SIGGRAPH Primer

by Manuel Alducin

The annual SIGGRAPH Conference is the largest and most important gathering of CG professionals from around the world. Now that VFX has transitioned to the digital era a good portion of studios attend the event, including ILM.


What is SIGGRAPH and its Conference

Many times I get emails or posts in the forum about how to get in touch with ILM or what is the best way to get into the VFX industry. One of my recommendations is to attend the annual SIGGRAPH conference. Many times afterwards people ask me what is SIGGRAPH and how it relates to ILM and VFX, and some that do know might have never attended the Conference. I'll try to give an overview of the SIGGRAPH experience and what you might expect to find there and how it might be a good experience to attend one. Along the way I'll try to give tips about surviving the Conference (especially if you attend for the first time) and making the most out of it.

SIGGRAPH is the Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques, part of the ACM (Association of Computing Machinery, the oldest professional society dedicated to computers). SIGGRAPH was founded in 1969 and the first Conference took place in 1974 in Boulder, Colorado. Since then SIGGRAPH has grown to become the premiere conference and organization related to Computer Graphics and it's ACM's biggest SIG Conference. You can read about the history of the SIGGRAPH Conference here. The SIGGRAPH Conference's purpose is to be the leading forum to present the latest and greatest research in CG, to further education, to share ideas, present the latest images and animations, and probably the most important, as a meeting place to foster the international CG community. You can read about the SIGGRAPH Conference Mission here.

So how does SIGGRAPH relate to ILM and VFX? Well as VFX started transitioning to the digital area, people from ILM and many other FX and Animation studios started to attend. Ed Catmull, the original leader of the Lucasfilm Computer Graphics Division was already a leading researcher and pioneer in CG research from the University of Utah and NYIT. Since digital FX have become the poster child of the CG industry and facilities like ILM pushed the boundaries, many of the FX studios employees were either SIGGRAPH veterans or started attending themselves. Studios would go to SIGGRAPH to show their latest animations and FX sequences, and also present from time to time research papers and give talks about the techniques they used.

Nowadays the SIGGRAPH Conference has a big component that is FX related. People from all kinds of studios attend on their own or send their people to learn and see the latest in CG and present material. In essence it has become the main hub where FX professionals meet every year. But it's not only a conference for professionals, anyone can attend: students, hobbyists and enthusiasts, artists, researchers, teachers, etc, from all over the world (see some Conference demographics here). For many studios it has also become their main hiring time. In ILM's case, SIGGRAPH is their single biggest recruiting event. In the last few years ILM has had a booth in the Exhibition Floor, staffed by both people from the Human Resources dept. and artists and technicians that work on their FX projects, ready to answer your questions. If you ever wanted to hear and learn from people in the industry or get a glimpse into what the FX work entails, or want to learn what is necessary to get into the industry, your best bet is to attend the Conference. If you are serious about FX and/or CG it's more than likely you'll try to attend the Conference once.

Plus they are a lot of fun.

The Host Cities and Schedule

The Conference takes place on a different city every year in North America. On odd years it takes place on a West Coast city (usually Los Angeles, especially in recent years) and on even years it takes place on non-West Coast cities. It usually takes place on the last weekend of July or the first week of August. The Conference starts on a Sunday and finishes on Friday. The Saturday before the Conference starts, the Convention Center opens for material (including your badge) pickup. Still, the events on Sunday usually don't start until noon so there is more than enough time to pick up your materials. You can read about what cities can host the Conference here.

SIGGRAPH 1998 in Orlando
SIGGRAPH 1998 at the Orlando Convention Center.

Tip: If you are planning on visiting try to arrive on Saturday, that'll give you about a day to visit around before the Conference starts.

Each city brings its different flavor to the experience and its own set of advantages and disadvantages. For example, when the Conference takes place in Los Angeles, it usually has the highest attendance, as California is the center of the VFX and CG world. As such it's more likely to find more VFX people around and presentations. On the down side the Convention Center might feel a bit crowded, and if you come from outside and don't have a car, downtown LA gets deserted after night with few places to go. Then again there is probably a lot of things going around so it's easy to find someone going somewhere. Conferences outside Los Angeles have lower attendances, less FX people might attend but on the other hand it provides interesting places to visit, like New Orleans with it's great bars and restaurants and night life, or Orlando with its many entertainment parks. No place is perfect, the Orlando Convention center sits at the end of International Drive a very busy street, and the heat and humidity of New Orleans might be a bit too much for some. But overall my SIGGRAPH experiences have always been 99% great and they are always an adventure.

SIGGRAPH 2000 in New Orleans
The New Orleans Convention Center during SIGGRAPH 2000.

