Heather Kenyon takes in the CG wonders of SIGGRAPH's expanded Computer Animation Festival, and talks with festival producer Carlye Archibeque about the many programming changes.
This year was the debut of the new and improved, expanded Computer Animation Festival at SIGGRAPH. Held in the brand new Nokia Theater in downtown Los Angeles, the festival was a five-day expansive program featuring panels, special presentations and numerous screenings. I was also lucky enough to be able to speak with Carlye Archibeque, the computer animation festival producer, to get a behind-the-scenes look at this year's new program and her thoughts about the future.
"We didn't so much expand the Electronic Theater as expand the Computer Animation Festival to its proper proportion," explains Archibeque. "The Computer Animation Festival has been comprised of the Electronic Theater (ET) and the Animation Theater (AT) since 1984, when Maxine Brown was the chair of the festival. She changed the name from 'The Film and Video Show,' which was run by Tim DeFanti. So, it's an organic process: a small program, the Film and Video Show, split into two, the Electronic Theater and the Animation Theater; and now the festival has split into three: Competition, Curated and Presentations, all of which fall under the umbrella of the Computer Animation Festival."
Archibeque continued by explaining the selection process: "Because of the breakdown of the festival into these three types of content -- Competition, Curated and Presentations -- there were three tracks for content selection. Competition screenings were chosen by, first, a triage jury, which cut the 800 or so selections down to 600-ish selections. Then the main jury met over a weekend in March and our selections for the competition reels were made. The curated reels like Eye Candy, Schools, and Flash, were chosen specifically by our Curated chair, Sande Scoredos, and her team of curators: Tom Pereira, Adriana Jaroszewicz and Hael Kobayashi. Of course, we all weighed in on our favorites, but ultimately the [curating] team guided the reels. The rest of the presentations were all the amazing work of our director, Jill Smolin, who just showed the community what she loves in digital content as it relates to entertainment."
If SIGGRAPH was going to expand their repertoire, they certainly picked the right year to find an ideal venue. Opened in October of 2007, the 7,100-seat Nokia Theater is absolutely gorgeous. "As we stood in the theater the first time, we knew the project was going to be a lot of hard work just based on getting all of the content to look amazing on a 70-foot screen; but with the team we put together, we all knew it was ultimately doable. Even more obvious, as we looked around the Nokia, was that the theater was the perfect venue to kick off the new incarnation of the Computer Animation Festival. It was a room worthy of a premiere."
The standard of the competition films was excellent. While there was a programming issue with the competition films that I will discuss later, the overall quality and entertainment factor of the seven competition screenings was fantastic. What a joy and triumph. From television pilots and movie trailers, to commercials, to effects work, to looking at the simulation of cloth, to unbelievable student films, I didn't see one dud. There were so many wonderful films that it is hard to single out favorites, but I will try anyway!
Carbon Footprint was created by Matt Lambert, Stefano Salvini, Matt Chandler and Fabio Zaveti at Jellyfish Pictures for the Discovery Networks located in EMEA. This photorealistic recycling message shows the degrading of an aluminum can in exquisite detail over the span of fifty years. Another really funny short with a message was Now Look What You Did – Cigarette, from the animators at Make. Charring adorable rodents was never more humorous than in this over-the-top "what if."
Shatter, created by Kouhei Nakama of Japan, was simply spellbinding. I saw the film three times and I could easily watch it three times more. A study of shiny and reflective objects shattering, it was one of the most artful and fascinating explorations I have ever seen. It looked mesmerizing on the big screen and, while one knew the skill and computing power behind it, it would have looked great projected on a wall at the trendiest of dance clubs.
Speaking of dance clubs... The Chemical Brothers "The Salmon Dance" was one of my favorites! The entire audience was tapping at least one foot by the end. The animated singing fish were fabulous and the blend of animation and live-action perfect. The live-action actor was also great! Going from being puzzled to awestruck to absolute flat out disbelief, one could tell it was a night he would never forget. The piece was created by industry leader Framestore. The British company had a show-stopping eight entries in the competition screenings. Another favorite was a commercial they did for Monster.com, "Stork." After it played, there was an audible sigh from the audience. It isn't often that a commercial really inspires and, in fact, touches one emotionally.
If you weren't looking forward to Nickelodeon's Penguins series, based on the hugely successful DreamWorks Madagascar franchise, you would be after seeing the special trailer/sequence from the film Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa that was also in the competition. The acting -- both animated and vocal -- of these birds? Hilarious. Of course, the entire cast is featured in the trailer and all of the animation, dialogue and timing are first class. I went home and re-watched the first film immediately. I am a sucker for those penguins and that lemur King Julian. Unfortunately, we will have to wait until November to see the entire gang's new exploits.
There was an especially high percentage of great student films. In fact, all of the winning films were student films, with the main prizes going to films from schools located in France. I have no idea what the French are feeding their animation students but I wish they would share their secret! Presented by Ken Perlin, the 2008 ACM SIGGRAPH Computer Graphics Achievement Award winner, the awards ceremony was a light and fun event that allowed the filmmakers to take the stage and be recognized.
