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fmx/05: Europe’s Hottest Digital Content Creation Conference

Peter Plantec reports back from fmx/05 in Stuttgart, Germany, after experiencing an invigorating and intimate kind of DCC conference rooted in real-world and academic synergy.

Erich Roth (left), exec director of VES, and Digital Eye Peter Plantec stand in front of the Kings Hall in Stuttgart during fmx/05. All photos courtesy of Peter Plantec. Photo credit: Kevin Geiger; all other photos: Peter Plantec.

I was asked to speak at fmx in 2004. At the time I didnt even know what fmx was. I went. I spoke. I was impressed, so I spoke again this year about how to put together a killer demo reel on the 10th anniversary of the event, held April 27-30 in Stuttgart, Germany. I was amazed to discover that a record 3,500 people showed up for fmx/05, a 50% increase over last year. Fortunately, the organizers had expanded the program and attracted many top speakers. In addition, the percentage of women attending appears to be increasing rapidly.

On opening day, program coordinator/founder Thomas Haegele was surprised and delighted to be presented with a congratulatory video message from director Roland Emmerich (The Day After Tomorrow). Packed audiences got to hear first-rate international speakers talk about their animation and visual effects projects: Richard Chuang, co-founder of Pacific Data Images/PDI (today part of DreamWorks), keynote speakers Eric Roth (exec director of the Visual Effects Society), David Sproxton (Aardman Animations), Sims 2 art director David Patch (Electronic Arts), as well as representatives of the Academy Award-winning films The Incredibles and Spider-Man 2.

Wearing two hats I also hung out with all sorts of interesting, talented and often powerful people. I wanted to get a better feel for the state of Digital Content Creation (DCC) around the world.

A Big, Intimate Conference

fmx attracts a wide range of animators and vfx people from around the globe. In fact, in its 10th year, fmx/05 became the largest DCC conference in Europe. Heavily supported the Stuttgart Film Academy and the local Baden-Württemberg government as well as many commercial companies, including the familiar Softimage, Adobe and Autodesk. This year fmx also hosted the sold out Animago Awards too. Animago is the most important contest for digital content creation in German-speaking countries and is something to behold.

All in all, this is a big, well-organized event that feels small. I found it to be much more intimate than SIGGRAPH. I got to spend quality time, without loud music, with the people I wanted to talk with or renew old friendships with, and I met some new folks that I intend to stay in touch with. Im also developing a more global view of our field. I only wish SIGGRAPH party organizers would take a cue. For years, Ive been frustrated by networking with people over there amid loud music.

Meanwhile, the quality and quantity of the fmx/05 seminars and presentations were impressive. Most seminars were presented in English, but I found many of the ones on advanced vfx were in German. I dont speak German, but not a problem. They all had simultaneous translation via earphones. I was very impressed with the quality of that service. It gave me access to information I would not otherwise have.

fmx is hosted in Stuttgarts venerable Haus der Wirtschaft. This is the high-tech multimedia Kings Hall, which accommodates more than a thousand participants.

A Cornucopia of Presentations

It was frustrating to try and pick what presentations I could attend, since there were half a dozen going on at any one time. The range of topics was very large. In-depth seminars included:

  • Ed Hooks famous Acting for Animators course.

  • Life drawing for animators by U.S. artist Jeanine Breaker, famous for her spectacular wide aspect pastels.

  • VFX Producing by vfx producer Sacha Bertram, author of VFX.

  • Developing Interactive Narrative Content Seminar by the highly respected sagasnet, a German company specializing in helping producers develop content.

Worlds collide at fmx. Here vfx wizard Josh Kolden (left) from Crack Creative relaxes with Disney animator Kevin Geiger at a dinner sponsored by Autodesk, a major supporter of fmx.

Then there was a plethora of one-hour presentations going on simultaneously:

Keynote: A Unique Perspective on 25 Years of Animation

Richard Chuang, PDI/DreamWorks

Keynote: How Does Production Technology Influence Creativity and Content?

David Sproxton, Aardman Animations

Keynote: The Globalization of Visual Effects Pre and Post Titanic.

Eric Roth, Visual Effects Society

Previz for Day After Tomorrow

With Joshua Kolden, Crack Creative

Chicken Little Artistic and Technical Aspects of a Very Squash-and- Stretch Style Animation in 3D

Arthur Shek and Kevin Geiger, Walt Disney Feature Animation

Organic Effects Animation

With Joseph Gilland, Vancouver Film School.

Digital Intermediate Workflows

With Bernd Schulze, PICTORION Das Werk

Research & Development on Hydro-Fluid-Dynamics FX

Stephan Trojansky and Danielle Plantec, Scanline Production

NVIDIA One Scoop or Two? Gelato

With GPU Gems contributor, Daniel E. Wexler, NVIDIA

Autodesk Media & Ent. High End Finishing with Discreet smoke v7

With Robert Coulin, Dreamwalks Solutions for Moving Pictures GmbH

Mobile Entertainment: Writing for Interactive Content

With Matt Costello,who teaches in the rhetoric and writing studies department at San Diego State University

Film Rendering on GPUs

With Daniel E. Wexler, NVIDIA

New Insights on How to Make a Killer Demo Reel ...

With yours truly and daughter Danielle Plantec (digital effects artist on The Matrix sequels, visual effects contributor to The Day After Tomorrow and currently a 3D supervisor at Scanline)

Mobile Entertainment: Hand-held Games und Movies

With Mathias Huttmann, T-Mobile International

You could find everything from new rendering strategies, to how they make spectacular vfx movies, to character animation spectaculars. I particularly liked the life drawing seminar er ah strictly professional, of course.

