February 2, 2009

Reporter at Large The View from Torino, Italy: A Conference Fantastico

I've been to many conferences during my years with Computer Graphics World, but recently, I attended one of the best CG conferences ever: Torino's "View." What a wonderful surprise! Torino (or Turin), Italy, is reinventing itself from a manufacturing center into a mecca for digital entertainment, and View, directed by Maria Elena Gutierrez, is a centerpiece of that revolution.

Reporter at Large:
The View from Torino, Italy:  A Conference Fantastico

By Barbara Robertson

I’ve been to many conferences during my years with Computer Graphics World, but recently, I attended one of the best CG conferences ever: Torino’s “View.” What a wonderful surprise! Torino (or Turin), Italy, is reinventing itself from a manufacturing center into a mecca for digital entertainment, and View, directed by Maria Elena Gutierrez, is a centerpiece of that revolution.

“It’s part of our DNA,” says Mayor Sergio Chiamparino. “Cinema in Italy was born here.”

The ancient city in northwest Italy’s Po river valley provides a grand setting for what has become the most important computer graphics conference in Italy. Torino traces its history to 28 BC; you can still see a typical Roman street grid in the modern city. In the 15th century, the Counts of Savoy built gardens and palaces, and founded the University of Turin. Arched arcades over pedestrian walkways, many built in the 18th century, now shelter computer stores as well as cafés, but you can still drink espresso at the same cafe that once served Mark Twain.

For a short time beginning in 1861, Torino was the capital of Italy--the first capital of unified Italy. Now, it’s a city of a million people, the fourth largest in Italy, famous for its Fiat factory, chocolate, the slow food movement, and the Museum of the Cinema in the soaring 19th-century Mole Antonelliana building. The building was the symbol of the 2006 winter Olympics, which Torino hosted. When you look toward the west or north, down narrow streets lined with buildings as ornate as antique picture frames, you see startling views of the snow-capped Alps.

But even though Torino’s history and beauty surrounded us, the 10,000 or so people at View, professionals, vendors, students, and me, chose instead to immerse our bodies and brains in five days of what I discovered to be a masters class in computer graphics--the technology, history, application, and influence--taught by some of the most accomplished people in the industry.

In fact, for Torino student Marco Vettore, who must have an enlightened instructor, it was his first week of school. “At school, we are always inside,” he says, referring to more than his bricks-and-mortar classroom. “It is good to see the world outside.” Like many students attending the conference, Vettore hopes to work in the entertainment industry when he graduates.

View showed students like him the world they hope to enter, and provided recruiters eager to open the doors. But, it also provided resources for professionals. The presentations and workshops ranged from nuts-and-bolts practicalities and case studies to futuristic predictions, from personal histories to industry histories, from the theoretical to the inspirational. The conference covered animation, visual effects, game development, and broadcast. You could pick your passion.

Some examples of the practical:
Sharon Callahan, lighting director at Pixar for the Oscar-winning feature animation Ratatouille gave an amazing tutorial in lighting design that I will never forget; they used still images from feature films to explain such concepts as directing the eye, supporting the emotion in the story, maintaining continuity, and adding beauty. “Be clear who or what the shot is about,” she said, for example. “Create pathways for the eye to move.”

Lucia Modesto, character TD supervisor at PDI/DreamWorks, who was the third person hired at PDI, explained, in fabulous detail, how PDI/DreamWorks created rigs provided dynamic simulations under artistic control for Santa’s beard in Shrek the Halls, and to enable the animals in Madagascar 2 to easily transition between walking on two legs or four.

Stephane Deverly, pipeline supervisor at Framestore, provided a granular explanation of how Framestore managed The Tale of Despereaux’s complex production, including information on asset management, shot management, and render wrangling.

Paul Topolos, a storyboard artist at Pixar, walked an eager audience of aspiring artists through his personal history as a storyboard artist for Star Wars: Episode I, a previs artist for Star Wars Episode II, and matte painter for Ratatouille, before taking us on a journey from concept art to final images in Wall-E.

Pam Hogarth, director of advancement at Gnomon’s School of Visual Effects, along with instructors from Torino’s National Film School and other schools, offered roundtables and presentations on CG training and education. And, Nvidia, Softimage, and Google gave separate classes targeted toward gamers, programmers, and artists.

Brenda Bakker Harger, professor of entertainment technology at Carnegie Mellon University, taught a more unusual class: improvisational acting, showing us how improv rules apply to life and animation as well as theater.

“Saying ‘Yes, and’ is essential to moving forward,” Bakker Harger explained, and then demonstrated using volunteers from the audience. “Be fun to play with, serve the narrative, and make your partner look good.”

For game developers, Ubisoft presenters traveled inside Prince of Persia, provided anecdotes from the development team, and brought Elika to life. Hiroyuki Kobayashi, a Capcom producer, talked about the cinematic challenges in creating the upcoming film Resident Evil: Degeneration Project. And, the irrepressible raconteur Chris Taylor, CEO and creative director of Gas Powered Game, inspired and entertained the audience with his experiences as an independent developer trying to deliver new games that defy standard conventions.