The Student Prize went to 893 from Eric Toubal, Yves D'Incau, Thomas Castellani and Clement Renaudin, students at France's infamous Supinfocom. This group can handle the technical aspects of animation like no one's business. I really think they are probably all forty-year-olds in disguise. How can they be so young and yet so absolutely adept with what appears to be a wide range of technological tools? I am sure this film will be shown in many festivals this upcoming season and I urge you not to miss it, as the subtle changes in animation style and technique throughout the film is really very special.
The Jury Award went to Mauvais Rôle, from ten students at France's École Supérieure de Réalisation Audiovisuelle in Bretagne. This film is filled with inside pop-culture gaming references and tells the story of a put-upon "bad" guy, who breaks out of his traditional video game role to find a new way of life. The jury also gave a special "Well-Told Fable Award" to Our Wonderful Nature. Directed by Tomer Eshed at Germany's Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Potsdam-Babelsberg, this seemingly innocent piece reveals the true mating habits of the European water shrew. Parodying over-the-top action films like The Matrix and Kill Bill, Eshed takes survival of the fittest to a whole new level as these water shrews' quest for love takes on epic kung fu proportions.
The big hit, however, was Oktapodi, which won not only the Audience Prize, but also Best of Show. Six of Gobelins' best teamed up to create this adorable film depicting two octopi in love. Not only is it technically gorgeous, with bright clear design and beautiful animation, but the story-telling -- right down to tiny nuances of animation that endear these creatures to us immediately -- is spot-on as well. I dare anyone to eat ceviche after seeing this. There is not a misstep to be seen as the film breezes along.
Other well-worth-mentioning student films include the clever Blind Spot from Gobelins. This team of six students could easily be hired by Guy Ritchie for storytelling tips. In the tale an elderly lady is framed for a deadly robbery using clever surveillance camera footage. Germany's Derek Roczen produced the pensive and thought-provoking Bärenbraut at Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg, an upcoming favorite school of mine. Another of my favorite films was Bolides, a film from Supinfocom that features the antics of two competitive senior citizens. Their rivalry grows to hallucinogenic extremes and ends in a burst of energy and humor. (I'm not going to give it away!)
Another hugely successful student-made pleaser was Chump and Clump, from Germany's Michael Herm and Stephan Sacher. Someone get these guys a TV deal! I can see them coming up with an idea for Fox, Comedy Central or Spike really soon. The audience was howling. Another lovely film that I hope to see again at other festivals is another Supinfocom beauty, Marin. The design and story are marvelous, made even better with a lovely color palette and CG animation that looks like cut-out animation and models. Fantastic!
So often, student films are based on one joke or are nothing but a set-up for a single payoff. I was happy to see so many excellent student films that told real stories about characters that meant something to the audience. Through deft storytelling and the creation of tone, several of these student works stood out, not just as student works, but as excellent films against any competition.
The Curated Programs, Festival Talks and Studio Nights
The supplemental screenings were excellent as well. The weakest I felt was Schools in Retrospect. The screening did not do many of the schools justice and didn't feature their best work. It looked as though the schools themselves turned in the reels and, as someone who has been watching a lot of these schools for over a decade, I found the work presented to be lacking depth and cohesion. This screening stood out, as it lacked the strong sense of programming and purpose that the others had.
The Nothing But Flash! screening featured a lot of favorites, and I really enjoyed Games: The War Zone. Whereas I was familiar with most of the Flash offerings, I am not so familiar with the latest and greatest in the gaming world. The screening offered a quick look at a wide array of different games. Yes, a lot of the games still revolve around war, but I was heartened to see several games that looked different, not depending on the theater of war to deliver action and suspense. The trailers for Far Cry 2, EA's long-awaited Spore and Sony's Unchartered: Drake's Fortune seemed to show a new future and a diversity that will further broaden gaming's seemingly unstoppable march.
"I was assistant producer on the 2007 festival, when Paul Debevic was the chair (director)," says Archibeque. "He wanted to include games, and asked Habib Zargapour from EA to reach out to all the game companies and make a 5-minute reel of the best examples of current game video he could get a hold of (and permissions to show). The resulting piece was very well-received and this year Tom Pereira, one of our curators, who was also on the '07 team, asked Habib to curate an hour of material to see just how interested people would be in games. Now, due to the great feedback about the games reel, I have a few ideas to build on the gaming content in the festival that I hope will not only be popular with the SIGGRAPH crowd and the public that attends, but that will also educate everyone about game engines, real-time gaming and social games."
Studios: Eye Candy was another entertaining screening showing the latest and the greatest from the big companies. Disney Feature Animation's Glago's Guest and Pixar's latest short Presto were of course big hits, as they should be. I found Glago's Guest to be especially charming and just beautiful to watch. However, the real surprise of the screening was the premiere of Lightstream Animation's trailer for The Fourth Magi. Since leaving ILM, Star Wars veterans Rob Coleman, Jamy Wheless, John Helms and Tim Naylor have launched their own studio. If the trailer is any indication, an interesting new player has entered the field.
