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CGI Fridays

CGI Fridays | Ed Kramer's Love Letter to SIGGRAPH 2021

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I should be at a party right now. I mean, like, a really cool party with a live band on a hotel rooftop with a great view of Los Angeles – or New Orleans, or Vancouver – or any other city where the SIGGRAPH Conference has met over the years, since it began as a tiny group of researchers in tiny Boulder, Colorado back in 1974. If not for the damn virus, I’d be hanging right now with all my best friends – and all their best friends – which basically means every CGI artist working anywhere in the world, from every visual effects facility, large and small. Yes, it’s a very North American-centric show, but right now artists and researchers from everywhere on earth would all be converging for one magical week, to experience the technical and artistic brilliance that is the SIGGRAPH Conference.

I’m a SIGGRAPH lifer. Only missed two shows since my first one back in freaking 1983! I’m really missing running into old Industrial Light + Magic friends at the Lighter/Darker party. Can’t imagine any of them missing SIGGRAPH if it was at all possible to attend. Hopefully, we’ll be together in Vancouver next year, but for now, I’ll be attending SIGGRAPH from the very desk in Denver, Colorado I’m sitting behind right now. And not at a party!

The other 51 weeks of the year CGI artists spend feverishly doing the unbelievable work. Then for one shining week, we finally get to share it with all our friends. Even the secret bits. This is where we “pull back the curtain” and show all the other magicians in the crowd exactly how the trick was done. It’s hard to believe, but this industry is the polar opposite of what corporate culture is usually about – we freely exchange information every single year. We publish our research in the scholarly SIGGRAPH Journal, share our algorithms, and show all the coolest behind-the-scenes breakdowns of shots from the previous year’s blockbusters, so everyone can see how we pulled it off. As a veteran of 24 feature films, I still like seeing shot breakdowns and development tests – even more than I like seeing the final shots in movie theaters! Everybody learns things at SIGGRAPH they can actually use, and we all take a little slice of the magic pie back home with us. It’s inspiring, it’s eye-popping, it’s hectic, it’s futuristic, it’s exhausting, and nobody in history has ever gone home from a SIGGRAPH Conference disappointed!

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Many of you have never had the opportunity to attend, and I daresay, many of you haven’t even heard of SIGGRAPH. That’s why you have me on The Companion, your eyes and ears into the astonishing world of CGI, and the CGI artists who make it happen!  

A little background. SIGGRAPH is one of the many Special Interest Groups of the Association for Computing Machinery. Yes, I said Machinery, that’s how old the ACM is. From Wikipedia:

The ACM was founded in 1947. [It] is organized into over 171 local chapters and 37 Special Interest Groups (SIGs), through which it conducts most of its activities…Many of the SIGs, such as SIGGRAPHSIGDASIGPLANSIGCSE 
and SIGCOMM, sponsor regular conferences, which have become famous as the dominant venue for presenting [computing-based] innovations in certain fields.

Pet peeve here – it is a SIG, pronounced like the first syllable of “cigarette.” All the SIG’s are pronounced like that. I’ll have none of this “Seeee-graph” nonsense!

So what happens there, and what am I totally looking forward to?

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Every year there’s an awesome SIGGRAPH Art Show. It’s a juried show with both still and interactive pieces. Obviously with a virtual conference again this year, there will be no gallery with beautifully mounted canvasses, or large installation pieces that react to your body movements as you walk past.

There’s usually the Papers Fast-Forward, a head-spinning two-hour event showcasing every branch of CGI research. It’s some of the most astonishing footage from the world of research, that offers a glimpse into what the future of CGI holds. Things you see here may very well end up as a pull-down menu items in Maya in just a few years. This is a must-attend event, and I can’t wait until next year to be there live again!

And speaking of the future, my favorite part of SIGGRAPH has always been the Emerging Technologies area, usually now just called eTech. This is where research teams from all over the planet display their own unique interactive projects, ranging anywhere from silly interactive games to incredible experiences you remember forever. One of my favorites was the first time I saw a true working 3 dimensional “television” with a moving image contained inside a cylinder that you could walk around completely. Another I remember vividly was when I got to fly like a bird, lying prone, belly down, with big physical wing simulators strapped to each arm, and a platform that I could tilt up while I flapped to gain altitude or tilt down to dive through the virtual streets of San Francisco. I almost got sick, but soon learned to relax and use my wings gracefully, flying around skyscrapers and gliding through vortexes of wind above the Golden Gate Bridge.

[See also: CGI Wizard Ed Kramer: Why I’m Joining The Companion by Ed Kramer]

These days the Art Gallery and eTech are both parts of the Experience Hall, which also contains the Immersive Pavillion and the VR Theater, where all manner of real-time gaming and immersive experiences surround you in Virtual, Augmented, and Mixed Reality modes. One day I’ll do a podcast to explain the differences – or you can just watch my interview with UK researcher Bob Stone.

Since the earliest days, SIGGRAPH has offered Courses – full-day or half-day deep dives into specific topics, like this year’s Advances in Real-Time Rendering for Games or a course on Inventing the Future with Artificial Intelligence. There’s the SIGGRAPH Village for interacting with the diversity of attendees including students from around the world, the Appy Hour, where attendees interact with developers and experience the next generation of mobile media. (There really is an app for that). And of course, the Job Fair, where all the top companies can cherry-pick the best and brightest new graduates – because they were the ones who knew enough to attend SIGGRAPH to jump-start their careers!