But, perhaps most exciting for gamers in the audience (other than meeting the recruiters working the crowds), was the keynote address by Will Wright, legendary creator of The Sims and Spore.

In that address, Wright held the audience captive by describing the grammar of game design. In the early days, he explained, games had an equal number of verbs (the internal code) and nouns (the data). Then, when CD-ROMs became available, data became king, and that led to this conclusion: “Hiring teams to fill a CD with data is not sustainable,” he said.

With Spore, in which users build characters and vehicles that the game brings to life, players create the “nouns.” “Spore removes the wall between consumers and producers,” Wright said. “In the first two months--63 days--people created 45 million unique assets in Spore. That’s 715,000 a day. 30,000 an hour.”

Although Spore automatically animates the characters, now, the Holy Grail, Wright added, would be if the players could give those characters behaviors.

Among those in the audience listening to Wright’s keynote address was Ken Perlin, a legend in computer graphics--he received SIGGRAPH’s Computer Graphics Achievement Award in 2008, one of many awards he’s received.

Perlin, a professor in the media research laboratory at New York University, was scheduled to speak about NYU’s new Games for Learning Institute, which he did, unveiling during the process NYU’s patented “unmouse pad.”  Developed in the media lab’s SPIRAL group (Science, Playful Interface Research, and Learning), the UnMousePad is a paper-thin, flexible multi-touch device that senses varying levels of pressure for many touches, with resolution high enough to detect individual fingertips.

But during his talk, Perlin also took up Wright’s challenge--to create a game in which the players not only built characters, but also programmed behaviors. While on stage, Perlin operated a computer game that he wrote, sending little critters around a game board to play sequences of musical notes. In doing so, he also created loops and conditionals, and set variables. In other words, even though it seemed like he was only playing music, he was actually writing a computer program. While playing the game; he was programming behaviors.

Then, Glenn Entis continued to push the ideas further in his talk-- something I have rarely seen happen at a computer graphics conference, and something, I think, that happens only at events like this in which the speakers also attend all the talks. Noting that both Perlin and Wright demonstrated that while people consumed information in the past, they’re now producing it. He observed, “All the world is a user interface, and all the men and women are players.” And then he explained why that matters.

Entis, a consultant now after serving as former senior vice president and chief visual and technology officer of Electronic Arts (and before that, co-founder of PDI), believes that game designers have more to offer than game design: “Game design makes navigation through complexity simple and fun.” But, he notes, “The world has to ask.”

And, he reminds us that we have to ask ourselves a few questions, too: How do we talk to technology, and how do machines talk back? What does it means to be a human? What does it mean to be a machine? How do we define ourselves? What do we want?

Brad Lewis, the other keynote speaker, didn’t provide the answers, but he did offer cogent advice. In his wind-up-the-conference speech, the former Ratatouille producer and current Cars 2 director introduced us to his colorful personal history as an 18-wheeler truck driver, Sesame Street dancer (he played Oscar the grouch), and busboy, before being hired by Entis at PDI and then moving on to Pixar. “Success and failure are simultaneous,” he said. “It’s how you view it. I spend a great deal of time imagining and preparing for both success and failure.”

Referring back to Brenda Bakker Harger’s talk, Lewis noted, “At Pixar, we always go from ‘Yes, and’ as we build our story. It keeps the energy going.”

There were other speakers, other amazing speakers, who kept the energy going at View.

Mark Osborne, director of DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda, showed us his path from independent filmmaker working with stop-motion animation to DreamWorks. In a foretaste of Lewis’s advice, Osborne shared his motto, borrowed from Yoda: “Try not? Do or do not. There is no Try.” “I would rather have a film that’s horrible but finished than one never started,” he said.

Michael Rubin dug into the archives from his recent book, Droidmaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution, to give the audience the fascinating history of computer graphics innovation driven by Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola.

Bruce Grenville, curator for the Vancouver Art Gallery, offered a view into the future of visual culture through his museum’s groundbreaking exhibition of art from anime, comics, and video games.

Larry Bafia, an independent animator, discussed his transformation from stop-motion animator to digital artist. Graham Jack from Double Negative provided a Hellboy 2 case history. That isn’t all, of course. And, I haven’t even touched on the exhibition area for vendors, the separate Peach conference on virtual reality, held simultaneously in the same building, or ViewFest, the festival that precedes View.
Bottom line: I learned. I was inspired. My only regret in having attended View is that I didn’t discover it earlier. I hope I can return next year. I hope you can go, too: November 4 through 7, 2009. (http://www.viewconference.it/)

Deadline for animated film submissions for the 2009 View (festival) award is October 15, 2009. Deadline for papers, video, and artwork for the conference is August 31, 2009.