Siggraph opened on Monday. On day one, highlights included the conference keynote from Ed Catmull (Pixar), Nuke and Autodesk User groups, new software from Maya, Renderman, Motion Builder and some great technical papers – and Fjorg started.

Ed Catmull (Pixar/Disney) Managing the Creative Process

Ed Catmull

Ed Catmull gave a keynote speech to kick off Siggraph 2008. Catmull gave a brilliant talk covering both the history of Pixar and his personal thoughts on managing a creative company – that last point may sound like a bland catch-all phrase that would lead to no real concrete advice, but nothing could be further from the truth. Catmull’s comments were specific, insightful and extremely rare. He discussed what it takes to put together a successful team, how easy it is to replicate, how projects fail, the warning signs for both failure and success, how they managed the growth and finally the integration of Pixar and Disney Animation.

Catmull discussed all of these points using clear examples from Pixar’s own past such as the problems they had with Toy Story 2 and how it required a complete restart with only 9 months before delivery. How John Lasseter, chief creative officer of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, just repeated this with Disney Animation and the new Bolt Animated film. The trailer for this new animated film featuring Miley Cyrus opposite John Travolta was seen before Wall E. The film was formerly titled “American Dog.” will be released in 3D stereo and traditionally, having been completely re-worked just as Toy Story 2 had been so many years ago.

One of the points Catmull discussed is why one project works and another does not. He started by pointing out it is not the ‘ideal”. Catmull explained that in his experience an ideal is not a singular thing, it is not the idea but the team who drive the implementation that leads to success. He claims that a poor team with a great idea, will kill it and a good team with a poor idea, will fix the idea or reinvent the whole point.

He spoke at length about the Disney buyout and the issues that the management team have been faced with to manage the new expanded teams and how to integrate the companies. Pixar has been kept separate to protect its unique culture, while two layers of middle management were removed at Disney Animation. After about 9 months Catmull felt they had gotten close to a transition. Not that he felt it could have been done faster, in his own estimation it just takes time to build trust and nothing can accelerate that process.

Catmull discussed the Pixar Brain Trust and how its honest and blunt internal communications had become vital to the companies sucess – even though the Creative Brain Trust did not include him. He has worked hard to find ways to apply the brain trust to the technical side of the company and once he decoupled lines of reporting from the review process he outlined how Pixar managed to transfer a version of the brain trust to the technical team.

Pixar’s next film is “Up,” set for release May 29, 2009, it will be Pixar’s first 3-D title, and thereafter every Pixar film will be produced in 3-D. Disney has been an early proponent of the format, starting with 2005’s “Chicken Little,” and all its own films going forward will use the format as well. Along with its new pics, Disney is also releasing Pixar classics “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 2” in digital 3-D in 2009 and 2010, respectively, according the Variety.

Renderman: 20 years on

Renderman timeline

As part of the 20th anniversary of Renderman Pixar release RenderMan Pro Server 14.0
Dana Batali, Director of Product Development, Chris Ford and Ed Catmull held a modest press conference right after Catmull’s keynote to discuss the last 20 years of Renderman.

In many ways, Renderman is Pixar’s highest profile contribution to the broader community. While it helps Pixar to get strong feedback and input from the world’s leading effects companies, many other company might choose to keep such technology propriety. According to Chris Ford’s estimates 80 % – 90% of all major effects films use Renderman today. Ed Catmull reconfirmed both the companies commitment to Renderman and its desire to keep it focused on the effects animation industry just as it is today. When we asked about Disney’s perception, Catmull said Renderman was profitable and “it had simply never come up at Disney, they know we share it and they are fine with that”. Renderman has seen significant growth in recent years not just from an expanded client base but existing clients growing their render farms as Renderman is node licensed. Actually Catmull admitted that once in Pixars past they had withheld some Renderman technology (Deep Shadows) and that it had been a mistake and the production community had been very upset at the time. Pixar are now committed to maintaining Renderman as current, supported and fully functional.

Pixar has a long and close relationship with Siggraph

When asked about the significant advances over the last 20 years Catmull first explained how they had specified the product to be so advance ” we felt it was at an impossible level”, now years later ” we have exceeded that level in terms of scene and render complexity – we have gone beyond impossible”. Batali and Ford added that it is the history of hit films that have lead the various developments, pointing to numerous examples inside and outside Pixar of scripts and projects breaking barriers and solving ‘impossible’ problems.

