Animation World Magazine, Issue 2.6, September 1997

The Films of SIGGRAPH `97:
A Coming of Age

by Avi Hoffer

This article contains three Quicktime movies: Facade by Paul Debevec, Pets by John Lally and Valerie Mih and Flipbook by Satoshi Kitahara.

A blue-haired girl eats a passenger train in Kutchae!, an animated i.d.
directed by Isao Nishigori for MTV Japan. © 1996 Music Channel Co., Ltd.
A blue-haired girl eats a passenger train in Kutchae!, an animated i.d. directed by Isao Nishigori for MTV Japan.  1996 Music Channel Co., Ltd.

This year's film selections at the SIGGRAPH '97 Electronic Theater in Los Angeles celebrated the expanding diversity of storytelling talent and production technique now possible with software-based animation tools. The "CG" animation genre of the late `80s and early `90s (typically denoting some robotic, overly geometric sci-fi scenario) is giving way to some traditionally-inspired techniques, expressive characterization, and more conceptually provocative filmmaking.

Of this year's screening, Judith Crow, Chair of the Electronic Theater, explained that, "I really wanted to see the collaborations between people in scientific disciplines and artistic disciplines, what kind of work can be spawned from people of these mixtures. It turns out that people don't necessarily make that very explicit, but it's there. It's there in the work. I think this year the work is stronger for all of those teams that people have built up."

The Genres
The animation exhibited can be broken down into roughly four categories which I've labeled for convenience: (1) cool math/eye candy (2) synthetic organics (3) film effects and (4) "old-fashioned" technoid CGI of the type noted earlier.

The "cool math" category typically stretches a series of interesting techniques such as morphing shapes into an entire film by alternating repeating mathematical motion patterns until a hypnotic trance is achieved. While this category might be very popular in a Rave or club setting (i.e. Runners by Kazuma Morino and Steven Churchill's Pellucid Spaces), the abstract lo-cal content quickly wears thin and leaves you hungry for something heartier. At least with films like Facade by Paul Debevec, the audience is made aware that they are watching an animation experiment, illustrating a new technique without any pretense towards the craft of filmmaking. Facade was the direct result of a paper presented at SIGGRAPH `96 which postulated the possibility of generating real-time 3-D graphics on standard hardware with the use of a few spatial photographs for texture. A year later, Paul Debevec's team from UC Berkeley have presented a compelling visual demonstration of their technology using the university campus as a "virtual set." This low-polygon, photo-realistic 3D animation has extremely useful applications in education and entertainment.

ILM's visual effects for The Lost World: Jurassic Park was among the feature film work represented in the festival.  1997 Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment.
ILM's visual effects for The Lost World: Jurassic Park was among the feature film work
represented in the festival. © 1997 Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment.

The same might be said about Tour Into the Picture by Ken Anjyo, which illustrates the use of 2-dimensional photo-realistic textures mapped onto geometric planes in 3D space. The result is akin to a multi-plane animation camera except that the camera is free to roam in any direction creating a dynamic and stylized sense of depth.

The synthetic organic category refers to the filmmakers who use the computers as a tool but are more interested in simulating or improving upon traditional "analog" animation techniques. This category includes one of Judith Crow's personal favorites, Cheerful Country, a student film by Pierre Henon of the ENSAD in France. Says Crow, "The look of it is actually closer to maybe the look of stop-motion. It has the look of film because of the way they process the animation. It is just a lovely piece of story-telling. It's a lovely art piece. It's visually a very, very different work here and very funny, and so it's just an amazing skilled piece of animation. You don't spend all your time thinking about the techniques that were used and being aware of whether this is technically proficient. You're just completely absorbed into the story of it."

Mass Manipulator by Florencia and Pablo Mederico Faivre also captured a distinctive hand-made quality. Somewhat visually inspired by Terry Gilliam, this film portrays a pus-colored fascist dictator literally using the masses as toilet paper. Besides the audience appeal of scatological humor, the film successfully integrates several hybrid styles without calling attention to technical execution.

The film effects category covers the best of digital Hollywood. This years' standouts included shots from the Jurassic Park sequel, Disney's Hercules, Digital Domain's EV-1 commercial, Appliances, which features excited electrical appliances, and a sneak peak at a very convincing computer generated luxury liner from James Cameron's upcoming Titanic. These effect shots drew big applause which shouldn't be surprising given the local Los Angeles crowd, many of whose bread and butter depends on this type of photo-realistic animation and compositing.

Lastly, there were still a few space battles and cyberaction pieces that have long been synonymous with computer animation such as Flipbook by Satoshi Kitahara and Soulblade from Namco. It's very competent work but certainly not cutting edge.

Pets is a student film created at USC by John Lally and Valerie Mih.
Lally currently works at Square USA and Mih works at Pixar.

An Exciting Time to be 3D
Thankfully, the real vanguard of digital animation is combining both the technology of the future and the rich techniques of the past to create powerfully executed, well-conceived films. Judith Crow adds that, "I suspect that students are now getting a lot of training, and they're getting a lot of input on traditional animation techniques. They're not just thinking about what looks like computer graphics because I don't think we'd be getting such consistently good work out of these places, if they are not getting such a well-rounded education."

Other important mentions include: Pets, a humorous student film by John Lally and Valerie Mih which superimposes people's dialogue from documentary interviews, with the mouths of 3D animated domestic pets, which speak directly to the camera; Gabola the Great by Tim Cheung at Pacific Data Images, a refined piece of character work with good comedic timing and a twisted ending; MTV Japan's on-air promotions which are even more fun than the U.S. promos and finally, a stylish surreal Coca-Cola commercial made by Marianne Barcilon in France which continues to push the boundaries of photography with the use of unsettling 3D camera moves and seamless compositing.

SIGGRAPH's film program profoundly demonstrates how versatile the computer has become as an imaging tool. Artists around the world no longer need be limited by hardware or compromised by inflexible software. The learning curve for the animator seems to be hitting the downward slope and the results are exciting. Artists are now free to explore in a digital environment, what is possible at the far reaches of their imaginations. The distinctions between "traditional" and "computer" animation continue to blur and blend so that quite soon, the "CG" label may be merely a quaint historical artifact dating back to a brief period of time when gearheads posing as animators ruled the earth; a time before programmers understood squashing and stretching; an awkward time of hardware adolescence and interface evolution.

Avi Hoffer is Director of Digital Production at Acme Filmworks in Hollywood, and owner of Red Herring Pictures, a digital media production company in Venice, California. He has written for MacWorld, MacWeek, DV, In Motion and Interactive Jumpstart magazines, and will be a featured faculty member at the Digital Video Conference and Exposition in October.

Quicktime Files:

Facade by Paul Debevec. 320x240-1.1MB **** 160x120-1MB

Pets by John Lally and Valerie Mih. 320x240-748KB **** 160x120-539KB

Flipbook by Satoshi Kitahara. 320x240-1.1MB **** 160x120-1MB

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