SIGGRAPH, Always a Great Show

Category: News
Karen Moltenbrey
I am finally recovered from the crazy-busy week that was SIGGRAPH. In fact, SIGGRAPH for me starts in May and doesn't quite end until a good week after the show ends. At CGW, SIGGRAPH is much more than a five-day event. Emails begin to double in quantity, then triple, as vendors unveil their show plans and begin to reveal new products. Of course, the CGW SIGGRAPH issue is always larger and more robust than our typical issues. And, for the past several years, we have taken on the production of the SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Festival guide - no small task, either.

I am now trying to decompress - finally. But before I do, I wanted to provide some of my thoughts and observations from the show. And then I will get ready to reset the calendar for next year's event in Vancouver.

Saturday, June 20

After a whopping four hours of sleep, I left my house for the airport at 4:30 am. The heat wave was still blanketing the East Coast, and the outside temperature was 85 degrees in New Hampshire! After an uneventful flight (thank God!) I arrived in Anaheim to a nice, cool day - at least the heat and mugginess did not follow me.

After a meeting, it was time to do the annual CGW Get Connected! Event for the SIGGRAPH Student Volunteers. This marks the sixth time CGW has done this event, and this year there were approximately 300 students in the room to hear presentations by our all-star panel: Jenny Fulle, founder of The Creative-Cartel; John DesJardin, visual effects supervisor; Bobby Podesta, CCO of ToyTalk (formerly of Pixar), and Guy Williams, visual effects supervisor at Weta Digital. These people have worked on a ton of tentpole films: The Matrix, Ghost Rider, Surf's Up, Spider-Man, Stuart Little, Batman Returns, A Bug's Life, Monsters, Inc., Toy Story, Mission Impossible: II, The Lord of the Rings, I, Robot, King Kong, Iron Man 3, The Avengers, The Hunger Games, and more. These industry rock stars discussed their personal journeys within the visual effects realm, providing advice and information that is sure to help the students in their own journeys. The students were attentive and embraced the opportunity to hear from these experts. Afterward, they had the chance to ask the panel questions in a Q&A that, as always, had to be cut short due to time. But, despite their busy schedules (John "DJ" DesJardin had driven up to the session directly from Comic-Con, then drove back after the presentation), the presenters stayed until the last student's question was answered after the students approached the stage following the session. My thanks goes out to them for graciously giving their time back to the students!

At the Get Connected! Session, CGW raffled off a ton of prizes, including a DreamColor monitor (from HP) and three high-end graphics cards (one from Nvidia and two from AMD). Plus, we had a bunch of other items from Weta, The Creative-Cartel, and Sony Pictures, including DVDs and cool swag from the new Smurfs movie! Then the students were treated to a pizza party co-sponsored by CGW.

Sunday, July 21

SIGGRAPH held its third Business Symposium, which started early Sunday morning and lasted until about dinnertime. CGW long-time contributor Evan Hirsch (Executive Creative Director, Engine Co. 4) served as this year's Business Symposium Chair. The Symposium is geared to higher-level execs and studio heads. To encourage open discussion, only a handful of select press were invited, including me. The daylong event featured discussion on platforms and content creation/delivery. A really dynamic speaker was Captain Thomas Chaby, executive officer of the Naval Special Warfare Center who discussed disruption on the battlefield - with the takeaway obviously being dealing with unplanned events in this industry. There were other discussions, too. But there were two items of particular interest. The first encouraged attendees to stay linked together via IntroNetworks. Providing the information was Mark Sylvester, CEO of IntroNetworks. In case that name sounds familiar, it is. He was a co-founder of Wavefront Technologies. Attendees were encouraged to use the community-building software, given to them free of charge for the year. The other was a mentoring program, and the execs in the room were encouraged to mentor or become mentorees; SIGGRAPH attendees were also prompted to sign up, so that matches could be found, pairing up those with common interests and objectives. What a fantastic idea!

Monday, July 22

The day started when I met with HP in their suite at the hotel. The company was showing off their latest Z Workstation: the HP Z230, in a tower offering and a small form factor. Pricing starts at $999 for quad-core configurations, and they are expected to be available this month. HP also showed off the first professional monitors of the new Z Display family: the HP Z22i, Z23i and Z24i IPS Displays.

I then zipped to the pressroom to get my badge. En route to the keynote, I stopped at a stand that had "My first SIGGRAPH was" ribbons. I found mine (1998, Orlando). Then I dashed to the keynote. Wow! How fabulous it was to take a trip down memory lane with giants in the film industry. They were there to share their experiences and early work - really early work, most of which was their student films.

