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Meet the SIGGRAPH 2009 Chair: Ronen Barzel

As a graduate of Caltech (specializing in physically-based modeling) and former Pixar animation scientist (building the Slinky Dog model for Toy Story, developing lighting technology and working on other software R&D), Ronen Barzel is tailor-made for chairing this year's SIGGRAPH. The 36th annual show will take place in New Orleans (conference: Aug. 3-7; exhibition: Aug. 4-6) at The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. Barzel spoke to VFXWorld about what's new this year (including more emphasis on music and audio), the challenges of coping with the economic downturn and what technological advancements are of particular interest.

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An emphasis on music and audio will be the new highlight of SIGGRAPH 2009, as well as a focus on giving back to host city New Orleans. All images courtesy of SIGGRAPH. 

As a graduate of Caltech (specializing in physically-based modeling) and former Pixar animation scientist (building the Slinky Dog model for Toy Story, developing lighting technology and working on other software R&D), Ronen Barzel is tailor-made for chairing this year's SIGGRAPH. The 36th annual show will take place in New Orleans (conference: Aug. 3-7; exhibition: Aug. 4-6) at The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. Barzel spoke to VFXWorld about what's new this year (including more emphasis on music and audio), the challenges of coping with the economic downturn and what technological advancements are of particular interest.

Bill Desowitz: What motivated you to want to serve as conference chair and at this particular time?

Ronen Barzel: Well, "this particular time" actually started more than three-and-a-half years ago: I applied for the volunteer position and was selected back in late 2005. As conference chair, you start out early, learning the ropes for a year before putting together the team for your specific conference about two years out. This provides the team time to lay out the direction for the conference so that everything's ready to kick into high gear as soon as the previous conference ends.

For perspective, at the time of my selection as conference chair, we hadn't yet chosen New Orleans as the site for SIGGRAPH 2009, and the economy was still riding high.

As to what motivated me, it wasn't a single explicit thing, but a collection of intangibles. My involvement in SIGGRAPH has grown gradually since I first attended in 1984. In the late 1980s, I was a reviewer for SIGGRAPH Papers, which led to my serving several times on the Papers committee and then the Sketches committee. This in turn led to me chairing the Sketches program in 2004 and creating the Posters program. All of that was fine, but when somebody first suggested applying to be conference chair, I laughed and said "Are you kidding? Why would anybody volunteer to do that? Besides, I'd be terrible at it!"

After thinking more about it, and discussing it with friends, colleagues and past conference chairs, I realized that maybe it wasn't such a crazy idea. From my past volunteer positions, I knew what a great group of people the SIGGRAPH organizers are each year, and how enjoyable and rewarding it can be to plan the conference. Plus, after having been involved some time, the engineer in me had observed the process and looked forward to a chance to tinker and hopefully improve it. Ultimately, I realized that this was a rare opportunity: one of the great things about SIGGRAPH is the emphasis on crossovers between multiple fields and skills, as evidenced by the fact that they'd even consider having me as a conference chair candidate, despite my lack of experience at this level. And I knew that the SIGGRAPH conference organization is such a supportive, team environment that I'd be able to bring the skills that I did have to offer, while my weaknesses would be shored up by others.

BD: Let's talk about this year's theme, "Network Your Senses," how ties into SIGGRAPH and give us a sneak peek at what's new overall.

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RB: In recent years, some people have wondered whether computer graphics is a "solved problem." But if we recognize that computer graphics and interactive techniques in essence are forms of digitally mediated communication, then it's clear that there's more to communication than just images and keyboards.

This isn't a new notion, and there has been work at SIGGRAPH on multisensory experiences, haptic interfaces and so forth for many years. However, this year we felt we wanted to highlight it explicitly. In particular, we're focusing on music and audio, since sound is such a crucial component of movies, games and human interaction. And, of course, the focus on music resonates with SIGGRAPH coming back to New Orleans -- with the rich musical backdrop that this city provides. (Plus, New Orleans' cuisine gives extra stimulation to the sense of taste!)

