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.
Other Conference Activities
The Exhibition Floor is where vendors showcase their latest products and services, you can check out the latest hardware and software, watch interesting demos or even sit down on stations to try new features. It's also a place to collect all the nice freebies. The exhibition last 3 days, Tuesday through Thursday. Along with your badge you get a magnetic stripe card with your personal data (that you filled on the registration form) which you give at the booths to swipe so that they can send you more information (makes it really convenient). It's usually very crowded, people bumping into each other and some booths get downright bogged with people. And if you want to see it all you'll have to do a fair bit of walking, SIGGRAPH can fill up virtually any floor space on any convention center. Part of the fun is of course seeing the creative booths, the funny presentations or gags and some have alluring traps (like models in the mocap booths).
Tip: This is one of the main reasons to wear really comfortable shoes, there will be a lot of walking involved. Be sure to bring demo reels and resumes if looking for job, and business cards just in case. Usually some booths give you bags in which you can put all the stuff you collect. Be sure to schedule time to see the floor. Sometimes because there are many events I'm interested in I go to the Exhibition Floor (and Animation Theatres) at lunch time during the week, which is around noon to 1:30 PM. I either eat something fast at the convention center (which is convenient but might be more expensive) or actually bring snacks to eat around that will hold me off until dinner (and usually cheaper). That way I maximize my time.
Besides checking up the latest, many of the major FX and Animation studios have small booths for recruiting purposes. It is ILM's main recruiting event of the year as well for other studios. Their booth is very crowded with people dropping their demo reel and resumes constantly. The booth is manned by HR, PR and production personnel (animators, TDs, etc.) who are there to not only receive materials but also to answer your questions. For some people the studio booths are their first stop and if you are looking for work, or are a student or hobbyist seriously considering a career in FX and animation you must definitely go.
Tip: It's usually a good idea to send your materials early, to have them reviewed and possibly set an interview. If you know where you are staying before hand, also write the name and telephone number of the hotel and the days you'll stay there. Usually major studios will update their websites so that you can send your materials before the event. If not possible check the Career Center the first day you arrive, not only major studios but many boutiques will have posters detailing positions, and you can submit materials so that they are delivered to those places.
The booths from these studios can also have lots of interesting details themselves, many not only have still pictures of some of their projects, but they might show concept art, miniatures and sculptures and videos of their projects. If anything stay and watch the videos if present, some contain behind the scenes footage and even FX bloopers or very funny stuff the CG people do during productions. For example at the ILM booth you could see an appearance by Jar Jar on Mission to Mars, a character's face strangely deformed at the sight of an Anubis warrior, captain Billy Tyne being decapitated, and many others. Sometimes the studios also have some freebies to give away, from ILM's recruitment posters, Blue Sky's hot salsa, matches at Imageworks or the 20th Anniversary PDI pin.
Tip: For more VFX content be sure to visit the booths of the major vendors for the VFX industry, like SGI, Alias/Wavefront and Softimage. Because VFX is the poster child for CG, many of these vendors will have their clients present, say maybe between 15 minutes to half an hour, how they used the specific product for their VFX projects. People of ILM usually present at the 3 vendors mentioned, and so do many other studios. You can see lots of behind the scenes stuff in those presentations. On the first day go to these booths and ask for a schedule or program. Some presentations might be repeated but others just might happen once.
Also if you are lucky you might actually see top FX gurus around the booths. I've been able to spot Dennis Muren, Ken Ralston and John Nelson around the floor.
A related venue to this one is the Startup Park, where new companies and startups showcase their new products. Sometimes you might see technology that will have a big impact in the future.
There are usually 4 Special Sessions during SIGGRAPH covering different subjects. Two are held in the morning and two in the evening. The evening sessions are open to everyone, but the morning ones only to the Full Conference and the Conference Select attendees. On average I noticed that there is one dedicated to VFX and Animation every year. They have covered some high profile projects with very notable speakers like: a retrospective on 2001 (Bob Abel, Syd Mead, Dennis Muren and Peter Hyams), CG characters (Ken Ralston, Bill Westenhofer, Rob Legato and others), The Perfect Storm (Stefen Fangmeier, Habib Zargarpour, John Anderson, Doug Smythe and Tim Alexander), Episode 1 (John Knoll, Scott Squires, Rob Coleman, Christian Rouet and Ned Gorman), and Titanic (Rob Legato, Casey Cannon, Jamie Dixon and others).
Tip: The VFX related ones can become jam packed so arriving a bit early is a good idea if you want to get any seat at all.
