SIGGRAPH 2008: 'Managing the Creative Environment'

Bill Desowitz returns from last week's SIGGRAPH 2008 in L.A. with a few highlights and observations.

SIGGRAPH 2008 showed less glitz and emphasized organizational precision and the freeing up the artistic process. All images courtesy of SIGGRAPH.

SIGGRAPH 2008 showed less glitz and emphasized organizational precision and the freeing up the artistic process. All images courtesy of SIGGRAPH.

SIGGRAPH 2008 kicked off last week in L.A. with an insightful address by Ed Catmull about "Managing the Creative Environment." The Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios president -- truly the Yoda of the CG industry -- posed a question about which is more important: Good people or good ideas? He then proceeded to explain why the former is more important by recounting the ups and downs throughout the history of Pixar and what he's learned about managing people as well as technology and storytelling. It's a wise story that we could all benefit from. Catmull and his Pixar colleagues have built an extraordinary culture and community that is healthy and vibrant. The idea is not to let a company "go off the rails." Catmull believes organizations are inherently unstable. Now that he's taken over Disney as well, he's still learning and still introspective. But you still need to establish a set of principles and challenge the status quo, and build the capacity to recover from failure. The real secret: "Be honest."

Well, as I made my way through SIGGRAPH last week, taking meetings, checking out the latest tools throughout the exhibition hall, viewing some of the demos, conducting interviews and even moderating a Speed Racer panel as part of the expanded Computer Animation Festival, I couldn't stop thinking about Catmull's address and how it pertains to the industry as a whole. Just judging by the smaller size (by L.A. standards), 28,000 vs. 24,000 in San Diego last year, you can sense that the industry is going through a leaner and meaner phase -- less glitz and more attention to organizational precision and freeing up the artistic process. And that's exactly what the message was over and over again, whether it was from an industry heavyweight or a new startup. I got such a kick out of running into Massive's Stephen Regelous in the hall and listening to him excitedly describe how WALL•E used his industry-leading, AI-based animation solution in such creative ways for the crowds of robots aboard The Axiom.

Yes, there were plenty of exciting new developments, including many from Autodesk, not surprisingly, such as 2009 editions of Maya, MotionBuilder and Mudbox; Softimage's XSI 7 with new ICE technology; mental ray 3.7; NVIDIA's new CUDA-laden Quadro Plex visual computing systems along with the launch of Quadro FX mobile GPUs; HP's introduction of a new mobile workstation, the EliteBook 8730w, with a DreamColor display option; Massive 3.5; and MAXON's fully-loaded CINEMA 4D R11. And there were many others, of course, that we've already noted on VFXWorld. However, the overarching theme again at this year's SIGGRAPH was maximizing productivity, optimizing workflows and providing new creative possibilities.

And at Autodesk, they continue to pave the way in this regard, in addition to taking the lead in providing full stereoscopic production solutions in their 2009 offerings of Maya (where you can view 3-D in the viewport), Toxik (where you can work with left and right eye layers) and Lustre (where you can do stereo color grading).

"CG is the real drive for 3-D," asserted Autodesk's Maurice Patel. "[What is required] is more flexibility and control. It's a workflow problem: making the right decisions along the way. It's akin to color management. We need applications through the pipeline that speak a common language. There are no standards. Stereo is an integral part of the story. We are trying to make that easier. The stereo roadmap is important to see where it's going."

Ed Catmull.

Ed Catmull.

Rob Engle, who is the 3-D guru at Sony Pictures Imageworks, and who organized the SIGGRAPH panels devoted to the topic, admitted that 3-D viewport functionality in Maya 2009 is an outgrowth of what they did on Beowulf with Disney-supported analglyph display. "How do you bring 3-D into the production mindset? It's a transformative technology. And you can't think in 2-D."

Engle said he experienced stimulating dinner conversation with several of his colleagues from DreamWorks, Pixar, Blue Sky and Imagemovers. "We all recognize that for us to be successful there has to be good experiences." We trade ideas. We believe it is a revolutionary experience. Know your audience, but we don't want to give 3-D a bad name. It's representational of a real world so far, but there is so much more to explore."

Meanwhile, Imageworks is evolving and expanding in India and New Mexico, with Bob Osher as the new head of Sony Digital. But Imageworks President Tim Sarnoff stressed that sharing the workload with New Mexico and India will allow for a much more open and robust pipeline, and that Autodesk is helping in this regard. Plus, the recently announced partnership between Sony's IPAX education program with Animation Mentor should help launch an invaluable online mentorship. Sony's Barry Weiss (the IPAX chair) said it's the first give-back from IPAX. For example, "students at the University of New Mexico talking to MIT talking to Animation Mentor."

