An Animation Celebration
Jun 1, 2004 12:00 PM, by Ellen Wolff
The SIGGRAPH 2004 Computer Animation Festival
If there's one word that characterizes this year's Computer Animation Festival, it's “diversity”. Yes, the digital heavyweights of Hollywood are represented, as expected — Gollum, Spider-Man, Shrek and Van Helsing's monster parade. But of the 83 entries chosen from 643 submissions, roughly half were from international animators and a third were from students. Festival Chair Chris Bregler says, “We were surprised that we even got entries from the Czech Republic, Russia, Poland, Brazil, and Hong Kong. All these pieces had such great and expressive storytelling and visual styles.”
This year's festival jury was also a study in diversity. Bregler, who teaches computer animation at New York University, admits, “I'm a technical person, so I wanted some art and story people on board.” His seven jury colleagues included fellow academics Sue Gollifer from the University of Brighton and Paul Debevec from USC's Institute for Creative Technologies, joined by several people with expertise in film festivals and the business of production. Christine Schoepf co-directs the European festival Ars Electronica; Ines Hardtke is from the National Film Board of Canada; Boo Wong is from the NYC production house Curious Pictures, and Shuzo John Shiota heads Japan's Polygon Pictures. Digital Domain's Darin Grant, who chaired the 2003 SIGGRAPH jury, was a judge this year as well.
Grant brought to the jury a helpful familiarity with the major studio submissions, which were plentiful, notes Bregler. “Almost every studio submitted work. We encouraged all the studios to put behind-the-scenes images in their submissions, which gave them a much higher chance of being accepted. After all, we've seen their shots in the movies, but we want to know how the work was done.”
The Pros' Process
The studios obliged, and a number of the submissions have been accepted into the Electronic Theater (ET) — the premier event of the annual Computer Animation Festival (CAF). ILM, for example, delivered an R&D reel to the ET that illustrates recent breakthroughs with virtual actors in Van Helsing, including new multi-level approaches to hair and skin simulation. ILM's creature-centric presentation features a CG Mr. Hyde and a Wolfman transformation, as well as a new infrared mocap technique that allows data capture and photography to be done simultaneously. Also on display are Dementors from Harry Potter 3, whose flowing robes illustrate ILM's advances in tweakable cloth simulation. Hybrid animation is the dominant theme.
It's probably not possible to overstate the anticipation of the ET audience to see a sneak peek from The Polar Express, director Robert Zemeckis' animated holiday release. Sony Imageworks fashioned a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the film's approach to motion capturing actor Tom Hanks, whose physical performances were the basis for both the man and the boy shown in the SIGGRAPH clip. Festival Chair Bregler, who's a motion capture expert, says, “They really pushed the envelope. They recorded Tom Hanks several times to play to different cameras. In one shot they had 64 cameras looking at him. That's usually only done for stunts.”
The Polar Express was one of three pieces from Sony chosen for the 29-clip ET show, the most for any studio. Sony's Bad Boys II was picked for its photorealistic car chase, and Spider-Man 2 got the nod for its virtual creature work. Weta Digital's Oscar-winning animation was of course included in the ET show, while Tippett Studio was among the pros represented in SIGGRAPH's Animation Theater. Two of Tippett's “making of” pieces were selected, from Hellboy and The Matrix Revolutions.
Science into Fiction
Both Spider-Man 2 and PDI/DreamWorks' Shrek 2 (also in the ET show) have special significance for technically minded SIGGRAPH attendees, since they demonstrate how CG research has influenced moviemakers. Bregler observes, “It's very interesting to see so many techniques from previously published SIGGRAPH papers that are now making it onto the big screen. It's a trend I've seen in the last couple of years.”
In the Spider-Man films, the photogrammetry research pioneered by USC's Paul Debevec at SIGGRAPH has had a notable impact on the freewheeling flights of characters through the virtual canyons of Manhattan. And Shrek watchers will notice improvements in the lighting in Shrek 2, thanks to cutting-edge rendering research. The latest knowledge about rendering images with global illumination has been widely applied in Shrek 2, as have skin rendering techniques first unveiled at SIGGRAPH by UCSD researcher Henrik Wann Jensen. (The Motion Picture Academy just recognized Wann Jensen for the breakthrough that led to characters like Gollum, but people who attend SIGGRAPH saw it first.)
Next Year's Models
Given this history, who knows which scientific visualization pieces might end up inspiring the effects in next year's movies? This year, says Bregler, “We'll see some new techniques that so far are only used in university research labs but will probably be applied to feature films in the future.” He cites as an example a visualization piece by USC's Paul Debevec that will screen in the ET show. Called The Parthenon, it demonstrates techniques that re-created a photorealistic version of Greece's famed ruins. Virtual sets indeed.
