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The Digital Eye: Inside the SIGGRAPH 2006 CAF

J. Paul Peszko talks with the recruiters at top animation and visual effects studios regarding the intangibles that will help land you your dream job.

Image courtesy of Deron Yamada. © 2004 DYA367.

Terrence Masson has the eye. He really needs it for what he does. Terrence chairs the SIGGRAPH 2006 Computer Animation Festival (CAF), which screens in Boston Aug. 1-3. Hes also head of Digital Fauxtography Inc., a consulting company. Impressively, his book CG 101 is five stars at Amazon. After years of production experience, he can spot those difficult to explain qualities of animation and vfx that scream excellence. Terrence (not Terry) joined ILM way back in 1991 to work on Hook, when a few of you were still in diapers. Clever at problem solving, especially in the complex world of vfx, Terrence became a freelance consultant. Over the past 17 years, hes worked on 20 major films and consulted with virtually all the big vfx studios. He even came up with the original CG paper cut-out animation style used on South Park. Amazingly, hes not all that old.

I asked Terrence about the selection process and was impressed by the way he went about it. Being a bit of a hard-ass myself about animation, I was glad to hear that he took a no compromise position both in setting standards and in selecting his panel of jurists. I believe any competition at this level is not a place for kind judges, but rather for tough wizards.

It all started about 18 months ago when I accepted the offer to be the SIGGRAPH CAF chair. I knew I had to first:

  • a) decide what kind of show I wanted to shape and

b) who would I choose to serve on the jury?

Excellence and humor, I think, were the first two things that I wanted to drive towards; and I wanted to choose jurors with similar sensibilities.

Im thinking, bravo. Some might think he was stacking the deck in one direction, but by similar sensibilities, hes not implying the same point of view, but similar notions about excellence and professionalism.

And it gets better:

About the jury experience was where I started; I considered people whove been deep in production for a long time. I wanted people whove seen it all, having dwelt at the very highest levels of quality so long that our standards would be positively stratospheric.

I also wanted a good broad cross section of people with a wide range of experiences, including:

  • Glenn Robbins from Newtonic (broadcast design)

  • Larry Cuba from Iota Center (abstract art)

  • Bill Polson from Pixar (short animated films)

  • Jody Jenkinson from U of Toronto (scientific visualization)

  • Thomas Haegele, fmx chair from Filmakademie (European student films)

  • Moto Sakakibara from Sprite Animation Studios (Japanese feature film)

  • Ed Kramer from ILM (visual effects)

  • Dan Krech: founder of DKP (everything)

Id also like to make special mention of Paul Debevec, next years chair, whose legendary expertise was invaluable. He sat in as an alternate jurist. We solicited input from others as well.

Personality was very important to me in the jurors because, while I intended to push boundaries and drive hard, I would also be insistent on everyone having fun! I expected each juror to reach out aggressively in their areas of specialty, to seek exciting new animations to boldly go where no juror had gone before!

I removed the student category from the jury notes so that all work would be judged equally. Another huge first was that we allowed electronic submissions this year, which allowed me to personally review all 726 final entries from 40 different countries. Thats never been possible for a CAF chair before.

My production team was put together on the strong lead production model. So I selected a powerful team of leads: Ryan Kuba as my production lead, with Klaus Steden as tech lead, and Brian Reid as post lead. Each being highly experienced recruited their own assistants from within Technicolor Creative Services, where the jury and post were being hosted. Dana Boadway is our assistant producer and Sam Black (last years CAF chair) is our database coordinator. Additional support volunteers were recruited from the larger Toronto community. Together, we became an amazing production dream team.

In the end, there were many dozens of other key people involved in all aspects of the process, which involved so much more then the all-important jury weekend in March. I personally had a pre-show to design, publications to edit, equipment choices to make and donations to beg for. All of that required a lot of volunteer help. And then I had media trailers to direct, on-site scheduling and design to coordinate, plus at least a hundred other little things to stay on top of. It was a truly massive undertaking by a large team that consistently went above and beyond the call of duty. I cant thank them enough. Keep in mind this was an all volunteer affair, only the assistant producer had a paid position

At the end of the day, its content that counts and we put together a stunning collection by any standards. My direction to the jury was for absolutely no compromise, and as a result if we ended up with only a short 20 minute festival, then so be it it would be an inspiring 20 minutes. Thankfully, we came up with a lot more then that!

Terrence Masson, chair of SIGGRAPH 2006 Computer Animation Festival (CAF), has assembled an amazing production dream-team for this year.

