SIGGRAPH 2003: Less Wow, More Refinement

VFXWorlds Bill Desowitz found SIGGRAPH 2003 less wow inducing than other years, but he gained a wider appreciation for the future of 3D visualization than ever before.

The hordes converge on the convention floor. All photos unless otherwise marked © SIGGRAPH.

The first thing you noticed about SIGGRAPH 2003 when surveying the booths at the San Diego Convention Center was how energized and comfortable it was. Attendance was up from last years excursion in hot and humid San Antonio (reportedly 24,332), yet it didnt feel crowded or claustrophobic. Yes, the number of exhibitors has dwindled in recent years and the booths may not be as large and as spectacular as in the past (there were even less goodies available, but Pixar won hands down with its popular Finding Nemo posters and collectible walking teapots). Still, there appeared to be greater diversity on the floor, which is a very good sign that 3D visualization is becoming more and more widespread and a lot more affordable.

Cheaper, quicker and more powerful best described the atmosphere, which is not a bad thing. Its where the industry is at right now. SIGGRAPH 2003 was all about refinement of hardware and software capabilities by the big boys to answer the needs of studios and artists, and to counter the plethora of plug-ins. In the same vein, it was also about consolidation of functionality to simplify pipelines. On the other hand, SIGGRAPH 2003 was dedicated to more mass-market accessibility. In other words, less wow but strategic planning that makes both creative and economic sense.

Thats not to say there werent noteworthy developments from companies large and small. Alias Maya 5 offers a whole slew of rendering enhancements (including native support for mental ray and the ability to choose among four native renderers). Side Effects Houdini 6 delivers significant productivity and efficiency gains via digital assets and enhancements in global illumination, among other things. Discreets 3ds max 6 boasts advanced schematics for mental ray, vertex color painting, design visualization tools and other CAD-related solutions. New Teks LightWave 3D 7.5 allows for more direct manipulation of bones during rendering. Kaydaras MotionBuilder 5.0 features a redesigned Storytelling Timeline that combines 3D animation with audio, video and camera shots. Version 1.2 of SplutterFishs Brazil Rendering System provides a more stable and robust rendering toolset for added cross visualization throughout various markets.

Visitors check out the new develops from 3Dlabs.

But to have Stan Winston proclaim in a user group that everyone should learn Softimage|XSI gave the Canadian company SIGGRAPH bragging rights, especially on the heels of Animal Logic converting its pipeline from Maya to Softimage|XSI during mid-production of George Millers upcoming Happy Feet. Version 3.5 includes increased efficiency and accelerated productivity for the increasingly popular 3D production pipeline software. Plus on the gaming side, Softimage|XSI now allows heavy geometry with greater mapping, helping to close the gap between movies and gaming. Meanwhile, on the hardware side, AMDs new 64-bit Opteron servers and workstations were a standout in terms of their previsualization assistance on the upcoming Star Wars: Episode III (performed by George Lucas JAK Films).

Martian Hydrous Tools on display at the show were used on X-Men 2. Photo credit: CINESITE.

Not surprisingly, one of the standout trends this year was in the area of fluid dynamics. Frantic Films is offering one such tool, as is Next Limit of Madrid (Realflow 2.5) and Martian Labs, which specializes in ocean surface software with its Martian Hydrous Tools that was used in X-Men 2.

However, The biggest buzz centered on the trend toward hardware accelerated rendering within the GPU industry, spearheaded by NVIDIA and ATI. With the ability to make fully shaded objects in realtime along with other lighting effects, that means more productivity and higher quality output for video imaging. Not surprisingly, a number of beneficial partnerships are emerging. For instance, NVIDIA accelerates film production using partner tools running on the new, programmable Quadro FX 3000 series of professional graphics solutions, including a high dynamic range image playback system by Industrial Light & Magic, the aforementioned new fluid dynamics tool by Frantic Films, a new color correction tool by IRIDAS and a new previsualization tool jointly developed by Digital Studios and Zoic Studios.

The work done on The Lord of the Rings is becoming a benchmark in all areas of VFX. All images © 2002 New Line Productions. All rights reserved.

In addition, sophisticated 3D visualization is now more available to manufacturing industries, including medical, automotive and architecture. In fact, one observer pointed out that the newest trend in CAD data repurposing and interactivity is huge. With more manufacturing companies participating at SIGGRAPH, their needs are more like gaming. They want asset management capabilities to help jazz up their CAD models. Thats where NXN and Right Hemisphere come in with their new alliance to bring asset management to design and manufacturing industries. In fact, according to one observer, a manufacturing client actually requested that their work look more like The Lord of the Rings, which is why one of the lessons of SIGGRAPH 2003 is that 3D doesnt have to be hard anymore.

Another was that training has intensified. Not only was there a large educational presence at SIGGRAPH 2003 but there were also several contests as well, including the $1 million NVIDIA Make Something Unreal competition. Sponsored by Epic Games and Digital Extremes, co-creators of the award-winning Unreal game franchise, as well as NVIDIA, Atari and Alias, the contest rewards talents that can create the ultimate modifications to Unreal Tournament 2003 and the upcoming Unreal Tournament 2004.

Recruiting seemed to be brisk as well, as vfx houses and animation studios attempt to staff up during the current upswing in activity. Depending on who you talk to, boutiques are either holding up or outsourcing overseas. Yet nothing could compare to the sight of aspiring animators lining up to drop their resumes and videos into the slot at Blue Sky Studios booth. On the one hand, Blue Sky was thrilled at its newfound prestige and success, thanks to Ice Age. On the other hand, one recruiter sighed as if to suggest that its also just a bit overwhelming too. And what are companies looking for? Rigging and pipeline needs, according to one animation supervisor.

Some visitors were still wowed by some of the wonders at SIGGRAPH.

It all comes down education, doesnt it? And the greatest upswing in representation at SIGGRAPH 2003 was in the education arena. Rochester, Pratt, Ringling, BYU, Cal State Long Beach, Cal State L.A., DMAC, Expressions New Media, University of Central Florida, San Diego State University, Savannah College of Art and Design, The Art Institutes, Media Design School, Bournemouth University, Otis, Full Sail, Oregon 3D all showed up in force, among others. Overall, the schools breakdown into three categories: a training ground for learning about software and creating craftspeople; a more extensive program fostering both left and right brain abilities in which drawing and other animation skills are equally as important or even more so than software training; and research-intensive programs at universities that stress science and engineering as a way of entering entertainment through the back door. Schools still grapple with how to attract students, the optimum age to participate in their programs and at what education level, not to mention what to teach them and how to send them out into the 3D world. Perhaps one educator said it best: Are they about creating technical directors and creative directors, or are they about preparing students for entry level jobs with qualified skill sets?

Bill Desowitz is the editor of VFXWorld.

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