The Receptions are only available to Full Conference attendees. They are informal gatherings at night with plenty of food and drink. There are 2 receptions, the Courses and the Papers/Panels, but now on SIGGRAPH 2002 they have been renamed the Opening Reception and the Technical Reception. They are usually held in nice or interesting places and at hotels. Last time in Los Angeles one was at Universal Studios, in Orlando (1998) one was held at the Science Museum and the other at the Disneyworld Sports park, one in New Orleans (2000) was held at the Aquarium of the Americas.
Tip: Don't take too much time to get to the receptions. If they are held at remote locations (like the case of Universal Studios in Los Angeles at SIGGRAPH 2001), it might take time for the shuttle buses to pick you up take you there. You don't want to miss most of it. This also influences my choice to pick a day for the Electronic Theatre, see above.
The food is served from several buffet tables and each table has different types of food, there might be one with Italian food, another one with meat, BBQ and American food, another one with cold meats, there are also ice cream stations, and usually tables with some traditional food of the area. You also get 2 tokens for free drinks, anything extra you'll have to pay. Even though not all attendants go they are still quite crowded (lots of people go Full Conference). As such, expect some long lines for the food and even longer ones for the drinks, so it's a matter of patience. Still is not to bad and it's nice to be able to relax or look for old friends. Music is played sometimes by live bands and some people take to the floor and dance. There are also some games, say like a mechanical or rope bull, and stuff similar to what you see on carnivals.
Tip: If you go on a tight budget don't waste your opportunity here. Sometimes I might not eat much that day, but I'll surely stuff myself at the reception, which will surely last well into the next day ;-).
There is one part that is open to everyone, which usually happens after the second reception, the Professional Chapters party. They might not necessarily take place in the same location, and if not they usually try to be nearby. While it's open to everyone you need an invitation. To get one go to the Chapters booth at the convention center and ask for one. Live music is usually provided, but beyond that drinks are on you.
User Group Meetings and BOFs
Other events are related to specific groups of people or are organized at the same time as SIGGRAPH. Among them are the user group meetings which are gatherings of people of a particular software or technology. Of particular interest might be from the major software vendors like Alias/Wavefront, Softimage, Pixar, SideFX and Discreet. Many of these vendors invite some of their major customers to give talks about how they used the software to create major projects. At Alias/Wavefront Habib Zargarpour presented the work done for Episode 1 and the Perfect Storm, at the one's from Softimage, ILM animators presented projects like A.I., The Lost World and Small Soldiers. Of course other studios are also invited and there have been presentations of projects like Dinosaur, Lord of the Rings, Final Fantasy, The 5th Element, and Bunny, just to name a few. Since the major meetings draw huge crowds, they have implemented limits on the number of people. Usually they have a web page where you can sign up to reserve your space and then they email you a confirmation number which you have to bring along. In the case of Pixar they have even gone as far as just having people by invitation.
Tip: It's a good idea to check the web pages of these companies a month in advance (sometimes even more) so that you can reserve your place. Some tend to fill rather quickly.
Most of the these events happen outside the Convention Center though they try to stay as close as possible. As such you might need a lift or take a bus or taxi. The Alias/Wavefront meeting traditionally takes place on the first Sunday and the one from Softimage on Monday. Pixar's takes place midweek. Usually there is a time where you go and register and pick up materials (badge, free t-shirts, brochures, etc.) and have some time to socialize and watch the customer reels on a big screen. Usually there is a little bit of food and a bar. Then the events start and might run from a couple of hours to half a day. It's a good chance to see behind the scenes images and see how commercial software is used. Major software announcements are also made (new features, discounts, etc.).
Tip: Since the User group Meetings happen around SIGGRAPH there is a high probability that they might conflict with something else. In particular the Alias/Wavefront and the Softimage meetings take place when the courses are taking place. But Pixar has its meeting after 5 PM when most SIGGRAPH events have finished. At times I have gone from one to the other, picking the souvenirs from a meeting and just staying for the first presentations and then catching a half day course.
The Birds Of a Feather meetings or BOFs are informal gatherings of people with something in common. There are meetings for rendering and POVRAY aficionados, on OpenGL and Inventor, from particular universities, Linux use, from associations like Eurographics or even as curious as the SIGGRAPH Sake Party. When the time for the Conference approaches, the website has a page to check BOFs. Most BOFs can also request a room and one is usually provided free of charge. Also during the Conference there is a board with all known BOFs and even a whiteboard where people can organize one on the spur of the moment. While not much VFX content might be around, many can be quite interesting or there might be one for the particular area you are interested or for users of your favorite package.