What's new overall? Lots of things! SIGGRAPH 2008 began an evolution in new directions, which 2009 is building on. Here's a partial list:

  • We're integrating the field of gaming into SIGGRAPH, introducing a program for realtime rendering and incorporating the Sandbox Symposium (more on that later).
  • We're working to elevate digital art at SIGGRAPH to the same level as technical research by launching SIGGRAPH's peer review of art papers presented at the conference and published as a special issue of Leonardo, The Journal of the International Society of the Arts, Sciences and Technology. And by having a more focused and selective Art Gallery, also documented in this issue of Leonardo.
  • We're introducing a showcase highlighting the new field of Information Aesthetics that combines data visualization with graphic design for effective communication (two areas of strength of the SIGGRAPH community).
  • We're planning an unprecedented number of expert panel discussions, ranging from professional development issues to copyright and fair use, to transitioning research results into practice, to education in computer graphics and many more.
  • We're looking for new ways to help people network while still getting the SIGGRAPH experience.

BD: Let's talk more about having SIGGRAPH in New Orleans during this economic downturn and post Katrina.

RB: Because of its size and scope, SIGGRAPH makes arrangements with cities several years ahead. We actually visited New Orleans in early 2006 just six months after Katrina. SIGGRAPH had great experiences in New Orleans in1996 and 2000. Given that connection and history, we all felt that we wanted to give back and contribute to the city's recovery. SIGGRAPH was one of the first large conferences to sign up with New Orleans after Katrina and we have full confidence that will be an amazing attendee experience.

It's true that the current economic downturn is making things challenging for everyone. But we hope that for many in our community, coming to SIGGRAPH in New Orleans will provide a "two for one" -- merging the professional and personal benefit of coming to SIGGRAPH with the rich cultural experience of coming to New Orleans. Also, many people don't realize that New Orleans' downtown area (the convention center, French Quarter and major hotels) is cleaner, safer and has more restaurants and cultural attractions than ever before. During this conference planning cycle, the organizing committee has had several planning meetings in New Orleans, and it's always been a great experience.

That said, many of the outer areas of New Orleans still haven't recovered from Katrina and are certainly suffering extra because of the economic downturn. Just by coming to New Orleans, SIGGRAPH is contributing to the economic health of the city. But we'd like to do more and are organizing various outreach efforts to benefit the local community.

Here are a few examples and we need your audience to get involved (details are already up on the www.siggraph.org/s2009):

  • People can listen to some of New Orleans' finest music put together by a local record company especially for SIGGRAPH, and download the entire album for $9.99. Proceeds from album sales go to support the Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong Summer Jazz Camp.
  • We're working with local high schools to bring students to the conference at no charge, and pair them with volunteer mentors who can introduce them to SIGGRAPH and computer graphics. We will soon have more details on the conference website where your audience can sign up.
  • We're building a computer graphics lab in a local school with equipment donated by companies in our community and volunteer labor from our community.
  • We're creating opportunities for attendees to contribute to Tipitina's Foundation, an organization that provides musical instruments to local schools.

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CAF continues its expansion this year. Oktapodi won the Best in Show last year and went on to be nominated for an Oscar. © Gobelins. 

BD: Why the greater emphasis on music and audio?

RB: There are several reasons that music and audio make sense as a focus for SIGGRAPH. A lot of the imagery that we create is in the service of communication or storytelling that includes both visual and audio components -- in particular, of course, movies and games. The audience processes visual and audio together as a unified experience, so it behooves us to consider them both as a unified field. Plus, multimodal interaction and communication can enhance or surpass visual-only; again, motivating study of the modes together. In a different vein, considering sound and images together opens us to artistic directions such as the Visual Music focus in this year's Computer Animation Festival. And not least, creating and editing music and audio define an open important area in interactive techniques.

On a personal level, even though my main professional area is computer graphics, I've long had a connection with music: As an amateur musician, having played rock drums for over a decade and classical piano since childhood; as a technologist, having built an analog synthesizer in high school, and more recently co-edited a book about digital audio; and simply as a fan. Furthermore, since childhood I've loved music combined with animation, in works such as the Merrie Melodies cartoons, Fantasia and Allegro Non Troppo. Of course, I'm not alone -- many others in the SIGGRAPH community similarly have their own personal connections to, and love for music.

