Invasion of the Sillywood
Copyright © Paul Brown 1998
This essay was commissioned by Realtime and first
appeared in issue 24, April-May 1998. Realtime is online at
SIGGRAPH are http://www.siggraph.org.
All Rights Reserved
SIGGRAPH is the Special Interest Group in Graphics of the Association for
Computing Machinery (ACM). I first got there in 1981 and followed the event
fairly religiously throughout the 80's. If my memory is correct `81 was the
last year that you could turn up with a videotape in your bag and have it shown
in the Electronic Theatre. It was also the first year the event included an
art show. As an artist myself it was like going to wonderland. After years of
being marginalised for my work in art & technology I found myself in a
"birds of a feather" session with 50 or so others from around the world who all
shared my vision and interests.
Throughout the `80's SIGGRAPH was exciting melting pot of talent and ideas.
Computer graphics (CG) were "a solution looking for a problem" and specialists
from many diverse disciplines rubbed shoulders to share the latest techniques
In 1986 there was a panel on the film industry. "Looker" (Crighton, 1979),
"Tron" (Lisberger, 1982) and "The Last Starfighter" (Castle, 1984) had all used
computer effects (CFX) and, although all went on to become cult movies, none
did well at the box office. At the panel a frustrated producer joked that it
was easier to get a location helicopter than agreement to use CFX and studio
exec's reiterated the conservatism of Hollywood.
In television the situation was different. By `86 the digital video post
production boxes had had a significant impact particularly on current affairs,
news and the wealthy commercials sector. Digital systems were helping to push
video as a master production medium with digital production gear like vtr's,
switchers and cameras hitting the marketplace. The video post houses grew as
the 16mm film facilities, who had relied on regular TV work, closed their
SIGGRAPH 86 was a turning point. New York photographer Nancy Burson was there
to promote her new book "Composites" which documented her digital imaging. In
a press session she proclaimed that the era of "photographic truth" was over.
At another "bird" session a group of creatives claimed CG as their own and
predicted that, in ten years time, SIGGRAPH would be their event. Back then we
were a distinct minority. SIGGRAPH belonged to engineers; mathematicians and
computer scientists. Many laughed at our claim. They didn't even like the
increasing number of creative and media people getting elected to SIGGRAPH
committees. At one point their parent society, ACM, expressed their concern
that their integrity as a professional society was being compromised by these
Now, in the 1990's, computer imaging has found it's own vertical markets and a
whole host of new conferences, trade shows and symposia have sprung up to
exploit demand. For many of us the expensive trip to SIGGRAPH has become less
essential. So it was good for me to be invited to be a judge for the SIGGRAPH
97 Computer Animation Festival.
Los Angeles in August was in heat wave and the air-con for the 15 story glass
atriums at the LA Convention Centre was having trouble keeping up. Over 47,000
people milled around, mostly to see the trade show. In addition to the
technical paper's core (now a minority draw) were panels; screening rooms; the
art show; the major trade show; the "start-up" park; the Electronic Garden; the
education program; the outreach program and a host of lesser events. The
Computer Animation Festival (CAF) offered four evening and three matinee
performances in the Shrine Auditorium (home of the Academy Awards). Then there
were the unofficial events, shows and parties all over town.
A chance meeting in the bar of the Hotel Figueroa best illustrates the changes
in SIGGRAPH over the past decade. A schoolteacher from Malibu was down for the
day to see the show, her first visit to SIGGRAPH. She explained that, if she
hadn't had been told in advance that it was a CG show, she would have assumed
it was just another film industry extravaganza.
For me the domination of Hollywood is a problem. Glasnost and the drying up of
Defence Department contracts have forced the US' military supply industry to
diversify. Many have moved into the entertainment sector. This union of
Silicon Valley and Hollywood is being described as either the Hollyvalley or
Sillywood depending on point of view.
I hope I'm not just an aging internationalist academic who is concern about the
power, parochiality and lack of ethics of the US' military/entertainment
complex. The interdisciplinary foundation of SIGGRAPH, arguable it's most
attractive feature, is under threat. I spent much of my week discussing this
with SIGGRAPH officials. If they don't succeed in reframing the show with a
broad-base appeal it will become just another tool for the Hollywood propaganda
machine. Links to the film industry are not helped by the decision to host
SIGGRAPH in Los Angeles then Orlando on successive years.
Next year will be SIGGRAPH's 25 th anniversary and the committee are keen to
explore historical links and re-establish the cross-disciplinary emphasis.
They may not succeed.