NASA also was chosen for the ET show for The Edge of History, which contains elegant visualizations of Earth Sciences data. And lest anyone think that academic CG is a dry discipline, UC Berkeley professor James O'Brien crafted an entertaining ET winner called Gratuitous Goop. “He worked out a new way of doing fluid, gooey things,” laughs Bregler.
Like scientific visualization, a perennial staple at SIGGRAPH has been CG commercial work — perhaps because for so many years 30 seconds of CG was all most people could afford to do. It's an area with several international winners this year, including two British television pieces from Aardman Animations' director Stefan Majoram. With wacky characters like “The Presentators”, it's clear that the famed stop-motion studio's trademark humor is thriving in the digital realm. This is only the second year that Aardman has submitted work to SIGGRAPH, and they've easily earned festival spots both times.
But the most dominant presence among commercial work at SIGGRAPH this year is unquestionably director David Fincher's work with Digital Domain. With one spot in the ET (Nike “Gamebreakers”) and two in the Animation Theater, Fincher confirms his position as a fearless innovator. His mixtures of pure animation, digital prosthetics and striking virtual camerawork show how CG can be forged into intriguing amalgams.
Short films are another noble tradition among American production studios submitting work to SIGGRAPH, but pro shorts aren't as common as they used to be. Notable exceptions in ET this year are Pixar's Boundin' and Blur's Rockfish, both of which were contenders for this year's short film Oscar. An unexpected surprise however, is the darkly humorous Dear, Sweet Emma, an Animation Theater selection that comes from a North Carolina studio called Out of Our Minds. This short shows that you can take them at their word.
Bregler notes that some of the most startling short films were international submissions. “We selected a few pieces where you think: ‘Omigod, what is THIS?’” One outstanding short in the Electronic Theater show is El Desvan, from Spaniard José Corral. Bregler explains, “It's a story about a crazy clown that was the prize winner at Spain's main festival, Art Futura. It is completely wacko and over-the-top, and not what you'd expect.”
This year's Animation Theater also includes a brief nod to the art of computer games. A game cinematic called Stranger, from California's Oddworld Inhabitants, takes the Western bounty hunter theme into places that Sergio Leone couldn't even imagine. Especially significant is Oddworld's smart software, which improves the character animation in areas like lip sync.
Another key issue that affects gameplay is the challenge of rendering on-the-fly. Here, graphics card manufacturer ATI Technologies turns the spotlight on its realtime rendering capabilities with a ninja-themed, game-style clip called The Doublecross. Continuing the tradition begun at last year's SIGGRAPH by Nvidia's cheesecake piece, Dawn, production company RhinoFx animated the voluptuous Ruby, thigh-high boots and all.
The New Arrivals
Very often, SIGGRAPH's most delightful offerings are student entries enlivened by fresh points of view. This year's student selections came from schools in places as far-flung as Baden-Wurttemberg and Bournemouth. The Filmakademie in Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany, had three student films accepted, including one called Annie & Boo that made it into the Electronic Theater alongside all the big-ticket movie clips.
Florida's Ringling School of Art and Design continued its tradition of encouraging its students to submit work to SIGGRAPH, and four pieces from Ringling students will be shown in the Animation Theater. Remarkably, no fewer than nine pieces from France's Supinfocom will be included in the festival, including Parenthèse in the Electronic Theater. “They're one of the great schools in Europe,” remarks Bregler. Supinfocom had last year's top student winner at SIGGRAPH, the charming, black-and-white Tim Tom.
This year's student winner, a character animation piece called Birthday Boy, could truly not have been expected, says Bregler. “It was a big surprise. Very often the best piece is done by somebody you already know. This film was done by a Korean student from an Australian school, and it's a very moving story that's beautifully told. It's nice when a student from the other side of the world submits to this festival and right away gets the big prize. I hope that will motivate other students to submit their work.”
Bregler reports that the Festival jury quickly reached consensus on SIGGRAPH's big winners this year. As they had in giving the student honors to Birthday Boy, the jury readily agreed that the professional piece which capped the 2004 Computer Animation Festival was Ryan, from independent Canadian animator Chris Landreth. “It was pretty clear to the jury that these were the winners,” said Bregler. “You'll hear a lot about both of these films from a lot of directions.”
