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SIGGRAPH 2018: A Chat with Computer Animation Festival Director Larry Bafia

Ahead of this year’s SIGGRAPH Conference, Computer Animation Festival director Larry Bafia reflects on his experiences heading up this year’s edition, and dishes up some sage advice for first-time attendees.

DreamWorks Animation’s ‘Bilby,’ directed by Liron Topaz, Pierre Perifel and JP Sans, was given the Jury Award at the 2018 SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Festival.

The SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Festival started as an annual showcase of advances in computer graphics and since then has come to celebrate the rise of computer graphics as a medium for storytelling, not just in animation, but also in visual effects for movies and games. In-line with the 2018 conference theme of “Generations,” this year’s Electronic Theater lineup is poised to epitomize a next-generation showcase of 25 short films selected from more than 400 submissions. Attendance is a fundamental part of the SIGGRAPH Conference experience, and this year is no different.

Though newer than the Electronic Theater, the 2018 Computer Animation Festival VR Theater promises to pack just as much punch. In its second year, the VR Theater will present daily ticketed screenings -- expanded from 25 to 32 seats each -- along with individual kiosk programming, culled from more than 30 global submissions.

The SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Festival is recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as a qualifying festival. An internationally recognized jury receives hundreds of submissions and presents the best work of the year, with awards for Best in Show, Jury’s Choice and Best Student Project. Since 1999, several works that were originally presented in the Computer Animation Festival have been nominated for or have received a Best Animated Short Academy Award. Winners of this year’s Computer Animation Festival competition include MoPA short Hybrids (Best in Show), Supinfocom’s Overrun (Best Student Project), and DreamWorks Animation’s Bilby (Jury Award).

Ahead of SIGGRAPH 2018, running August 12-16 in Vancouver, AWN had a chance to chat with Computer Animation Festival director, Larry Bafia, as he reflected back on his experiences and the selection process, and dished up some sage advice for first-time attendees.

An animator who works across a wide range of mediums, Bafia is currently a faculty member of the Master of Digital Media Program at the Centre for Digital Media in Vancouver, as well as heading up his animation company Blam! Animation as Creative Director. Previously, from 2003 through 2008, he served as Department Head of Animation and Visual Effects at the Vancouver Film School.

MoPA short ‘Hybrids’ won Best in Show at the 2018 SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Festival.

Bafia started his career in stop-motion with Claymation specialists Will Vinton Studios, where he worked on various iconic projects such as the California Raisins, Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker, and The Globeheads before moving into computer graphics. While part of the Vinton CG commercial group, Bafia animated characters for Chips Ahoy!, Raid and Fanta.

During a seven-year tenure as Commercial Animation Director at PDI/DreamWorks, Bafia directed commercials for many top clients including Coca-Cola, Sega and Target, and worked as Sequence Lead Animator on several hit films including Antz, Batman & Robin, A Simple Wish. He was also was on the effects team for Mission Impossible II, Forces of Nature & The Peacemaker. At Warner Bros. Bafia served as Lead Animator for the stop-motion department on Tim Burton’s feature Mars Attacks.

Read the entire Q&A, which has been lightly edited for clarity and length, below:

AWN: How many countries are represented in this year’s Computer Animation Festival?

Larry Bafia: This year, We have a program of 25 projects in the Electronic Theater, and 14 projects in the VR Theater. We got 425 submissions this year, and out of that there’s probably two dozen countries that had submitted and, based on that, between the Electronic Theater and the VR Theater, we probably have about 20 countries represented -- 11 in the VR Theater and nine in the Electronic Theater.

AWN: How does the Computer Animation Festival lineup tie in with the Conference theme of “Generations”?

LB: We were really looking for a spectrum of work that related to the idea of Generations. For the pre-show on Monday night, when we have the big half-hour awards ceremony right before the Electronic Theater selections screen for the first time, I contacted a local composer. He’s actually a colleague of mine down at the Centre for Digital Media, and he wrote an original piece of music along with a couple of Taiko drummers and then I went through the SIGGRAPH archives and along with our editor, we started pulling shots from 1994 all the way up to the present.

