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Terrence Masson Talks SIGGRAPH 2010

The new conference chair walks us through SIGGRAPH 2010 in L.A.

For Conference Chair Terrence Masson, this year is all about "the people behind the pixels." All images courtesy of ACM SIGGRAPH.

When we last spoke to Terrence Masson in '09, it was about his consulting role on UFO Hunters. Well, this year the animation/VFX vet (director of award-winning animated shorts, sole developer of the original South Park CG animation technique, Doug Trumbull's previs guru, who also flew the Millennium Falcon for George Lucas) is conference chair of the 37th annual SIGGRAPH show, so we got a sneak peek at this year's festivities in L.A. (conference: July 25-29; exhibition July 27-29).

Bill Desowitz: So, what are some of the tweaks and improvements you have in store for us this year?

Terrence Masson:

Well, you hit it on the head with "tweaks and improvements." There's nothing radically different this year and that's a very conscious decision to focus on our core. And by core, I not only mean programs but also people, which, of course, defined our conference theme this year: "The people behind the pixels." So, as you learned from Ronen [Barzel] last year, conference chairs do come on about three-and-a-half years prior to first define a vision for the conference and then bring on a board of directors, talking with our conference advisory group and lots of other folks in the industry. It was a really easy task for me to focus on this as the vision because what we came to is that every year… you come to SIGGRAPH to see the best of the best and the newest cutting edge stuff -- and it's always fabulous -- but what is consistent behind all of that is the people and why you physically come to the conference. The one thing you can't replace in any other scenario is bumping into Ed Catmull and Jim Blinn and all these hundreds and hundreds of people.

BD: SIGGRAPH Dailies! is definitely new. What is that about?


SIGGRAPH Dailies! is brand new and is being head by Bill Polson of Pixar, and it's going to be really big. Because of my background, coming from 20 years in production in the trenches, as a technical director and visual effects supervisor, I wanted to personally bring on Bill and help him engage that audience, because we found that there was a dramatic gap between the hardcore researchers, which is one of our core audiences, and the Computer Animation Festival, which is the premier event for filmmakers and for the final product in visual effects and animation. But in the middle are the artists at the workstations: the modelers, the surfacers, the character animators, the riggers, the effects animators, who actually produce each individual shot, and we [thought] there was a real lack of venue for them as individuals to submit their own work and their stories of what it took to produce that work at SIGGRAPH.

BD: So they fall into a gray area.


Exactly and it's true that some of the best of their work is presented in the Computer Animation Festival every year, but it's always as part of the ILM demo reel or the best commercial from X-company, so what Dailies does is sit solidly in that space in the middle where it's about the individual and the story behind the shot. I know the blood, sweat and tears that these artists shed to produce a single shot, whether it's 12 frames or 20 seconds and the passion and the research and the long hours and the weekends and the interactions with directors. There are so many hilarious and moving stories behind this work, and we wanted to give a showcase to the individuals, so that's what this is about.

SIGGRAPH returns to L.A. and Masson says the venue and experience will "blow people away."

BD: And the format?


We started with the Technical Papers Fast Forward: a highlight of the show every year and starts off the conference, and it's a brilliantly funny and informative way to blast out lots of content in a very short period of time. So we're doing it for two nights this year, Tuesday and Wednesday, and it will go through a similar jury process as the other programs and we already have plans to expand it next year for 2011 in Vancouver. And we've got people brought in from all the major studios around the world.

BD: So what are we likely to see?

TM: You'll sit down and everyone will get two minutes to describe a video or power point of their shot and the story behind the shot -- and that's part of the judging criteria: it's not just who can do the greatest whatever. It's what went into producing the shot and that gives them the chance to physically present their shot, and discuss the challenge given to them and how they failed on their first attempt and finally came up with a wicked solution that had never been tried before or how they [relied] upon their prior experiences in a real life situation to influence this thing…And then at the end they got shoved to the back of the shot and it was only on screen for four frames and I worked for nine months to do that.

The newest addition will be SIGGRAPH Dailies!, which will allow artists to discuss the story behind the shot.

BD: Speaking of Technical Papers, is there anything new we should be aware of?

TM: Yes, there are more papers this year by broadening the scope of interest in the community. The bar was not lowered. But we have about 40% more and we're going to have a great number of really fantastic, varied Technical Papers this year. You should talk to Tony DeRose, the Technical Papers chair, of Pixar, to get more details.

BD: What can we expect from The Computer Animation Festival, now that a variation on the Electronic Theater, the Evening Theater, was reintroduced last year in New Orleans?


We did indeed have the Electronic Theater named the Evening Theater, with the consistent content every night for a shared experience, after listening very intently to our attendees' survey, so we brought back the ET, but whether we call it the Electronic Theater or the Evening Theater has not been firmly defined yet. But that's coming imminently. But the extremely significant thing about CAF in 2010 is that Isaac Kerlow, our CAF chair, asked me: "Why is our deadline so early?" And I told him that every CAF chair, including me, has asked the same question, and the only reason given has been for scheduling reasons. But being the hard-ass that I am, I told him that I didn't have a good answer for that but I was going to get one. And it turns out that, by working really closely with our contractors, we were able to very carefully but successfully move the deadline back about two months.

So now the CAF jury deadline is April 19, and that will allow us to be more open to our submitters, specifically to people in academia, since most academic years end in April and it's really, really difficult to have anything of the caliber of SIGGRAPH done way back in January or February -- you're basically cutting out a whole semester. So this is a huge thing for schools. It helps a little bit with the production community, but then they're always fighting with their summer release schedules, so we've got curated pathways to get those in and also late-breaking deadlines. The makeup of the ET, at least since 2006, has always been to show a great variety to have a really great show, not to be the best of the best, and everything else is in the Animation Theater.

BD: And Real-Time Rendering is back?

TM: Yes, and the specific, tweaked name for that this year is Live Real-Time Demos, and we're very excited about that: it was a huge success last year. And it's a great combination of our two conference subtitles: Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques.

The ET will return either as the Electronic Theater or the Evening Theater.

BD: But no FJORG!


That was part of our pulling back to our core and really focusing on what's most important and what's most cost-effective. This year was still being very cost-conscious because we know how hard the economy is for everybody. We love FJORG! and it's not going to be dead forever, but just not this year.

BD: And Emerging Technologies?

TM: Yep, the standard, fun, wacky, hands-on stuff you've always come to know and love. And what we've done this year is combined a single, open space for E Tech, the Art Gallery and The Studio because the Art Gallery, headed by Richard Elaver, is themed TouchPoint: Haptic Exchange Between Digits, and that's what E Tech is about and what The Studio is about, so it made sense to have that shared experience in the same space.

BD: What are you looking forward to personally this year?

TM: The evolution of stereo 3-D, of course, is going to be a highlight of the conference and part of the festival and general programs. That's more of an expanding across the whole industry rather than strictly a new tech, of course. But really for me, personally, as conference chair, I'm excited about the people: the main vision of the conference is really resonating with the program volunteers and the contractors and the attendees, so I'm really looking forward to seeing how the people interact with all this stuff, because, in general, the industry isn't so much exploding with brand new stuff every year, as you know better than almost anybody. But this year in L.A., in your backyard, the downtown, Nokia, Staple Center valet easily around the conference center and they put in a billion dollars down there, and our headquarters hotel is the brand new JW Marriot Ritz-Carlton, so, again, it's all about the attendees and the experience of people attending in downtown L.A. in 2010 is going to blow people away. They are not going to have any idea of what to expect until they get there.

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.

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