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The Pixel Priestess: SIGGRAPH as Summer Camp for VFX Kids

The Pixel Priestess recaps the SIGGRAPH conversation, a summer camp for the visual effects professional.

Image courtesy of Deron Yamada. © 2004 DYA367.

Image courtesy of Deron Yamada. © 2004 DYA367.

August is the month of summer camps, holidays and journeys to far away beaches (we wish). In my case, summer camp came to town in the second week of August when SIGGRAPH took over the Los Angeles Convention Center. A confessed addict of this 31-year-old-conference, and on my third tour as a grateful (if over-committed) program chair, I am always awed: Where else do a team of dedicated volunteers work for 18 months to gather and organize content so we can marvel at some of the coolest digitally-influenced art and advanced technology, attend informative and entertaining courses, papers and panels, stargaze at many of the world's best artists and technologists, get annual hugs from friends you rarely get to see, attend a cyber fashion show and get your nails done?

This year's SIGGRAPH hosted more than 28,000 people from about 90 countries; people who rely on this gathering to see something new, be inspired by their peers, and maybe find a new job. These folks flooded the exhibit hall and the course rooms; they networked in the coffee shop, they convened around the job boards and vied for elusive party tickets. As always, I basically ran from one end of the convention center to the other, trying to absorb as much of this wonderland as was humanly possible.

Probably the most anticipated event each year is the Computer Animation Festival, divided into the Electronic Theater and the Animation Theaters. This is the place where we get to experience the best computer graphics the world has submitted over the course of the year. With the Electronic Theater held onsite for the first time, transportation and access were certainly much, much easier. And though I missed the Shrine, I loved being able to see a matinee and resume my mad dashes across the convention center.

The actual production left me with a bunch of questions, but as each chair gets to make his own choices from year to year and this was an extremely challenging venue I'm sure we'll see some interesting changes next year, so I'll shut my mouth and concentrate on the superb content we were priveleged to watch, including a really fun pre-show where we got to toss around huge helium-filled reflective balls whose movements were tracked by a Vicon motion tracking system as we participated in an audience-wide videogame: if you weren't able to attend, this was truly a land-of-the-giants experience that I'm sure would not have been possible in the more traditional Shrine auditorium.

The Priestess just loved Jessica Scotts Attack of the Note Sheep. Courtesy of SIGGRAPH. © 2003 Jessica Scott.

The Priestess just loved Jessica Scotts Attack of the Note Sheep. Courtesy of SIGGRAPH. © 2003 Jessica Scott.

As usual, some good stories surfaced, augmenting the usual feast of studio-driven effects film (including the I-wish-it-wasn't-creepy Polar Express and the beautiful Digital Domain disaster-driven The Day After Tomorrow). I loved Jessica Scott's Attack of the Note Sheep (Texas A&M also gave us that cool Ascii Runner piece a few years ago), and Cortex Academy by Cedric Jeanne and Fredric Mayer. NASA contributed On the Edge of History, reminding me how much I would love to see more scientific visualization pieces in this festival. I know you're out there inventing and creating please make us cool animations to watch! Though the edited version screened in the ET did Annie and Boo a disservice, the Filmakademie Baden-Wurttemburg's contributions consistently give us good stories and challenging ideas; I wish our students would give us more of this out of the box thinking (though I think ever earlier deadlines are making it difficult for schools to participate).

Leaving that proverbial box somewhere on another planet was Chris Landreth's latest accomplishment, Ryan. I don't even know what to call this: Animation? Documentary? Documation? Whatever it is, I hope everyone out there got to see the full-length version of this devastating, beautiful jury award-winning piece. If this doesn't win the Academy's nod for best animated short, I think we must be in for something truly extraordinary: I just can't imagine anything surpassing this experience.

Venturing into the Art Gallery and Emerging Technologies, which always provide inspirational and amusing universes, these two venues featured many highlights, including a shadow-tracing robot; Rebecca Strzelec's rapid prototyped wearables; composites from Australian artist Philip George and many, many more to marvel at, contemplate and figure out how to create!

Adjacent to the Art Gallery, Emerging Technologies is one of those places you get to glimpse the future by playing with toys; really cool toys. Last year's E-Tech showed us eye-toy (which I got to buy for my kids for the Holidays last year). In 2002, the venue featured these music blocks that, when linked in various configurations like dominos, resulted in a melody (wish I could buy those!). E-Tech is just heavenly for someone who has never been quite able to let go of the lego. This year, we got to play with invisible trains, paint a Mondrian or build a kind of projected Calder mobile that, when completed, would actually float before falling to the ground when you lifted your hand from the screen. A video clock, "Last," projected what it saw in hours, minutes and seconds, giving a whole new perspective on time. Probably my favorite, though, was a little wading pool surrounded by colored spigots. Each spigot dripped water along with little projected flowers or creatures. Using a ladle, you could lift these projections and pour them out in a different part of the pool; truly a toy for future kids.

Tokyo Denki Universitys, Satoko Morois Sound Flakes had one of biggest how did they do that factor at the convention.

Tokyo Denki Universitys, Satoko Morois Sound Flakes had one of biggest how did they do that factor at the convention.

OK, then there's the Guerilla Gallery, now mostly aboveground and called the Studio. If you've read this far and you didn't make it to this part of the conference, I implore you to pay a visit next year. Filled to the rafters with generous donations of incredible hardware and software mainly obtained by the superhuman Pete Braccio, artists can queue up to print their art on beautiful large-format printers, or have their work output on the rapid prototyper. Having access to this equipment is just incredible. This year's treats included the lenticular guy who took a shot of you against a greenscreen, and composited you in with a dinosaur. There was a motion capture stage you could try, or you could sit for artist Michael Wright, who turned your photograph into a painting (I don't know how many hundreds of these he did in four days). My personal indulgence was the nail printer, which allowed you to either choose or design an image and get it physically printed onto your nails. My stars and psychedelics drew all kinds of attention in Little Tokyo before I started chipping off my nail polish. I have a not-so-secret goal to spend one entire SIGGRAPH in here just creating something that passes as art!

Some of the most fun happens in the shadows at this conference. For the last three years, the dynamic and inspiring Isa Gordon has been staging a cyber-fashion show. Tucked in the back of Petree Hall this time, which was positively overflowing, this combination fashion/wearable/fetish show drew all kinds of attention; I'm really hoping we can infuse this event with some resources next year so we can do a proper fashion show, enlist some truly revolutionary wearables creators and put this awesome extravaganza on a proper stage so more people can enjoy these very cool SIGGRAPH event.

Of course, there were fabulous sessions that ranged from the non-technical to the esoteric. Acting for Animators got SIGGRAPH attendees to kick off their shoes and learn to develop characters while their movements and facial expressions were drawn and animated by Larry Lauria. A wonderful Special Session on puppeteering brought us Gonzo and Bugs Bunny live and in person. Hugely popular sessions from ILM, PDI and Weta offered glimpses inside the magic we love to watch, and a record number of papers suggests that the industry we think might be already fully developed still has more room to grow.

And now, wearing my SIGGRAPH hat, I implore all of you to check out deadlines now so you have plenty of time to imagine, create and submit your art and technology to this incredible gathering.

Jill Smolin has been a grateful member of the visual effects industry for about a decade, and has documented the industry (before it was one) for about twice that long.