Wall E the latest Pixar film in a brilliant 20 year tradition

RenderMan Pro Server 14.0 introduces significant performance enhancements including accelerated ray-tracing, faster processing of large polygon datasets, optimized hair performance, faster AOV’s, and enhanced threading scalability. New core features that facilitate the development of custom tools include a re-rendering mode for accelerated interactive shading and lighting, a new SDK for easy linking, a Python binding for simplified integration, user-defined structures in the RenderMan shading language, (RSL 2.0) an API for reading brick maps, and a new format for point clouds. RenderMan Pro Server 14.0 also offers full compatibility with 64-bit Windows Vista desktop and 64-bit Windows HPC Server 2008. RenderMan Pro Server 14.0 will ship in the fall of 2008.

RenderMan Pro Server 14.0 is compatible with Mac OS X, Linux, Windows XP, Windows Vista 64 bit, and Windows HPC Server 2008 .

Nuke User Group

Bizzard Entertainment one of the featured speakers at the Nuke user group

About 300 senior compositors met last night for the first Siggraph Nuke Users.

Nathalie Bergeron, Director of Customer Relations at The Foundry, ran through the key new features of Nuke 5.1 using demo footage from Digital Domain (The Golden Compass) and Furious VFX (Midnight Meat Train). Now 64 bit, the new release also contains a PLE, supports the FBX standard for 3D interchange and has an extended bicubic card providing more control over shape.

Sway Studio’s Aaron Kupferman, VFX Supervisor and Christian Schermerhorn, Senior Compositor, talked through how Sway use Nuke in their commercials pipeline. Discussing speed, film pedigree and tricks to make things look like more like film.

Blizzard Entertainment’s Barry Berman – Senior Cinematic Finisher and Jason Hill – Senior Cinematic Finisher talked through the reasons they use Nuke – specifically focussing on lighting shots entirely created in CG. They rely a lot on the multi-channel capability of Nuke to achieve brilliant results in their RGB lighting pipeline. They need more than 64 channels as well as the ability to import 3D mesh models and found that Nuke was the only system that successfully achieved this.

The user group balanced features, research and client stories

Justin van der Lek, Digital Artist at Digital Doman, spoke about The Mummy – Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.
Justin is a freelance digital artist. He worked on The Mummy at Digital Domain having only been using Nuke for less than four months. He demonstrated how they fully utilised the combination of 2D & 3D capabilities in Nuke to create digital make-up effects on Jet Li enabling him to cry tears of mud.

Simon Robinson , Chief Scientist at The Foundry demonstrated the new stereo plug-in set Ocula, first seen at NAB 2008. (A full review of Ocula will be posted soon on He then provided a technology preview of some of the research that the Foundry is doing.

Robinson’s work on Deep flow vectors technology comes from Stereoscopic research but is actually very relevant to the broader 2D effects workflow. Robinson showed first 3D tracking which built both a low density point cloud, and then a very dense 3D point cloud, from this information a normal 3D track is the simplest application. While it is an even bet at some point 3D tracking will end up in Nuke, it is not this area that is significant. The Foundry’s original research is perhaps their most admired and vital characteristic. This research opens up complex depth maps, 3D scene rebuilding, correct scene relighting, object removal, amazing roto replacing possibilities. One can see this research feeding a whole new line of Furnace style 3D optical flow applications and really advancing the art of compositing. We applaud both their research and their willingness to share this with the community to gauge early response and feed the research.

Autodesk User Group

Shrine Auditorium

One of biggest functions at Siggraph this year was the annual Autodesk User Group, held at the Shine theatre, former home of the Emmys, the grand theatre was packed with users keen to see the new versions of Maya, Max, Motion Builder and others. Autodesk did not disappoint in terms of the scope or size of the function or the wild party afterwards.

The event was lead off by a great previz demo by the team from Third Floor, who produced an entire previs sequence including motion capture in just minutes in a remarkable show of the company’s flexible previxz workflow.

Stereo workflow featured

In addition to showing the new products, Autodesk took the opportunity to unveil their stereo product solutions for the first time. At NAB Autodesk declined to discuss any stereoscopic tools, instead pointing to Siggraph and saying that all would be revealed in LA in August.

Stereo Maya 2009

Autodesk’s stereo workflow started in Maya 2009 (see below) and extended to Toxik and Lustre. In a demo done live on stage, the team showed a 3D scene being optically adjusted and stereoscopically aligned, with some innovative new tools including a screen plane in the viewing pyramid to show where the 3D neutral screen position is, and dual stereo grading in Lustre from matching left and right eye OpenEXR files.