In all my years of writing about SIGGRAPH, this was my first real look inside that CAF process. Of course, talking with Terrence stimulated so many questions about what actually went on in the closed-door sessions. Most important, I wanted to know what makes one particular short animation a winner. I wanted to know about how theyre selected. Not an easy job with 1,029 submissions this year and 726 really good ones that made the finals, and filter down to only 96 winners.

I asked Terrence if he would share with us some secrets of what makes a winning short animation.

Its all common sense at least to me. I think the biggest secret is that you need to get quality constructive critique of your work early and often from a range of experts who arent necessarily your friends. Find someone with a great eye and ask them what they think. Tell them to be tough.

If you think your short animation is fabulous, chances are it probably isnt. At least I wouldnt bet on it until you get positive feedback from a few harsh but gifted critics. Then no matter how good it was to start with, it will be better for sure.

I also wanted to know if there are universal, recognizable things that make a piece of short animation truly exceptional. Ive been told time and again that art is unique and its not possible to judge good and bad art. I was even told that by several art curators attending seminars at the Banff Centre in Canada. I dont buy it. I think there are universal concepts that reveal some art to be great and other art to be ordinary or worse. I think this is particularly true in the art of animation. I spent years reading scripts and more years reviewing demo tapes and DVDs and I can tell you we truly have a handle on how to produce crap, but the good stuff is hard to come by.

Honestly, Im amazed the committee was able to find 96 short animations worthy of presentation but then that original 1029 came from the cream of the crop. OK, so I asked Terrence how he feels about good art and bad; and what makes the difference. I wanted to boil it all down with him so we can all walk away from reading this with some new insight. I wasnt totally optimistic because, of the people I know who have the eye, very few know exactly what that means, but there is considerable agreement on what makes great animation. So I was hoping to have Terrence at least provide a clue.

He said that every great animator must have the ability to be self-critical in a constructive way. He knows to walk away from it and come back with new perspective. You need to take a break to reset your own objectivity. Then go out and find some work that literally makes you speechless. Study it. Learn from it, then learn how to do a very tight edit.

Ive been working on my own list of factors that are key to excellence in animation. After gaining insight from Terrence and analyzing dozens of excellent short animations at fmx, Ive composed the following list of questions you need to ask yourself:

  • Do you quickly suspend disbelief as you watch it?

  • Do you believe you know and can relate to an animated character?

  • Is there a clever idea involved?

  • Does it make you think or laugh?

  • Is the timing perfect? (Is the pacing spot on?)

  • Do you want to see it again? And again?

  • Is it a new idea or have you seen this before?

  • Do the images and ideas work together to grab or fascinate you even if they are ugly or horrible?

  • Does the entire animation form a gestalt or a whole that is more than the sum of its parts?

  • Is your idea too complicated? It has to be clear and easy to grasp.

  • Do you have a classic three-part story structure with a beginning, middle and end?

  • Have you made your animation as convincing as you can?

  • Have you taken time to develop a consistent style and art direction?

  • Have you paid attention to the little details? Subtle, often unexpected things are what usually makes an animation a winner.

  • Do you feel passion about your own project?

How Winners Are Selected

The process is, as it must be, part subjective and part objective. The objective part looks at production values, animation technique (in part also subjective), reproduction quality and professionalism. Most of these things can be easily agreed upon among experts.

It is the subjective factors that one could expect to be a source of disagreement. Ive served on such committees and discussion can wax intense. But in the end, real experts will select a group of animations that have near universal appeal. Although culture may play a small part, I find the Animago Awards showcase in Europe to be as engaging as the SIGGRAPH presentation. What exactly are those universal attributes? I think if you read my list of things to think about when judging your own animation above, youll get an idea. Youll also understand why Terrence Masson selected top professionals to help him pick the best from a very wide variety of short animation genres. Its all in having the eye.

I asked him to sum up the experience:

There were so many great examples of mixed media 3D/2D design, character animation and story telling this year, it just amazing. Ive just been stunned and humbled to such an extent over the SIGGRAPH organization and peoples drive to help each other. Ive been attending and volunteering in various roles at SIGGRAPH since 1988, and it never ceases to amaze me. To have been asked to assume this role in my home town of Boston is a double honor; and I hope the community at large will come away from 2006 with their jaws hanging open and smiles across their faces!

Peter Plantec is a best-selling author, animator and virtual human designer. He wrote The Caligari trueSpace2 Bible, the first 3D animation book specifically written for artists. He lives in the high country near Aspen, Colorado. Peters latest book, Virtual Humans, is a five star selection at Amazon after many reviews.