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Siggraph ’09 heralds high-speed graphics

Berg voices concern over relying on effects

The hot tech trend at Siggraph ’09 is high-speed graphics, especially real-time animation, which brings videogame speed to CGI for animation and visual effects. Talk of real-time animation for visualization seemed to be everywhere: pre-visualization for prep, “dur-vis” to see virtual sets and digital characters during shooting; post-visualization to help move things along in post and even “pitch-vis” to help get a deal.

A last-minute addition to the schedule focused on the topic. “Eye-resolution graphics and the pursuit of the digital actor” featured director Peter Berg, Otoy CEO and real-time graphics expert Jules Urbach and Advanced Micro Devices senior VP Rick Bergman. Urbach and Bergman presented some impressive technology while Berg offered pungent, occasionally hilarious feedback.

The helmer did praise pre-visualization as “the most useful tool there is for a filmmaker that exists right now.” But he warned it comes with problems, too.

“Sometimes the pre-viz is so good you can never achieve it,” Berg said. “You’re yelling at the crew, saying, ‘Why can’t you do it as good as the pre-viz artist?’ And then everybody gets pissed at the pre-viz artist, who sits there looking smug because he came up with something you can’t quite do.” In fact, Berg prefers his pre-viz not to be 100% realistic, in part so everybody remains open to what happens on the set.

Urbach and Bergman demonstrated their latest advances in real-time graphics, highlighting the major leaps in speed and quality achieved just in the last year. Some of those include lifelike digital humans that can be animated in real time, though they require more computing power than PCs have.

But Berg, who has worked with visual effects throughout his career, including on “Hancock” and the still-in-development “Dune,” was skeptical about the quest for digital actors. He said he’d found digital actors useful for doing only stunts or other moves it would be unsafe or impractical to achieve with live performers.

Berg voiced concerns about relying too heavily on effects. “You can find yourself sitting in a rough cut or having scenes presented to you at ILM or Sony Imageworks thinking, `Where’s the emotion? Where’s the story?’ ” he said.

But, he also added, “For me the big lesson has been learning to communicate with people who are a lot smarter than I am. I would say to (‘Hancock’ vfx supervisor) John Dykstra that years ago I made a decision not to be particularly smart, and I would accuse John Dykstra of not respecting that decision.”

He also dismissed the long-promised convergence of games and movies, at least from a director’s point of view.

“The guys who run the studio gaming divisions have yet to integrate themselves properly with the production folks,” he said. “Until the president of a studio – someone like Amy Pascal – says, `This is the movie; this the videogame; this is the Internet component: they’re going to be equal siblings with equal financing and equal promotion,’ it’s not going to affect guys like me.”

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