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.


Conference Activities: Computer Animation Festival

There are plenty of things to do at SIGGRAPH besides attending the technical program and learning. While one part of SIGGRAPH is about research and learning the other part deals with seeing and experiencing new cool images, animations and applications, and in general is more about fun. Here are some of the most important ones.

The Electronic Theatre and Animation Festival

The Electronic Theatre is the premiere event of SIGGRAPH and the highlight of the week. It's where the best animations of the past year are presented. They are compiled into a film which lasts around an hour and a half more or less. They are held at a regular movie theatre (some with traditions like the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles) or at the movie theatre of the convention center if it's big enough (like in Orlando). Full Conference attendees have a free ticket included for an evening show and Conference Select one for a matinee show. Exhibition Plus attendees have to buy one. Since this event is the highlight it gets very crowded. Shuttle buses will take you to where the show is, and people start lining up early to get in the bus and get to the front of the line. Not to worry, there is space for everyone, but to get a really good seat requires arriving as early as possible. The concession stand is usually open and in some cases might sell alcohol.

The Electronic Theatre at the Saenger Theatre at SIGGRAPH 2000
The audience exits the Saenger Theatre after the Electronic Theatre at SIGGRAPH 2000.
The Shrine Auditorium during SIGGRAPH 2001
The Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles where the Electronic Theatre showings took place at SIGGRAPH 2001.

Before the show starts there is usually some light entertainment, from a live organ player, a slideshow with CG trivia, sometimes even audience participation interactive games, and some funny films (clips of the old Flash Gordon, Sigourney Weaver making an Alien parody with a Utah teapot) before the actual show. When the show starts, the party starts. People clap after every project and sometimes it can turn into wild ovations for the best pieces, almost like a rock concert. Many times the people who have done a certain piece that has been accepted will shout to proclaim it.

The works shown cover all the spectrum, from the latest VFX efforts, videos from research papers, scientific visualization, superb student projects, TV and commercial work, art pieces (even abstract ones) and many more. They come from all over the world, so even though the work is dominated by North American entries, you will also see a good chunk of representative work from Europe, Asia and the rest of the world. As far as the VFX pieces many show the before and after shots and in progress shots and in a few occasions their R&D projects like some of the work for Episode 1, or the ILM R&D reel for 2001, and the muscle system from the Secret Lab for 102 Dalmatians.

Inside the Shrine Auditorium during SIGGRAPH 2001
The audience waits anxiously inside the Shrine Auditorium for the start of the Electronic Theatre.

Since this is the main event, choosing a day to see it might be something to consider. Some people like to be the first ones on Monday, other might not care at all. The problem arises, especially for first time goers is that when early registration starts only the Courses and a few other events have already published schedules. If you go to an evening show, you won't miss anything at the Conference, but if you stayed to an event that ended 5 PM and talked to a presenter, you might be a bit behind in the line, though I doubt you would miss any of the show. My philosophy is this, I don't go either Monday or Thursday when the receptions take place, that way I can get to those and have plenty of time to eat and relax. If you try to go to a reception after the Electronic Theatre you might get almost when it's closing down. To me that leaves Tuesday and Thursday. In the last few years I picked Tuesday because Courses usually finish on time and usually there are not many other events that I go to, as opposed to Wednesday which was the traditional day when the Sketches and Applications started, though now at SIGGRAPH 2002 they will start on Tuesday. So choose wisely ;-).

The Animation Theatres take place at the convention center. Usually a few rooms are reserved, around 4, with screens showing even more animations. While usually some stuff from the Electronic Theatre is shown here, as more and more works are submitted and accepted the trend seems to be to separate both programs. While the Electronic Theatre might be the cream of the crop, the works in the Animation Theatres are no slouch either. The animations are classified, compiled and shown in broad categories. So you might have a segment of animations with humor, another segment of art animations and another one of commercial work, which includes films, TV, commercials and music videos. Each room plays the segments at different times so usually there is a good chance there is something playing of interest when you decide to go. At the entrance of the rooms the schedules for the whole week of the Animation Theatres is handed out so you can plan around. The theatres open since late Sunday all the way to mid Friday so there is a good chance to see a lot of good stuff.

SIGGRAPH 2001 Animation Theaters
A small concession stand for popcorn at the entrance of one of the rooms showing the Animation Festival at SIGGRAPH 2001.

Tip: Be sure not to miss the Animation Theatres, sometimes it's the only way to see some outstanding work you never knew it existed and to see more work from around the world. Some VFX reels are presented there too. Usually I try to go Sunday and Friday, which usually are the days that have less events, to see some of the animations. During the week I use lunch time, or time where there is nothing else that interests me (but that is very rare) to go between the Exhibition Floor and the Animation Theatres, that way I usually don't miss on other events like Sketches and Applications.

Also many pieces have premiered at SIGGRAPH. Pixar showed a sequence of Toy Story before the film opened later that year and they are famous for premiering their shorts there like Geri's Game and For the Birds. As more studios are getting into animated films and shorts, expect more surprises and previews at SIGGRAPH. Some notable examples of the past include Tightrope by Digital Domain and Work in Progress by ILM.