and how they differed from The Polar Express, while vfx supervisor Doug Ikeler took a nice look at the deep artistry that went into Open Season.

It wasnt all feature films or U.S. houses, though. There were also a huge number of smaller European houses represented. My head spins. Some of their talks were not in English, and another trend that was bandied about is: If you want to be considered an international company, you have to have English as your working language. This is easier than it sounds. Being familiar with several European houses in transition from their native language to working in English, I can tell you it is a massive effort and may severely limit your talent pool.

Paul Ekman, a psychological expert on facial expression, gave an enlightening talk on how a characters facial animation can more precisely express very subtle emotional messages. 

Paul Ekman, a psychological expert on facial expression, gave an enlightening talk on how a characters facial animation can more precisely express very subtle emotional messages. 

Oh, and there were the panels and forums and workshops ( like nude drawing that I missed: Damn!). I was unexpectedly honored to co-host the Virtual Humans Forum with the brilliant Christophe Héry (Revenge of the Sith/ILM). Over the course of a long afternoon, visitors got to hear the likes of Mark Sagar (King Kong), Paul Debevec (Legend of Light and USC professor), Paul Ekman (psychological expert on facial expression) and Volker Helzle, a graduate of the Film akademie, who presented his advanced facial animation plug-in for Maya, which is now available as a free download. The content covered a broad spectrum of cutting edge tools and techniques and philosophies behind some of the finest character animation to date.

On a personal note, it was stimulating for me to have an opportunity to spend some time with Ekman, a man whose work Ive admired for many years. I originally used Pauls work on facial expression while training for antiterrorist agents to recognize inappropriate facial expressions, but thats another story that I really cant talk about. Paul enlightened us on how we can make our characters facial animation more precisely express very subtle emotional messages. He also discovered that perhaps our work could be of use to him in his research on emotions more cross-pollination on the fly.

But I digress. I think everyone felt the flow of ideas in the air. East met west, genres collided and lines blurred. Maybe blurred isnt the right word. Its more like lines between entertainment types are becoming more clearly defined in looser terms. The cross feeding is intense. To paraphrase Doug Cooper, Film and games are two different worlds, one passive, one active. They can be synergistic, but games should be developed by games people and movies by movie people. The key is how the two communicate and share resources. These forces are leveraging the development of high-speed digital media communication where feature film dailies can be shared across time and space. The world is getting smaller faster than you can imagine.

One of the trends I had my antenna out for was American production companies outsourcing vfx to distant shores. Character animation has long been sent to Korea, China and India, but vfx is a little different. There were a few instances like Scott Coulters Worldwide FX in Sophia, Bulgaria, and, of course, the well established houses in the U.K., but not a general trend. It seems the Hollywood vfx supes still like to keep things close to home. I think its a matter of control, but in talking with many of the distant vfx/post/animation houses, I was impressed with their willingness to invest in communications technology that will rapidly close the gap. The one thing they can never change is the awful time shifts necessary to work in India or China, for example. However, with close communication and serious cost reductions possible, I think vfx work will eventually become decentralized.

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

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