Guest blogger Bart Weiss is director of the Video Association of Dallas. He recently attended Siggraph 2009, a conference in New Orleans about computer graphics and interactive techniques.
I first found out about Siggraph in the mid 80s, when the conference was here in Dallas. At the time I was programming a night club, and we did an event with Richard Peterson, who was then the artistic director of the USA Film Festival. For the event, we edited what was the early history of computer graphics together. We were impressed with the ability to move a teapot, to make a face made out of a series of polygons move, and, best of all, to show Luxo Jr, a story about a luxo lamp that just happened to use computer graphics. It got its world premier at S iggraph and went on to be nominated for an Academy Award and start the long career of Pixar.
Through the years, the Dallas Video Festival has shown Siggraph’s Animation Festival reel. In the early days, there were many science pieces talking about particle fractals and other things invisible to the eye from the practical side of computer graphics known as visualization sciences. This was always the boring part of the show (and there was still one on the reel this year!).
Each year, computer graphics improve their ability to further sizzle and dazzle, their ability to better tell stories and entertain (or sell productions) and their ability to make the image look more life like. Indeed, about 10 years ago you could wonder if the image was real or Memorex. The other trend we have seen throughout the years is animation’s ability to morph one think into the next. This presto-changeo effect – sometimes subtle, sometimes not – is a constant source of all animation, and one of the reasons that it is always popular with audiences (it is a programmer’s truism that all animation programs do well). In a world in which things don’t change much, this plasticity fills our imagination with fantasy.
Computer animation, as opposed to other forms of filmmaking, is often a lonely art. While you need the actors for voice, that is a small part of the equation. Most of the process happens between a person and a computer, a singular dynamic. This allows for a deeper sense of auturism or personal expression, less meetings and less compromise. (Or perhaps that is just a fantasy of mine.) Animation done well can show you things that you cannot produce in front of a camera. Imaginations can and do run wild.
So this year, because I was already in New Orleans for the University Film and Video Association conference (a gathering of film video teachers) I had a chance to actually go to the Siggraph conference and see the program in a huge theater with a 4k projector (no need to know what that means other than it is really really good).
And I also got to see it with the computer graphics world. Who knows, the people next to me may have made some of these films?
The evening show is divided into three sections. First are the real-time demos, a 30-minute program featuring the best new live rendered games performed by the designers. The juried show is next, followed by the curated reel.
Though the show is about computer animation, the best pieces were still the ones with the best writing and strong characters. Pixar’s Partly Cloudy, which showed before Up in theaters, is as entertaining as Luxo Jr. was with better animation and resolution. The emotions were even more fully human. Another sweet short was Alma, about a boy who goes into an empty doll store and sees one that looks like him. As expected, they come to life, and the one that looks like him swaps places with him, leaving poor Alma stuck in the store waiting for a new sucker. A classic animated film story, but still great.
There were other animated comedies that were closer to what one might call cartoons. French Roast is a droll French comedy about rich guy who can’t pay his tab for his espresso; Pigeon Impossible is a fantasy about a battle between a secret service type, a bagel and a pigeon. You can guess who wins. My favorite of these comedies was Window Pains, by a student at the Savannah College of Art (which had a big booth at the trade show). This story of trying to call Microsoft tech support went over really well with this crowd.
And then there are the commercials. Two were particularly magnificent. A Wilkerson sword commercial for razors shows a guy and a baby fighting it out for a woman’s attention. Then there is the Kit Katt spot, in which a stock broker who is having a bad day is bizarrely saved by the candy. In each of these, the stories are predictable but good, but the characterizations are strong, and the facial subtleties translate unbelievably well.
Another great part of Siggraph is the art shows. Room after room is filled with technology installations, some geeky, while some seem like they would be more at home in a gallery or a biennale. The most exciting section was BioLogic, where the computers come to life in fascinating ways. Hylozoic Soil, by Philip Beesley of the University of Waterloo, uses fiber optics that are shaped like s spine, which react to your movement and speech in subtle ways.
In the end, the line between what is real and what is manufactured is both interesting and not the point anymore. In the early days, just moving something or bringing something to life through computer animation was enough to astound. Like Dr. Frankenstein, we wanted the inanimate to live. Now, we want it to dance and give us a new perspective to our lives, as all good art should.
If you didn’t make it to New Orleans for Siggraph 2009, don’t worry – we’ll be showing the animation festival at the VideoFest in November.