I then had a "speed dating" session with vendors outside the pressroom. It was kind of nice not having to run around the show floor to various booths. Instead, I sat at a table and they played musical vendor, rotating in and out. Imagination Technologies provided sneak previews of its Caustic Visualizer for Maya and Max, and discussed its developments in raytraced graphics. PipelineFX talked about Qube 6.5, its renderfarm management software, released recently. Chaos Group continued to impress with its V-Ray renderer. Also impressive was Fabric Engine. I got a small preview of what they were doing last year, and it was a bit confusing. However, this year, it was anything but. I saw some amazing performance using the Creation platform they were describing last year. With Creation: Splice, multithreading boosted performance within other DCC packages. Creation: Horde unleashed procedural crowd and character motion. Also new but not yet released is Creation: Stage, a high-performance scene assembly, lighting, and shader authoring system developed with the Creation framework.

New to SIGGRAPH this year was the Exhibit Fast Forward, similar to the Papers Fast Forward only centered on the exhibition floor. It was interesting: Company reps had one minute to entice the audience to visit their booth when the exhibition area opened the following day. The point was to be entertaining and fun, though only a handful were able to achieve that requirement. Indeed, some embraced the concept, but, sadly, many did not. This was the first year, and only a limited number of vendors participated, so hopefully more will sign up for this event next year, and come prepared to be entertaining.

Next, I did a much-too-fast visit to the Emerging Technologies area and Art Gallery. As always, there is really cool stuff to see and do there. One of the more delightful installations was the IllumiRoom: Peripheral Projected Illusions for Interactive Experiences. IllumiRoom turns the area surrounding a television into the virtual environment, with projected visualizations to enhance traditional gaming experiences. It changes the appearance of the room, which becomes encapsulated in the visuals playing on the TV.

To cap off the evening, I had the most wonderful dinner with a few media colleagues hosted by Rob Powers, president of the LightWave 3D Group. It was held at a wonderful Italian restaurant with exquisite food. There, I had the pleasure of meeting Kiki Stockhammer. Many people reading this likely know who she is, but prior to this evening, I never had the pleasure of crossing paths with her. To call her a NewTek evangelist for the Video Toaster is only to scratch the surface. She was, and still is, a technology rock star. She had left NewTek in the mid-1990s and founded Play Incorporated with some fellow NewTekers, and sort of took a hiatus when the company was bought out in 2000. Well, she was back at SIGGRAPH with the LightWave group, and she is as vivacious as ever! Seriously, I have never met a more life-loving, tech-savvy, articulate person. To speak with her and watch her on stage is a memorable experience - you found a new fan, Kiki!

Tuesday, July 23

The day started bright and early with an Autodesk breakfast at Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen, a nice piece of New Orleans nestled in downtown Disney. First off, Autodesk's absence on the trade show floor was noticeable. After all, Autodesk now owns a huge chunk of the DCC market, but the company feels that its global base is better served through virtual events. That said, Autodesk used the opportunity off-site of the conference to deliver some news, one item of which is under embargo until later this week. First, it has made product support and learning content live and available under Creative Commons (CC) licensing. That means 20,000 pages of documentation, 70 videos, and 140 downloadable 3D asset files for Autodesk's 2014 Media and Entertainment product line are now available for public modification, remixing, and sharing as part of the new Open Learning Initiative. Second, Autodesk launched Autodesk FBX Review for Microsoft Windows 7- and Windows 8-enabled devices. The standalone app lets users do reviews of 3D assets, such as models and character animations, outside of the native file. Third, Autodesk announced the Leap Motion plug-in for Maya 2014, which lets users interact with 3D scenes by moving their hands and gesturing. Stay tuned for more to come.

For the second year, I conducted interviews with various people from the industry, and these were videotaped Tuesday and Wednesday, courtesy of Moviola, at the CGW booth on the exhibit floor. Visit CGW.com and check out the video section to view the interviews, which will be posted shortly.

Maxon hosted a much-appreciated press luncheon, where the press could take a break and enjoy a bite to eat, while Paul Babb, president/CEO of Maxon in the Americas, could address all of us at once, providing information about the latest release of Cinema 4D R15, with rendering, modeling, and sculpting improvements. Cinema 4D continues to get more robust and feature-rich.

