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.
The Technical Program is based on one of the original purposes of the SIGGRAPH Conference: to present the latest research and techniques to the CG community. The pillar of these are the Paper presentations: the latest and most advanced and interesting research papers from universities and companies (chosen by a Conference committee composed of top researchers) from all over the world. While the direct VFX participation on the Papers is minimal other events in the Technical Program have great opportunities to learn about the VFX industry.
The Courses are the main focus of SIGGRAPH's first 3 days. There are usually between 40 and 50 courses per year. They start on Sunday, usually a dozen or so courses many just half a day long or even tutorials a couple hours long, starting around noon. The rest of the courses are evenly split between Monday and Tuesday and most of them are day long, starting at 8:30 AM until 5 PM. There is a big break at noon until 1:30 PM to get lunch. There are also 15 min. breaks during the course. There are Q&A sessions between the big breaks and at the end of the course. Still you can also approach the speakers with specific questions even on the short breaks.
Recently SIGGRAPH has been expanding the Courses, probably due to their popularity. In 2001 a few courses were offered on Wednesday, and as of this writing SIGGRAPH has not only added more courses to Wednesday (mostly half day courses or tutorials), but also expanded the course offerings on Sunday, which now include full day courses starting at 8:30 AM. So be sure to check the schedule.
Courses cover all kinds of topics, special effects, virtual reality, rendering techniques, graphics hardware, programming, etc. and have different difficulty levels. The difficulty level is listed on the Conference program. Also listed are prerequisites for the course, topics covered and later on, a detailed description of the course schedule. Usually there is one or two VFX related courses. Some cover a specific film (like Stuart Little, Dinosaur or Shrek) while others cover a specific topic and use several films as examples (the ubiquitous RenderMan course, the compositing courses in 1996, or the R&D course of SIGGRAPH 2001). Courses that cover one film usually talk about the whole process, from story and art concepts, through specific R&D, technical and artistic challenges, plate shooting, till the final product. By nature they appeal to a broad audience and are not very technical, trying to strike a balance so that both artists and technical people can enjoy them.
Courses with specific topics can get very technical, like the RenderMan courses, with specific algorithms, tricks, techniques and code snippets discussed. Better check the descriptions on those to see the level, though they still present many neat pictures. Sometimes they are scheduled so that the technical details are discussed in the morning part of the session, while the applications with lots of video are presented on the afternoon (again check the course schedule).
Tip: Before attending the courses be sure to go to the SIGGRAPH store and check the printed course notes of the ones you are planning to attend. If you have a Full Conference pass, all the course notes are already included in CDs, most course notes are in PDF format and might contain extras like movies, code snippets or higher quality versions of the pictures. If you didn't register in this category it's probably a good idea to buy the ones you are interested in. You could also purchase the course notes CDs but they are a bit expensive (which makes the Full Conference an even better bargain). Still with Full Conference I do buy some course notes, partly because of laziness to print them later ;-) (and besides they might have already some pictures in color), but also you can use them before and during the course to maximize you attention or annotate them. On very rare occasions, the content of the printed course notes doesn't match the one on the CDs, so some material in the printed ones might be omitted from the CD version or vice versa. One note, be sure to check the course notes as soon as possible (I do it on the Saturday just before SIGGRAPH, after the material pickup), some course notes get sold out pretty rapidly.
Every year there are two introductory courses, on appropriately entitled Introduction to Computer Graphics, a full day course, and the Fundamentals Seminar (although it's not part of the Courses program per se) which is a crash course in the basics of CG. If you are a novice, student or hobbyist, don't know your difference between a polygon and a NURBS, or fell asleep on that class, or you might come from another area of expertise, this two options are a good bet to better enjoy the rest of the Conference.
The Courses is one of the best opportunities to meet and hear from VFX pros besides the Sketches and Applications program (particularly if the facility doesn't have a booth at the floor). You'll probably learn more about the industry and the topics in those few hours than in months lurking the Internet or reading books and magazines. For those interested in a career in CG animation or VFX they are a great way to get started and get a lot of questions answered.
The Papers is the reason of SIGGRAPH's existence: the exchange of ideas and knowledge, learning about the latest efforts in CG Research. Papers run Tuesday through Friday, all day long. Paper sessions are organized by specific areas, like rendering, modeling, non-photorealistic rendering, etc. and run for about 1 hour and 45 minutes, with each session having around 3 or 4 paper presentations on average. The last event at SIGGRAPH is also a Paper session and after the last paper, a short closing ceremony is giving where the current and the next SIGGRAPH chairs appear.
As far as direct VFX involvement, it's usually minimal. In part this is due to the secretive nature of the business, but also because lack of times or resources. By the time an FX team might have time to present something after completing the show, the research might be 2, 3, or 4 years old. Though you can see some R&D FX people attending some sessions and many times they take ideas from there. From time to time there might be some papers presented, for example from ILM, Dan B. Goldman's Fake Fur rendering paper at SIGGRAPH 97 or from Pixar, Tony DeRose, Michael Kass and Tien Truong paper on subdivision surfaces at SIGGRAPH 98. Sometimes the Paper sessions have been chaired by top VFX and CG researchers like Ronen Barzel and David Baraff from Pixar.