Tip: Since the Conference takes place over the Summer, and usually on cities with hot climates, bring comfortable clothes and shoes, like t-shirts and tennis shoes. Inside the Convention Center it's usually air conditioned so bring a light jacket just in case. Another reason for comfortable shoes: you'll do plenty of walking. While most of the time you'll be sitting, the Exhibition Floor is quite big and you might find you have to walk from one end to the other of a convention center to attend the events. Don't be fooled about it being a professional society and Conference, the Conference is totally casual and sometimes it seems that the most highly regarded pros and researchers are the most informal ;-).

The Conference is organized along three main venues: the Courses, Paper presentations and the Exhibition Floor. The first 3 days are dedicated to the Courses, with Sunday and Monday almost exclusively devoted to them. Tuesday is also a full day of Courses, but most other events start on Tuesday. The Papers start on Tuesday and run all through Friday (a Paper presentation is the closing event) and most other technical programs and conference activities run through Tuesday through Friday. The Exhibition Floor also opens on Tuesday but closes on Thursday. One of the crucial aspects of attending SIGGRAPH is planning what to see and attend and organize the time accordingly.

SIGGRAPH 2001 in Los Angeles
SIGGRAPH 2001 at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Tip: Read through the website of the SIGGRAPH Conference around mid-February. At that time the general schedule of the Courses is presented. In March online pre-registration opens. Start deciding if any course interests you. This can affect when you might want to attend the Electronic Theatre, to arrive later that the week or have some extra visiting time. Also around this time it's a good idea to start considering your finances. If you plan to attend as a student volunteer, check the SIGGRAPH Conference website even before that as the deadline is usually in February.

Registration Categories and Overview of Events

One of the main concerns in trying to attend the SIGGRAPH Conference is how to pay for it and how much money is needed for spending. Until recently SIGGRAPH had countless categories for registration which sometimes made matters more confusing. Now they are reduced to 3 categories or passes and depending on which one you register it will determine which events you can attend to. They are priced accordingly and also the price varies according to when you pay for it. There is a deadline date, about 6 weeks before the Conference. It's cheaper to register before the deadline so keep it in mind.

At the top of the line there is the Full Conference which allows one to attend all the events. Besides being able to attend everything, this pass also includes lots of goodies, like a CDs with all course notes, a the SIGGRAPH Proceedings and video, and many other things. It's a bit expensive (at SIGGRAPH 2001 its cost was $575 for ACM members and $610 for non-members) though considering all that it includes it's worth every penny. This will also maximize the possibility of attending the most VFX related events.

Tip: If the Full Conference pass is too expensive for your wallet consider the Conference Select pass (see below). It's much cheaper, and will still allow you access to events with high VFX content.

At the lower end of the scale is the Exhibits Plus pass. You can't go to any of the Technical Program events, there is no Electronic Theatre ticket included (you have to buy it separately) and there are a few restrictions attending the Conference Activities, mainly not being able to attend the Studio, the CAL and some of the Special Sessions. While limited, there is still one good chance to see ILMers and people from other FX studios at the Exhibition Floor (besides stumbling with someone while walking around).

Tip: If you go with the Exhibition Plus pass make sure you buy a ticket to the Electronic Theatre, the premiere event of SIGGRAPH. If not, you might be missing big time.

At the middle is the Conference Select pass. It'll allow you to attend most events, but with four important differences: you can't attend the Courses, nor the Papers/Panels, nor the Receptions, and your ticket for the Electronic Theatre is for the matinee show (instead of the evening one) Still there is many good chances to attend VFX events, mainly through the Sketches and Applications.

The SIGGRAPH events can be divided in two broad categories, the Technical Program and the Conference Activities. The Technical Program consists of events to advance the state of the art in CG and spread the knowledge. It mainly consists of the Courses, the Papers and Panels, the Sketches and Applications and the Educators Program. The Conference Activities consists of different venues showing the different ways CG is used and are generally more engaging. They include the Exhibition Floor, The Electronic Theatre and Animation Festival, the Receptions, the Special Sessions, the Keynote Address and many others.

Tip:As far as VFX and Animation content the ones to keep an eye out are the Courses, the Sketches and Applications, the Panels, the Exhibition Floor, the user group meetings, the Electronic Theatre and Animation Festival and the Special Sessions.

