George Maestri
August 6, 2010


Looking at SIGGRAPH 2010

SIGGRAPH 2010 returned to its home base in Los Angeles this year.  The show was held a week earlier than usual, starting right after Comic Con ended in neighboring San Diego.  This allowed everyone to tuck away their stormtrooper helmets and alien costumes and trot up the I-5 to witness the technical side of how their favorite movies were made.

The conference this year had a strong focus on education (make sure you check out the annual education supplement in the July issue of CGW). The technology used to create computer graphics has matured over the past five to 10 years, and the focus is shifting toward using these technologies better. In addition to a strong education track at the conference, the show floor was populated with a large number of colleges and universities touting graphics and animation programs. Online companies, like Escape Studios, which are bringing their training to the US market, were also at the conference.

Even the vendors were talking education. Autodesk was discussing a study it had commissioned that showed people tended to use tried-and-true techniques rather than explore new features that could make them a lot more productive. This told Autodesk that it needed to educate their users more. This also shows that, while the technology is maturing, there are still a lot new things being introduced that can make an artist’s job easier and more productive. Technology still marches on.

Nvidia showed off a bunch of new Quadro FX graphics cards. The new cards are based on Nvidia’s new Fermi architecture, which the company claims can give a five- to eight-fold increase in performance. The cards include the Quadro 6000 with 6GB of GDDR5 memory and 448 CUDA cores, the Quadro 5000 with 2.5GB of GDDR5 memory and 352 CUDA cores, and the Quadro 4000 with 2GB of GDDR5 memory and 256 CUDA cores.

In addition to these new cards, Nvidia was showing a lot of applications and software that leverage the power of the new cards. Probably the most impressive was the Mercury Playback Engine for Adobe’s Premiere Pro editing suite, which allows for multiple HD video streams to be played and manipulated in real time. The new Cineform plug-in for Premiere Pro offered easy manipulation of stereoscopic 3D content, as well. For designers, companies such as Bunkspeed were using Nvidia cards to allow real-time raytracing and manipulation of 3D objects from wall-sized touch screens.

Stereoscopic 3D was also very prominent over in ATI’s booth, where the company was showing its FirePro cards. The most notable news for the firm was the introduction of a new driver that increased performance by as much as 62 percent. Give that programmer a bonus.

This year marked the 20th anniversary of Autodesk’s 3ds Max. The software has certainly come a long way from its original DOS roots. It was one of the first affordable 3D packages, and back in the day, the $3495 package competed well against software and hardware costing 10 times as much. These days, the price is still $3495, and 3ds Max is the top-selling 3D modeling, animation, and rendering solution on the market. To further sweeten the pot, Autodesk announced two new Premium Creation Suites, which, for a small additional fee, bundles Softimage XSI, Mudbox, and Motion Builder, along with Maya or 3ds Max. The addition of Softimage XSI gives Maya and 3ds Max users the power of Softimage’s Face Robot and ICE technology. For Softimage users, it also could be seen as the reverse—buy Softimage and get Maya or Max free.

NewTek, which also introduced an affordable 3D package a few decades ago, announced its new LightWave 10 software, which upgrades the firm’s venerable modeling, animation, and rendering suite. This represents a very significant upgrade to LightWave, as it rewrites the back end with NewTek’s CORE technology, which promises better performance and opens LightWave up for significant changes down the road. New features include a new Viewport renderer that uses OpenGL to display real-time ambient occlusion, bloom, and stereoscopic anaglyph images, as well as the ability to display HDRI background images. Other features include new UV mapping tools, better data interchange, and 3D stereoscopic tools for games and narrative work.

Probably the most exciting event on the show floor was at the LightWave booth when both Dick Van Dyke and William Shatner showed up. Shatner interviewed Dick Van Dyke about how they both use LightWave 3D in their projects. In addition to all the other miracles 3D can perform, it apparently also keeps you young, because these two men were quite hilarious, brilliant, and very vibrant for their ages (Shatner is 79, Dick Van Dyke is 85).

Other software news had the Bay Area’s Shotgun and Tweak showing off their respective wares. Run by some ex-ILM developers, Shotgun is a complete pipeline and asset management tool that makes it much easier to work in collaborative environments. Tweak was showing RV, a very robust image viewer that promises color-accurate playback for critical viewing. Integrated with Shotgun, RV allows anyone viewing assets in Shotgun to accurately view an asset. Maxon, meanwhile, was happily showing its popular Cinema 4D suite. Thetool is particularly popular with motion graphics artists, and a number of them were demo’ing some amazing projects in the booth.

On the motion-capture front, the progress was more evolutionary than revolutionary. Organic Motion was showing its markerless motion-capture technology. OptiTrack was showing a mocap virtual camera, much like those used in Avatar, as well as an affordable $6000 optical motion-capture system with six cameras. Vicon was showing its new compact Bonita camera, but also promoting the company’s brick-and-mortar motion-capture studio, House of Moves. They did an engaging short film “Beyond the Norn,” starring Norm MacDonald, which demonstrates simultaneous facial and motion capture.

Speaking of engaging short films, SIGGRAPH’s Electronic Theater had a number of great films this year. Best in Show Award was “Loom,” by Jan Bitzer, Ilija Brunck, and Csaba Letay of Polynoid and Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg of Germany, which tells the story of the fate of an unlucky moth and his captor, a spider. The Jury Award this year went to the moving and hopeful World War I battlefield short “Poppy,” by James Cunningham of Delf Productions in New Zealand. Best Student Project Prize Winner was “The Wonder Hospital” by Beomsik Shimbe Shim from the California Institute of the Arts. Pixar’s “Day & Night,” which is also showing with Toy Story 3,was a wonderful mixture of 2D and 3D styles created by Teddy Newton. Other films showed at the festival were the requisite clips from feature films such as Alice in Wonderland, Avatar, and Iron Man 2. The preview of TRON: Legacy was also very exciting and showed that CG has truly come full circle.

The papers and panels were also quite popular. As usual, big crowds showed up for the “making-of” seminars. This year,Avatar and Alice in Wonderland did quite well. Other cool new technology was in the area of do-it-yourself 3D printing, with Make industries showing a $995 3D printer kit in a plywood case that can print 3D objects in thermoplastic. The first Apple computer was a kit; who knows, this company could be the Apple of 3D printing in 10 years.

Overall, SIGGRAPH was a little smaller, but the show was great. Next year will be interesting, as it will be SIGGRAPH’s first venture outside the US, to Vancouver, Canada in the Pacific Northwest.