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Siggraph 2008: A Most Extraordinary Conference

I've been writing reviews and articles for Renderosity.com for year or so now. A couple months ago they asked me if I'd be willing to cover Siggraph 2008 convention as it was taking place in Los Angeles this year (my hometown). I was overjoyed at the prospect having read so much about this enormous convention in a recent history of Pixar Studios called "The Pixar Touch" by David A. Price.

After spending several months preparing, I finally got to attend the convention this last week and it was (honestly) an extraordinary event. Filling both convention Halls of the downtown Los Angeles convention center, the convention featured panels, classes, presentations, an animation festival, a huge exhibit hall and many, many smaller events all wedged in creatively to the schedule. And, of course, the exhibitors like Alias, NewTek, Lucas Studios and the like all had parties and classes of their own just a few blocks away from the convention center.

The event was overwhelming at times and I found myself seeking out a quiet place (the media room) in order to catch my breath and re-group. Since this is my first time attending Siggraph, I asked many of the veteran reporters what events were the most interesting. They all had completely different answers and I realized that you just pick what interests you and then see what happens. I had a prepared a tight schedule from 8AM to sometimes as late as 8PM every day, but by the third day (Wednesday) I realized that just wandering around and talking to people would actually provide more interesting opportunities to learn and discover. My legs and feet were so tired from walking miles and miles each day, I wasn't sure if I could last the day sometimes.

But I managed somehow and with my backpack, recording device and camera met all kinds of people; students, amateurs, professionals, CEO's, salesmen, filmmakers and reporters like myself. The classes sometimes went over my head. I took a class on "Motion Planning & Autonomy for Virtual People" and quickly realized what the lack of a computer science degree could do to you. But many of the panels were filled with animators and filmmakers who went way back with the Disney company. At one point during the "Future of Character Animation" panel, the veteran, Don Hahn, was asked what Disney would have thought of flash animation and immediately said "He'd love it".

I suppose the highlight of the convention was the Ed Catmull keynote address on Monday. I say "suppose" because there were so many other events that captured my imagination and inspired me. But Ed's comments were very special to me as I've been mulling over how small groups of people interact and work together. I've collaborated so much on machinima projects this year that I've wondered why some projects worked well and others were less effective. His personal discoveries of the value of trust and honesty in work along with empathy and commitment seem obvious, but in the context of a complex project, individual ego, incredibly long hours and looming deadlines, it's not so easy to hold to those values. His speech, told as a long response to an unnamed Hollywood Producers quote that better ideas are more important than people, Catmull spoke for nearly 90 minutes. At times appearing frail (he mentioned a recent hip replacement), but always intense and focused.

Maxon Cinema4D Luncheon

As an example of how well the Siggraph crew handled the tech aspect of this and all of the other events I attented, there were three huge digital monitors to view Catmull up close and a superb sound system so you could catch the nuance in every word. I came away, as did the majority of the 500+ people who attended and applauded him wildly, with renewed commitment to working with a creative team I admire and respect towards projects that not only interest us but engage us passionately. Unlike Hobbes, who saw the world as one huge process of self-interest, there is real hope and pride in working with others of a like mind. Again, while it seems obvious, it's often the simple lessons that we forget. No wonder Mr. Catmull has been so important to the development of computer graphics and animated films; he's an authentic genius.

Speaking of "passion", that was the one word I heard over and over at Siggraph. That and "commitment". From the "Careers in Computer Graphics" to the "SpeedLab" final presentations, the idea that passionate devotion to the computer graphics field was a universally held assumption. And after meeting dozens of people and many panelists and teachers, I can honestly say that they practice what they preach. Siggraph was alive with people excited about what they were doing no matter what their age. Even the people on the sales floor in the Exhibit hall were passionate about their projects. At one point, "Ralph", floor spokesperson for NewTek (Lightwave, etc) offered a 20 minute story about his efforts to place "Speed Edit" in Mexican and South American schools. He was successful and I've got a copy of "Speed Edit" on it's way for review. Absolutely one of the best promotional speeches I've ever heard; and I've heard a lot.

Look closely: notice the Crytek poster? This was a station with the map editor for Far Cry2

I suppose if I had any regrets about attending Siggraph this year it would be that I didn't spend more time in the Exhibition Hall talking with smaller vendors and talking with the career/job reps. I'm considering changing careers to character animation and I missed talking to some of the better schools represented there. And the small vendors often had a more low-key approach to telling you about their project. I really wanted to talk to some of the smaller motion-capture companies. I chose to attend more classes and panels for my first Siggraph. Next time, if renderosity sends me again, I plan on giving myself more free time to let networking and chance meetings happen. These were the most interesting encounters I had while I was there.

