The best of everything our industry has to offer, and then some, comes together every May at this powerhouse event in Stuttgart.
It's curious to analyze the growth of FMX, both in prestige and program diversity, certainly within the context of the decline in scope and size of other festivals and conferences within the animation, visual effects and gaming space.
While I have no evidence to support my theory besides my own travels and discussions with colleagues, I would venture to say that in the last 10 years, between the rise of the Internet and a couple of economic downturns, attendance at many events has steadily declined. Many otherwise excellent events have closed up shop altogether. A decade ago (maybe more) I remember a NATPE (National Assn. of Television Production Executives) show in New Orleans that filled the entire convention center -- the line to get the Warrior Princess Xena's (Lucy Lawless) autograph stretched hundreds long, out the door and down the Riverwalk to the mighty Mississippi River. Regis and Kathy Lee broadcast their show from the floor that year, which certainly attested to the event's size and, at the time, impact on and importance to international broadcast and cable TV programming and distribution. Today, unfortunately, the NATPE event, while still an important destination, only occupies a small space at Las Vegas' Mandalay Bay.
Since the Internet has revolutionized the instantaneous dissemination of news and information, with social networking and mobile communication enslaving a generation of creative-types to the addictions of the immediate "shared experience," as well as the simple and cost-effective distribution of hardware specs and white papers, software demos and full versions with supportive documentation, there is little need or economic justification to send reams of staff thousands of miles to sit and play with the latest industry wares and vaporware. Except, of course, if it's the latest Apple electro-trinket, which justifies any trip to any destination for a look-see and group hug.
A couple browser clicks and you can pretty much see any new short film, video clip or trailer, technical spec, “behind the scenes” look or promo piece made by anyone, anywhere about anything. And while, of course, few would argue that there is no substitute for watching films in a big theatre at a festival with a live, drunk and otherwise jacked up audience, I would argue that many of the reasons why an event that used to rally 50,000 participants which now boasts 5,000 participants lay in the fact that there is little economic justification for most businesses to send their people all over the globe in droves when that same experience and benefit can be had while people sit at home in their pajamas drinking Red Bull or scotch. Or both.
So, gross generalities aside, just how are we supposed to judge the "goodness" or value of attending a given event, when there are so many different paths and goals for everyone in attendance and the personal development and economic justifications are often difficult to quantify?
For some, getting an opportunity to have one important meeting or forge one key contact is infinitely more valuable than the cost of flying halfway around the world and suffering the indignities of an $8 convention floor hot dog or a thumb-scalding tray of nachos -- or, for our friends across the pond, waiting in line at a kiosk while a bleary eyed teen finishes his unfiltered cigarette and espresso so he can finally hand you an 8 euro baguette cradling one slice of cheese, one slice of pork fat and 64 cornichons.
My point, you ask? Well, my point is that for every demonstrable and quantifiable reason for attending industry events, there are a number of important qualitative and less overtly tangible reasons to attend. This duality shows why FMX is such an important event. On one hand, the sheer volume of carefully programmed presentations, workshops, panels and demonstrations provides an abundance of valuable information for attendees. On the other hand, the opportunity to actually meet, network and forge relationships with key people at so many well known companies is virtually unmatched anywhere else in the world.
As the event's chair and leader, Dr. Thomas Haegele, sees it, FMX provides participants "the opportunity to hear and learn about everything new, but equally important is the opportunity to see and be seen, to meet people, to present projects, to find like-minded colleagues, to exchange ideas."
FMX has always been known for providing attendees with an overabundance of conference riches -- the most common "complaint" you always hear about is the constant struggle to attend everything people want to see. The Rolling Stones complained "You Can't Always Get What You Want" and at a typical FMX, when it comes to scheduling your days, that's certainly the case. However, it's safe to say what you do end up "getting" is always much more than "what you need."
If the heart of FMX is the staggering volume of high octane conference programming, then the soul is the tremendously inviting and homey "vibe" that envelops the event. We have Dr. Haegele, his wife and general manager Renate and their hard working, highly efficient and always cheerful staff to thank for that. FMX is as high profile a gathering of top creative professionals, educators, technology mavens, recruiters and students as you will find anywhere -- the density of talent is unmatched and the feeling that you're part of something unique is palpable. As you're running from one session to the next, you realize that you're listening to, talking to or bumping into the creators of a large percentage of the most recognizable, sophisticated, challenging and commercially successful entertainment on the planet. How can you not feel you're part of something quite special?
