Electronic Theater expected to draw crowds at Siggraph

“Shrek” and “Spider-Man” have become sequel stars at the multiplexes this summer, but now the digital characters are about to become part of the main attraction on Siggraph’s bigscreen, as well.

Over the years, Siggraph — the computer graphics conference that runs Aug. 8-12 at the Los Angeles Convention Center — has evolved into a confab that’s part trade show, part recruitment fair and part academic showcase for breakthroughs in digital f/x technology.

But it’s the Electronic Theater, part of the event’s Computer Animation Festival, that has become a must-see event for its selection of the year’s best in visual effects, animated shorts, videogame cinematics and scientific imagery.

This year isn’t expected to be any different.

Of the 30 shorts selected from 643 submissions by a panel of judges, nearly half are from international animators and a third are from students. Five come from major Hollywood visual effects facilities, more entries than in the past — with Sony Pictures Imageworks topping them all with three clips.

Among the notable shorts on display at the Electronic Theater:

  • Imageworks will show off the CG characters created for “Spider-Man 2″; the company’s new envelope-pushing motion-capture technology, which it created for Warner Bros.’ “The Polar Express”; and a clip from last summer’s actioner “Bad Boys II” that highlights the pic’s CG-heavy car chase.

  • New animation breakthroughs in “Shrek 2″ will be part of the clip from PDI/DreamWorks.

  • Weta Digital will present animated sequences for which it won the visual effects Oscar in 2003 for “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.”

  • Industrial Light & Magic will bring a reel featuring the CG characters of “Van Helsing” and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” that boast improvements in skin, hair and cloth, as well as new developments in its motion-capture technology.

  • ESC Entertainment will demonstrate how it created the superpunch in “The Matrix Revolutions.”

  • Pixar Animation Studios will present its toon short “Boundin’,” helmed by Bud Luckey.

Attendees can expect some physical changes to the Electronic Theater this year.

The venue itself will be larger, with 4,200 seats, far more than the usual 2,000 in previous years and housed on the convention show floor. “We had to make it bigger because we’re expecting more people this year,” says Chris Bregler, Siggraph 2004′s Computer Animation Festival chair. “We always have more people whenever we’re in Los Angeles.”

Separately, an animation sidebar — a compilation of other notable and worthy work that didn’t make the Electronic Theater — will showcase 53 shorts from a variety of applicants including such effects shops as Imageworks with “The Haunted Mansion,” and Tippett Studio, highlighting its work on “The Matrix Revolutions” and “Hellboy.” Aardman Animations will have “The Presentators Cake” while videogame maker Oddworld Inhabitants will present “Oddworld Stranger.”

The Electronic Theater has proved to be more than a recap of the year’s best computer animation. For the companies whose work was chosen, it helps them let viewers know what areas they specialize in.

Imageworks, for example, is eager to stress that it has grown over the years into a studio that should be known for its digital characters, invisible effects and computer-animated movies. The shorts it will present at the Electronic Theater will show off its abilities in all three areas.

“That’s effectively how Imageworks runs its business,” says Imageworks prexy Tim Sarnoff. “The Electronic Theater is a wonderful opportunity to present not just what your projects are, but what type of company you are to the rest of the world.”

The Electronic Theater is expected to become even more attractive this year — after stints in New Orleans, San Antonio and San Diego, Siggraph is back in Los Angeles, meaning more industryites will be in attendance.

“The diversity increases when (Siggraph) is in Los Angeles,” Sarnoff says. “But the most important group we’re trying to address are the artists, specifically those people we’d like to have work at this company.”

Outside of helping create a company’s identity, the Electronic Theater has proved to be a bellwether for films that end up in the race for the visual effects Oscar later in the year.

But some forecasting can also be done elsewhere at Siggraph. Research presented at the confab in the past has made its way into future tentpoles.

For example, photogrammetry research done by USC’s Paul Debevec and presented at Siggraph made its way into “Spider-Man” and its sequel. And breakthroughs in rendering techniques gave “Shrek 2″ a new look.

In 2001, UC San Diego’s Henrik Wann Jensen presented the Siggraph paper “A Practical Model for Subsurface Light Transport,” which led to the creation of computer-generated creatures like Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and other characters in “The Hulk,” “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” and “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.”

Earlier this year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences awarded Jensen a technical achievement award for his work that makes translucent materials such as milk, snow, skin, eyes and teeth look more photorealistic when created inside a computer.

When it comes to the major presence of effects facilities, Bregler isn’t surprised.

“Effects companies are experimenting with a lot of new stuff like lighting techniques, scanning, a lot of areas where you capture data and repurpose it. Motion capture is not a new thing, but it’s really now primetime and used all over.”

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