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From the September/October 1991 issue of Animation Magazine

A report on the recent Siggraph '91 Conference:
Fun and Games in Las Vegas

by Phil Denslow

ACM Siggraph (meaning: Association of Computing Machinery Special Interest Group - Graphics) held its annual conference at the end of July in Las Vegas this year. It was a festive event featuring audience participation and interactive amusements, and everyone gamely survived the desert heat and found their way around the inconvenient "under construction" arrangements of the convention center. People seemed happy to be getting together in an environment where they could discuss the state of computer graphics and animation with their peers.

Included in the conference were the Exhibition of product displays and many Courses and Papers/Panels sessions, some of which covered Virtual Reality and Art, Human Modeling and Animation, Motion Synthesis, and The Education of Computer Animators. New this year was a special Educator's Program which brought out several interesting discussions on the use and future use of computer graphics and animation at all levels and areas of study in schools. The emphasis was shared between the need for more funding and the need for designers of systems to get more involved with students to better understand what may or may not work.

In addition to the usual Electronic Theater presentation, Art and Design Show, and Computer Graphics Screening Room, this year's show added a Performance Works by George Coates, which got mixed reviews, and a Tomorrow's Realities exhibit of Hypermedia and Virtual Reality demonstrations. The items here varied from interactive instructional systems to arcade games. There were several displays letting users move around in "virtual worlds" or invented three-dimensional space. These ranged from the molecular to galactic scale. Two systems enabled the user to "tour" another actual location: the planet Mars, using JPL's satellite data, and a street car simulation of the city of Karlsruhe, Germany, where the user had a large lever and footpedals to move through the city.

The most interesting exhibit in this area was "Performance Cartoons" from Simgraphics. This displayed a rendering of a chrome female surfer in outer space that animated when users moved two hand-held controls, one for the camera's point of view and one for the position and motion of the surfboard. The character of the surfer responded to the board's motion and moved to keep her balance. This could be as subtle as small hand motions and as large as leaning far forward to compensate for extreme speed. With careful control, the resulting animation was impressive, and seemed like a kind of situational puppetry, where the puppeteer controls the environment and the character responds to changes in its world using rules of physics.

The Electronic Theater show began with the huge auditorium's atmosphere like a rock concert: loud music and flying beach balls ricochetting among the audience. This year the organizers handed out sticks with reflectors at the top, one side red and the other green. Gradually the audience noticed that the theater's screen was displaying an image of the auditorium's seating plan with little red or green pixels wherever someone was holding up their stick. Later the audience was led through participation in using the sticks to create large shapes and numbers on the screen. They were asked to react to questions like "How many from Las Vegas?" (response: very few), and encouraged to play a giant game of Pong. Everyone enjoyed this stuff, and the emcees seemed impressed with the responsiveness of the crowd.

The actual film and video program represents the best animation submitted each year, and this show's biggest hit was the ILM reel of effects from the live-action feature "Terminator 2." In it were all the spectacular liquid-metal scenes of the bad guy changing form and identity. This film really ups the ante (Vegas, remember?) in the standards set for seamlessly integrating incredible effects into live action images. Audiences can expect more and more of this as techniques like digital compositing get reasonably affordable.

Several entries that got a big reaction from the audience were from commercial production companies. "Clear Mind" from Metrolight gave us an anti-polution message; "The Invisible Man in Blind Love" by Eurocitel was a film-noir love story that had the gimic of not needing to animate a person, just objects being moved around by the title character, to tell its story; "Lifesavers: The Good Times Roll" by Topix treated us to rock and roll performed by candy; "Luxo Jr. in Light & Heavy and Surprise" by Pixar was two Sesame Street segments starring those well-known lovable lamps; "Match Light - One Light" by Rhythm & Hues had a matchstick character demonstrating self lighting charcoal; and "PDI Morph Reel" from Pacific Data Images featured startling metamorphosis' of people changing into animals and babies into adults.

There were several popular films made as entertainment. "Digitaline" by Edem Productions had endless streams of linked finger parts; "Festival" by Yoichiro Kawaguchi was another in his series of visions of psychedelic seaweed; "Maxwell's Demon" by James Duesing was a rough-looking and very wierd social satire; "Virtually Yours" by Matt Elson of Symbolics had very nice facial animation of two lovers, "Whack" by Harold Buchman was a funny glimpse into a repetitive painful relationship between two blobs; and "Wanting for Bridge" by Joan I. Staveley was a meditation on loss in which detached hands move over strange landscapes.

Other crowd-pleasers were more research oriented. "Leaf Magic" from the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center showed mathematically animated leaves sailing and dancing through a playground; "Lost Animals" from HC/CG New York recreated dinosaurs with very realistic motion; "Primordial Dance" by Karl Sims used genetic evolution formulas to create interesting patterns; "Water Caustics" from Digital Pictures simulated realistic swimming pool reflections and refractions; and "Wet Science" from Xaos demonstrated the ability to turn conventional images into watery and painterly moving textures.

Three pieces were created for use as amusement park rides. "Echoes of the Sun" by Imax Systems, "Inter Galactic Travel" by Links Corp. and "Into the 4th Dimension" with computer animation by deGraf/Wahrman. These took the audience through time to ages long ago, into microscopic molecular ineraction, and over vast distances to other universes. "Echos" and "4th Dimension" had the added attraction of being in stereo 3-D, putting fantasy material into the space above the audience. Using stereo computer animation for rides seems like a trend that will grow since such spectacular imagery can be produced by shifting the computer's "camera" slightly and redoing the motion to produce the second eye's point-of-view.

At the Exhibition the best news on the hardware front was the introduction of a smaller and cheaper Iris workstation, called Indigo, from Silicon Graphics, Inc. (about $8,000 complete). This should finish the complete dominance of SGI machines in all but the low-end of the computer graphics scene. Additionally, Indigo features a video option (about $2,000) that allows for the control and display of real-time video from tape or lazerdisc on the same monitor as the computer's graphics, allowing many uses in interactive and instructional applications. Indigo already runs almost all current software developed for the Iris line.

Of the animation software on display, Softimage from Montreal was demonstrating the most interactive editing yet, with real-time modifications allowed while viewing the current motion design in action. Several other vendors showed improvements, like Alias, who now has software for the Macintosh. In addition, AT&T, Autodesk, Digital Arts, Intelligent Light, NewTek, Ray Dream, Symbolics, TDI, Time Arts, Wavefront, and others, were proving that there is plenty to choose from at many price levels for anyone interested in producing computer animation. QuickCEL from AXA Corp. was being marketed to traditional animators. After recording pencil drawings and backgrounds into the system, the clean-up, paint, and camera work can all be done in the computer.

All in all it was a good show, with the feeling common in recent years that what we are seeing is further progress for an industry that is spreading out into more and more areas of education, commerce, and art. With the continuing trend of tools becoming cheaper and faster, it is becoming even more apparent that what separates the good from the adaquate has more to do with talent and hard work than with spending lots of money. So what else is new?

Animation Magazine: published by Thoren Publications, Agoura Hills, CA (818) 991-2884.