We have a preface covering some of the highlights in character animation throughout the years, as well as all sorts of advances in software and techniques, and those were the kind of things that I mentioned to the jury that we were kind of looking for a good spectrum of pieces that go all over the place so we’re not just doing all photorealistic or we’re not doing all stylized or it’s not one style of character animation or visual effects.

Directed by Pierre Ropars, Antonin Derory, Diane Thirault, Jérémie Cottard, Matthieu Druaud and Adrien Zumbihl, Supinfocom short ‘Overrun’ was awarded Best Student Short.

AWN: Talk about the selection process. How do you strike a balance between student, indie and studio work?

LB: With big submissions of 400 to 500 projects, we start with a committee that goes through a triage. There were about 15 of us viewing all of the submissions coming through. Then, when the deadline hit, we tallied up all the votes and I went through top 100 pieces that scored the highest. From that pool, I curated 77 to take to the jury. And what I was looking for there was to make sure that there was a balance between large studios and independents, as well as making sure that the schools were represented. So out of that, I think we got five student pieces in the show, and two of them turned out to be award winners.

SIGGRAPH means so many things to some many people, and that’s a big part of what makes it different from other festivals. Because no two people have the same experience at SIGGRAPH, we have to look at a broader spectrum of the work. We really wanted to be very accepting of student work and understanding of the limited resources they sometimes have -- although, I would have to say that one thing that’s really been catching my attention is the fact that the production quality of student work is very, very high these days. Hats off to the schools doing a great job.

2018 SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Festival director Larry Bafia.

When we went to jury many of the jury members wanted to look at things at face value and not just look at it as a slick production and that’s what should go into SIGGRAPH, but we focused a lot on narrative and performance and then also looked at the style of the piece and looked for a good execution of that style. So we weren’t putting, say, a studio, well-rendered with an army of people working on a production up against, say, a group of five students. The best you can do when you’re trying to strike that balance is to keep an open mind and look at the face value of each individual piece.

AWN: The Computer Animation Festival is a big deal. It’s an Oscar-qualifying festival. But it’s also a little different than other festivals, it’s unique in that it’s all done behind-the-scenes and then it comes together to display the final set of winners at the actual event.

LB: Yeah, and I have to say the jury took it very, very seriously. In fact, we had discussions and we literally set aside extra time on the jury weekend that we had at Disney so that everyone walked away confident that those were the picks. Those were the award winners that we wanted representing the 2018 CAF. So with that in mind, we started the jury weekend with a long discussion about quality and narrative and everything that I was talking about as far as the things we were looking for in Generations. And so that was sort of the intro before we started looking at any of the work.

We also decided that there were slates that came up but unless you read all of the slates, sometimes you wouldn’t know whether you were looking at a student piece or an independent piece, what have you. So, once again, they were looking at it at face value. It’s no different than, say, going to a cineplex and watching a feature film and you admire all the production values and the story and the performances and you might recognize some of the stars or what have you, but there’s always that little gut feeling where you know there’s a little something special. Sometimes it’s indescribable. Sometimes you can really feel it in some groundbreaking performance or a new technique or a good way of storytelling that you thought had a nice hook.

So there’s always something in there that kind of gives you that nudge that, yeah, that’s a winner. That’s something that really should be recognized at that level.

AWN: You’ve been coming to SIGGRAPH for a long time, obviously -- How long have you been attending, and what’s your experience been over the years?

LB: I started going to SIGGRAPH early 90s. The first one I attended was in Orlando. Will Vinton Studios sent a group of us because at that point, even though we were still doing a lot of Claymation, we were also getting more into programming motion control. A number of us were playing around with a couple of video toasters as well as some PCs with Animation:Master to see if we could do some commercial work with that. But we had absolutely no pipeline. So we went...

I went to my first SIGGRAPH to actually walk through the expo floor and just be kind of blown away by hardware and software vendors and all the things that we being offered in this computer graphics world that was relatively unfamiliar to me.

Since then, you know I’ve been trying to attend as many SIGGRAPH conferences as possible so I feel like my career in computer graphics kind of grew up with attending those conferences, really seeing what’s on the cutting edge, learning more and more about how a production gets put together and that kind of led up to me ending up at PDI/DreamWorks and continuing the work there. We were even submitting to the Electronic Theater at that point.