About the experimental approach of Ryan Bregler observes, “This new rendering style that the filmmaker experiments with makes possible a new kind of storytelling. Things start to get what you might call ‘non-photoreal,’ as painterly, disorienting effects start to seep in over the course of the piece. Animation like this hasn't been done before.” (See sidebar page 14, “Chris Landreth's Ryan”.)
A New Footnote
For the first time this year, the SIGGRAPH catalog of festival winners will include technical information about how these animations were made. The data was gathered by longtime SIGGRAPH member Isaac Kerlow (author of The Art Of 3D Computer Animation and Effects) who volunteered to query all the winners. “I've often wondered how many of these pieces were produced,” says Kerlow. “SIGGRAPH never publishes any of this information, and now I've learned why! It was a lot of work to get people to answer a questionnaire that addressed basic hardware, software, and production issues.”
Astonishingly, despite language barriers, the response rate was 100%. What emerged from the data was a diverse picture, reports Kerlow. “There were pieces that required render farms with thousands of CPUs and dozens of people. And there were others that were computed on a single CPU by a single person in a single room. Yet they all have a winning level of quality. “
The Heart of the Matter
Festival Chair Chris Bregler thinks that what connects the best work is compelling storytelling. “A lot of entries contained amazing stories, especially from students. Because of all the advances in animation software, it looks like it's easier for many talented artists to create such pieces. They can make them longer, and play with more advanced visual looks and rendering styles. So the jury had to be highly selective and had to turn down lots of great pieces that would have made it into the Electronic Theater just a few years ago.”
While SIGGRAPH was long considered a highly technical, even esoteric convention, the diversity in this year's Computer Animation Festival suggests that perception may be changing. Bregler says, “We've noticed that it's turning into a regular film festival, with a lot more artists and storytellers exploring the medium. We're selecting the winners based on creativity, story, humor, and entertainment value. Sometimes, the fact that a piece was created with computer graphics isn't the most important thing at all.”
Chris Landreth's Ryan
“The first flush of addiction produces some amazing work. A life can be spent trying to get that moment back.”
So comments one of the artists interviewed in Ryan, a CG portrait of the once-great Canadian animator Ryan Larkin, who's now panhandling on the streets of Montreal. What sounds on paper like a downbeat, alcoholic tale of squandered talent is — on film — a journey of fascinating and often ironic contrasts. Independent filmmaker Chris Landreth weaves a soundtrack of documentary-style conversations with and about Ryan against animation that evolves from realistic characters into surreal and fragmented ones echoing the disintegration of Larkin himself. The power of the piece made it the hands-down choice as the leading professional entry by the judges at SIGGRAPH 2004.
Landreth thinks, “The reason this story works so well is that it's not that unusual. Ryan's struggles have been ones that lots of people know about, or are on the edge of knowing about. One of the challenges of the film, in my opinion, is that it's not a laugh-out-loud comedy, which is hard to pull off with animation.” A poignant irony of Ryan is that Larkin was once an experimental animator himself, acclaimed as the Frank Zappa of animation. Landreth admits, “There is a self-referential element there.”
This isn't the first time that Landreth has had experimental CG films chosen for SIGGRAPH festival screenings. His 1995 Oscar-nominated short The End, created under the auspices of Alias, pushed the animation technology of that time to the limit. He followed that in 1998 with Bingo, reinforcing his reputation as a CG innovator. Now working independently, Landreth spent three years creating the 14-minute Ryan, putting together financing from The National Film Board of Canada and the Toronto production companies 49 films and Copperheart Entertainment.
He also developed an unusual relationship with Toronto's Seneca College, which has what Landreth calls a fledgling animation program. “They set aside a room and had some of their best graduate students working on it, in addition to some professional people that we hired,” he says. “Seneca has instructional licenses of Maya, and we also used Discreet's Combustion and Adobe Premiere and Photoshop. But we had just a few people working on it. A few volunteers would donate a model or rig a character during weekends. It was a labor of love, which in financial terms means that it's not commercial!”
SIGGRAPH represents the U.S. premiere of Ryan, and an extensive excerpt will be shown in the Electronic Theater. To insure that the film can be seen in its entirety, SIGGRAPH will also show Ryan in the Animation Theater screenings that play repeatedly throughout the conference. There will also be a special hour-long session focusing on Ryan, during which Landreth will discuss his film.
Images from Ryan can be viewed on the website of The National Film Board of Canada at www.nfb.ca/ryan. Ryan was produced by Copper Heart Entertainment in co-production with the National Film Board of Canada in association with Seneca College Animation Arts Centre.
Continue the discussion on “Crosstalk” the Millimeter Forum.