When 14,000 people descend on one place for four days, you know there’s something big going on. And last week in Anaheim in California - right next to Disneyland - that big thing was Siggraph: the world's most important animation and interactive conference.
Siggraph is equal parts inspiration and perspiration: part-academic, part-entertainment, part-art show and part-business. You can see the behind-the-scenes breakdowns on some of Hollywoods biggest movies next to startups showing groundbreaking tech and projects that could inspire the next generation of movies and experiences – sometimes even at the very early stages of R&D in the Emerging Technologies exhibition.
That means there’s pretty much something for everyone to check out, from artists working in visual effects and animation to digital and experiential designers creating all manner of interactive project. Here’s a look at some of the major trends and innovations I saw while spending a week away from the sunshine (and Disneyland) hunting down what's coming next.
VR and AR at Siggraph – the coolest demos
At past Siggraph conferences, virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality have formed a key part of many of the presentations and demos. This year, immersive demos on the exhibition floor and at company booths remained prevalent, especially in the purpose-built ‘VR Village’. But at the same time no single VR demo or announcement stood out – perhaps partly due to the big West Coast VR conference VRLA Summer Expo being scheduled just a week after Siggraph.
Still, some VR presentations were must-sees. PresenZ from Nozon were touting their partnership with Chaos Group (creator of the V-Ray rendering engine) to create new method to build pre-rendered volumetric VR displays. That means you can view VR environments inside a headset – but crucially without the need for a game engine, so you’ll get a smoother experience on lower-powered devices.
The most fun VR experience was the Synesthesia Suit. Like it sounds, the suit is all about giving real sensations to the wearer while they’re immersed in VR-land in a game called Rez Infinite. This happens via 26 vibrating actuators. The makers call these “vibro-tactile sensations” and they take a little getting used to but you can imagine more and more gamers wanting suits like these at home – as well as people who want it for, ahem, other types of experience I presume.
My pick of all the VR demos, however, was ShapeSpaceVR’s newest, and still unreleased, Art Maze experience for the HTC Vive. ShapeSpaceVR is the brainchild of Kevin Mack, an Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor who has worked on such films as Speed Racer and What Dreams May Come. His first experience was Zen Parade, a psychedelic journey into procedurally built painterly blob shapes that is available for the Gear VR. I already felt it was the most immersive VR experience I’ve ever had.
Then I tried Art Maze. Armed with the extra power of the HTC Vive, the Unreal gaming engine and added hand controllers, Mack has crafted a journey through a maze of similarly painterly blobs, some that are animated. Whereas many VR experiences can last only a few minutes, I literally stayed in the Art Maze for half an hour, and wanted to stay longer. Mack is not aiming to tell stories with his experiences, he told me he wants to create a new kind of "psychoactive experience". You really have to try it out to see why Mack has succeeded exactly at that.
Real-time is already the next big thing
Of course, 3D renderers such as Pixar’s RenderMan, ChaosGroup’s V-Ray and Solid Angle's Arnold had major presences at the show. However, Siggraph has more lately been the place to showcase the latest in real-time rendering for games, VR experiences and other immersive experiences.
The stand-out real-time event at Siggraph was from a group of companies – Epic Games, Ninja Theory, Cubic Motion, and 3Lateral – which teamed up to advance upon their earlier ‘Hellblade’ photorealistic real-time rendered demo that was driven by an actress captured live in a motion capture suit and facial rig. This demo was dubbed by the team as ‘real-time cinematography’ and envisioned as something that could now be brought to traditional film and television sets.
A decidedly more painterly real-time experience was also on show at Siggraph in the form of Adobe and Nvidia's Project Wetbrush. This is a 3D oil-painting simulator that allows the painter to take a stylus to a tablet and ‘feel’ as if they are using a real brush.
With heavy skepticism, I tried this out and after a few minutes did not want to stop and let anyone else take a turn. Moving the stylus around and seeing the immediate results quickly allows for experimentation with brush thickness and paint viscosity. Apparently Adobe needed as much of Nvidia's GPU power as possible to give that feedback, and that may be why this is still just a demo.
New tools, new tech and fun stuff
Plenty of companies and studios took advantage of a hugely enthusiastic crowd to present their newest releases and new tools. And then there was a bunch of tech that might not yet have an obvious use, but was a whole lot of fun to check out.
If you’ve ever made a short film, a feature film or pretty much any creative content then planning it out and communicating your ideas can be some of the hardest things to do. Storyboards can help but are often tricky to collaborate on. Enter SHOTTIO, a new storyboarding tool that was demo’d at Siggraph by Ahead.IO.
It’s immediate benefit to me seemed to me to be a convenient way to slot in existing boards, Photoshop frames, notes, animatics and any other images and instantly have a set of boards viewable and reviewable online - by anyone you wish to share them with. The team at Ahead.IO told me the tool is not quite ready to launch but will be available at three different monthly pricing plans; starting at free.
Perhaps one of the coolest ‘fun’ things at Siggraph and a hit with attendees were Lumii’s lightfield printed selfie holograms. Sounds gimmicky? It kind of was, and even more so when you realise they were printed on your everyday Epson inkjet printers. “We create what appear to be full colour holograms using regular inkjet printers,” Lumii’s Tom Baran told me. “We have an algorithm to take a 3D model and turn that into printable patterns. When you layer that on top of each other, you get this 3D hologram effect.”
The advertising, business card and extra immersion value in these holograms is immediately apparent. At Siggraph the holograms were crafted from 3D scans of people’s faces (although hair was not able to be realised, eliminating my effort owing to a rather substantial beard). However, a friend, Matt Estela from Animal Logic, successfully had his hologram printed.
Among the big software announcements were a few open standard highlights to make it easier to move projects and elements from one application to another: including MaterialX (http://materialx.org) from visual effects powerhouse Industrial Light & Magic for dealing with materials/textures, and Universal Scene Description (USD) from Pixar (http://graphics.pixar.com/usd/docs/index.html), for a broader set of 3D data.
Behind-the-scenes secrets you won’t find out anywhere else
Visual effects and animation artists love presenting at Siggraph. That’s because they know the audience is ripe for hearing about all the tech details behind their CG model builds, effects simulations and rendering challenges that a mainstream audience usually does not care about (or a film studio does not want talked about or shown...).
So, during the conference, numerous speakers from places such as ILM, MPC, Double Negative, Framestore, Imageworks, Digital Domain, Pixar, Marvel, DreamWorks Animation and Blue Sky Studios went to town on the high-tech parts of their VFX and animation projects. Some stand-outs were a whole session from Marvel on Captain America: Civil War, plus Pixar on the creation of particulate in Finding Dory, and how MPC scattered vegetation in The Jungle Book. Another was the variations in lip-sync animation required for a Mandarin version of DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda 3 - the first time this had ever been attempted.
Jobs, jobs, jobs
Something immediately apparent from day one of Siggraph 2016 was a very positive buzz about the industry. Right now there’s an abundance of jobs, especially in visual effects and animation. Studios seem increasingly busy from the advent of numerous Star Wars, Marvel and DC films, and from years of future planned animated features and TV series.
The Job Fair at Siggraph was therefore one of the most popular – and many VFX and animation studios were looking for staff in roles around the world, plus games companies like Blizzard. Even Snapchat was there – at first an odd inclusion until you realise that VFX folk are perfect for that company’s move into augmented reality in its app.
This year’s tagline was ‘Render the Possibilities’ - I wonder how many thought that might be something they were destined to do at a company like Snapchat. But hey, that’s Siggraph.