Here is a quick overview of the most important events which will be discussed in the other sections:

  • Courses: speakers gather to teach the latest in CG related topics. Usually there is a couple of VFX related courses which show how the pros accomplish the fantastic images in film and TV.
  • Papers: the latest research from universities, labs and companies around the world, which pave the way to the future, highly technical and the cornerstone of SIGGRAPH.
  • Panels: discussion forums with the latest and hottest topics, debated by professionals of the field.
  • Sketches and Applications: informal presentations of the latest projects, technologies, art and issues. The Animation Sketches have high VFX content, with people from studios showcasing how specific projects or shots were accomplished.
  • Electronic Theatre and Animation Festival: the Electronic Theatre is the highlight of the week, an hour and a half film showcasing the best of CG animations from the past year. It's complemented by the program of the Animation Festival showing more of the best CG work.
  • Exhibition Floor: vendors of software, hardware, technology and services display their latest offerings. Also the major VFX and Animation studios have recruiting booths.
  • Special Sessions: special presentations of high interest topics. There are four and usually one is dedicated to VFX or Animation, with high profile speakers.
  • Receptions: get togethers at night with plenty of food, drinks and music. A nice way to relax and meet new and old friends.
  • User Group Meetings: meetings organized by vendors of software, hardware or representing specific technologies. Keep an eye for meetings by SGI, Alias/Wavefront, Softimage, SideFX, Discreet and Pixar as they invite people from VFX studios to give talks. Not part of the Conference but they take place around it.

Getting Prepared and What to Expect

Here are a few tips to consider when going to SIGGRAPH.

As far as the timetable I would suggest registering for SIGGRAPH as soon as possible, don't leave it to the last minute. One reason is to get the discount before the deadline, another one is to make sure you get a ticket for the Electronic Theatre for the day you want. While it might be difficult to decide what day to go, I usually pick a day when there is no reception (since I attend Full Conference) so that leaves either Tuesday or Wednesday. I like to pick Tuesdays since on Wednesdays many events like Sketches and Applications are in full force. Another date to consider is the one for student volunteers. The student volunteers deadline is in February so be sure to have your materials ready by then, which might take time.

Sometimes, even more important than early registration is actually to reserve a hotel, especially on even years (when the conference is held in a non-West Coast city) because hotels tend to fill up quickly. Sometimes they start filling so fast that you might have to be at a hotel far away (for example Pasadena which could take an hour in the shuttle to get to the convention center) or you might have to switch hotels during your stay. Also many of the cheaper hotels close to the Convention Center might be booked for the whole week in just a few days, so booking early is a good idea to get a good place and save some money. If you are going alone try to find your closest University with a Computer Science and CG program as they might have people going there. It's a good idea to find someone to share a room and split the costs. Booking early also applies to flights, especially on even years when most people will be flying in to the Conference.

SIGGRAPH takes place over the Summer and most recent ones have taken place in cities with high temperatures. Also there is a bit of walking involved at SIGGRAPH, so bring comfortable shoes or tennis and comfortable clothes (jeans, t-shirts, etc.). The Convention Centers are usually well air conditioned so a light jacket might be a good idea just in case.

To save time and some money I now buy snacks (like those cereal and breakfast bars and pop tarts) before the Conference and bring them over. That way I can snack during the day, enough to hold me off until dinner, after the activities end (usually 5 PM). For Full Conference attendees, two receptions are included so you save on two dinners. It also helps finding out where the closest fast food establishments are. Last SIGGRAPH I even brought bottled orange juice to carry around (or bottled water might do fine). There is also no need to rent a car as the Conference provides shuttles and buses from hotels, the convention center and to other venues (like Electronic Theatre or the Receptions). Unless of course you want to visit and party around. But after full days of activities you can also go back and rest for the next day.

Most importantly, plan before you go there. The last few conferences, the SIGGRAPH website has provided an online schedule planner which lets you organize and print out what events you want to see. Since many days are full of events, sometimes many take place at the same time, it's best to know when they happen and where.

Even if you plan to save money bring some extra cash. You might want to buy souvenirs (like t-shirts, mugs, or pens), extra materials like a printed course note, or even the more expensive video tapes and DVDs from the Animation Festival. Many materials are already included with you registration for the two top categories, so check before buying.

Don't forget to bring resumes and demo reels if you're looking for a job, and business cards are also a good idea, especially to maintain a contact with someone, even presenters. While photography is not allowed at SIGGRAPH, bring a camera, usually there is no problem taking pictures after the events (during the middle of the event it's prohibited for the most part).

For any other questions don't hesitate to ask in the ILMfan forums.

Participating

For some, SIGGRAPH is not only about attending but also presenting. While most events are presented either by professionals or researchers there are other venues where students, hobbyists and practitioners can participate. One is submitting an animation to the Animation Festival. There is an Art Gallery, several BOF meetings (impromptu meetings), vendors organize user events where people might showcase their work with that particular software, etc. In regular events there is also participation, most events have Q&A sessions where you might ask a question to the presenters.

Another aspect of participation is being a volunteer, especially a student volunteer. How that works is that usually you work a set number of hours and SIGGRAPH repays you by giving you full access to the Conference during your free time, and if you work enough hours they even pay for accommodations. You'll only have to concern yourself with transportation and food. The deadline is on late February so be sure to check out the SIGGRAPH page for details early enough.