I should point out that while this year we're highlighting games and audio as special focuses, we think that they will soon simply become part of SIGGRAPH without any extra emphasis needed.

BD: And having Randy Thom, a sound pioneer, as a keynote speaker certainly ties in with this.

RB: Yes indeed! In particular, Randy is a proponent and leading practitioner of integrating sound with visuals from the start as a part of storytelling, rather than simply slapping on "sound effects" at the tail end of the production process. And in recent years he has also been working on sound for games, so it all ties together.

BD: Let's discuss the continued expansion of the Computer Animation Festival. This year, you're introducing Real-Time Rendering and Visual Music, again a further emphasis on music. Tell us about these and what else we can look forward to.

RB: A very important area of computer animation is animation rendered interactively in realtime, such as in games or scientific visualization. There have been great advances in the quality of interactive realtime rendering from both a technological and artistic perspective. But the Computer Animation Festival's traditional theater isn't a great fit as a venue to recognize interactive realtime rendering. Recorded film reels naturally emphasize linear storytelling, and tend to reward imagery created painstakingly by teams of digital artists -- but realtime rendering is best experienced interactively, where the user controls the experience and the rendering accomplishments can really shine.

So we decided to create a festival program specifically for celebrating the best of interactive realtime rendering -- be it from games, visualization or research. The selected works will be demo'ed live in a special realtime session of Computer Animation Festival, with the jury's top selections demo'ed live as part of the Evening Theater. Furthermore, the works will be available in The Sandbox for attendees to interact with and experience on their own.

In keeping with SIGGRAPH 2009's focus on music and graphics, the Computer Animation Festival is including a section on Visual Music, the artistic genre of the combination of music with animated imagery, as well as other works such as music videos that combine music and imagery to create captivating multi-sensory experiences.

Other things to look forward to in the Computer Animation Festival? A variety of sessions, talks and panels and special guest speakers, ranging from behind-the-scenes looks at the latest animations and [visual] effects, to presentations on topics such as urban design and the use of GPU engines in filmmaking. Plus, there will be a day devoted to stereoscopic 3-D. Screenings all week in the large theater featuring the juried competition films. And, of course, the Evening Theater showing the "best of the best" in a new format that includes the Real-Time Rendering demos, a juried films reel and a curated films reel.

BD: Tell us more about the Sandbox Symposium.

RB: The Sandbox Symposium has actually been going on for several years as a separate co-located event. It started in 2006 to provide a forum for presentation of work by academics and developers on all aspects of gaming, from technology to critical theory. It was created in cooperation with ACM SIGGRAPH and IGDA (the International Game Developers Assn.) as an incubator for a community and academic focus. After several successful years, the leaders of Sandbox and of SIGGRAPH agreed that the two communities would mutually benefit from joining together.

So, for 2009, Sandbox is being fully integrated into SIGGRAPH -- its organizers joining the SIGGRAPH organizing committee and its peer-reviewed papers (published in special symposium proceedings), as well as panel discussions and courses, included as part of the regular conference content. Plus, we'll continue to have a space known as "The Sandbox," an interactive play area that will host an exhibit of innovative independent games, the works selected for the Real-Time Rendering part of the animation festival, and workshops for game design.

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BD: And there's still the FJORG! animation competition along with GameJam!, a new videogame challenge?

RB: FJORG! was a great success from the moment it launched, and is going full steam ahead for its third year now... As part of our integration of the gaming community into SIGGRAPH, we saw a perfect opportunity to complement FJORG! by holding what's known in the gaming community as a game jam. Or, in our case, GameJam! Just like FJORG!, teams of participants will compete in an all-night marathon session to produce a videogame.

FJORG! and GameJam! will play well together. They'll have some common integrated themes, and they'll share the same space and resources. They'll run back-to-back: FJORG! all night Monday, and Game Jam! All night Tuesday. And they'll have a combined final judging and awards session.

BD: And what are the Research Challenge and SpeedLab?

RB: SpeedLab was introduced in SIGGRAPH 2008, and was a wonderful success, so we're doing it again this year. It's an event for researchers that celebrates creative brainstorming and encourages having fun and connecting with people. In a session at the start of the conference, participants are grouped into teams (mixing old-timers with newbies and those in between), where a research problem statement is announced. During conference week, each team meets to brainstorm and kick around approaches. The goal isn't to fully solve the problem, but to come up with innovative, creative, promising ideas. In the final judging ceremony (open to attendees) each team presents their solution to a panel of celebrity judges, who will evaluate them for creativity, practicality, and just plain coolness.

