Peter Plantec returns to Stuttgart, Germany, for another round of re-connecting with the global VFX community at fmx/07.
By all accounts, fmx/07 was a phenomenon this year. Attendance was up by more than 20% to more than 6,000 people from all over the globe at the Stuttgart conference the first week of May. That's still small enough to feel intimate and big enough to bring in the big names. The roster of speakers was top drawer and we even got a free screening of Spider-Man 3 before the U.S. release!
The first person I ran into while exiting the high-speed train from Frankfurt to Stuttgart was none other than Dan Sarto, co-founding publisher of AWN. We got re-acquainted on the ride to our hotel. There, I ran into old friend Kevin G. Clark, now with Softimage. I hadn't seen Kevin in many years. What a treat. It went on like that as I kept running into old friends and meeting people I'd only heard about.
Virtually everyone I spoke with from many countries told me that important, special things were happening for them. Most were talking about business connections, but much more was going on. For example, several attendees were thrilled to have Steven Stahlberg autograph their book of his illustrations. Steven was happy to discover that half a world away from his home in Kuala Lumpur, he's a bit of an artist-rock star. After his talk at the Virtual Humans Forum, he was mobbed by fans.
One technical guru told me that his exciting moment was meeting, and then having lunch with Ken Perlin, and getting him to sign his book (Texturing and Modeling: A Procedural Approach). Ken, on the other hand, was having an absolute ball just being Ken, interacting with the amazing range of people at hand. Ken is clever and witty and fun to be around. Like most fmx speakers, he's also brilliant, so conversations with him usually become intensely rewarding.
More than a dozen people I spoke with were pleased at getting either job offers or follow up interviews scheduled. Recruiters I spoke with were pleased to have found a wealth of eager candidates. In fact, Matthew Jeffrey, head of Electronic Arts' European Studio Recruitment, explained: "When I go to fmx I have several strategies in mind and this year I had four key objectives:
Network with senior industry leaders and plant the seed for them to join EA;
Promote the EA employment brand throughout industry;
Demonstrate that games is increasingly sexier to work in than film;
- Fill immediate job postings for EA across Europe.
All four objectives were met with huge success. We have made some significant hires already; however, more are in the pipeline, especially some significant senior players. In terms of promoting the EA recruitment brand, I had studio chief visual officer, Henry LaBounta, with me as well. In addition, I was honored to give four presentations myself."
On that score I had a several chats with vfx legend George Borshukov, who designed that really cool "Bullet Time" effect in The Matrix, among other things. He holds an Academy Award for scientific and technical achievement. Believe it or not, George has defected to the games world and tells me he loves the new challenges. As games become more cinematic, even I am finding them an exciting venue.
OK, despite good recruiting results there were a few complaints from recruiters that the hosting of the recruitment forums was sub-par. I'll be betting that the fmx organizers will be fixing that for next year.
Where's the Attitude?
Perhaps the most delicious part of fmx was what was missing. Hollywood- style attitude never arrived. I think it may be that European artists and entertainment people aren't quite so full of themselves and it's catchy. Remarkably well-known industry gods from all over the globe just were not taking themselves so seriously. Chris Watts, one of the hottest vfx supervisors on the planet, with the enormous success of 300, was chatting and partying with students and guests just like everyone else.
We talked about stylized pictures becoming a wave and Chris had some interesting comments: he thinks it will happen because of 300. But he stressed that they have to be done right."In a world where everything is bluescreen, nothing happens by mistake... and that can be taken way too far." He believes that a great, stylized picture has to have some flaws and variations in the style. He purposely allowed each battle scene to have its own unique characteristics.
Director Roland Emmerich is another good example. We had an opportunity to chat and I found him very down to earth. The most difficult thing for Roland wasn't the people attending fmx; the local media mob from outside fmx that hounded him into leaving early was a real shame.
Roland appeared completely relaxed, which surprised me since he was going on stage in front of more than 1,000 people in about an hour. I asked if he could give me any kind of scoop on 10,000 BC. He responded: "I can't tell you too much about it, I make people angry, if I do. But it was definitely the most difficult shoot I've ever done. It was 98% shot out doors and we were constantly fighting the elements. In the past, I've said 'never horses again,' and here we have horses, and I've said I'll never shoot outside again. Here we were fighting sand storms, snowstorms and unbearable heat. We went to New Zealand, South Africa and everywhere the weather was giving us a hard time. I shot a portion of the film high in the mountains. It was very difficult filming there where the light comes and goes so quickly."
I asked him if he thought it was all worth the trouble: "I will say that I think it will be a very interesting film, and I never say that sort of thing about my own movies. It's about a clan of Mammoth hunters that are forced to explore beyond their normal boundaries, and they encounter other villages. There is a reaching out to a larger world with its struggles. I can't say more than that."
I also asked Emmerich about his personal interest in vfx and he replied: "I don't like to do vfx just to do them. In fact, The Day After Tomorrow only had about 350 vfx shots when many of today's movies have more than a thousand. I feel like vfx should only be used to tell the story in the best way."
I pushed a bit because I know he actually has suggested vfx approaches and even designed vfx techniques used on his films. He confided, "OK, I'm a total technical geek and I just have to understand everything myself. So therefore I maintain a very hands-on approach to vfx. I'm not like a director that only comes around sometimes. I have to understand it all in detail so that I know what is possible so that I can get the visual performance that I want."