To drive home the Stereo discussion the audience was treated to an exclusive preview of the new Monsters vs Aliens stereo feature film, and then a series of 3D clips.
Aliens and Monsters, while quite cartoonish, seemed to be big hit with the audience, but perhaps the post engaging film of the night was Glago’s Guest. This seven-minute short from Disney was both spectacular and Stereoscopically engaging. While other films played the gag of 3D, Glago’s Guest was just a great short film. It is quite minimalistic, as others have commented before the lighting and textures are exquisite, from the sky and the snow. Glago mans a remote snowy command post one many years ago, and when an alien orbs visits – the results are delightful without being cartoonish or childish.

Stereo version of Glagos Guest was shown

If you want to learn more about the film it will be featured in a talk later this week at Siggraph:
“Disney and Pixar: Two Animation Studios Reveal the Secrets of Their Shorts”
3:45pm to 5:30pm –Petree Hall C
This session goes behind the scenes of recent shorts, revealing everything from story to design and the process of animating new characters.
Presenters: Richard Hollander, Pixar Animation Studios and Andy Harkness, Walt Disney Animation Studios


A great new extenstion to traditional Maya particles

Maya nParticles
Maya 2009 introduces the second module built on the highly acclaimed Maya Nucleus unified simulation framework: Maya nParticles. This newest toolset gives you an intuitive, efficient workflow for simulating a wide range of complex effects, including liquids, clouds, smoke, spray, and dust. It features particle-to-particle collisions, particle and nCloth bidirectional interaction, powerful constraints, cloud and “blobby” hardware display, preset rendering, and dynamic behaviors.

The new Maya nparticles were shown by Industry favorite Duncan Brinsmead who worked on the system he later told us for about a year. So powerful is the new system that in a matter of seconds without expression scripting he produced accurate animation of Newton’s Balls and colliding multiple liquid particle pouring systems.

Stereo tools are built right into the standard UI with a choice of 3D viewing system. Seeing the Maya menus pop into stereo and immediately adjusting the stereo effect was a huge crowd favourite.

Motion Builder

Rigid-body Dynamics
You can now set up a real-time, rigid-body simulation using the 3D objects in your scene. Support for real-time collisions, in particular, may be used to prevent interpenetration of characters, objects, and other scene elements, which is invaluable for those looking to efficiently edit 3D animations involving characters interacting with objects.

New Motion Builder 2009

Rag Doll Solver
The new Rag Doll solver enables you to simulate complex interactions between a character and its environment that would be time consuming and difficult to animate using traditional keyframing or motion capture techniques. This simulation can be applied to the character’s control-rig, and mixed with existing animation data or poses for increased realism (such as, a character falling and hitting the ground, or waving his arms wildly). This was entertainingly demonstrated with a scene fighting on a roof top which was then later stereo adjusted by Maya.

Python Scripting
The addition of an intelligent, fully integrated Python scripting language editor enables you to develop, test, and refine your Python scripts within MotionBuilder. Support is provided for single and multi-line entry, tabbed workspaces, line numbering, color coding, history, hotkey support, drag and drop support, color coded error messages, and searching. You also get deeper access to MotionBuilder functionality through exposure of rendering codes, the FCurve % function, control rigs, and loading/merging of characters.

Also shown was FBX

FBX source code: This release includes a new, customizable user interface for the 3ds Max and Maya plug-ins, memory footprint enhancements, support for HLSL and CgFX hardware shaders, new Bake Complex Animation functionality for Max, and an all-new programmers guide for the FBX SDK, which got surprising loud applause from the user group community.

Autodesk party 2008

FXG: Pick paper of the day: Monday: Great Failed Ideas in Production

John Dykstra at the panel

The stories behind the award-winning pictures that almost didn’t make it to the big screen. It’s often said that we learn more from our failures than our successes in the context of SIGGRAPH, and in fact when moderator Rob Bredow (“Stuart Little,” “Polar Express,” “Surf’s Up”) first approached John Knoll (ILM) to be on the panel at the Oscar Bake off, John turned to him and said ” well I am not normally known for my failures!” Yet John and a stella panel of seasoned industry veterans shared often very funny stories from the front line of some of cinemas best known effects films from Star Wars to Pirates, from ILM to Pixar , in both animated and real life situations. Rob Bredow joked that the session should be a regular on the Siggraph calender a point universally applauded by both panelists and audience.

The panelists include
John Dykstra (”Star Wars,” “Batman Forever,” “Spiderman”)
John Knoll (”Star Wars,” Pirates of the Caribbean”) — Industrial Light & Magic
Apurva Shah (”Ratatouille,” “Nemo,” “Toy Story 3″) — Pixar Animation Studios
Bill Westenhofer (”Golden Compass,” “Narnia”) — Rhythm & Hues


Finally Fjorg is back, the 35 hour marathon of animation, creativity and sleep depravation … but more on that tomorrow….

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