A Scary Development

One strong theme running both through the conference presentations and my private conversations was the growing outsourcing problem. As third world companies become more technically skilled and polish their talent, they are becoming a threat to our vfx lifestyles in the West. This trend will impact each of us. When talented people in Asia can produce excellent work and are paid only a few dollars a day, their facilities can afford the most advanced computer equipment and software, and even more threatening: the best teleconferencing equipment.

At the moment Hollywood, in general, isnt hot about taking on the risk of sending vfx work halfway across the world for processing, but I predict that will change. As film execs get more comfortable with high quality, glitch-less teleconferencing, the cost reduction will become compelling. There are already low budget companies in Hollywood setting up shop in underdeveloped countries. Take NuImage. Scott Coulter, vfx producer for NuImage, found himself in Bulgaria back in 91 supervising vfx for one of their low budget horror films. A few months later he was back in Sophia to start up a vfx company to service their needs cheaply. In 2001 he founded Worldwide FX in Sophia, which is now one of the largest and busiest vfx studios in Europe.

Prague is another hot bed of cheap, high-level talent and a lot of Hollywood types have moved there why? Prague is one of the most breathtaking cities in Europe and its a ferment of media development. English is spoken there as well.

Alas, a friend in Germany told me that Prague is no longer so cheap. Its been so successful and turns out such high quality work that their prices are soaring. The boom is so intense that Prague real estate is fetching near U.S. prices. Many U.S. pictures are being shot in Eastern Europe to capitalize on reduced production costs and awesome locations. Brian Wade, the award- winning feature film designer, creator of Scooby Doo and Stuart Little, told me he went to Prague with Van Helsing and found it difficult to leave. So he stayed and now works from there while also teaching at a local college.

At one of the large receptions, networking and cross-fertilization are lubricated with fine food and drink. Front and center clapping are Dr. Thomas Haegele, program coordinator of fmx, and his wife Renata.

What are We Doing About It?

OK, the really important thread at fmx was what U.S. and western European studios are doing about it. In order to stay on top and command the high prices that Hollywood can and should afford, the big focus is on pipeline and new tools technically part of the pipeline. The idea is to use technology and efficient asset and talent management to reduce costs. The new pipeline/talent systems are able to produce better vfx and animation, quicker and with far fewer people. What does this mean for you?

It means if youre really good, youre likely to keep your job and still be paid well. If youre mediocre, then you either have to polish up your skills or start thinking career change.

If youre like me, you like the challenge offered by boutique shops that let you do everything: modeling, texturing and animation. I think were going to see less of this as the role of TD expands. It seems that the highly focused, compartmentalized animation setups at the large studios, such as Pixar, ILM and PDI, are the most efficient and cost effective. The idea is that each artist does one thing and does it exceptionally well. Tools are custom created to streamline each animation process. Some houses are going with packages like Maya or 3ds Max often supplemented by the awesomely powerful Houdini. But in every case they are building plug-ins that perform tasks better and faster than the original packages could. For example, fluid dynamics (FD) is very hot and will remain so for some time. Commercially available FD tools in general cannot produce the cutting edge fluid interactions needed by some of the most advanced feature films produced today.

By the way, a one of the hottest rumors out of fmx rumor was that Sony Pictures Imageworks recently hijacked an entire team of fluid jockeys from Rhythm & Hues, at enormous expense, to develop a proprietary, advanced FD tool set. Smart of them, but after seeing the extremely advanced FD work in previews of Der Sturmflood and Megaladon from Scanline, Id say they have a lot of catching up to do.

At Disney, they actually build custom, individualized animation tools for their most talented animators. The idea is to make the technology so transparent that their artists can work intuitively. More often than not, these tools reflect Disneys traditional methods passed down through generations of brilliant animators. On top of that, Disney is constantly creating general tools that simplify the animation process for all their animators.

My favorite is Sketch-A-Pose, which allows artists to perform complex animation tasks with a single swoosh of their Wacom stylus. I watched Arthur Shek animate an octopus-like Robot in seconds, and hes a techno-geek, not an animator!

Sitting next to Aardmans David Sproxton, DreamWorks Shelley Page and PDI co-founder Richard Chuang made for lively conversation.

fmx An Opportunity Breeding Ground

I had the opportunity to chat over dinner with Chuang, Sproxton and Shelley Page, a European recruiter for DreamWorks. They were all impressed with fmx: The synergy between the real-word of animation and the academic here is truly amazing, Chuang offered. Its a joy to see such an important real-world conference like this rooted in an educational institution like the Baden-Württemberg Film Academy. This conference seems to give students great opportunities to mingle and network with the pros. I went on a tour of the Academy and was totally impressed with both the student work and the facilities heck, I wish I could have experienced that when I was coming up.

Page, whose spectacular Eye Candy presentation is always a hit of the conference, added: fmx is really such a wonderful resource and its definitely a hotbed of networking, you know. I never cease to be impressed.

Sproxton, a gifted raconteur as well as a great producer, echoed: fmx is truly inspiring on top of being quite interesting, isnt it? And lets face it: Ive met a great bunch of people here as well

A Rich Experience

I too have been impressed both with fmx and the Film Academy in nearby Ludwigsburg, which organizes fmx. One fascinating thing I discovered is that the school one of the finest film schools in Europe is completely free for exceptional students. If you qualify and are accepted, they will teach you at their expense. Even more interesting you dont even have to be German. Yes, if an American student qualifies, she too can attend. It certainly would help if you speak German, but what a deal.

All in all, I found fmx to be a deeply rich experience both personally and privately. I recommend it for anyone looking to get a broader view of our field, to find opportunities for living and working abroad and to experience a more intimate kind of conference.

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. Your can visit his personal website.