Animation Mentor Co-Founder Bobby Beck added that it was quite an endorsement for Sony to embrace their model. "We can teach a variety of disciplines [including story and vfx]. It's a test platform mentorship program with Sony employees to pair them up with our platform."

And while the "Emily" CG demo was wowing visitors at the Image Metrics booth, the company divulged that it has launched a self-service beta program with space for six key vfx studios (to be named later). The studios will provide the videos and Image Metrics will supply the technical/analytical part. This way the studios don't have to supply their IP for animation retargeting. Image Metrics then provides animation curve data that plugs into Maya. This will help Image Metrics shape its markerless facial animation solutions before rolling it out commercially.

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The "Emily" CG demo showed off Image Metrics' markerless facial animation solution.

I also caught up with Mike Fink, the Oscar-winning vfx supervisor of The Golden Compass, who recently joined Frantic Films as president of visual effects. He talked about joining an up and coming visual effects boutique with deeper resources now that it has been acquired by India-based Prime Focus Group.

"I wanted to be at a facility that had a good core knowledge of software. It could be small, but I wanted to make sure that we could take care of a client's needs and weren't trying to do everything off the shelf and weren't trying to build something from scratch. So I was looking for that and I was looking for somebody with a good reputation and with experience in all the areas that I have experience in and wanting to grow because I really wanted to be at a place that could grow. What happened is that Chris Bond sent me an email one day when I was working on Tropic Thunder and said I haven't seen you since you got back from London, we should get together, so we did. And he told me about the purchase of Frantic by Prime Focus and what that meant for Frantic and would I be interested. I met the guys, saw the place in India. I was really impressed. All they're lacking is experience in infrastructure and pipelines and fine tuning shots. It feels to me like when I went to the U.K. in 1994. Prime Focus has 600 people doing visual effects in four facilities in India. We're working on a new model for Frantic. I was really proud of the work they did on Journey to the Center of the Earth]. It is very difficult to do 3-D well with water and with interaction between CG characters. In fact, that was one of the things that helped get me to Frantic. I really liked the idea of a global company. There are swells in this business and [we] can shift from one place to the other [L.A., the U.K. and India]. We've done a little bit of that so far, but it hasn't really been implemented. So my job at Frantic will be supervising supervisors."

And I chatted with long-time Disney producer Don Hahn (Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King), who appeared on two panels: a tribute to Frank & Ollie and "The Future of Character Animation." Hahn has emerged from a year-long sabbatical in which he's written a new book about modern animation at Disney and Pixar titled The Alchemy of Animation (to be published Oct. 7 from Disney Editions), and is going to produce the feature-length version of Frankenweenie with Tim Burton.

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"Arts education is really important to me and I'm very inspired by the work of Frank & Ollie and Joe Grant. It certainly helped me out and I always admire that they passed on the information. And I'm no Frank & Ollie, believe me, but I've been surrounded by some pretty amazing artists and musicians and filmmakers and editors. I wanted to do a book for young high school students and college kids who are searching to figure out how they belong in this industry: Am I a rigger, a modeler, a skinner? It was a chance to share the inside information on how a movie comes together. The last book I did was about 2D animation. Of course, now I certainly wanted to include 3D, but I also wanted to put in stop motion because everybody is doing stop motion. There's such an immediacy to being able to move a puppet and flip off a frame, move a puppet and flip off a frame, that you can see your work right in front of you and you can touch it and sleep with it and it's right there. I think that kind of hand-crafted, tactile quality is [wonderful].

"Frankenweenie is in development right now. Tim's working on it. There's some amazing stop motion guys out there and all these movies are done for no money these days because it's such a difficult medium, but, luckily, there are enough people that love the medium and want to show up and do it. With Tim doing a movie, my phone rings almost every week with someone who wants to know about it. Even here [at SIGGRAPH], old friends walk up to me and want to know when it starts. I think it will be very similar to Corpse Bride in that Tim will direct it and we'll bring in an animation director that drives the day to day on the set. It's clearly Tim's movie and his story. We're just doing development and trying to get the team together and Tim is working on Alice in Wonderland at the same time. This is a hybrid and I'm not working on it, but I'm really excited to see what Tim does with it because now that the MoCap tools are so common, you're going to start to see Tim or Peter Jackson doing some really great stuff."

Then I told Hahn about the Catmull address, which he missed, and he just beamed. He suggested that Catmull and John Lasseter are slowly turning Disney around and that, yes, it's all about "managing the creative environment."

Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.

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