Dr. Haegle summed up the event this way: "We try to give an overview of all the new things that have happened over the last year with regard to visual arts, global production, science and technology. We are happy to have great speakers from big and small companies alike, willing to share their experiences and their knowledge. And we have all this in a wonderful setting that allows everybody to freely exchange experiences, to network and to celebrate."
This year's event boasts a stellar lineup of presentations, panel discussions, workshops, screenings and exhibits -- the visible support from funding partners, industry partners, media partners and technology partners seems as strong or stronger than in previous years, which is no small feat given the current state of the global economy.
A quick perusal of the published schedule finds four packed days of programming. The conference schedule includes tracks covering animation, visual effects, gaming and crossmedia. Some notable animation sessions include presentations by DreamWorks' Simon Otto on How To Train Your Dragon, Disney's Leo Sanchez Barbosa and Mark Hammel on Tangled, Disney's Bruce Smith on Princess and the Frog, Studio Soi's Jakob Schuh on The Gruffalo and Aardman's Bram Ttwheam and Dave Alex Riddett on A Matter of Loaf and Death.
The VFX sessions are truly stunning in their breadth and depth. There are multiple presentations on Avatar, of course, including sessions by vfx supervisor John Bruno and head of layout and animation technologies Shawn Dunn, both from Weta, as well as animation supervisor Paul Kavanagh of ILM. Meanwhile, ILM visual effects supervisor Ben Snow explores the highly anticipated Iron Man 2, vfx supervisor Ben Grossman of The Syndicate / CafeFX presents on Shutter Island and vfx supervisor Dan Kaufman discusses District 9. There are also three presentations on 2012, presentations on Where The Wild Things Are, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, as well as a session on the stunning work that flows from Poland's Platige Image studio. There are also presentations on content as diverse as the TV crime show Jerry Cotton and digital horned slugs done for the film Splice.
The new crossmedia program, dealing with convergence across film, TV, computers, games and mobile, boasts presentations by legendary vfx supervisor Ken Ralston, of Sony Pictures Imageworks, on Alice in Wonderland and Technicolor Digital's president Tim Sarnoff talking about true global production and distribution pipelines, as well as more than a dozen other sessions.
There are 10 sessions on gaming, ranging from visual story and art direction, to social games and interactive development, presented by representatives from such studios as Electronic Arts, THQ, Sony, Blitz and Rocksteady.
Kevin Todd Haug (Quantum of Solace, The Kite Runner, Fight Club) is presenting a VFX Design and Supervision Masterclass. Author, VFX Specialist and AWN Expert Blogger Joseph Gilland will present "Elemental Magic -- The Art of Special Effects Animation," while the always insightful Ed Hooks returns with "Acting for Animators," a program he presents around the world that should be a requirement for everyone even remotely involved with animation.
Special programs, a sort of "event within an event," include the flashconference and 5D Conference. 5D: The Future of Immersive Design is a global community of creative thinkers committed to exploring the vital role of design in the new collaborative and multi-disciplinary process of digital creation in all narrative media. A full-day program set for Friday, May 7, the 5D Conference was co-curated by and will be co-hosted by the stellar production designer Alex McDowell (along with Tali Krakowsky), one of the conference's founders and a leading feature film visual designer. 5D offers a progressive platform for discourse on the present and future of immersive design, and its impact on all aspects of the creative media space, by engaging creative collaborators working in a broad spectrum of disciplines and media. Its goal is to unite this vital community of designers and image-makers and to serve as a catalyst for innovation.
If that's not enough, there are special job and recruitment sessions, a number of specially curated screenings, including AWN's own president Ron Diamond presenting the annual Animation Show of Shows, DreamWorks' Shelley Page presenting her annual Shelley's Eye Candy program, plus SIGGRAPH's Computer Animation Festival "Best of" presented by Terrence Masson, who also is the SIGGRAPH 2010 conference chair.
A trip to FMX 2010, May 4-7, offers a chance to immerse oneself in any number of industry threads, to meet extraordinary talent while sharing a beer and a pretzel roll (paired with boysenberry jam, one of the eight wonders of the world), to soak up the non-stop energy and is a trip more than worth the price of admission.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.