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The Digital Eye: Reshaping SIGGRAPH’s CAF

In this month's edition of The Digital Eye, Bill Desowitz chats with acclaimed CG researcher Paul Debevec about chairing the SIGGRAPH 2007 Computer Animation Festival, to be held Aug. 5-9 at the San Diego Convention Center.

Image courtesy of Deron Yamada. © 2004 DYA367.

Bill Desowitz: Youve appeared at SIGGRAPH many times and have presented some very influential papers on lighting research. Whats it been like chairing the Computer Animation Festival for the first time?

Paul Debevec: The thing that people tell you when you accept this position is that the real work comes after all the pieces are selected. And now Im really realizing what they mean by that. The thing I had basically put together in my mind for the couple of years that I had been thinking of doing this someday was who do I really want on the jury and how do I want to run the jury meetings so we can get the best information out of the jurors [Carter Emmart, Nickson Fong, Michael Kass, Randal Kleiser, Gavin Miller, Shelley Page, Jay Redd and Habib Zaragarpour], so we can get the best possible selections. And all of that came off without a hitch. And then it becomes a really exciting process of production, where your material is coming from over a 100 different places from around the world, getting it on the most consistent format as possible and then sequencing it into the best possible show.

BD: Talk a little about some of the changes youve made for this years show.

Paul Debevec.

&atypePD: Weve tried to do our best for as much outreach as possible to all the different categories that we have. The SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Festival is not a typical animated shorts festival. There are actually eight submission categories and these include things from art and research and broadcast and scientific visualization. And I think we were successful in having a number of pieces in each of these categories, and at least one from each category in the Electronic Theater.

So we have a pretty fast paced show this year. I think there are about 41 pieces in the Electronic Theater, and thats definitely more than some other years. The longest piece is about six minutes. The other thing that I think is great is that every piece has something exciting about it: amazing imagery or very new technique or its competently executed. So were hoping for an intellectually stimulating and aesthetically entertaining evening for the Electronic Theater.

BD: In recent years, there has been less emphasis on scientific technology. Given your expertise and research background, what can we look forward to thats innovative?

PD: Were very lucky to have submissions that push the boundaries of technology and show us things weve never seen before. To me, thats the most important thing. And the kinds of things that people are doing with computer graphics today are just inconceivable from even five years ago. One of the biggest areas of innovation has been in fluid simulation and water, and there are a couple of research pieces that look at that but also a number of studio making of pieces such as ILMs work on Pirates of the Caribbean: At Worlds End, and Surfs Up, with the surfing penguins that Sony Animation and Imageworks did. Its got absolutely beautiful water thats directable: they can actually treat those waves as characters that they can animate, but then the water does things that are completely believable. And its a shorter sequence in the movie 300 but Scanline has some pretty amazing stuff and they have a very innovative fluid simulation rendering system there as well.

Its also a good year for digital characters as well, so were going to see some photoreal humans: theres a pretty breathtaking making of Children of Men from Framestore CFC, with a nice breakdown of the birth sequence. Its a very nice mix of good old, traditional filmmaking and having the right things on set to get the performances out of the actors and then compositing in the right things to make it look exactly like it needs to.

BD: And some nice performance capture in the show too.

PD: Absolutely. In fact, theres going to be a particular clip -- which I think will be a highlight of the show -- from the upcoming Beowulf, and Sony Imageworks sent in some stuff and the jury was extremely impressed by it.

BD: And, as we can see, everyone is benefiting from lighting and rendering advancements.

PD: They are more accessible and they are the kinds of things that filmmakers can take advantage of at this point. If you look at the Best of Show winner, Ark, youll see very complex lighting effects going on -- full on global illumination -- and you get so into the story that you dont notice it but it contributes to the believability of this environment, which is supposed to be realistic. Its down to dust floating in a shaft of light to the right of the screen. Everything is beautifully animated and the lighting effects in every single shot are extremely well crafted.

These tools are really out there and people are taking artistic advantage of them, and its really a strength of the Computer Animation Festival that you see pieces that are presenting some of this research for the first time, whether its in animation or lighting or rendering, and then within a few years youre seeing it movies like Ark, where independent filmmakers are able to create a very new and novel vision. And then showing up in the coolest feature film effects out there as well.

BD: And how is your research going at USCs Institute for Creative Technologies?

PD: Its going well. Were showing two things at SIGGRAPH in the paper session. One of them is new face relighting technique where we do work with light stages where we take pictures of people from lots of different lighting directions and use that to characterize how the light reflects off and goes through their skin, so we can make digital actors look very much like real people do when we reflect light. And weve come up with a new technique that actually uses one of these light stage data sets of them just in a neutral pose. So that you if have live-action footage of the actor, you can essentially just multiply on novel illumination. This is exciting because it takes some of our light stage techniques to an arena where you can apply it to pre-existing footage or things shot with traditional cameras.

The other cool thing that weve got is a 3-D display that actually makes a 5 three-dimensional image, which can either be a wire-frame or a photographically acquired light field of a real object that you put on a turntable. It makes it float in the air so that any number of people can walk around it 360 degrees and they see it with binocular stereo from both eyes wearing no glasses and its a fully interactive image, so you can actually manipulate it, rotate it around or animate the model. So we have a paper about that: some of the math behind it and some of the systems aspects of how were doing the high-speed video projection, and were going to be bringing it to the Emerging Technologies exhibit, where it will be on display. There seems to be a lot of energy in that area now, and its cool to be doing a little work in it.

Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.

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Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.