An impressive showing on the exhibit floor was from Christie, with its HoloStation 3D Personal Visualization System - in essence, a portable CAVE for interactive stereo 3D. Yet, one of the highlights of the day came out of a last-minute press conference called by Nvidia. That's when we got a peek at Project Logan, a next-gen, CUDA-capable mobile processor. In summary, Nvidia's new processor delivers Kepler-like performance to mobile devices, not surprising since the board is based on the Kepler architecture.

Wednesday, July 24

I attended a breakfast hosted by a group from Ontario, promoting the incentives and companies from that region. I've got to say, the incentives offered there cannot be ignored by the film/TV, digital media, and R&D folks. The region wants to embrace business and is actively promoting that.

Following more CGW.TV interviews, I zipped over to the Jon Peddie Research luncheon, where a panel of industry experts (including Joe Herman, animator at Legend Animation; Joni Jacobson, executive producer at Pixomondo; Dr. Paul Navrátil, researcher and manager of the Scalable Visualization Technologies group for the Texas Advanced Computing Center at the University of Texas at Austin; Michael Romey, head of production pipeline at Zoic Studio; and Dr. Lincoln Wallen, CTO of DreamWorks Animation SKG) talked about democratization and the effect on productions. The discussion was relevant and timely, looking at today's economic struggles and pressures and how those affect the pace of innovation in the production process. Kathleen Maher was moderator and did a fantastic job. A very interesting summary of the event can be found at: http://gfxspeak.com/2013/07/31/commoditization-is-a-mixed-bag-for-me/.

Before returning to the show floor, I stopped in to see Dell at its suite. I was impressed with its Ultrasharp 32-inch display, and I challenge anyone who sees it to honestly say they do not feel likewise. But, what really impressed me was a new M3800 mobile workstation that the group so cunningly hid inside the casing of one of its larger, heavier mobile workstations. The point was well made!

Big news from The Foundry made its booth abuzz with activity. In case you missed it, The Foundry and Pixar have agreed to a technical collaboration involving Katana and RenderMan to improve lighting and rendering, taking both to a new level.

There's some new happenings at NewTek, too. LightWave 11.6 was unveiled. But more amazing is the new ChronoSculpt for sculpting and manipulating 3D deformations and animation over time. In essence, users can correct and remove simulation errors in real time - no matter the 3D software program. Another impressive announcement was the NevronMotion motion-capture retargeting software for LightWave 11.6 with support for the popular Microsoft Kinect camera. With NevronMotion, users can easily capture, adjust, and retarget motion data to 3D models inside LightWave.

Also worth a mention is zSpace, which offers a stereo 3D environment. New is a webcam capture app for zSpace called zView. The tech lets users easily manipulate a 3D object. I did just that, pulling apart a model of a heart so I could view sections in detail. (Biology class will never be the same if some schools use this tech in the classroom!) But for the SIGGRAPH crowd, product designs, animations, and simulations can be handled in much the same way. And zView lets the user share the experience with others, as the imagery is then projected onto a screen for others to view. 

It seemed that all the major events were held Wednesday night. One of the big ones was the Nvidia Limelight event. AMD hosted a wonderful, relaxing dinner at Ralph Brennan's, after which a few of us found our way back to the hotel by strolling through Disney. (Not at all like Disney in Orlando, but Disney all the same.)

Thursday, July 25

The last day of the show. I spent most of it walking the show floor to see what everyone else was offering. 3D printing was still a popular technology, as was motion capture--facial mocap, in particular. Ah, and yes, the cloud. More companies are embracing it and extending their services and products there.

One comment about the convention center: It was really nice. It was new, and the rooms were easily accessible - that is, I could walk from the floor to the session rooms and the pressroom in a reasonable amount of time. And, two hotels were literally steps from the hall, which proved convenient for me as I rushed from my last appointment to do a quick change before a vendor dinner. Also, there was limited food available inside the center, but several food trucks parked within the courtyard outside to offer plenty of options. And, attendees took advantage of the outdoor area to sit and chat, and just hang out. What a nice feeling of community and networking.

The show ended with a session on the state of the industry. A sad way to end it. Unfortunately, I was pulled out of the session a few times to take care of some CGW business, but the panel - which included visual effects artists and supervisors, a labor organizer, an attorney, and a man who knows first hand how devastating the financial state of the industry can be - talked about the business practices and issues surrounding the current state of visual effects production from the perspectives of artists, owners, and executives. It also looked at some options, including the viability of unionization, as well as what lies ahead.



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