By accident I ran across Friedrich Kirschner, but we only had about 10 minutes to chat. I took a picture, but it came out strangely (all a blur). Sorry, Friedrich. Spent time with my friend John Martin at the Reallusion suite (IClone 3) and met their CEO Charles Chen, a sharp guy who listened much more than he spoke. And I wrote Peter Rasmussen's name on the Memorial board which was in the West Hall. It made me feel good to write "machinima filmmaker" underneath. Peter would have loved Siggraph

On a final note, which will be of interest to our machinima community, I attended a panel late Tuesday night called "Anti-Auteur: User Generated Content" which featured several indie game producers and, surprisingly, a volunteer from the audience for a panelist who couldn't make it. The volunteer turned out to be a Microcoft dude who worked in their game development branch (if memory serves me) and did a good job for such a spur of the moment thing. I could have kicked myself for not volunteering as there was nary a mention of machinima (can you belive it?). Of course, I was falling asleep (literally) and would not have made a good panelist since I couldn't focus on anything after 12 hours of Siggraph and little sleep the night before. I didn't quite stay for the whole 2hr event, so they may have brought up machinima after I left, but I have a feeling they didn't, which is very strange to me. Their "user generated content" consisted of mod's for games and indie game development for the most part. In fact, I never once heard anyone discuss machinima during the my entire time at Siggraph. Even when I brought the subject up, most people either didn't know about it or were not that interested once I told them what it was. I suppose it's odd, but I'm not really troubled by this. Machinima and main-stream computer graphics are as far away as they could be. This "Anti-Auteur" panel was scheduled at a time when the regular Siggraph events are already over; it was a nod to the younger people attending the Conference.

One last aspect of Siggraph that I want to mention: their incredible organization. During the entire 5 days, despite some big problems that came up for me, not once did the conference structure fail to help or to provide answers. I was amazed at how kind people were how well-managed every event was. I discovered that Siggraph is essentially run by volunteers who give freely of their own time to help make the conference work. I imagine they've been doing this for a long time and it shows.

I urge you to buy a day-ticket to attend Siggraph if it comes to your city or you happen to be able to attend. This is without question one of the most inpiring (and tiring) events I've ever had the pleasure to attend. I feel as if I've only just scratched the surface of what one could get out of the conference. And that's without even talking about the extraordinary Animation Festival that was spread out over 5 days. After spending Friday afternoon at the Nokia Theater watching 3 hours (a small part of the festival), I really am sorry I didn't see more films. This was the best animation in the world without question.

For fun here's a link to one of the films I was enchanted with:


You can also find out more about Siggraph here. I haven't even touched on half of the things I did and the events I attended. There 's a daily blog at renderosity.com you can check for more. I'll be posting a large flickr picture file soon and will post a link here.

  1. Blogger Overman | August 21, 2008 at 6:35 AM |  

    I'm so glad you got to go to this, thank you for sharing about it!

    I'd love to hear more about Catmull's discussion of the practical application of trust and honesty in group collaboration, i.e. examples he might have mentioned.

    Perhaps machinima will get more attention next year, per Michael's Free Pixel observations about the 2009 conference?

    As for Friedrich's blurry photo, that's totally understandable... he never stops moving!! :)

  2. Blogger Ricky Grove | August 21, 2008 at 8:31 AM |  

    I'll go through my notes and post a bit more detailed account of his keynote address. I've got pages and pages of notes for everything and am only just now starting to type them up.

    I read Michael's post, but I still have doubts. It is a breakthrough for machinima, but one that might not come to fruition for some time. I spoke with dozens of people about machinima and there was little interest. At least there wasn't downright hostility.

    Good point about Friedrich. I should have published the pix. it's very strange.

  3. Blogger Yetzero | August 21, 2008 at 1:30 PM |  

    Lucky you, I'd kill for being there. Anyways, kinda strange there was no mention about machinima in such a big event. Do you think it's the usual lack of custom content that drives away interest from artists? What were their opinions on this?

  4. Blogger Ricky Grove | August 22, 2008 at 12:06 AM |  

    Thanks for your comments, yetzero. No, it isn't lack of custom content, but something even worse: simple lack of interest. My conversations with people about machinima never got past the "Never heard of it" or the "Oh, yea, I think I heard of that" stage. It's just not part of the main-stream computer graphics world (yet).

  5. Blogger davetee | September 6, 2008 at 6:00 PM |  

    Ricky, I know you realize how fortunate you are (and how jealous I am) to be able to attend this show! Great job man, you really took us though it. As always your commentary was spectacular. I love the environmental sound effects too! Thanks for doing this.

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