Community Spirit
September 10, 2009

Community Spirit

By Karen Moltenbrey
CGW Chief Editor

As most of you must know by now, the attendance at this year’s SIGGRAPH was the lowest in many years, but the spirit and enthusiasm of those who were able to wrangle company or personal funds to attend was at an all-time high.

Last year, a number of folks—among them, Sony Pictures Imageworks’ then-president Tim Sarnoff—spoke about the importance of giving back to the graphics community. Throughout the past several months, we have seen various studios doing just that, offering code and scripts that were written for specific projects, thus giving others short-cuts to some pretty nifty technology. At SIGGRAPH 2009, this “giving back” concept took root in a number of other ways.

Just recently marked the fourth-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the city of New Orleans. Many SIGGRAPH veterans have fond memories of attending the show there in 2000 and even before, and a number questioned whether the city was ready to host the conference after the destruction that has still left some of the city in ruins. The tourist areas—the French Quarter, in particular—were thriving. But in the Ninth Ward area, well, it is a totally different story. Displaced residents are still living in temporary trailers. Some schools are still closed. Some local businesses have not re-opened simply because there are no customers living in that area. To this end, SIGGRAPH initiated the SIGGRAPH 2009+1 Outreach program to benefit New Orleans schools and cultural programs, while in another venture, some of the conference veterans collectively volunteered their time and money to help build houses.

One project selected by SIGGRAPH organizers was to aid the Algiers Technology Academy, a charter high school that is part of the Recovery School District. The school is unique in that it offers several courses in computer graphics. SIGGRAPH invited 50 students to the conference, encouraging show-goers to sign on as mentors and to escort the students around the conference.

The Algiers Technology Academy students were joined by 50 others from the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), a local school that provides pre-professional arts training to middle and high school students in culinary arts, dance, media arts, music (classical, jazz, vocal), theater arts (drama, musical theater, theater design), visual arts, and creative writing. Some of these students played musical selections for an appreciative SIGGRAPH crowd awestruck by their talent and enthusiasm.

Lab Assistance
In a second initiative, also involving the Algiers Technology Academy, organizers focused on building an advanced computer graphics lab at the school, and a number of vendors stepped up to the plate with donations. Walt Disney Animation Studios generously donated new computers, while Autodesk provided software—40 seats of its Animation Academy. Others gave their time to help with an aesthetic makeover of the room or to set up the equipment.

The Algiers initiative grew from a suggestion by DreamWorks’ Marilyn Friedman to ILM’s Jerome Solomon, the SIGGRAPH 2009 Outreach chair. “New Orleans still needs our support. SIGGRAPH is a giving community, and with the conference being held there this year, the partnership was very natural,” he says.

The goal, obviously, was to help New Orleans in a way that was a good fit for the SIGGRAPH community. As Solomon points out, New Orleans is a spectacular city, and today, people can visit without ever knowing that Katrina happened. But, in other parts, there is still a great deal of work to be done, particularly outside of the downtown area.

When Solomon, along with Cindy Stark, visited Algiers Technical Academy as part of initial meetings with various organizations and nonprofits in the area, they noticed that the library lacked books. “The school’s academic program was in full swing, but there was clearly a need,” he says. “The school’s energetic, young principal, Henderson Lewis, really impressed us. After that visit, we knew in our hearts that ATA was the right school for SIGGRAPH to partner with.”

And the graphics community really stepped up, says Solomon. Marty Sixkiller from Dreamworks Animation assumed the role of project manager for the graphics lab. In addition to Disney and Autodesk, other donations came from Pixologic (ZBrush software), while the Nvidia Foundation donated $10,000 to the lab. Nvidia held a “Get your Beads On Bash” during one of the evenings, encouraging revelers to bar hop down Bourbon Street to designated locales. The Nvidia Foundation matched funds raised during this cash bar event, with the donations allocated to the Algiers School.

Also, a large number of companies and attendees pitched in on other fronts to assist. “We had volunteers at the school for two days helping build and put the lab together,” Solomon says. “Everybody in the graphics community should feel good about what SIGGRAPH did for New Orleans. It was a collaborative project.”

Indeed, the lab is an incredible addition to the school, which is looking to add more students. “The school is committed and has also hired a wonderful teacher for the lab,” adds Solomon. “This is a whole new world for the students to expand their horizons and get involved in graphics. Graphics is also uniquely positioned to exercise a student’s interest in both creative and technical areas. The students were incredibly excited when we launched the lab. They immediately jumped into building objects and doing animation in 3D on the first day! We’re really excited about what might happen next.”

All That Jazz
In another effort, SIGGRAPH 2009 partnered with Basin Street Records to offer a custom album of music by some of the city's finest musicians. Proceeds from the $9.99 album download were used to support the Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong Summer Jazz Camp and its musical kids. The camp trains 100 young people per year (ages 10-21) in music and dance albeit on a very limited budget. It also offers three-week-long training programs in the music business, recording engineering, and music notation technology for advanced students.

This endeavor enabled members of the graphics community from all over the world, not just attendees, to help out an important New Orleans initiative.

Building a Better Life
The group known as the SIGGRAPH Graphics Pioneers did its share, as well, sponsoring the Make-It-Right Foundation to build energy-efficient houses in New Orleans for survivors of Hurricane Katrina. The Pioneers also asked the creative community to help survivors of Hurricane Katrina with monetary donations to the Make it Right Foundation (

The SIGGRAPH Graphics Pioneers, an organization formed by scientists, engineers, artists, and industry professionals active in computer graphics since the inception of SIGGRAPH, have adopted a house being built by the Make It Right Foundation. Donate directly to the Make it Right Foundation, The House that SIGGRAPH Pioneers Built can be seen at =The+House+that+Siggraph+Pioneers+Built.

Make It Right, a collaboration between actor Brad Pitt, Graft Architects, Cherokee Gives Back, and William McDonough + Partners, was founded in 2007 to help rebuild the New Orleans Lower Ninth Ward, an area that was completely wiped out during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The Make It Right Foundation is committed to building 150 energy-efficient, solar-powered, storm-resistant homes in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans.

"We have had wonderful experiences in New Orleans for the SIGGRAPH conferences,” says Kathleen Maher, vice president of Jon Peddie Research and a member of the SIGGRAPH Graphics Pioneers. “However, the devastation Katrina left in its wake is unfathomable, and unless you’ve seen it firsthand, it’s really hard to imagine. The SIGGRAPH Pioneers encourage the graphics community to band together and help support the victims of Hurricane Katrina by helping New Orleans return to its former glory. Every dollar counts to help Make it Right for those families still trying to recover from such the devastation.” Donations are still being accepted.