There’s an Educators Forum (for CGI instructors like me.) There’s a number of Birds of a Feather meetups for alums of various facilities and universities, or those with particular shared interests, like the annual Massive Collaborative Animation Project. There’s the annual SIGGRAPH Awards Show, recognizing outstanding research and lifelong contributors to the field of computer graphics, usually including a live Keynote Address from a legendary speaker, like futurists Ray Kurzweil or Jane McGonigal. (Yes, Google them!)  One SIGGRAPH, George Lucas just sat on stage in an armchair without a prepared talk, and hung out with the whole SIGGRAPH conference for an informal Q&A!

There’s hands-on training on the latest technology in the SIGGRAPH Labs, like the hands-on class this year for Using MIDI for Modeling and Animation using the Houdini software package. There’s also a Show Floor where vendors like Adobe, Autodesk, SideFX Labs, and many other hardware, software, and related companies demo their products. That’s where you get a chance to talk with the top artists from the top studios doing the various product demos and ask in-depth questions about what it’s like to actually use the software as an artist. Very helpful over the years when I’ve been tasked with recommending which tech to purchase!

[See also: Loki | The FX of the TVA’s Time Travel Tech by Jacob Newbury]

There’s the SIGGRAPH Panels, which are group discussions by panels of veterans and experts. Topics this year include eSports and Artist-Centered Design for Feature Animation. There’s Real-Time Live, a popular event showcasing the latest and coolest achievements in real-time computing with live demos and performances. I’m particularly keen to experience the demo of Virtual Reality Musical Instruments for the 21st Century, followed by a Real-Time Immersive Circus Performance

There are Featured Speakers throughout the week, including a talk by Hany Farid from the University of California Berkeley talking about “deepfake” technology and the ability to alter visual reality to create believable fake news. I’m looking forward to the conversation with Ed Catmull and Pat Hanrahan, about their winning of the incredibly prestigious Turing Award. Catmull, of course is the co-founder of Pixar and former President of Walt Disney Animation Studios.

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Two Ed’s are better than one! Your humble narrator’s selfie with Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar and President of Walt Disney Animation. At the SIGGRAPH Pioneers Reception in Vancouver, 2018. The other co-founder of Pixar, Alvy Ray Smith, is visible in the background. | Courtesy of the author.

I also have my small part to play, being Chair of the SIGGRAPH Pioneers, a group of more than 700 of the original artists, researchers and educators who have been around working in the field for at least 20 years. (Many of us twice that long!) We were honored to have Dr. Donna Cox as our Featured Speaker this year. Donna has had a lifelong career creating some of the most well-known Scientific Visualizations in history, including the supercomputer-generated simulation of two galaxies colliding! Many of her simulations can be seen in IMAX theaters around the world. Donna’s retrospective video created for the 2021 conference can be found on the SIGGRAPH YouTube Channel:

But there are really two reasons people like me go to SIGGRAPH every year (aside from seeing our friends.) The first is the Electronic Theater which in the ’80s was known as the Film and Video Show. It’s a juried show that is, quite simply, the best CGI animation in the world from the previous year. It is a two-hour collection of work spanning entertainment, research, and art, including some of the most outstanding student work from schools around the world. Sometimes there’s an intermission, and the audience gets to participate in a stadium-sized group event, like the year my friend Terrence Masson created a giant Etch-a-Sketch that was controlled entirely by the audience’s hive mind! (Yes, it’s on YouTube.)

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A small sample of the astonishing CGI work premiering at this year’s SIGGRAPH Conference

The other reason I have to attend every year is the Production Sessions. This is where the people responsible for the visual effects from the latest blockbusters from Marvel, Pixar, Industrial Light + Magic, Weta Digital, Rodeo FX, and other major film and gaming studios talk about the design process, and how they created the CGI effects from the biggest blockbuster movies, TV shows and games of the past year. I love walking up to the stage after a presentation from ILM to say hi to old colleagues. This year I’m excited to virtually attend sessions about Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon and The Mandalorian, Marvel’s WandaVision, Winter Soldier, and Loki, Weta Digital’s work on Godzilla vs. Kong, and Pixar’s extraordinary work on the film Soul.

By the time you’re reading this on CGI Fridays, the conference will be over, I will be totally fried, melted into a bubbling heap of SIGGRAPH goo, with only my engorged red eyeballs floating. Once I’ve reconstituted, the plan is to do a podcast about what I saw, the sessions I attended, and to look back on virtual SIGGRAPH 2021 as reporter at large for all things CGI on The Companion!

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SIGGRAPH is the premier conference for computer graphics and interactive techniques worldwide, running virtually from August 9 to August 13, 2021. Ed Kramer is The Companion’s resident CGI expert. He was the CGI supervisor for the Scarab beetle shots in The Mummy, the Rock Monster shots in Galaxy Quest, and contributed to six films nominated for Best Achievement in Visual Effects Oscars.

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