Other Events and Venues
There are countless other events and activities going on at SIGGRAPH, some part of the conference, some that just take place at the same time. While not many are VFX related some can be quite interesting in themselves. Among them is the Art Gallery, the Studio, the Exhibitor Forums, the Emerging Technologies, the Creative Applications Lab (CAL), the Keynote Address and Awards and the Getting Involved forum. The Art Gallery and Keynote Address don't require explanations. The Studio consists of a large room with computers and many machines to, for example, create hard copies of your art. You can print your art and renderings in large formats (poster size for example) on high quality big format printers, there are milling machines capable of creating physical recreations of your model and many other nifty features. There is a sign-up table and time is limited so they tend to fill fast. The CAL is a huge computer laboratory where you may experiment with some of the stuff presented at other venues. For example, certain Papers presenters also bring the programs they developed and you can play with them there. The intro animation Course given by Issac Victor Kerlow allowed some people to follow along the class using a highend 3D package. The Exhibitor Forums have several exhibitors giving brief presentations, using their software of course, like an introduction to digital video or 3D animation. The Emerging Technologies venue is a big space where many researchers present their newest stuff with which you can play and interact with and is a lot of fun, many consist of games with unusual interfaces and VR experiences. The Get Involved forum is an event where SIGGRAPH members discuss the current situation of the organization and Conference and also what direction to take in the future.
Other events that might be worth checking out is the SIGGRAPH t-shirt contest, the SIGGRAPH Bowl and the Web 3D Roundup. The t-shirt contest has participants parading their colorful designs, many times for self promotion. The SIGGRAPH Bowl only happens every four years (last one was at Orlando during SIGGRAPH 98) and teams from several Universities and labs compete against each other, trying to answer CG related trivia. At the last bowl ILM had a team, named 'Let the Wookie Win', but unfortunately some last minute substitutions happened and the team didn't pass the first round. Lots of fun. The Web 3D Roundup is another contest in which teams present their spiffiest interactive web designs in a few minutes, but the audience is armed with nerf guns to shoot at presentations they don't like or that have technical problems. It can get a bit insane.
As far as services go, SIGGRAPH provides many. There is an Internet access center on which you can check you email or surf the Net, with both Mac and PC computer room. Recently, wireless access is also available so that you can connect your own laptop in the general vicinity of the Access Center. The access rooms are very crowded so it's better to go first thing in the morning or at lunch time. A new trend is to also provide network connections is several events like the Courses. There is also a business center, convenient if you need more copies of your resume. There are help booths not only for getting around SIGGRAPH but also a booth that'll help you with dinner reservations or booking trips to tour around the city. There are booths for several aspects of SIGGRAPH, like the Chapters, for CG related organizations, like IEEE or Eurographics, an International booth, a Pathfinders program (for first time goers), etc. Besides the international booth there are people around the convention center designated to be guides which are fluent in other languages, so if your English is not good you can look around for these people for help or go to the International booth. Usually also at the center is the next SIGGRAPH booth which has the Call for Participation for the next year along with the pin and poster for it, and some information about the city it will take place on. Besides the SIGGRAPH store there is also a bookstore.
Of interest to some might be the Career Center and the Job Fair. The Career Center has boards with job postings from all different kinds of companies. You can drop your demo reels and resumes there. One copy of you resume will be put in the boards with a reference number and the rest is kept on file, so that interested employers can order one of you packages. On the boards offering jobs, companies can have reference numbers and many have a code for forwarding your materials. Just write down the number and go to the counter and tell them to forward your reel and resume to that company. The Job Fair is offered one day and in a room companies set up small booths where they receive your materials, they might even conduct small interviews on the spot. The lines are very long and crowded, and even with all the frustration it gets bigger every year. Be sure to check the schedule to see which companies will be there, not many VFX ones are, since they are most likely already at the Exhibition Floor or have posters at the career center, but some have showed up like Imageworks and Tippett Studio.
Tip: Don't forget to go to the next Conference booth and collect your poster and pin. Many times you'll see people with pins from many past conferences, some would make Patton envious ;-).
There might be other events and services since some change from year to year.
Hopefully this has given you a better idea of what SIGGRAPH is, maybe encouraged you to go or helped you prepare for it if it's your first time. ILMfan tries to always cover the event, so if you do go be sure to check the forums or send an email if anyone is interested in a get together. Above all, learn, enjoy and have fun!!!