A presentation on the creation of this new studio was also one of over twenty panel discussions or Festival Talks. These subjects of these panel discussions ranged from festival favorites like Framestore's "Stork" and big winner Oktapodi, to Hollywood blockbusters like The Mummy, to tributes from current industry experts to animation greats Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. The panel presentations were a massive undertaking and wonderful source of information. They alone would have been an extraordinary event.
"The conference wanted its directors to focus more on content than format," explains Archibeque. "For the Computer Animation Festival, this allowed for the use of panels and talks to not only convey content through film, but to explain its creation and discuss its history and future. The result was festival programming that included two days of 3-D stereoscopic programming and panels, and a daylong class on the history of animation. I felt this was very effective. One could see the screening of Flash films or competition films for example, and then attend the conferences and meet the talent behind the films and ask questions." (The audience questions at SIGGRAPH panels are the most professional, intelligent and well-spoken of those at any event I have ever attended. There is a funny YouTube video that intercuts between Comic Con and SIGGRAPH panel questions, I believe!)
The three Production Studio Nights were also big hits. The most special was the first night's screening of Frédéric Back's The Man Who Planted Trees and discussion featuring Back and John Lasseter. It is so nice to see -- in such a high-tech arena -- attention being paid to imagination and inspiration. A screening of Leslie Iwerks The Pixar Story followed.
The next night Sony Pictures Imageworks took to the stage with a heartfelt tribute to pioneer Stan Winston featuring many special guests and a screening of Terminator 2. LucasFilm closed out the event with an advance screening of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, with legend John Knoll and director Dave Filoni.
Any of these evenings could have been stand-alone sell-out events. The festival really did offer an embarrassment of riches when it came to serving up full days of screenings and panels that featured the best of the best. The festival team truly deserves kudos for balancing the nuts and bolts of tech info with the more mysterious side of filmmaking, those inexplicable factors like talent, inspiration and innovation.
The one complaint voiced by many concerned the way that the competition screenings were programmed. The seven roughly two-hour programs featured many duplicates. So by the time you had seen two programs, you would have seen some of the films two times and others not all. It was maddening. Many people complained that they didn't want to sit through all the duplicates to get to the films that they hadn't yet seen. As a result, many people felt as if they had seen less animation, rather than more.
"The challenge we faced was that we had to find a way to create well-assembled reels that could stand on their own, but at the same time meet the needs of the SIGGRAPH conference attendee. We also had to take into consideration that this was the first year that tickets to the festival were available to the general public, so we had to consider what kind of programming might straddle the line between the 'industry experts' and the 'industry-interested' festival attendee," says Archibeque.
I have never seen a festival do this and I believe that the entire selection of competition films could have been condensed into two or three very strong programs, which could have repeated numerous times. This would have been much easier to fit into everyone's schedule. With only two or three concentrated competition screenings, people would have had more time for the panels, rather than sitting through numerous screenings in the hopes of seeing that one last nominated film.
I sat through three competition screenings -- seeing some films three times and then missing others that were indeed nominated. I never did see Al Dente; by the time it came up, I just didn't have the heart to sit through almost one hour of duplicates. Let's face it -- there is too much to do and see at SIGGRAPH. Who wants to spend their time seeing a film for the fourth time when you could be seeing another facet of the massive conference? It seems so counterproductive -- to put on fascinating panels and talks and then wrap people up in a theater to watch seven slightly different programs. It was as if the programmers expected everyone to see just one competition program and not be concerned with seeing the entire lineup. Sometimes seeing a film multiple times is nice and the quality was such that all the films were certainly watchable multiple times but still... enough is enough.
I asked Archibeque whether or not they would consider taking this approach next year and she was open to the suggestion, stating, "We are still evolving and working on some programming ideas that will retain the best changes of this year's festival and hopefully address any of the regular attendees' concerns. We will certainly consider that as an option, but no concrete plans have been made for any of the changes or improvements we will be making." So, SIGGRAPH members -- voice your opinions now!
Regardless of the programming issue, I had a wonderful time at the festival. I love settling into a theater and preparing for a good solid day of animation, and for this the Computer Animation Festival delivered. While the effectiveness of the competition screenings waned as the festival went on, the first few days were sublime.
"It's one of the great pleasures of programming the festival that you are free to design your content and you have a whole world of digital imaging marvels to choose from. Due to the 'technology meets art' nature of the festival, it's fun to push the limits of where art and technology part ways, if it ever does," says Archibeque.
Ever since the World Animation Celebration left Los Angeles, most of us animation junkies are left to seek out smaller, one-evening affairs, at the Academy, American Cinematheque, ASIFA and Redcat, and dream and wait for feasts like Ottawa and Annecy. This was a rare banquet, and the organizers seem very open and interested in hearing feedback to make next year even better. "Come to New Orleans!" Archibeque enthuses. "Think: visual music in the birthplace of jazz!"
Heather Kenyon is currently a consultant specializing in animation and children's media. She is the former senior director of development, original series at Cartoon Network, where she focused on the development of animated comedy, comedy adventure, action adventure and live-action series for children 6-11 years old. Prior to joining Cartoon Network, she was editor-in-chief of Animation World Network. A graduate of the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, Kenyon began her career in animation at Hanna-Barbera Cartoons.