SIGGRAPH 2017: Immersion Therapy

Photos by Kyle Espeleta Photography, courtesy of ACM SIGGRAPH.

Greetings from beneath the goboed, lime-gelled lights of the Pixel Pub on the expo floor at SIGGRAPH 2017, where I’m surrounded by attendees interfacing with screens of all makes and sizes. This marks the 44th year of SIGGRAPH, the self-described “interdisciplinary educational experience” that, for this year’s conference, has adopted the tagline “at the heart of computer graphics and interactive techniques.”

Indeed, computer graphics and interactive techniques are on display at every turn, as are all kinds of other stuff. Stuff that impacts movies, stuff that impacts home entertainment. Stuff that is profoundly cerebral — and stuff that puts an animated elephant on a real couch, sitting right next to you. Lots of stuff that involves the words “virtual,” “augmented” and/or “haptic.”

A SIGGRAPH volunteer grabs a selfie with conference mascot Shay D. Pixel.

Despite all this high technology, though — or perhaps because of it, since this show is essentially all about making things — there is a decidedly homegrown, handmade feel to the conference, which employs an all-volunteer workforce, from the t-shirt clad army that stands armed with information at every doorway, queue and corner, all the way up to SIGGRAPH 2017 Conference Chair Jerome Solomon.

Solomon has worked with a team of department chairs to assemble this year’s conference. The highlights are many and varied, and include a VR Village with 18 installations culled from 149 submissions; 19 Experience Presentations comprising some 9 hours of content that touches on experimental, virtual and augmented realities; 126 Technical Papers that were chosen from a pool of 439 submissions; and a consistently surprising lineup of Emerging Technologies. There’s also a live giraffe, here to assist in a dynamic-sketching workshop.

SIGGRAPH 2017 Conference Chair Jerome Solomon.

During the keynote session, Solomon introduced Jeff Jortner, the president of ACM SIGGRAPH — that is, the Association for Computing Machinery Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques. “Our organization is a unique and diverse community,” Jortner offered, noting that conference attendees come from such fields as fine art, the aerospace industry, university research departments, automotive design, game studios and motion-picture studios. “Where is computer graphics today?” he asked. “It’s everywhere.”

Jortner also shared a five-year vision for SIGGRAPH, the core of which is to “enable everyone to tell their stories” — whether that be in 2D, 3D, VR, or some media yet to be developed.

The VR Village, Experience Hall, Art Gallery and Emerging Technologies Studio.

This year’s conference, though, has placed particular emphasis on VR, as evidenced by the massive VR Village, located in the main exhibition hall, just beyond the aforementioned Pixel Pub. The first stop inside the Village’s borders is the aptly named VR Theater, which requires a special ticket for entry that has sold out promptly and consistently every morning of the conference. On occasion, being a member of the press has its perks, and I’m able to secure entrée for a screening of five of the 10 projects that are showing inside.   

Once through the theater’s doors, I take the first vacant swivel-chair that I see. These white chairs are arranged in a semicircle around the room, which is somewhat dimly lit with a fuchsia glow. Each chair faces outward, isolating each viewer — or, if you will, participant — even before we don our headsets.

An attendee dons an HTC headset in the Experience Hall.

During a press conference, VR Village Chair Denise Quesnel had opined that this year’s crop of VR projects takes the viewer beyond empathy to compassion. Of the projects I see, Saschka Unseld and Oculus Story Studio’s Dear Angelica does this most successfully, with boldly blooming graphics and a moving — literally and emotionally speaking — sense of scale in service of a daughter’s bittersweet paean to her mother. My personal favorite piece, however, is Carlos Ulloa and HelloEnjoy Limited’s Fantasynth, an unyielding ride through glowing geometries that plays like a cross between TRON and the “Beyond the Infinite” sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey. 

In the CG work I see here and beyond — including in Production Sessions from Pixar and Industrial Light & Magic — I’m struck by the crossover between animation and live action, and the cinematography fundamentals that drive the storytelling in each. Keynote speaker and animation veteran Floyd Norman — whose long and storied career was recently charted in the documentary feature Floyd Norman: An Animated Life, and has included work at the Walt Disney Studios, Hanna-Barbera and Pixar — touched on a similar point when he mused that modern live-action movies, with their abundance of visual effects, are becoming increasingly animated.

AMPAS President Cheryl Boone Isaacs.

Norman was introduced by AMPAS President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, and in his talk — which was presented in a “fireside chat” fashion — Norman stressed that storytelling needs to be an artist’s focus, first and foremost. “I love the technology — I always have,” he said. But, he added, “The tech has to serve the content.”

He went on to note that modern animators “are working with all this cool technology — but realize you’ve got to serve the story. It’s the content that’s important, because that’s what the audience responds to. … Ultimately, if the story doesn’t work, if you’re not engaging the audience with a compelling story, then the technology’s not going to save you.” It’s a refrain that should sound familiar to readers of AC.

Animation legend and keynote speaker Floyd Norman.

At age 82, Norman is as vibrant as ever, and he shared, “I look forward to any new challenges that come my way, directing or writing or whatever the future might bring. I think what’s great about this business is you never know what’s going to happen next. And that’s what keeps it especially exciting for me. … It still excites me, it still challenges me, I love it, and whatever the future might bring for me, I eagerly embrace it.”

And so, in the midst of all this stuff, SIGGRAPH proves in large part to be a storytelling laboratory and a showcase for moving images. In all likelihood, it’s also offering a glimpse into cinematography’s next evolutionary steps.

As Norman concluded, “Now go out there and do something cool!”

An attendee sees her movements translated onto a screen in the Experience Hall.


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