So I think every year, whether you’re attending SIGGRAPH or not -- and I would have to say the same thing about Annecy and some of the other festivals -- is even when you’re not there, it’s on your mind. You know what’s going on there and you know that it’s the world’s stage for this kind of work, and these sorts of techniques so you’re always looking for the notes that come out of these things. The big takeaways. And that’s what’s going to drive you ahead for another year.

AWN: Speaking of takeaways, what can people look forward to seeing this year?

LB: The experience always includes a lot of great stuff. A couple of things that are always exciting for me include some of the things that I’m seeing coming out of the Emerging Technologies program, for example, and all of the techniques that game companies have been using for years, integrating that into visual effects and animation were you’re starting to get real-time rendering and real-time layouts, just an immediate response, whereas back in the day -- speaking of Generations -- there was just the idea of coming back the next the day and hoping that you had a really nice render of something you’ve been working on for a long time. Now you get this instant feedback. And a lot of that’s starting to show up in the Immersive Pavilion as well, where there’s all sorts of VR and AR experiences. And I think those sorts of things are going to move filmmaking and how we experience all of these stories in a big way.

AWN: Tell us about your work with SPARK CG and how that is tied in with this year’s Conference and Festival.

LB: SPARK CG has always been an active player in enjoying and promoting the SIGGRAPH Conference. SPARK and the animation and visual effects conferences started with the local Vancouver chapter, and I was a member of the chapter at the time, so I was asked to moderate the first visual effects panel that we had, and then that same year, just before we were heading to SIGGRAPH, I was asked to chair the first animation conference. So a lot of the speakers that I invited to the first SPARK literally came out of some of the presentations, and some of the conversations, that I had at that SIGGRAPH in LA.

So over the past 10 years, SPARK has been directly involved with SIGGRAPH. They’re shoulder-to-shoulder with the local Conference. We were very proactive in encouraging SIGGRAPH to consider Vancouver as a venue, as well as trying to pull the community into being active in SIGGRAPH, whether it was visual effects, or the animation studios, or the game studios.

Through the years, I’d say SPARK has been right there with SIGGRAPH, and, in fact, it’s recognized as one of the official small festivals through ACM SIGGRAPH. Last year in LA we spent a lot of it promoting this year’s Conference, and a number of SPARK volunteers were also doing video interviews and promotional events in LA, as well community outreach.

AWN: You’ve worked in the industry for years, and you’ve been teaching since at least 2003. You’re also a longtime SIGGRAPH attendee. What do you get from attending SIGGRAPH that you’re able to bring back to the classroom?

LB: Well, I always look for the trends in that particular year and how things are advancing. And then also, like in any other business in education, you’re also looking at the other schools and seeing how they’re advancing and bring that back, and that in itself -- talking about those things -- is a good way to help motivate your students to push a little harder and shoot for conferences and festivals at this level.

This particular year also gave me an opportunity to create some experiences for some of our students as well as some of the alumni from the Centre for Digital Media because about 90 percent of my subcommittee is actually made up of students and former students, and they’ve actually built the entire VR Theater experience. So the virtual world that you see when you put on the headsets to watch the films, that was created by a student team, and we’re also going to be projection mapping the theater when you walk in. So as soon as you step through the doors of the theater, you’re in a different world, and all that was all done through a group of students at the schools.

Since last November, I’ve been helping them to understand the experience of what’s possible at SIGGRAPH and what they could present to the world. So it made them very excited because only a couple of them have ever attended SIGGRAPH.

AWN: Last question -- SIGGRAPH  can be overwhelming to even seasoned attendees. Do you have any recommendations for first-timers?

LB: I would say pace yourself. As you know, it’s a very robust program and you can go in all sorts of directions. A lot of work was done on the official app this year to include scheduling and the ability to create your own experience through the week. So take some time to explore the app.

One thing I usually do is that whenever I would I get into town -- on the Friday or Saturday just before the conference -- I sit down and map out the things of interest to me as well as would be most beneficial with the idea of taking something back home that you know you can apply to your own work. And kind of pacing it out through the week ‘cause, as you know, you can be pulled in all sorts of directions at SIGGRAPH.

Jennifer Wolfe's picture

Formerly Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network, Jennifer Wolfe has worked in the Media & Entertainment industry as a writer and PR professional since 2003.