Hollywood, academia flock to graphics confab

Siggraph may be moving back to Los Angeles this year, but that doesn’t mean it’s going Hollywood. Conference organizers and a host of planned attendees say that despite the inevitable showbiz slant Siggraph ’97 will have, it still has its feet planted firmly back where it started: in academia.

“We’re the preeminent technical conference in the world in computer-generated images, computer graphics and interactivity,” says G. Scott Owen, this year’s Siggraph chair and a professor of computer science at Georgia State University. “It’s important that we not lose sight of that.” With conference courses on the likes of “Texture Synthesis With Line Integral Convolution,” and presented papers on such rarefied topics as “Interactive Boolean Operations” and “Anti-Aliasing Using a Modified A-Buffer Algorithm,” it’s fairly apparent that Siggraph still is a long way from becoming just a stomping ground for software salesmen, hardware manufacturers and development executives.

But this year’s conference will have the largest exhibition space in its history (see related article), which means that there’ll be more than just talk going on at the Convention Center in downtown Los Angeles. At press time, more than 250 vendors — ranging from IBM, Sun Microsystems and Discreet Logic to representatives from acting unions and trade papers — will be on the planned 177,000-square-foot exhibition floor on Level One in the North Hall.

Despite Owen’s assertions to the contrary, some say that’s an indication Siggraph has become too much of a trade show and less of a place to exchange ideas.

“It has become a manic event,” says Philip Owens, director and visual effects supervisor at Windmill Lane Prods., a full-service commercial production house based in Santa Monica. “I find it incredibly difficult to focus and concentrate when I’m there. There’s just too much to see.” Owens, who adds that he goes to Siggraph mainly to network and keep in touch with software developers, says the sales environment at the conference has become pressurized. “There are too many products on display,” he adds.

“It’s becoming impossible to see the forest for the trees. It’s a very confusing environment.”

Currently, Windmill Lane does its post-production work on Silicon Graphics platforms — including O2, Impact, Indigo and Onyx — and at least 15 Macintosh desktops. Owens says that of particular interest this year, to himself and his colleagues in the industry, is what Montreal-based software manufacturer Discreet Logic will do with its recent acquisition of Denim Software and its Mac and Windows NT-based Illuminaire Paint and Illuminaire Composition software.

Until very recently, Discreet Logic made software for SGI platforms only. Its purchase of Los Angeles-based Denim marks its first foray into non-SGI solutions. “Their performance was excellent,” says Owens of Denim’s products. “They didn’t have all the functionality of Discreet Logic software, but it was pretty close.” And at about a tenth the price of Flame, it was a particularly good deal.

Despite the ever-increasing presence of commerce, Siggraph ’97 will not just see an expansion of its exhibition space, organizers point out. It’ll also feature a number of important new features including, among others, a free community outreach program to approximately 1,200 local high school and college students, Siggraph TV — live and recorded video coverage of the convention available to North American markets via satellite and globally on the Internet — and the Creative Applications Lab. The lab, a hands-on facility with at least 150 donated workstations, will be where attendees can test applications and techniques talked about in one of the conference’s 35 courses or more than 20 presented papers.

Siggraph, or the Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics, held its first conference in 1974 at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The meet expected 300 people to attend, but 600 showed up to talk about the then-infant field of computer graphics.

With computer-generated images on the movie screen not even yet a glint in a studio exec’s eye, Siggraph initially was a place for researchers only. It wasn’t until 1977 that the conference added an exhibition hall to its annual meeting. And it wasn’t until the early 1980s that it became apparent that CGI could do more than help scientists fly around a piece of DNA and could, in fact, be used to help moviegoers fly around the universe. This year Siggraph organizers expect upward of 40,000 people to register for the conference.

“From almost the beginning, Siggraph has had a balance of the technical, the educational and the art of computer graphics,” says Edwin E. Catmull, executive vice president of Pixar Animation Studios in Richmond.

“Though I think the emphasis on the entertainment industry and exhibitors is perhaps heavier than it ought to be, I still think a balance between all aspects of the conference has been maintained.”

Though Siggraph has been an informal hiring hall for years, this year will see the formalization of that role in Siggraph’s first job fair. More than 25 companies — including Industrial Light & Magic, Microsoft and Alias/Wavefront — will be at the conference looking to hire new talent. In fact, conference spokesmen say, the job fair idea has been so popular that they’ve had to cut off the number of companies allowed to set up booths.

With the strong demand for software developers and code writers continuing, industry insiders say it’ll be a sellers’ market for potential employees for some time to come. “Anybody with some experience and talent will be on the best side of the deal for quite a long time,” says Richard Hollander, president and senior visual-effects supervisor at Los Angeles-based Vifx.

Hollander, whose company will be part of the job fair, says as far as he’s concerned, there’s been only one thing wrong with the weeklong conference in the past few years: It’s not long enough. “The best way to combat the increased commercialism at Siggraph would be to add two more days of technical presentations at the end,” he says. “No product demonstrations, no hype; just a discussion of the issues and technical challenges still facing the industry.”

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