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How Loud Can You Shout FJORG!?

Eric Post and Dee-Marie ventured to SIGGRAPH's first iron animator competition, FJORG! Having survived, they fill us in on all the Viking escapades.

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Learn more about how the FJORG! animators forged forward in the behind-the-scenes documentary in AWN's Media Center. All images courtesy of SIGGRAPH. 

In The Beginning

When Chief Viking Priestess (FJORG! chair) Patricia Beckmann-Wells, started brainstorming about the SIGGRAPH 2007 Conference, iron animator concept, she wanted a name that reflected the idea of forging ahead with a great project. She added a "J" to forge, to make it appear Viking-like. She then capitalized her creative word to make it more SIGGRAPH-like, finally adding an exclamation point to make the title truly unique. It all fell in place from there. Pronounced "forge," in the early morning hours of Aug. 6, the battle cry went out at the SIGGRAPH 2007 Conference, for the first-ever iron animator challenge -- FJORG!

For 32 hours, 45 animators (15 three-member teams) were sequestered in a room. The teams were comprised of 42 men and three women. The majority of teams were from the U.S.; five teams from California, with one team each from: Ohio, New York, Florida, Illinois, Texas and Georgia. International teams also were a part of the competition: two teams from Japan, and one team each from Brazil and Israel. Each team was eager to win the iron animator medal. The plan: to see how the team members would do under pressure to create the animation of their lives. There would be sleep deprivation, distractions, laughter, inspiration and triumphs.

Team members were each supplied with computers and monitors. Although no Internet connections were allowed, each of the team's computers networked together. The Hewlett-Packard xw9400 Workstations, with Dual Core AMD Opteron processors, were pre-loaded with Autodesk Maya and 3ds Max, Softimage, Modo, and Adobe Photoshop, Flash and After Effects software. Also provided: Wacom tablets, mirrors and hand-held webcams (to work out issues with motion), white boards and markers for team management.

The event originally called for 16 teams. After intense deliberations, committee members opted to keep three computers in reserve... just in case... reducing the number of teams to 15. However, not one machine even burped. It was a superb show of technological reliability.

Although teams were prohibited from using additional software and hardware, they were allowed to submit pre-rigged models prior to the event. The 'donated' models were then available for all team members to use during the competition.

Forging Ahead

First thing Monday morning, the teams were asked to undergo mandatory cognitive testing, courtesy of cognitive psychologist, Dr. Bob Berger. First a grid of numbers flashed on a screen, then questions like "What number is to the right of 64?"

The teams were also subjected to similar tests at the end of the competition. Ironically, Dr. Berger stated, that everyone did as well with the number grid before the competition as they did after staying awake for 32 hours. Overall the short-term memory was 3/4 worse at the event's end. The false memory was the same before and after--63% had negative test scores both times. Per his experience, Dr. Berger said, "Sleep deprivation and work like this, over this length of time, is equivalent to a .10 blood alcohol impairment."

Finally, when all the testing was over, at 9:00 am, came the theme options. Teams were asked to choose one: "the impossible escape," or "a fate worse than death." Then, the clock started. The Commandos team maneuvered to the pre-supplied sound tracks, and picked "the impossible escape" as their theme. While, the Picture This team went with "a fate worse than death."

Each team was also required to use at least one voiceover. The final animation had to be completed within the 32-hour deadline, no exceptions! Each animation was also required to be at least 15 seconds in length, with a suggested maximum length of 45 seconds; however, no points were deducted for longer animations.

Distractions

As promised, there was an abundance of surprise distractions. According to Beckmann-Wells, "The main purpose of the distractions was to provide team members with different views of motion, which they could then utilize in their animations." Among the distractions were the Shimmy Sisters belly dancers, and a young contortionist. Oh, and the aforementioned constant screams of forge, as invading Viking warriors ran about the room, doing their best to conquer the competitors concentration.

One member from Team Mocap, took a short break in the seldom used rest area, after inviting a belly dancer to his workstation to entertain a teammate, "...who doesn't get out much."

The Martial Arts Monks were the highlight of the evening (view the SIGGRAPH documentary to really appreciate a specific stick-breaking moment). A mime also assisted individual teams capture a variety of motions. Throughout the event words of wisdom were offered from guest speakers and mentors.

Crunch Time

Surprisingly, even in the final hours, there was little drama. All of the teams worked well together. Beckmann-Wells remarked, "Everyone exhibited a high degree of skill in getting along. For example, when the 10-year-old contortionist performed, she would stop occasionally and smile, and the entire group would stop their work, look up and smile back. They treated her with the utmost kindness."

Finally, at the end of the day, Tuesday, Aug. 7, at 5:00 pm sharp, the teams took their hands away from the keyboards and relaxed for the first time in 32 hours. Many of the teams finished early, although one team had technical network problems at the last moment.

The Judging

Only one team, The Pillage People, went old school and opted to create their animation in a 2D format, while the remainder of the teams took a more conventional 3D approach. In addition to the mandatory finished animation length, utilizing one of the two themes, and incorporating at least one voiceover, the judges based their final decision on a 105-point scale, with 0 to 15 points awarded for each of the following criteria:

storytelling / believability / acting / personality

pantomime / body language / posing / body mechanics

facial animation / lip sync

artistic style

technical achievement

how the theme of the event is realized

time management, team effectiveness and attitude

The panel of judges found it a difficult task narrowing down the winning teams, as final scores were close. All teams had finished on time, and all had complied with the mandatory requirements. The judges took the entire amount of time allowed for deliberations.