In talking with Roland, it became clear that the visual effects in 10,000 BC will mostly be the invisible kind devoted to making the story real rather than spectacular.
fmx Was a Personal Blast
Hosting the Virtual Human's Forum was a major highlight for me. I had been asked to preside over an afternoon of exceptional speakers presenting their discoveries and ideas about the creation of virtual human actors. Each of the presentations was intense and rewarding. We covered everything from how Davy Jones was created and rendered, to how to create attractive digital women. Each presentation was packed to the walls, SRO.
To give you an idea, founding director of Aardman Animation, David Sproxton, came up to me afterwards and told me he'd been sitting on the floor in the back of the huge König-Karl-Halle, which I believe seats nearly 1,000 people.
The following day, I hosted a two-hour Q&A session giving attendees time for in-depth discussions on virtual human actors and tracked digital makeup. In addition to the original four speakers, 10 additional top experts joined the intense and exciting give-and- take. The audience contained a wide range of students and professionals. It rapidly became a robust round table exchange of the latest thinking and techniques about virtual human actor design and execution.
Among the new contacts I made from India were Jesh Krishna Murthy, animation director at Anibrain Digital in Mumbai, who I will be interviewing further, and Vani Balgam, director of Rhythm & Hues in Mumbai as well. She's an intense woman who somehow exudes warmth and competence at the same time. I'm looking forward to following up with her about their operation. In all, I chatted with more than a dozen animation and vfx people from India alone.
So many stand out. Before fmx I'd never even heard of them. It was a solid four days of making useful, fun and engaging connections.
fmx is Well Supported
fmx is heavily supported by both the local government and many of the biggest companies in the business. Electronic Arts is one of them. They underwrote the amazing (read insane) wrap party for which we're all grateful. Matthew Jeffrey and I knew each other from previous fmx encounters so I felt comfortable digging to explore this support.
I asked him for his general assessment of fmx simply because he's coming at it from a very different perspective from my own: "fmx is without doubt the best animation, vfx and digital content conference in Europe today," he boasted. "However you cut it, it's the best from the quality of the speakers, often senior players from the world's best companies, including Pixar, DreamWorks, Sony Imageworks, ILM and, of course, EA. Also, the quality universities attending, including three of the best in the world: Gobelins, Supinfocom and, of course, FilmAkademie. It's really Europe's answer to SIGGRAPH, but fmx has still a manageable size to keep personal relations alive. Actually what I love most about fmx is seeing and making great friends, many of whom are legends in the industry. Lastly, the EA closing party was bloody cool this year. It is awesome to see industry leaders letting their hair down, drinking and dancing with students. By the looks of the dance floor and some of the corridors, several relationships started that night as well."
I had to grin at that last bit because it wasn't all business, now was it?
Timing is everything, of course, and it just so happened that Leszek Plichta's Filmakademie diploma film, Dreammaker, had recently been awarded the SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Festival's Jury Honor. I hadn't heard. So, I ran to the screening room and just caught the end titles. But, in typical fashion, my super press hostess quickly arranged for a private screening and an interview with Plichta.
We had lunch together I told him I really liked his film OK, I did give him a few suggestions, but, honestly, this is one remarkable short (14 minutes) film with lush art direction and excellent production values throughout. I was curious about his production experience and reaction to the SIGGRAPH recognition:
"Well, how it feels? It's very good, of course. I've been working on this movie for a few years now. Although there were some people I could show the work in progress and get some feedback, it's still like working on a soap bubble castle. Nobody except yourself (sometimes not even yourself) knows what you're gonna end up with and if people will like it or not. It may just blow up and leave you with nothing. It's kind of like plucking up the courage and passing a little note to the girl you like and hoping she'll mark the 'yes.' So, winning the special jury honors made all the hard work really worthwhile. Getting such a feedback from such highly respected jurors at a huge event like the SIGGRAPH with other really very cool stuff in competition... now I can die happy."
The kid's got personality and was quite a popular figure at fmx. I asked for his view of fmx in general: "The fmx was real fun for me this year. I think it's getting better and more important each year. A few talks were disappointing, but they were the exception. There were lots of interesting things like Sony's Monster House screening in 3-D. Also, for me, it was really great meeting Steven Stahlberg, whose work I admire for some years now. Just to get to know the person a little bit, who most of us only know from the Internet.
"From a personal point of view, it was also overcoming a childhood trauma by holding a little presentation about my project, as I'm usually not that comfortable with speaking in front of many people. But it went fine so the only thing that bothered me was that I missed the Pixar talk, which was at the same time. Then chatting with people from companies like Disney and DreamWorks... in total... yup... a nice time."
As an aside, Stahlberg attended the debut of Dreammaker and commented: "It was a really beautiful film and they had a nice ceremony when they cut off Leszek's hair after four years. His mother was there and the film was very well received." I'd have to say that I'm proud to know Leszek. I believe he'll be a formidable force in animation someday soon. Go see Dreammaker if you get a chance.
fmx pass holders were invited to at least three sponsored parties. That's a great idea because the excellent food and German beer and wine help lubricate social interaction, big time. People start out by themselves or in little cliques, but as the evening moves on, people start mingling from group to group and even approach people who seem to be alone. I observed one American fellow sitting alone at a table. Strangers passing by would take a moment to say a few words and smile. Before long someone joined him. Within minutes five new acquaintances were exchanging their stories and laughing. Unlike in America, it's quite all right to wander up to a clutch of people and introduce yourself. fmx is like that the whole time. You have to work really hard to walk away lonely. The odd thing is that industry gods are just as likely to include you in. I don't understand how it happens, but, like Matt Jeffery, it's the thing I too love most about fmx.
Start planning early because going to fmx involves some expense and effort, but it's worth all of it. fmx08 is already well into the planning stages and promises to be another phenomenon. I'll see you there.
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.