These sessions are probably of most interest to those with technical backgrounds, especially graduate students. The sessions might be a bit too terse for the general public, as most involve presenting high level math and equations, but there are always pretty pictures in the end. If you are really interested to see the bleeding edge of CG, this is it. Sometimes research presented here turns into future film projects, like Nick Foster's gas and liquid research, presented at SIGGRAPH 97 and 2001 which were eventually used for Antz and Shrek (he joined PDI after SIGGRAPH 97). There is always something interesting but with so many events I give priority to the next two when trying to maximize the VFX exposure.
The panels are events where a group of people gather to discuss a particular topic. There are two big modalities to these events. For one a moderator usually asks questions to the panel and they discuss it and they continue that way leaving the Q&A at the end. On the other, each panelist give a small presentation about the topic and then open the floor to Q&A. The range of panels cover the wide spectrum of CG, from copyright concerns, use of CG in different areas like medicine or education, digital cinema, games, art, visualization, etc., and of course there is usually one VFX related one.
Some past VFX and commercial CG panels have included: "Non-Linear Animation for Production", "Traditional Skills, New Tools", "James Brown: Putting a New Face on the Godfather of Soul", "Digital Cel Animation in Japan", " CG Crowds: The Emergence of the Digital Extra", " Research and Development for Film Production", " Visual Effects: Incredible Effects vs. Credible Science", " Form and Function of Effects in Animated Films", " 3D Tracking in FX Production: Blurring the Line Between the Virtual and the Real", "Get Real! Global Illumination for Film, Broadcast, and Game Production", "Feature FX: Money Pit or Gold Mine?" and many others. These VFX panels are organized and moderated by top professionals and may include many familiar names like Patricia Rose Duignan, Scott Ross, Jim Morris, Phil Tippett, Richard Hollander, Ray Feeney, Peter Docter, Daniel Jeannette, George Murphy, Thad Beier, Doug Roble, Keith Goldfarb, Christian Rouet, Craig Barron, Jay K. Redd, Bill Westenhofer, Andre Bustanoby, Joshua Pines, Jill Smolin and many others.
Panels are a perfect complement to Courses and to the Sketches and Applications. Speakers might give great insights into the workings of the VFX business and many times they might have interesting anecdotes, tips and present progress reels and works in progress of not yet released films.
Sketches and Applications
The Sketches and Applications sessions are more informal presentations on different areas of CG. The different sketches are organized into major categories, like technical sketches, art sketches and animation sketches. Each sketch session lasts about 1 hour and 45 minutes, and usually consist of 3 or 4 different talks with a common theme. Most VFX related one are part of the animation sketches. The speaker might present a particular scene or aspect of a movie. In general they are not overly technical (they are lighter than most courses) and many times speakers show behind the scenes tapes with shots at various stages of completion and behind the scenes work, with a good portion of anecdotes. After each presentation there is short Q&A period. Besides the Courses, this is the best opportunity to hear the pros speaking about their work. I highly recommend attending these events. Sketches and Applications usually run from Wednesday to Friday, though starting at SIGGRAPH 2002 they now start on Tuesday.
Tip: Usually I like to plan the second half of SIGGRAPH around the Sketches and Applications because of the high VFX content. I pick the sketches that are of most interest (and sometimes there might be conflicts) first, and the in-between time I use it to eat, go to the Exhibition floor, attend the Animation theatres, etc. Depending on the schedule it can be a juggling act, running from one place to the next. The listing for the sessions appears by June so it's good to check before leaving.
Some Sketches have covered projects and VFX topics like digital matte paintings, Linux in production, Pearl Harbor, A.I., Enemy at the Gates, Cats and Dogs, Jurassic Park 3, CG character creation, The Grinch, Shrek, image based lighting in production, CGI use in animated features, mocap, Hollow Man, Toy Story 2, Sleepy Hollow, Galaxy Quest, Pitch Black, The Mummy, The Haunting, commercial work, Stuart Little, CG creatures and technology for Star Wars Episode 1, Titanic, Antz, Starship Troopers, Flubber, The Relic, Dante's Peak, 101 Dalmatians, and many others. Also many times the sessions are also chaired by top people from the VFX industry.
Tip: Many sketches are held in small rooms, and even the ones that have big rooms because of expected attendance can quickly fill up. This is especially true for sketches where high profile VFX projects are presented. Be sure to get there on time if interested, to not only get a good seat but any seat at all. People will sit down all around the room on real crowded ones. When they are really crowded, usually a second room is opened for overflow crowd with big TVs and the talk is shown on them (being filmed by video cameras). But don't always count on it, I've missed a few talks because the organizers didn't expect the huge crowds so no overflow room was arranged.
The educators program is geared towards teachers from all levels and include their own sessions of papers, panels and workshops. They include topics such as the use of CG in different aspects of education, CG curricula, demo reels, teaching CG from K-12 to college and teachers and student CG projects. While the VFX content is minimal at the best it might still be of interest to those still in school who might become involved in the CG and FX industry, especially sessions like those devoted to demo reels. On some rare occasions, members from studios might be among the speakers.