The Shrine Auditorium, like so many places you've seen on the TV, was seedy and
disappointing. First impressions were the smell of dirty carpet and the need
for a fresh coat of paint. As a jury member I was a privileged VIP and found
my way to what had been described as the best seat in the house (centre, front
row, balcony) ahead of the crowds jamming at the doors. This was my first
mistake. Minders moved in around me and, just before the show started I was
surrounded by suited studio execs. The Japanese to my left. Caucasians to my
right. They ceremoniously crossed the aisle to shake hands, bow and exchange
business cards. Trusted lieutenants whispered essential data to chiefs ...
"that's xxx CEO of xxx, spouse's name xxx you should go and say hello" ...
before the ritual. This is a world that I neither inhabit nor aspire to.
I regretted not taking a seat in the stalls, 20 rows from the front, sharing in
the vicarious rage of the crowd and enduring the inevitable crick in the neck.
Studio chiefs don't rage, they clap politely, talk incessantly and clearly have
trouble in comprehending why works by students, pieces of scientific
visualisation and other unnecessary stuff was cluttering up the show.
But it's precisely that egalitarianism that make the SIGGRAPH CAF (and before
it the legendary Electronic Theatre) such a valuable and exciting event.
My favourite was "The DNA Story" a fascinating piece of biological
visualisation from Digital Studio SA that tells the story of the
..."transcription, replication and condensation of a mitotic chromosome".
Students work was well represented with three pieces from Ringling School of
Art including: "Sharing" a lyrical tale of ice cream on a hot summer's day
and; "10,000 Feet" the tragic story of a talking teddy who mistakes his speech
tag for a rip cord. Australia was represented with extracts from Jon
McCormack's "Turbulence" and "Changing Heart" a spectacular IMAX theme park
opener from Animal Logic. The Hollywood studios were represented by: Titanic;
5th Element and Lost World and CFX specialists Pacific Data Images fielded
their usual high calibre down-time production "Gabola the Great"
People said it was a good show but, there again, I was wearing a badge that
proclaimed my jury membership. Reliable feedback suggests that the show was
good but, over the past three or so years, has levelled out. Not such a
surprising outcome when you consider that major annual "quantum jumps" that
accompanied SIGGRAPH throughout the 80's and early 90's are no longer possible.
The medium is maturing, the big picture has been painted and innovation now
remains in filling in the details and, of course, telling good stories.
Back in the mainstream film industry I was surprised when jurying to discover
that most of the puppies in "101 Dalmatians" were computer generated (by ILM).
On reflection it was obvious. The cost of maintaining a pack of trained, live
and constantly growing puppies would have been prohibitive. CFX have arrived
and their success is precisely that most audiences don't know they are there.
Dinosaurs, volcanoes and tornado's are obvious but the major use of CFX in
Hollywood today is more mundane and practical. Things like wire removal,
retouching and compositing.
It's here that digital post, which hit video in the mid 80's, has now hit the
film industry. Every Disney animation feature since "Rescuers Down Under" has
been mastered digitally. Most opticals are now "digitals" done on systems like
Kodak's "Cineon", Quantel's "Domino" or one of the new crop of "shrink wrapped"
film-resolution app's for general purpose workstations and personal computers.
One industry specialist I spoke to claimed that there is only one optical house
still trading on the West Coast ... "and they're only doing titles".
Specialist also predict a major shake out in the CFX industry before long. The
margins are too small for a competitive international industry. One example I
was given was a quote from a UK company of $200,000 versus $1,200,000 from one
of the big California CFX houses. The larger companies like ILM and Digital
Domain are expected to go into full production and contract out SFX work to
"one off" companies who set up to service one production with short-lease
premises, rented computers and fixed term contacts from a growing talent pool
of freelance CGI specialists.
In fact this is already happening and many regret the passing of the large
specialist companies who can sustain the in-house research and development that
has been an essential component of the medium's development to date.
Launched at SIGGRAPH and essential reading is Clark Dodsworthy's Digital
Illusion - Entertaining the Future with High Technology, published by ACM
SIGGRAPH and Addison Wesley, ISBN 0-201-84780-9.
If you want your own copy of the SIGGRAPH 97 Computer Animation Festival it's
available as Issue 120 of the SIGGRAPH Video Review. VHS PAL for US $75 or
NTSC for US $60 from email@example.com or int+1 212 626 0500 (USA).
And, if you're thinking of entering your work for SIGGRAPH remember that the
first round of judging takes 2 days and over 550 works are considered. So make
sure that the opening few seconds of your work will grab people's attention!
Paul Brown's trip to SIGGRAPH was supported by Film Queensland,
the AFC's Industry and Cultural Development program and the
Queensland Arts Office Digital Media Program.
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