All smiles from Team Mocap first place winners of FJORG! Team members (l to r): Tom Jech, W. Jacob Gardner, and Jim Levasseur.

The Winners

First place went to Team Mocap. They used "the impossible escape" theme for their animation Switch. Jim Levasseur, Tomas Jech and W. Jacob Gardner, from Bowling Green State University, came together with a synergy in their work. Incorporating their unique signature Gumby-like figures, two characters had their legs tied to separate poles on either side of a train track split. Next to each character was a lever that switched the tracks in a direction toward the opposing character.

With a train fast approaching, each character frantically pulled his lever, causing the tracks to switch in rapid succession. In the end, their actions caused the tracks to malfunction and the train to derail. The "approaching train" sound effects, coupled with the softly spoken "Dave" voiceover, added to the subtle humor. The real belly laugh came with the last frame, where Dave switched the tracks for the last time. Brilliant work, from concept to implementation.

Second place went to the Picture This team for their animation, The Last Date, with "a fate worse than death" theme. Juan Pablo Sans, Matthew Doble and Julio Galan, from Miami International University of Art and Design, conceived the idea of a married man enjoying an impromptu tryst. Upon arriving home with his date, the man opened the door to find his wife, children and guests yell: "Surprise!" Their animation was created in a 3D format, with "I love you" and "surprise" as the main voiceovers. The over-the-top facial expressions of their characters set this team's animation apart from the others.

Third place winners, Team Impulse, hard at work on their entry Pigtails.

Third place went to the Impulse team, who chose "the impossible escape" theme for their animation, Pigtails. Joe Garhan, Ryan Drag and Denny Jovic, from the Illinois Institute of Art, animated a small 3D female doll with pigtails, running after a man who was frantic to escape. Hiding in a spare room, the man leaned on the locked door only to find a horde of little pigtailed dolls chanting: "I love you," in the room. In the closing frame, one of the dolls lifted a butcher knife, fade to credits.

After the competition, Denny Jovic, a member of Impulse, availed himself for a quick interview. His group was one of two teams using 3ds Max in the creation of their animation. When asked how they picked the theme and storyline, he grinned as he answered, "When we listened to the sound clips, I love you, just jumped out. The moment I heard the sound bite, I had an image of a doll in pigtails chasing a terrified man. We realized how crucial the importance of the story was. You need a solid story! The extra time we spent setting up the storyboard was worthwhile. Once we visualized the chronological order, the animation went smoothly."

Jovic, a Game Art major, with only one animation class under his belt, was very aware of the importance of doing an iron animator dry run. "Not wanting to leave anything to chance, we began training right away. We had two 24-hour practice sessions and one 12-hour session. A roommate gave us a topic and we just went for it. After the first 24-hour session, we were dying, and realized that we needed to take intermediate breaks. Even 10 minutes of sleep helped."

The Future of FJORG!

Did the SIGGRAPH first iron animator competition meet expectations? According to those who participated in the FJORG! rivalry, the event was a success. When asked if team members would be willing to participate in another grueling iron animator event, all teams responded positively.

An exhausted Beckmann-Wells, who stayed awake the duration of the event, cheering the teams on to victory, was also optimistic. When pressed if she would do it again next year, with a glint of hope in her eyes she simply responded, "I had a wonderful time." Her least favorite part of the competition was lack of sleep. Her fondest memory was interacting with the team members. "Everyone who entered the competition was extremely polite, witty, talented and professional. If asked, I would write a letter of recommendation for each and every one." What about the future of FJORG! at SIGGRAPH? "It is crucial for people to post their thoughts about the competition, and let the SIGGRAPH planning committee know that they want FJORG! to be an annual event of future conferences."

As to the main purpose of the competition ... to provide potential employers a chance to view ground-breaking works by highly creative animators ... only time can tell if that aspect of the FJORG! competition will prove to be successful. Undeniably, the event showcased the talents of 45 innovative animators: each possessing an even temperament, and the ability to work long hours under pressure, through a glut of distractions to produce a professional end product.

Now the fate of the iron animator event is up to you. If you would like to either participate in a future FJORG! event or experience it from the sidelines, post a note on the SIGGRAPH Conference website's comment section.

To view the FJORG! documentary and final animations, visit the AWN Media Center.

To make sure FJORG! returns next year, post a note to SIGGRAPH Conference site's comment section.

Eric Post is the poster child for the "I don't know what I want to be when I grow up" club. He is an attorney, journalist, computer graphic artist, helicopter aviator and a former pastor. Although he is a traditional artist, he is best known for his CG works with Terragen and Bryce. Currently, he is a staff writer for the Renderosity Front Page News, and has been writing and editing for various Renderosity publications since 2004.

Dee-Marie is an award-winning author and computer graphic artist. Former Editor-in-Chief of the Renderosity Magazine, she currently works as a freelance journalist, and is a contributing columnist for the Renderosity Front Page News. She recently completed her first novel, Sons of Avalon.

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