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Grand illusionists

CG masters gather to recognize, recruit

The computer graphics community convenes for its annual confab in Los Angeles to chat about all things digital, including creating photorealistic characters and environments.

PLOT POINTS:

  • Over 300 exhibitors are expected to fill the show floor, covering all aspects of computer graphics for film, television, videogames and the Internet.

  • Siggraph digerati will focus on ways to make things like hair and clothing appear more convincing. That’s even true for companies like Pixar, whose films don’t reflect photorealism but do strive for believability.

As the curtain rises on Siggraph 2001 in Los Angeles this weekend, someone should check Southern California’s power grid. The special f/x industry’s annual confab will once again light up thousands of computer screens at the Los Angeles Convention Center, displaying the year’s best in digital graphics.

This year, over 300 exhibitors are expected to fill the show floor, offering every computer bell and whistle imaginable. Siggraph is short for Special Interest Group in Graphics, and in this age of digital entertainment, that’s become a pretty large group.

While Siggraph is a serious trade show presented by the Assn. for Computing Machinery, its proximity to Hollywood this year will undoubtedly give it a glitzier tone than 2000’s presence in New Orleans.

Countless media types – from filmmakers to videogamers to Internet geeks – will come to see the latest breakthroughs in computer graphics imagery. As usual, the show will once again provide an opportunity for all of the major f/x players to recruit talent as well.

Filmmakers will show off imagery from a year that includes an unprecedented three all-CG features: PDI and DreamWorks will field questions about their blockbuster “Shrek”; Square/Sony’s “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” will trigger debates about virtual actors; and Pixar Animation Studios will entice the crowds with tidbits from its upcoming Disney release, “Monsters, Inc.”

Those films will be highlighted in Siggraph screenings alongside live-action f/x-heavy shows like “The Mummy Returns,” “Cats & Dogs,” “Pearl Harbor,” “X-Men,” “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “Cast Away,” “Dr. Dolittle 2” and “Jurassic Park III.”

But for CG aficionados, Siggraph will not only reflect the state of the business but the state of the art, too.

One hot topic will be computer-generated characters.

Industrial Light & Magic’s Dennis Turner will attract crowds when he presents the animated dinosaurs of “Jurassic Park III.”

“The breakthrough is achieving creatures with bones and muscles moving under their skin,” Turner says. “We’ve got behemoths biting and dragging each other around. We’ll show how it represents a leap forward for CG creatures. We’ve definitely moved the bar up, though our competitors are nipping at our heels.”

Two such competitors, Sony Pictures Imageworks and Rhythm & Hues, will actually collaborate on Siggraph session Virtual Stars. Led by multi-Oscar winner Ken Ralston, f/x supervisors Rob Legato, (“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”) John Dykstra (“Spider-Man”) and Bill Westenhofer (“Cats & Dogs”) will discuss photorealistic characters. Imageworks supervisor Jerome Chen hopes to preview two new CG stars from “Stuart Little 2.”

“They’re birds with photoreal feathers, something that hasn’t been done to this extent before,” Chen says.

Rhythm & Hues prexy Richard Hollander notes, “We’re really at the beginning of this kind of work. We’re giving things that aren’t human all the affectations of a good actor. It’s one thing to make a creepy monster, and another to have CG characters delivering funny dialogue. That’s a major step.”

Because the devil’s in the details, Siggraph digerati will focus on ways to make things like hair and clothing appear more convincing. That’s even true for companies like Pixar, whose films don’t rely on photorealism but do strive for believability.

Pixar prexy Ed Catmull reveals that in “Monsters, Inc.”: “We have long flowing hair, and cloth interacting with it. We actually went to a next-generation tool to achieve this.”

The software tools for creating convincing CG are a core consideration of Siggraph, whose attendees always ask, “How did they do that?”

Digital Domain’s Doug Roble will discuss simulating natural environments, using examples from “The Grinch” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

“I’ll also talk about borrowing techniques from other fields and manipulating them for production,” he says. “When Siggraph’s in L.A., movie people can encounter serious R&D.”

Catmull thinks Siggraph’s agenda demonstrates “that the nature of research is changing, which is healthy. The surprises will come from two areas – simulating the real world and productivity.”

Creating CG cost-effectively is paramount to Hollywood, and several event sessions will explore procedures that yield believable-looking effects in streamlined or automated ways.

Hollander observes, “There’ll be an emphasis on tricks and methodologies, which isn’t much different than building fake movie sets. Films require large volumes of shots, which we must do efficiently in order to compete.”

Bringing CG onto movie sets where filmmakers can interact with them is one innovative strategy that will be demonstrated at Siggraph.

ILM’s Seth Rosenthal will show how Steven Spielberg directed his actors against computer-generated backgrounds while filming “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” noting, “This enabled Steven to make very specific decisions about the choreography of his camera.”

Also presenting “The Mummy Returns,” Rosenthal will demonstrate how the motion-captured performance of actor Arnold Vosloo was translated into a CG mummy in real time integrated with background photography.

Filmmakers’ needs aren’t the only ones being considered at Siggraph, however.

The conference slogan is “Create Interaction,” and real-time videogame animation will receive significant attention.

One session will explore emerging animation procedures, where Imageworks’ George Suhayda says, “We’ll focus on expanding the worlds inside games. Imagine being able to get into a virtual jet fighter and fly for miles in any direction while the terrain keeps changing. This simulation approach takes a lot of R&D, but the payoffs are immense.”

Armed with turbo-charged gaming consoles like Microsoft’s upcoming Xbox and Sony’s PlayStation 2, game developers will be unveiling real-time graphics of unprecedented quality, according to Sherry McKenna, CEO of Oddworld Inhabitants.

Oddworld’s game animation will be shown at Siggraph, and McKenna hopes “to attract animators who care about doing great animation.”

Capping each day will be screenings of the show’s annual Electronic Theater program, a juried, best-of-show compilation chosen this year from a record 679 entries.

Watch for some surprises here, including work-in-progress character animation directed by ILM’s Tom Bertino.

From the fanciful to the photoreal, it’s a safe bet that the diversity of images at Siggraph will be dazzling. Ed Catmull, who’s been creating CG for 30 years, considers this diversity a sign of maturity.

“That doesn’t mean we’re slowing down, though,” Catmull says. “There are major changes still to come.”

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