The Research Challenge was started for SIGGRAPH 2009. Unlike SpeedLab, which is about quick impromptu brainstorming, the Research Challenge gives the opportunity for teams to really work on a problem and show off their creativity, design and execution skills to get real results. The problem was announced last October ("Choose a specific animal, or a specific animal's sense, and develop a system that will enable a person to experience the physical or social world as that animal does"), and submissions of solutions are due in May. Selected finalists will present their projects in a special session (open to attendees) to a panel of distinguished judges.

BD: And what about this year's Generative Fabrication theme for the curated Design & Computational Gallery?

RB: Generative fabrication explores the use of non-linear processes in the creation of form and objects in areas such as computational architecture, algorithmic design and fabrication. It's one of the ways that computer technology and computer modeling have allowed designers to create works that would previously have been impossible. The show is still being put together, but the glimpses that I've seen lead me to anticipate a really beautiful collection. The Design & Computation gallery was introduced last year to help highlight the importance of the field of design to the SIGGRAPH community.

BD: And the Art Gallery theme, BioLogic Art?

RB: The juried art gallery will showcase works that engage the interaction of natural and technological forces. That is, nature provides us with plants and animals (its own examples and subjects of study) and technology provides us with devices that enhance our ability to interact with the natural world. This year's theme calls for artists who find inspiration from both sides to create expressions of life that integrate nature and technology. The gallery will be a very focused and distilled collection of works from a small number of artists; and, as I mentioned earlier, this year will inaugurate documenting the gallery in a special issue of Leonardo... alongside scholarly peer-reviewed art papers.

BD: SIGGRAPH, of course, is always about the technology. What new advancements and trends intrigue you right now? And what do you think of stereoscopic 3-D?

RB: One area of particular interest of mine has long been physically-based modeling (of rigid bodies, cloth, water, smoke, etc.), and how it could be made available for use by artists and animators rather than created as simulations run by engineers. The advance word that I've received is that we're seeing more new tools to put physical behavior directly in the hands of artists -- that's something I'm personally very eager to learn more about.

As for stereoscopic 3-D, I'm really curious as to where it's heading. It's easy to say that it'll be just a fad such as it was back in the '50s. However, the quality of 3-D technology in recent years has far surpassed what's come before. Furthermore, in the hands of a skilled director and cinematographer, it has the potential not to be a gimmick, but an integral part of the experience and an important aspect of the artistic design (as per Catherine Owens' keynote talk about the U2 3D movie at SIGGRAPH 2008).

As your audience probably knows, it took traditional filmmaking many decades to develop a common cinematographic "language" of camera and lighting techniques that was understood by the audience and gave filmmakers a toolbox so that each director didn't need to innovate for every single shot. So I believe the key question is whether the novel aspect of 3-D will hold audiences long enough for directors and cinematographers to develop and learn a new language for 3-D cinematography.

Adding stereoscopic 3-D computer animation opens things up more. For all that computer animation until now has used 3D models, ultimately that has been in the service of creating 2-D imagery -- and so computer graphics has long drawn from 2-D cel animation for the staging, acting, and emotion of the character animation (as per John Lasseter's 1987 SIGGRAPH Paper "Principles of Traditional Animation Applied To Computer Animation"). And computer animation movies starting with Toy Story have drawn from traditional live-action movies for the camera movement and cinematography.

But once we move to creating animation specifically for stereoscopic 3-D, some of the borrowed tricks of 2-D staging and animation will no longer apply; and live-action filmmakers haven't yet fully developed 3-D cinematography so there aren't many tricks available to borrow. Thus, I believe stereoscopic 3-D computer animation will need to innovate and forge new ground on its own in order to discover and exploit the artistic capabilities of the medium. So, yes, I'm definitely looking forward to seeing what the industry leaders have come up with for 3-D character animation -- and looking forward to them sharing that with the community at SIGGRAPH 2009!

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld.

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